Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 review: the budget flagship to rule them all
“You get what you pay for.”
We’ve all heard that before. The philosophy is simple: inexpensive products are shoddy, pricey ones are premium. Working for two years as a sales rep at T-Mobile, I’ve seen countless customers come in to complain about their $100 smartphone, only for an overhearing bystander holding the latest flagship to chime in with that very phrase.
But like all black-and-white statements, there are exceptions to this idea, and the Idol 3 from Alcatel OneTouch may be the biggest exception of them all. I wasn’t thrilled when I was first approached about reviewing this phone — “Ugh, an Alcatel phone,” I thought … but in the week since it hit my doorstep, I’ve gone from dreading the brand as the last resort in my retail arsenal to recommending the Idol 3 to nearly everyone I know.
Software · Camera · Performance · Pros/Cons
Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 Review Video
Specs & Hardware
The Idol 3 will be available in two size configurations: a 4.7” model, and the 5.5” unit that we’re focusing on with this review. That 5.5” display is a 1080p IPS panel with excellent color saturation, impressively deep blacks, and above average viewing angles. It’s easy to see even in direct sunlight, and while the resolution may not be as high as some of the more costly devices on the market, at 401 ppi it’s still plenty sharp and never left us wanting more.
The brain of the phone that powers everything is the Snapdragon 615 chipset, clocked at 1.5 GHz. This is a 64-bit octa-core system (the first of its kind) comprised of two Cortex-A53 quad-core processors clocked at 1.0 and 1.5 GHz respectively, as well as the Adreno 405 GPU, 2 GB of RAM, and either 16 or 32 GB of internal storage (the latter only available on the dual-SIM model). Luckily, if your usage demands more than the 10 GB end user memory made available to you, there’s a microSD slot built into the ejectable microSIM tray.
If you’ve grown accustomed to premium materials like glass and aluminum making up the majority of your smartphone’s chassis, the Idol 3 may disappoint you with its all-plastic design … but then again, it might not. At only 7.4 mm thick and 140 g, the phone is both thin and lightweight — so much so that it almost feels like Alcatel forgot to include the sealed battery the first time you pick it up, and that combined with the rounded edges all around make the phone feel significantly smaller and more comfortable than its 5.5” display would suggest. There’s a lot of metal emulation going on here, from the shiny silver trim to the dark chrome rings sandwiched in-between, and even the matte brushed aluminum look on the back, but it’s all tastefully done in a way that carefully treads the lines of classy and garish. The only things found on the back of the phone are the 13 MP camera and LED flash, and callouts to the idol and ALCATEL onetouch brands (as they’re stylized), and unlike most other plastic phones, there’s no creaking or give when you apply pressure to the back. The only questionable design decision here is the power button (and, to lesser extent, the volume rocker), which is placed up high on the left side of the device and, as a result, isn’t the easiest button to reach with one hand. A minor gripe, we know.
The speakers get even louder than HTC’s BoomSound speakers on the M9.
The OGS (One Glass Solution) laminated display is raised from the rest of the face of the device, with only the 8 MP front-facing camera breaking the symmetry above and below the screen. Sitting slightly recessed from the display are the JBL-branded dual front-facing speakers, which are some of the best speakers we’ve heard on a smartphone. Sound is fairly well-balanced, and the speakers get even louder than HTC’s BoomSound speakers on the One M9 — though they do get a tad distorted at max volume. Still, even turned down a few notches, the Idol 3 blows away the vast majority of its competition. Perhaps just as impressive is the inclusion of a microphone and earpiece in both speakers, meaning you can place a call regardless of which way the phone is facing.
The user experience on the Idol 3 is strikingly similar to stock Android; in fact, save for Alcatel’s custom app icons and a few pre-installed apps, the software running atop Android 5.0.2 is left almost entirely untouched from Google’s original vision. A few apps have seen a small makeover (Calendar Messaging come to mind), but even Alcatel’s redesigned apps follow Material Design protocols and fit with the rest of the interface seamlessly. There are a few nice touches here are there, like the Time app’s custom icon that actually reflects the current time down to the second, and the Weather app (powered by AccuWeather) which features a pop-out widget conveniently tucked into a 1×1 home screen icon. There’s also a few shortcuts on the lock screen for quick access to the calculator, music, camera, contacts, and a QR scanner.
What’s more interesting than the nearly vanilla experience is that the pre-installed apps Alcatel includes are actually useful. There’s no special app hub or Lookout Security (though there is the questionable AVG AntiVirus in its place). Instead, popular services like Facebook, Twitter, Dropbox, and WhatsApp are included. WPS Office for productivity. Mix for music playback and some light turn table fun. Facetune for portrait photo enhancement. Notes and a sound recorder. Each and every app included on the Idol 3 is useful, and with all the bloatware we’ve come to expect that’s something we can’t say of many Android phones these days.
One of the Idol 3’s best features is its ability to rotate the entire screen’s contents by 180°, making it fully operational upside-down. With on-screen buttons, a symmetrical design, and the ability to place phone calls in either orientation, it makes all the sense in the world to pack this feature into the software experience, and it shows Alcatel’s thoughtful planning with the phone’s design. Once upside-down, the only challenges with using the phone becoming avoiding the reverse-oriented cameras and finding the power button. For the latter, Alcatel once again thinks ahead and offers double-tap to wake (or sleep) functionality. It’s not the most reliable implementation of the gesture that we’ve seen, particularly in putting the display back to sleep, and there’s a bit of a delayed response when waking the screen, but it’s a great addition that we tend to take advantage of more often than not.
The camera may be the only disappointing aspect of the Idol 3, and the most predictably so. The 13 MP Sony sensor Alcatel chose for their flagship is plenty usable … at least, in broad daylight. But unless you’re the type to mess with manual controls (in which case you’ll be even more disappointed; the only configurable settings are ISO, shutter speed, focus, and white balance), you’re almost certain to battle wildly inconsistent exposure and a yellow tint across most daytime shots.
Vastly different outcomes of the same shots based on exposure settings.
The camera takes a significant hit in low light, where pixelation and noise take the place of detail and saturation. Even in a fairly well-lit room, it’s never able to take in enough light for a good shot, and photos almost always end up fuzzy and out of focus. Images look much darker than in person, and outdoor night shots are especially bad. The plastic flamingo in the image gallery below is nearly indiscernible without resorting to the LED flash, which adds an overbearingly warm tint to the photo.
Photos captured look good on the Idol 3’s display … until you zoom in and notice the lack of detail and depth, no matter the lighting situation. Even in close macro shots, it’s almost as if the camera can never fully focus on a subject. Zooming into photos also introduces a noticeable delay as the phone pauses to render the image, and continues to do so every time you scroll around the enlarged image. It’s nothing worth writing in and complaining about, but this sort of thing is a bit surprising given the powerful processor in the phone. Video looks acceptable in 1080p, but with no OIS or 4K support, this isn’t going to be replacing any dedicated video cameras any time soon.
The large, beautiful display works in tandem with the JBL speakers to create an excellent media experience.
With all of the power packed into the Idol 3, it’d be shocking if it didn’t perform exceptionally well — but given the low price tag, it’s equally surprising that it does. The Idol 3 effortlessly breezes through the system interface, with smooth animations fully intact, and while 2 GB of RAM may seem a bit small by today’s standards, it’s more than enough to keep the phone running smoothly in most cases. There is the occasional stutter when opening folders in the home screen or opening the multitasking screen, but the latter is a common issue with devices running Lollipop, so we’re hesitant to point the blame on Alcatel. Opening graphically intensive games does take a bit longer on the Idol 3 than on some other handsets, but keep in mind that those other phones often cost more than twice as much as this one. Once games are loaded up they run without a hitch, and the large, beautiful display works in tandem with the JBL speakers to create an excellent media experience.
We tested the Idol 3 in two different countries and on multiple networks over the past week, and for both reviewers cellular reception has been strong, holding solid LTE and HSPA+ signals wherever available. Alcatel lists nearly every major GSM carrier in the United States as being compatible with the Idol 3, and we tested it on both AT&T and T-Mobile with equally promising results. Call quality was decent, nothing spectacular. Again, signal is strong, but the audio is a bit muffled during phone calls, and Jaime Rivera even points out crisper sound when talking on speaker phone.
Thankfully for those who spend a lot of time in conference calls, the Idol 3 has excellent battery life. Even with heavy use and Android Wear connected at all times, the phone never needed a second charge throughout the day, coming off the charger at 9 AM and plugging back in around 2 AM. It averaged 4.5 hours of screen-on time, sometimes even exceeding five hours. This is especially relieving given the phone’s lack of backup power options; the battery is non-user-replaceable, and with no adaptive charging solution in sight, the Idol 3 takes an estimated two and a half hours to fully charge its 2910 mAh battery.
+ Fantastic phone at an incredible value
+ Speakers rivaling HTC’s BoomSound
+ Fully operable in any orientation
+ Solid battery performance
+ Near-stock Android experience
– Awkward button placement
– Underwhelming cameras, especially in low light
– Occasional performance stutter
– No wireless or adaptive charging
Pricing and Availability
Though Alcatel OneTouch announced it with an MSRP of $279.99, the 5.5” Idol 3 can be pre-ordered from Amazon right now for only $249.99 unlocked. The phone is set to release on May 21, though we have no word at this time whether or not it’ll be made available through any carriers directly.
If you just hit the pricing section and had to do a double-take after reading the rest of the review, I don’t blame you. Alcatel OneTouch has done a tremendous job with the Idol 3, and it’s set a new standard for all budget smartphones to measure up to. From its powerful specifications to the loud stereo speakers and the large, vibrant display, this phone is every bit as good as devices sitting at twice the cost or even more — just as long as you can deal with the subpar camera. The Idol 3 is the Alcatel OneTouch’s best effort yet, and more than that, it’s the best value for a smartphone that we’ve ever seen.
Sometimes you get what you pay for. Sometimes you get way, way more.