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Alcatel IDOL 4S with Windows 10 VR Review

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The Alcatel IDOL 4S is a gorgeous device. It's thin, shiny, and fast. It's the first to add mobile virtual reality support to the platform too!
Overview
Processor

Quad-Core Snapdragon 820 MSM8996

Screen Size

5.5-inch Full-HD (1920x1080 pixel) AMOLED display w/ Dragontrail glass

Memory

4GB

Storage

64GB (expandable via MicroSD)

Camera

21MP rear, 8MP front

Battery

3000 mAh

Release Date

November 10, 2016

Weight

152g

Materials

Glass and Aluminium

Operating System

Windows 10 Mobile Anniversary Update

Windows fans and budding holographic/VR developers would jump on a device like this since it's so much more inexpensive than the high-end HoloLens.

The Alcatel IDOL 4S replaces T-Mobile’s previous only Windows 10 Mobile phone, the Alcatel OneTouch Fierce XL which was released in January of this year. This new Alcatel Windows 10 Mobile is the first Windows 10 device to include a Virtual Reality interface as well as virtual reality goggles that work kind of like Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard. We know Microsoft has been working on their Windows Holographic interface, so this could be an exciting first look at things to come. It’s been almost a year since our first review of the final Windows 10 Mobile operating system as it was released to the public and many things have changed since then while many things have not changed. So we’ll talk a little about that too. Incidentally, there is also an Alcatel IDOL 4S which runs Android which is similar in terms of hardware, but not quite exactly the same. Read on for our full review of a pre-production sample of the Alcatel IDOL 4S.

Specs

First off, we’ve got a Quad Core Snapdragon 820 MSM8996 system on a chip processor with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of ROM in the Alcatel IDOL 4S with Windows 10 VR. If 64GB isn’t enough, there’s a MicroSD slot to add another 128GB of storage should you so desire.

The dimensions of the Alcatel IDOL 4S are 153.9 x 75.4 x 6.99 mm. 6.99 mm is very thin! The weight is a nice and light 152 grams and the color of metal rim around the two glossy black sides is called “Halo Gold”. The screen is 5.5 inch diagonal with a full-HD 1920×1080 pixel AMOLED Dragontrail display. For sensors it’s got an accelerometer, proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, e-compass, gyro, and hall switch. There’s also Bluetooth 4.1, WiFi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac (2.4Ghz & 5Ghz) and for cellular connectivity bands, we’ve got GSM 850/900/1800/1900, UMTS 2/4/5, LTE 2/4/12. For the battery, you’ve got 3000 mAh and that supports quick charging via USB-C (Quick Charge 3.0). For quick unlocking, there’s a fingerprint scanner compatible with Windows Hello as well.

There is no NFC or Qi wireless charging by the way, but there is a 3.5mm headphone jack. The front facing camera is 8 Megapixels with a single LED flash while the rear camera is 21 Megapixels with dual-tone LED flash and a Sony IMX230 sensor.

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Hardware

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The protective sticker on the front of the phone when you open the box does a really good job of teaching you were all the buttons are.

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The bottom bar navigation buttons are not hardware capacitive buttons, they’ll display on the screen and hide themselves occasionally.

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The front-facing dual stereo speakers sound great. They can be very loud. You can also see above how the edges of the screen are rounded. The screen itself is still a flat rectangle, but the bezel is smoothed down so it looks a bit like the Samsung Galaxy Edge devices.

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Yes, we have the tried and true 3.5mm headset jack on the top edge of the Alcatel IDOL 4S.

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On the bottom is a USB-C port along with a microphone hole and you’ll notice some spacers between the metal so tha the antennae will work properly.

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The power button is on the upper left side, which is a bit awkward to access if you’re used to having the button on the right side or even the top. You can also see the SIM card slot here which also contains a tray for a MicroSD card if you want to expand the storage.

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Of course the sticker on the back nicely explains how to add a Nano SIM card and Micro SD card.

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The right side includes volume buttons at the top along with a big circular button in the middle with a triangle exlaimation point icon on it. Weirdly, that’s the camera button, but I’m not sure what that icon is supposed to mean.

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On the back is where you’ll find the 21 megapixel Sony IMX230 camera, dual LED flash, and fingerprint scanner. The fingerprint scanner is flush with the back of the device so it’s difficult to find it while feeling around with your finger. The software gives you haptic feedback when your finger is NOT recognized, which seems counter intuitive. I feel like it should confirm recognition that way when it is recognized.

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While the glass backing looks gorgeous and glossy when it’s clean, it attracts fingerprint grease like crazy.

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Incidentally, our review unit came with an Incipio Dual-Layer protective case that does a great job of keeping the fingerprints and scratches and dings off the gorgeous glossy body. It also helps with locating the fingerprint scanner on the back since you can more-easily find the hole with your fingers.

Virtual Reality

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So far we’ve only been looking at the phone, but there’s alot more to it and everything conveniently fits inside the box pictured above.

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Yep, it’s a full virtual reality goggles kit complete with comfy head straps and phone holder with lenses to display 3D VR graphics from the phone’s screen. The only thing missing from this kit is headphones. The speakers on the phone are great though, but you’ll need to get your own headphones for the best experience.

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Don’t worry, there are instructions on the side of the VR goggles box. Basically, you launch the VR software first on the phone (very important), then place it inside one end of the VR goggles where there are clips to hold it in. One end has a spring loaded clip with a release button. That’s where the top of the phone goes. Your headphone jack should be on the left. I’ve made the mistake of inserting the phone into the goggles upside down numerous times and the phone doesn’t use the accelerometer to tell which side is up, so you have to learn to do it right.

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Since I wear glasses, I had to spread the left & right sides of the foam padding around the goggles outwards to fit my glasses inside. Other than that, it was quite comfortable. The lenses weren’t pressing up against my eyeballs like some VR goggles do and I could see the 3D images clearly. However, due to the low resolution up-close nature of virtual reality goggles in general, I could see pixelation and a lack of detail in just about all content. This was no different from the Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard systems I’ve used in the past. On the bottom of the goggle casing are two metal capacitive buttons that transfer your touch to the phone’s screen in order to activate menus. Basically you point the dot on the screen by turning your head, and then press the right button to activate it. The left button acts as a back button. Volume buttons are difficult to find and adjust while you’re wearing the goggles since you can’t see them and they’re a little bit too close to the ridges of the holder, so I recommend setting your volume before putting the phone into the VR goggles casing (just as you should also launch the VR launcher app before inserting the phone, too).

Software

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The Alcatel IDOL 4S comes with Windows 10 Mobile Anniversary Update. That’s the 1st year major update to coincide with the regular version of Windows 10, but it doesn’t bring a whole lot of new features to the mobile side. The big feature that we were looking forward to was the Messaging Anywhere feature which would have allowed you to send and recieve SMS/MMS text messages on any of your Windows 10 devices. It would sync your SMS/MMS text messages from your phone to the Messaging apps on Windows 10. Unfortunately, that feature was cancelled at the last minute and someone decided that this feature should be part of Skype instead. So there is a Skype Preview app on Windows 10 Mobile now and you can enable it to act as your SMS/MMS text messaging app and by doing that it will sync with and allow you to relay messages from other Skype Preview installations on Windows 10 PCs. It usually works okay, but the big problem is that Cortana often doesn’t read messages aloud and the custom text message ringtones that you may have set up don’t work.

Many of the same problems from our original review of the final Windows 10 Mobile operating system remain. There’s still no way to manage tasks from Exchange Server, Office 365, or Outlook and worse, there are no task due notifications. That’s a huge deal breaker for anyone with a job. There is a Wunderlist app, but that doesn’t integrate with Outlook, OneNote, SharePoint, Office 365, Project, etc. as well as the normal Outlook tasks do, so we can forget about that. Interface problems are still all over the place, too. Many new UWP apps put their navigation buttons at the top of the screen where your fingers can’t reach them (without enabling the half-screen reachability hack by holding down the start key), and worse those buttons are covered by the phone call banner when you’re on a call.

The new Universal Windows Platform versions of Microsoft’s apps aren’t terribly reliable either. I had to sign out, reboot, and sign back into OneDrive three times in order to get it to see all of my top-level OneDrive folders. The photos app occasionally shows all the photos I’ve taken on the device, and occasionaly some of them disappear (then come back after a reboot).

The Alcatel IDOL 4S thankfully has T-Mobile’s WiFi calling fully integrated as well, so you can still make and recieve calls if there is no reception under ground or you’re roaming in another country (as long as you have a good WiFi internet connection). That works well sometimes. Other times I’ve had callers get a strange sound on their end when I answered, and they couldn’t hear me at all. Tapping the notification of an email doesn’t open that particular email. The weather app still doesn’t allow you to show the weather on the lock screen. There’s no glance screen mode and now RAW format for the camera. The Calendar’s ability to auto complete location fields with addresses was removed, and it even crashes hard whenever I try to paste something from an email into the notes field of an appointment. Groove Music has “Can’t find audio device” errors if I listen to something in another app and then switch back to Groove Music. If the Universal Windows Platform is Microsoft’s future, then they have a long way to go just to get their own software working properly. See “Microsoft has a first-party app problem too“. Most of these issues can be blamed on Microsoft since they happen on other Windows 10 Mobile phones like the Lumia 950 as well.

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Now, let’s get to the really cool stuff. Alcatel has included a good collection of Virtual Reality apps on the IDOL 4S so that you can use the included VR goggles with some fun software and content. Above is the VR launcher which you can use to get to all of the other VR content bundled with the phone.

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There are two VR games included; Captain Fellcraft and Zombie VR. Captain Fellcraft is a skydiving flying type game where you have to navigate tunnels and collect coins. Zombie VR is an on-rails shooter where you have to point at zombies that appear along the road and shoot them. The gun automatically fires when it’s pointed at a zombie, so really you just have to turn your head and aim.

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Tube 360 is the VR app with the most content. It seems to load all of the 360 degree videos on YouTube. This is great since the Edge web browser on Windows 10 Mobile doesn’t currently display 3D VR videos available on normal web pages correctly.

Windows 10 Creatives Update?

It feels like the Alcatel IDOL 4S really wants the Windows 10 Creatives update that’s supposed to be coming early 2017 to Windows 10. There are rumors that Microsoft will add native support for the Windows Holographic shell in Windows 10 Mobile so that devices like this can load the Windows Holographic UI right in the phone while attached to VR goggles. If that comes true, the Alcatel IDOL 4S should be ready to go with the Windows Holographic ecosystem, which would be extremely cool. All the normal Universal Windows Platform apps already available for Windows 10 Mobile should become usable within a holographic/virtual reality interface. This is only speculation, of course, but the potential seems to be there.

Continuum

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Yes, the Alcatel IDOL 4S supports Windows 10 Continuum. I tested it with a ScreenBeam Mini 2 Continuum Edition wireless adapter. A little bit after the first set up and connection, the Alcatel IDOL 4S froze and then rebooted itself. The second try worked much better and Continuum felt faster when running multiple programs as compared to the Continuum running on the Lumia 950, but the IDOL 4S did start to warm up after only about a minute. It seems like it may be a safe bet to only use Continuum or VR for fairly short durations especially if you notice the device getting too hot.

Camera

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The Alcatel IDOL 4S has a 21 megapixel camera on the back with a Sony sensor. That’s the same Sony IMX230 camera sensor that you’ll find in the Moto X Pure/Style. It doesn’t support live images or RAW DNG capture, but it does support an HDR mode. The HDR mode combines two JPGs to get a greater dynamic range, but this slows down the photo processing between shots significantly. You will want HDR mode though because the dynamic range without it is pretty narrow. Since there’s no RAW capture option, you’re also stuck with the post-processed 21Mp JPG images which are going to include a lot of ugly noise reduction and some artificial sharpening. By the way, be sure to change your aspect ratio settings from 16:9 to 4:3 in order to make use of the full camera sensor. The default 16:9 aspect ratio is just going to crop your image.

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In the above 100% crop sample we can see how the Alcatel IDOL 4S 21 megapixel JPG image quality compares to the Microsoft Lumia 950’s 20 megapixel RAW DNG image quality. While noise is more obvious in the Lumia 950’s photo, there is clearly more detail and sharpness to the image while the Sony IMX230 sensor on the Alcatel IDOL 4S looks smudged and blurry by comparison.

Take a look at the full resolution camera samples below. The front-facing camera is 8 megapixels and actually works very nicely although my model seems to have a tiny spec of dust on the lens or sensor somewhere which shows up in the selfie photos depending on the amount of light in the scene. This is a pre-production version though, so hopefully that won’t show up in the real deal. Daylight photos tend to be quite good, but there’s not a huge amount of dynamic range and the noise reduction filters smudge up the finer details. The flash is very slow with a short range on both the front and rear cameras, so don’t expect to freeze any action with that. HDR mode works pretty well with combining highlights and shadows from multiple frames to get a wider range of detail without looking too artificial.

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Performance

684.09 is the Alcatel IDOL 4S with Windows 10’s WPBench score and that’s almost 3 times higher than many of last year’s Windows Phones. The Lumia 640 XL scored 240.71 in WPBench, compared to 245.07 on the Lumia 640, 218.14 on the Lumia 630, 169.25 on the Lumia 521, 234.73 on Lumia 928 or 232.11 for the Lumia 925.

Battery Life

In WP Bench’s battery life test under constant CPU stress, the Alcatel IDOL 4S lasted 2 hours, 39 minutes, 26 seconds. That doesn’t sound like a lot and it’s certainly less than some other phones running the same CPU stress test, but remember that this is a pretty powerful CPU and that requires more electricity. In real life, it lasts me about 8 hours. If I were to go out after work, I’d need to do a recharge in the afternoon to be on the safe side. Luckily, the Alcatel IDOL 4S supports QuickCharge 3.0, so plugging in for a while will get you back up to 100% battery pretty quickly.

Pricing and Availability

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The Alcatel IDOL 4S will be available on T-Mobile U.S.A. both online and in stores on November 10th for $469.99. Remember, that does include the Virtual Reality goggles in the box along with QuickCharge AC adapter and USB-C cable.

Conclusion

The Alcatel IDOL 4S is a gorgeous device. It’s thin, shiny, and fast. It’s the first to add mobile virtual reality support to the platform too! Unfortunately, at least at this time, it feels like Microsoft is really holding Alcatel back with their poorly made Universal Windows Platform apps on Windows 10 Mobile. If they can get their act together and make their own universal apps work properly on their own platforms while at the same time adding a compelling Windows Holographic/VR shell to Windows 10 Mobile… then we could have something really special in the Alcatel IDOL 4S. Windows fans and budding holographic/VR developers would jump on a device like this since it’s so much more inexpensive than the high-end HoloLens. In fact, the Alcatel IDOL 4S actually could support 3 user interaction methods for which developers could test against and users could bounce between as the need arose… 1. Handheld mobile UI… 2. Desktop PC UI via Continuum when you plug in a bigger screen… and 3. Windows Holographic UI when you plug in the VR goggles. That last one currently doesn’t work and there’s no knowing if it ever will, but it seems like a good idea. The Alcatel IDOL 4S could be our first glimpse of a flexible future of Windows 10 Mobile where the phone can become a desktop PC and virtual reality device whenever you want.

Positives

Virtual Reality Goggles included
21Mp Sony Camera
Beautiful glossy glass & metal body
USB-C QuickCharge 3.0
T-Mobile WiFi Calling
Windows 10 Continuum Support
Windows Hello fingerprint scanner

Negatives

Upper end gets hot with extended use (especially VR)
Front and back attract fingerprint grease significantly
Windows 10 UWP apps are still buggy
Non-removable battery
No wireless charging

Our Rating
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Build and materials
9.0
8.8
Design
9.0
8.7
Durability
5.5
7.6
Specs
7.0
8.9
Display
9.0
9.2
Audio
9.0
9.3
Camera_
7.5
7.8
Software
6.0
7.6
User Experience
6.5
7.8
Bottom Line

The Alcatel IDOL 4S could be our first glimpse of a flexible future of Windows 10 Mobile where the phone can become a desktop PC and virtual reality device whenever you want.

7.6
Our Rating
8.4
User Rating
19 ratings
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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002.Read more about Adam Lein!