When Alcatel Onetouch announced the Idol 3, I was suspicious. We’ve seen a lot of really bad phones released around $200-$250 price point. HTC and Samsung have notoriously flooded the market with “mid-range” devices that are about half the price of their flagships but have terrible screens, storage and performance. This left a bad taste in the mouth of many looking for a cheaper option than signing a new 2 year contract with a big carrier or moving to a smaller MVNO.
The push to bring us cost efficient devices that perform well and look just as good is new to the US. While around the world the market for cheaper phones is already huge, it’s beginning to blow up here at home too. Devices like the Moto G and Moto E are increasing in popularity and newer entries into the market like the Idol 3 and the Asus ZenFone 2 are making big splashes, especially among the Android enthusiasts community. While these devices aren’t perfect, they do a lot of things right but the search for the right device for you can be difficult. Do you know what features are really important to you and what can fall by the wayside? Stick around as we explore the Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3 and decide for yourself if this is the best bang for the buck on the market.
There’s a lot of hyperbole about build quality in phone reviews. Many people think just because something is plastic that it’s trash. I’d like to take issue with that. A lot of people think because something is light it’s not well made. I’d like to take issue with that too. The Idol 3 is only 141 grams which compares very well to the Samsung Galaxy S6 (138 grams) and the Motorola Moto X (144 grams) but it feels lighter. Some of that is due to the fact that the Idol 3 has a bigger 5.5″ screen so the weight is stretched across a bigger surface area. I’ve never once felt in danger of bending or breaking the Idol 3 while it was in my pocket or during use.
The plastic body is solid and surrounded by a shiny plastic band around the outside. I fear that drops on anything jagged is going to be bad news for the future looks of your phone due to the plastic surround. It won’t get beat up like an aluminum phone like the HTC One but it’s definitely not at the quality of something like the Moto X or Samsung Galaxy S6. There is no flex to the phone when put under pressure and no creaking as well. This comes a nice surprise as my initial thoughts turned toward the awful Galaxy S4 before I actually got to hold the Idol 3.
Speakers on a mobile phone are tough. OEMs have been, for a long time, putting speakers on the back, firing away from you and pumping up the volume to compensate at the expense of audio quality. There’s been bigger push recently for speakers drilled into the bottom of the phone, like on the S6 and S6 Edge that at least you can cup your hand around when watching video in landscape. The Idol 3 goes another direction. Much like the HTC One and Sony Xperia Z line, the Idol 3 has dual stereo speakers on the front of the phone.
I can honestly say that this is the first time I’ve thought a phone was loud since my time with the HTC One M7 and One M8. The speakers are part of the shiny plastic surround we mentioned above and they sit above and below the screen so it’s hard to cover them up while holding your phone. Not only are they loud, but they’re clear. They don’t reach the level or clarity of the boomsound speakers on the HTC One line but I have enjoyed watching YouTube videos and streaming audio. If you’re an audiophile, you’ll still be reaching for your headphones but the speakers here are a huge plus, especially on a phone at this price.
There are a few things in life that are predictable. The sun will rise tomorrow, you’ll have to pay taxes and when a phone is announced, the top 10 or so comments on reddit will be questioning battery life. The Idol 3 packs a 2910 mAH battery inside (non-removable) and has none of the fancy new charging technologies like Qualcomm quick charging or wireless charging. But battery life is good. I’m not a huge gamer or anything but I tend to stress my battery a bit. I check it a lot so it doesn’t often go into a deep sleep but I’m still getting great battery life.
I’ve averaged about 4 hours of screen on time with standby time anywhere between 24 and 36 hours. On my first full charge I had the phone on for almost two full days with no charging in between. Extremely impressive. I keep all of the radios on (wifi, location high accuracy, bluetooth) and have my Moto 360 connected and even so I’m getting a full day which is pretty much the standard for batteries right now. If I had to use one of my phones and I knew I wouldn’t be able to top up during the day, I’d grab the Idol 3 over my Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6. Seriously impressive for a $250 phone.
If you were disappointed in the size and price of the Nexus 6, you may want to consider the Idol 3 if you’re looking for a new phone now. I wouldn’t even say that Alcatel Onetouch put a skin on top of stock Android. A better description is that they’ve used an icon pack and added a couple features. We’re on Moto X territory here. Almost every part of the OS was left untouched including the notification shade (except for adding a few toggles), the application drawer and settings. I would have liked to have seen the Google Now launcher come pre-installed but we do get the AOSP keyboard standard. One weird thing, though is that the AOSP keyboard would not let me swipe even though it was enabled. I had to go download the Google Keyboard from the Play Store.
The lockscreen features several icons you can use to quick launch apps but they’re not ones you’d generally expect to find here. You get 5 icons, including the calculator, one to play music (which opens the Mix app instead of Play Music), an icon to launch the front facing camera to take a selfie, an icon to add a contact and the QR code reader. I found these more trouble than they’re worth and luckily Alcatel Onetouch lets you turn them off in settings.
And that’s kind of the story of the Idol 3. Alcatel Onetouch has added some smart features into the phone but largely gotten out-of-the-way to let you make it your own. Sure, there aren’t the standard Lollipop icons. They’ve been replaced by more colorful icons that will appeal to crowds in the east but it’s just a cosmetic change. If you’re coming from a Nexus, you’re going to know exactly where you’re going in this phone.
The Idol 3 ships with Android 5.0.2 which is an almost up to date version of Android Lollipop. Android currently sits on 5.1.1 and will probably be that way until Android M is released some time later this year. During a chat with Alcatel Onetouch PR, I had a chance to ask a couple of questions about their vision for the software in the future.
While I’d definitely like to see some more concrete answers from Alcatel Onetouch, I am optimistic about the future of software updates on the Idol 3 for a couple of reasons. First off, they run a very close version of stock Android as has been discussed a bit in this review. Companies like HTC and Samsung run heavy skins that take time to modify to Android updates because they have to worry a lot about how their skins and features are going to play with AOSP and carriers. Also, Alcatel Onetouch doesn’t have to worry about loading down their phones with carrier bloat or carriers holding up their updates. We hope to see Apple-like updates where all of their phones get the update at the same time. Time will tell.
Please note for the sake of making the pictures actually work with our site, the pictures below have been resized from 4000 x 2250 to 2000 x 1125 and at an image quality of 90%. No other alterations have been made. I have uploaded the sample pictures to imgur in full resolution. All pictures were taken with the default mode the camera shipped with and with the flash off. I tried to snap a few quick pictures showing a range of lighting and set pieces. As you can see, in light the colors are vibrant and the blacks are very deep. There is some over-sharpening occurring in an attempt to pick up more detail in the pictures. The low light picture doesn’t fare as well as in the light but it’s about what you can expect from a camera on a $250 phone. The camera will definitely get you by but won’t be replacing your point and shoot or competing with the quality of the camera on a Samsung, LG or Sony phone.
The list isn’t long here so I’ll try to keep them all in this one section. Added into the settings is an option to control your gestures. Under this option you can turn on “turn over to mute” when you have an incoming call and “turn over to activate snooze” when your alarm is going off. The most popular option is going to be the double tap to wake but for the life of me I can not get this feature to work reliably on the Idol 3. I don’t know if it’s software or hardware or but it just won’t work but maybe 10% of the time. Hopefully Alcatel can fix this with a software update because the power button is very high up on the left. It’s a pain in the ass to push.
Due to the fact that the Idol 3 has dual stereo speakers on the top and bottom of the phone and microphones on each side as well, the phone can be used right side up or upside down. Controlled by a toggle in the notification shade, the phone’s UI will flip 180 degrees when held upside so no matter what way you pick it up, you can use it how you want it. Now, you’re going to be covering your rear facing camera and your buttons will be on the wrong side but it makes grabbing your phone to answer a call quickly very easy. I love the creativeness shown by Alcatel Onetouch here.
If there is anything to complain about with the Idol 3, it may be the performance. Again, I didn’t walk in expecting too much from the phone so I can’t say I’m disappointed but we’re not at a flagship level here. For the most part, the Idol 3 does a good job. If you give it time to complete its tasks its reliable and pulls through. If you expect to be able to fly through menus and the multitasking window, you’re going to have a bad time.
There are animation stutters if you go too fast. Sometimes there are UI stutters even if you give it time. But it’s a solid performer. I don’t think you’re going to be seeing 60 FPS consistently that Android has been working on with Project Butter in Android 4.1 but generally animations are smooth with the occasional stutter. Some animations feel painfully slow, like iOS 8 slow so turning down the window animation scale, transition animation scale and animator duration scale all down .5 in developer options will help the phone feel a bit faster even if it’s at the cost of some animations.
I don’t do much gaming but I wouldn’t expect the Idol 3 to break any FPS records in games. This is still a midrange Snapdragon processor (basically comparable to a SD800) so you’re going to be behind the 8 ball a bit but you should be able to play your favorite games without much issue. There is definitely going to be some delays in launching bigger games and apps as the processor tries to load them, but much like the rest of the phone, if you give it enough time, it’ll get there.
The Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3 does a ton of things right. I can’t say enough how awesome it is to have an almost stock android experience on a budget friendly phone again. Manly Android enthusiasts were really in the market for a Nexus 5 (2015) when Google announced the Nexus 6. While disappointment was shared by many, I think the Idol 3 is the best case for a close to Nexus experience. I’m still waiting on interest on XDA to pick up as the phone becomes more widely popular since the bootloader appears to locked. I’d really like to see Alcatel release an official bootloader unlocking tool especially since this is an unlocked phone and shouldn’t have to bow to any carrier demands to be sold.
The phone is sold unlocked at $250 with 16 GB of storage space but only 11 GB is usable and in 2015 this simply just isn’t enough. Between pinning one large playlist and taking a couple of pictures, I’m almost out of space. I’ve reached out to Alcatel Onetouch for a comment on if we’re going to be a version go on sale with more storage. If you don’t heavily rely on locally stored content, you can definitely skip past this concern but if you’re anything like me, you definitely need a version with 32 GB of storage. Hopefully OEMs get the message (Samsung, HTC and LG seem to have gotten it) and double their base storage even in midrage devices.
There are compromises to be made if you use the Idol 3 but I feel like when you compare those compromises to the $400 you’re going to save by not going with a flagship device, it’s very much worth it. The performance is good enough. I don’t generally get frustrated with it. I love the speakers and the screen does well and how much can you say about having almost stock Android. I’d like to see better control over unlocking the bootloader and more storage space but all in all, this is a great buy.