Review: Alcatel Idol 4S

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Brand history has a large part to play in the expectations of a product, especially a brand that's more well known for its entry-level and mid-range products over all. Alcatel has recently gone through a rebranding, dropping the One Touch tagline that they've used for so long, and going for a more simplified branding instead. As such we're seeing some brand new moves from the company, and that strategy begins with the Alcatel Idol 4s. Following a successful product line in the Idol series, the 4s retains some mid-range aspects but pushes into premium territory in far more. At a price of $350 this phone offers a similar build to phones that cost far more, but with internal specs that are a bit lacking compared to some other offerings this year, can this one stack up to the competition? Let's take a look.

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Specs

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At $350 it's certainly not expected to have anywhere near flagship level specs, but for the most part the Alcatel Idol 4s tends to surprise, especially given the build quality. Starting off the package with 3g of RAM, this 5.5-inch quad-HD Super AMOLED panel is powered by an Adreno 510 GPU and a Qualcomm MSM8952 Snapdragon 652 SoC. It's this SoC that's about the only thing that feels mid-range about the phone, but can tend to surprise with its octa-core CPU, made up of a quad-core 1.4GHz Cortex-A53 CPU and a quad-core 1.8GHz Cortex-A72 CPU. 32GB of internal storage is found inside, although there's no microSD card support here.

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Underneath the non-removable back is an equally non-removable 3,000mAh battery, and whole package is powered by Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow.  This gorgeously built frame weighs 149 grams and measures in at 153.9mm high by 75.4mm wide by 7mm thin and feels nothing short of premium in every regard. Even the cameras measure out at a premium level, with a 16-megapixel rear shooter and an 8-megapixel front-facing camera. On the connectivity front the Idol 4s supports dual-band WiFi up to 802.11ac speeds, an NFC radio and even supports Bluetooth 4.2 Low Energy, but there's no aptX support here. You'll also find dual 3.6-watt JBL speakers on the phone itself too.  

In The Box

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Our review unit came with all the goodies you'll find in the VR Bundle that Alcatel offers for $349 on pre-order or $399. This particular bundle includes a VR headset designed specifically for the Idol 4s, a pair of JBL earbuds, a tempered glass screen protector and an Incipio protective case. The regular Idol 4s box will still include some essentials though, including the obvious phone itself, a pack of manuals and warranty pamphlets, SIM tray ejector tool as well as a QuickCharge 2.0 compatible 5v/2a charger and microUSB cable.

Display

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Once upon a time only the highest end of premium devices featured a Super AMOLED panel, but now many phones are shipping with these fantastic displays. By nature AMOLED's colors are more vibrant and rich, and because of their ability to shut off individual pixels when needed, black levels on AMOLED panels are literally as good as it's going to get. By default the screen on the Idol 4s is extremely well balanced, from the natural colors that the AMOLED panel's calibration exudes, to the more natural whites than some other panels out there.  The warmth or coolness of the panel can be easily adjusted via the display settings, and colors can be changed from their default "natural" state to a vibrant one if you'd rather have those extra punchy colors that some AMOLED panels are better known for.

Rounding off the positive points of this display are the viewing angles, which are superb in every measure, delivering consistent colors and brightness levels even when held at extreme angles. There's a tiny bit of rainbow effect at various angles, but nothing that most users would likely notice in daily use. Refresh rate is as good as should be assumed with an AMOLED panel, showing a low persistence rate when scrolling and delivering zero noticeable ghosting or other artifacts that some cheaper display technologies tend to suffer from. Just as most AMOLED panels are easily able to do nowadays too, the Idol 4s's display is easily viewable outside, even in direct sunlight.

Interestingly enough the phone is fully reversible too, and offers a cool little animation when flipping it 180-degrees as opposed to the usual portrait or landscape views. The digitizer is absolutely superb too, and I never once found any issues with touch sensitivity or multi-touch responsiveness in any way. There's even a glove mode here for folks that live in colder conditions and require the use of gloves during parts of the year, that way you can still interact with your phone without having to take your gloves off or buy special ones.

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Hardware and Build

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One of the most surprising aspects of the Idol 4s is its incredible build quality, something that isn't expected at this price level by any means. A metal frame holds together panes of glass on both the front and back of the device and gives this phone an incredibly solid construction that's apparent from the moment you first pick it up. It's got a weight that feels essentially perfect; not too heavy and not too light, giving just the right amount of premium feeling while not being overly heavy. There's simply nothing about this phone that feels cheap by any means, and it really shows that Alcatel has gone to great lengths to ensure its brand continues to evolve and grow in many ways.

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On the front you'll find a 5.5-inch screen with bezels that feel smaller than average for sure, especially since there's no fingerprint scanner or other buttons on the front face. Instead you'll find this fingerprint scanner on the back, located underneath the camera sensor, and overall the back of the device looks very similar to a Galaxy Alpha more than anything. The left and right edges of the glass on both front and back are tapered inward toward the metal frame too, smoothing the lines between the metal and glass transition. The metal frame takes an interesting turn at the top and bottom of the device too, pulling out from the glass just a few millimeters to make room for the 3.6-watt stereo JBL speakers included on the device, and these speaker grilles are both on the front and back of the device too.

The back of the device is mostly flat, with only a minor camera hump protruding from its glass shell. Unfortunately for comfort and ease of use the fingerprint scanner has almost no obvious delineation between the glass back and the fingerprint scanner's glass surface. The top of the device features a 3.5mm headset jack that's padded toward the left side of the device, while the bottom features a microUSB port that's situated near the right side of the device, making it truly awkward when having to plug both ports in. The left side of the device holds an equally awkward power button that's almost all the way at the top of the device, while the volume rockers sit in an equally odd position on the right side near the top. In the middle of the right side sits a round "Boom" button that serves multiple purposes, which we'll discuss later. Also keep in mind that since this is an all metal and glass phone it's going to be extremely slippery, especially in colder or less humid weather, so getting a case for this one may be essential depending on where you live.

Performance and Memory

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This is the really tricky part of selling a phone for a lower end premium pricing structure with a premium build, but only including a mid-range System on a Chip (SoC). The Snapdragon 652 isn't a bad processing package by any means, but it's not going to compete with a Snapdragon 820 on any level, and unfortunately for Alcatel there are quite a few phones in this price range that now offer that better processing package. In most daily tasks you likely won't notice too much of a difference thankfully, with apps loading and scrolling quickly and smoothly as you would expect from a phone in this price range in 2016. Everything is super snappy and responsive, including multi-tasking which takes great use of the 3GB of RAM included inside. You'll almost never find apps reloading that you normally use, even some of the heavy RAM users like Pokemon Go for instance don't reload even after switching back and forth between a handful of apps.

You'll start to notice the lower processing power when jumping into more intensive 3D games though, something that might turn some users off. Obviously not everyone is going to play games that would tax a mobile processor this way, but those that commonly do may want to consider looking for a phone with a more powerful processor. As it stands the performance here in general isn't the best on the market, but it's certainly not the worst either, and stands at a middle ground between both. Plenty of popular games like Pokemon GO, for instance, play just as well on this phone as more powerful phones, so what you play will certainly be a big determining factor in this purchase. It's comparable with the performance of last year's flagships, but considering the monumental leap the Snapdragon 820 delivered this year over last year's flagships, this is only so good comparably.

VR Performance

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Unfortunately for Alcatel the Adreno 510 and Snapdragon 652 chipset inside isn't exactly the best VR performer in the world, something that's rather unfortunate given the push for VR material from Alcatel. This really is a shame too given how good the screen on the Idol 4s is, and really works incredibly well for VR purposes. With a low persistence rate and a dense makeup of pixels on this Quad-HD screen, the visual experience from the Idol 4s, especially in VR, is among the best the industry has to offer at this time. Couple this with great colors and deep blacks that only AMOLED can deliver right now and you've got a real winner on your hands. On top of these positives Alcatel really went out of their way to provide a better VR UI, starting with automated launching of a native VR UI as soon as you place the phone into Acatel's official VR head unit. This UI is fantastic and proves that a little effort toward providing a native interface for something as complicated as VR is more than a good idea; it's a necessity.

On top of this the Alcatel VR headset really is quite incredible and bests all but the GearVR in terms of comfort, looks and functionality. With clear and sharp lenses that are easily adjustable, two buttons for performing actions without a controller and a strap that's both padded and adjustable in three different places, this really is the best VR headset that doesn't cost a ton of money. It's just unfortunate that the performance limitations are what they are, and because of the slower performance of this CPU/GPU combination it's difficult to recommend the Idol 4s as a hardcore VR gaming machine, although watching VR movies or maybe connecting it to your PC as an alternate VR headset from an HTC Vive or Oculus Rift may work out well enough because of the screen and wireless connectivity features. Remember too that this features a quad-HD panel instead of a 1080p one, making things worse than they should be from a performance standpoint.

Benchmarks

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Benchmarks are about what we expect from a mid-range device, but still impressive given the numbers we see. At about 50% less performance than the current upper-end processors like the Snapdragon 820, the Snapdragon 652 inside the Idol 4s about matches last year's flagship phones neck-and-neck in every category. Whether or not this is disappointing is up to your perspective, but remember at this price range there are a few phones that do pack that 50% more powerful Snapdragon 820 processor.

Wireless Connectivity

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Alcatel sells the Idol 4s in two major models that differ depending on the bands that are supported. The 6070Y is the international model, while the 6070O is built for US bands.  It's this US model that we have for review, and one that works perfectly on AT&T and T-Mobile's LTE networks. I did experience issues on T-Mobile's 3G and 2G GSM networks, however, and I had a few dropped calls during the review period that I don't normally experience on other phones. I also noticed a weaker signal in general when in some buildings, again a problem that I haven't seen on other devices in this price range. WiFi connectivity was excellent though and didn't exhibit any obvious issues whatsoever, delivering the fantastic experience many have come to expect from a modern smartphone. Bluetooth connectivity is equally as excellent, but those that are looking for aptX high bitrate Bluetooth audio will need to look elsewhere, as that's not supported on the Idol 4s.

Battery Life

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With a 3,000mAh battery and a mid-range SoC inside, you would expect the battery life of the Idol 4s to be better than average to say the least. Considering this battery is the same size as the Galaxy S7, for instance, which has a considerably more powerful processor, it's incredibly disappointing to find the battery life we do on the Alcatel Idol 4s. I truly had a difficult time making it through a full day no matter how little I used it, and pulling up the battery stats in Android revealed nothing out of the ordinary. A meager 2 hours of screen on time was extraordinarily difficult to achieve, and in general is not only far less than I would have expected from this phone, but it's less than average by a fair margin.

There are batter saving modes here that will extend that battery life for sure, but these shouldn't have to be used every day like I constantly had to. The PCMark battery test we run on every review phone backs up our findings, with an incredibly disappointing 4 hours or so of constant heavy use before needing to charge the phone. Quick charge is here and works with both the included charger and official Qualcomm QuickCharge accessories, which translates into about an hour and a half or so for a full charge. Still having to constantly charge the phone throughout the day will get old fast. The battery life on this phone is simply not good.

Sound

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Sound quality is one area where the Alcatel Idol 4s manages to excel to say the least, and it does so for a number of reasons. Off the bat it's important to note that 24-bit high-resolution audio is not supported, so enthusiasts with this sort of audio equipment should probably look elsewhere for such support. With that said, the rest of the package here is nothing short of excellent.  Out of the box Alcatel includes the MaxxAudio software package which allows users to quickly and easily adjust sound system-wide for considerably enhanced audio. As we've seen on other phones that utilize the MaxxAudio system like the OnePlus One, audio playback in general is stellar to say the least. By default the system will automatically adjust the audio for what it deems the best quality playback, but this can be completely adjusted by the user or even turned off if desired.

Audio adjustments are as easy as dragging down the notification shade and choosing between over a dozen presets, and each of these presets can be adjusted manually and saved as a custom one too. Four "easy" presets can be adjusted via a wheel, each labeled as MaxxBass, Treble, Stereo and Revive. Some of these are clearly more vague than others, so if you'd rather use a more traditional 10-bar equalizer you can easily switch between the two screens. All these presets apply differently to the 3.5mm audio than they do to Bluetooth and even the speakers on-board the phone itself, so choose wisely.

Onto those speakers on the phone itself, it's pretty impressive to see 3.6-watt speakers on a smartphone, but Alcatel has packed them onto both the top and bottom of the phone, delivering truly amazing stereo sound with range that's not often heard from a smartphone's speakers. To top things off these speakers have grilles on the front and back of the device, delivering spatial audio that fills a room with both loud, quality audio that's well worth listening to. This will definitely replace Bluetooth speakers for some folks, although they won't quite deliver the bass that some Bluetooth speakers can.

Software

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Alcatel delivers a fairly stock looking and feeling Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow experience out of the box, and diving into the features reveals just how rich the software experience truly is. There are many automated features of the device, such as automatically launching the VR interface when the phone is plugged into the VR headset, automatically changing display modes when placed in the Matrix FlipCase, and quite a few more. Alcatel has loaded the phone with Google's apps as well as its own, so you'll find a dedicated gallery app as well as Google Photos, and plenty of other duplicates as well because of this. There's some really interesting ones preloaded here though too, like NextRadio which offers local FM radio listening functionality right from the phone, and a dedicated VR store for finding better VR content selected by Alcatel themselves. Aside from this regular Android 6.0 Marshmallow functionality is all here, including per-app permissions, Google Now on Tap, and plenty more.

One option presented to users that's pretty cool, although ultimately a little odd in its execution, is the Boom key located on the right side of the device just under the volume rocker.  This key serves as a multi-function key that can be customized within the system settings menu, and by default serves a large number of purposes. When in the Alcatel home launcher, pressing the boom key results in a real-time weather animation over the whole screen. Pressing it while watching any video toggles surround sound with the on-board speakers, and pressing it while listening to music toggles between various bass modes for the speakers.

There's a ton of different options here and they all feel pretty random, although if you get used to the functionality it might come in handy. One function that doesn't seem to work well at all though is using this key as a camera shutter while the screen is off; the camera just seems to take a quick shot without trying to focus on a single object, pretty much always resulting in a blurry or unfocused photo in my testing. It's certainly a novel idea in a world where many smartphones feature most of the same tricks, but ultimately may prove useless for most folks.

UI/UX

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Alcatel has taken the simple-is-better approach that has become pervasive throughout smartphone culture and embraced it in one way, offering a clean interface initially while offering users tons of options to customize their experience. Right off the bat you'll likely notice one thing Alcatel uses that most OEMs have moved away from: lockscreen shortcuts. These are totally customizable from the get-go by pressing the settings button right there on the lockscreen, and any app on the phone can be placed in one of the 5 spots, as well as a few chosen actions like lighting up the torch. Regular functionality of the lockscreen hasn't been negatively modified in any way either, showing Alcatel's direction of starting off with stock Android and building on it instead of drastically trying to change it.

There's also a number of gestures that can be performed while the screen is off to quickly launch apps or other actions, including drawing the letters c, w, m or e to launch any app or function of your choice. You'll find many other elements in the UI are constructed in the same manner too. Take the notification shade for instance, which looks stock but adds more options and a larger "auto" button for automatic brightness adjustment.

Fingerprint and Security

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Rear-facing fingerprint scanners are nothing new, and in fact have become quite commonplace on many Android phones. This placement allows for easy access without having to reach your thumb down to press a fingerprint scanner below the screen. The downside of course is not being able to press it when the device is lying flat on the table, so like anything there are trade-offs to consider. This particular fingerprint scanner doesn't feature a deep recess or raised edges to help you find it in such a blind spot, and it's even the same glass surface as the rest of the back of the phone. What this means is that you'll likely find yourself touching the camera lens instead of the fingerprint reader quite constantly, wondering why in the world the phone won't unlock when you're trying to do so.

It's also not the best or fastest fingerprint scanner on the market either, and I found myself having to either press it multiple times, or press it quite a bit harder than I'm used to with other modern touch fingerprint scanners. All in all it's a disappointing implementation of what's become an industry standard, but at least the Idol 4s includes one while some other phones on the market still don't ship with them. Having one means greater security overall, and also the ability to use your fingerprint to sign in to supported apps, of which the list is growing more every month. Easy and secure banking logins, mobile payments and more are possible with a fingerprint scanner, and it's at least great to see one here even if it's not the best one in the world.

Camera Software

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Alcatel's interface for the camera software on the Idol 4s is generally quite excellent. Dedicated photo shutter and video recording buttons are always available in auto mode, giving you quick one-click access to taking a picture or starting a video without having to switch modes and wait. What you won't find are automatic HDR or Night modes though, something that some users may find annoying in a world where people have gotten used to having these modes automatically chosen for them. It could also result in generally lower quality photos too, as scenes that require either of these two modes generally benefit from their positive points quite a bit.

Switching between main modes takes on a very iOS-like swiping mentality, where swiping left and right anywhere on the screen will move between manual, pano, auto, slo-mo, micro-video and Fyuse modes.  Switching between modes is fast and takes under a second each, and it's even possible to click the names of a mode you want to switch to in order to get to that right away.  This takes away the time it takes to swipe between modes and allows direct launching of a mode without having to navigate away from the main interface.  The row of quick settings on top also gives you the ability to toggle flash, HDR, timer, night mode and switch between front and rear-facing cameras or launch the settings without having to dig into another menu.  In general it's a well designed interface that doesn't require a lot of thought: something usually good when just trying to grab a quick shot.

Camera Performance and Results

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Launching the camera is a nice, fast experience that takes under 2 seconds no matter where you're at in the software. The camera can be accessed via one of four possible ways: double tapping the power button, swiping to it from the lockscreen, pressing the app icon on the launcher or even by double tapping the Boom key when the screen is off. This last mode takes a shot in about a second flat, although it does this far too fast for the hardware to keep up with. As mentioned above these shots are almost always blurry or out of focus, and in general just don't look good. It's nice to have a quick picture option but the lack of quality will likely keep plenty of users from using it more than a few times initially.

Overall shot quality is pretty good, especially for a mid-range phone with a 16-megapixel sensor, but it's not going to challenge the best out there in every circumstance. Everything from daylight to low-light functionality is more than adequate to qualify as a good camera, and in general I think many people will be happy with the quality exhibited here. It's biggest struggle is lower light, as there's no optical image stabilization here and the software doesn't appear to try to do anything to digitally stabilize the image. What you'll find is that lower light shots tend to be a little blurry, or can sometimes suffer from quite a bit of blur depending on hand and environmental movement. This isn't going to be a great phone for taking blur-free pictures of your kids indoors, no doubt, but for other types of things it does a good job of grabbing shadow detail and keeping noise out, all while not going too heavy on the softening denoise algorithms that plague plenty of phones.

Daylight shots are pretty spectacular and generally exhibit great dynamic range and color balance. HDR mode works very well and appears to capture the image instantly, with no obvious blur or effects from a slow multiple exposure bracket. HDR mode does take quite long to actually finish processing the shot though, and unfortunately it does this in the foreground instead of the background, so the time between HDR shots can sometimes range in the seconds rather than milliseconds we've become accustomed to. At least it makes up for this slowness in overall quality, and you'll see from the handful of HDR comparison shots in the gallery that these shots keep the balance between light and dark absolutely perfect, bringing up the shadow detail considerably while retaining the nicely balanced highlights of the bright areas in the photos.

There were only a few shots where white balance was a bit off, like the one shot of some skyscrapers in New York City, or the indoor shot of the Terminator's face. These shots were few and far between though, and not nearly enough for me to call them a problem. The front-facing camera in general is decent but nothing to write home about. It's biggest issue is dynamic range, in which it seems to have a very narrow range in general. In the shots I took with a strong sunlit backlight you can barely make me out at all. There's no HDR mode so enabling flash is the only real way to combat this, and in these situations it only helps a tiny bit. At night though this front-facing flash will be a Godsend to many who take lower-light or night-time selfies, although the resolution of the shots won't allow for much in the way of blowing the image up or zooming in.

Video mode maintains this mediocrity as well, and although it supports anywhere from 30FPS 4K video to 120FPS 720P slow-motion video, the overall quality here isn't anything to write home about. Its biggest detractor is the lack of optical image stabilization, and although the digital image stabilization is better than nothing, it doesn't do a great job overall. Still taking home videos of your kids or those special moments should come out just fine, but in general I don't think anyone would be blown away by the quality shown here. Check out the gallery below for all the images and video samples we took during our review period.

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The Good

Excellent, quality build

Fantastic AMOLED display

Superb front-facing stereo speakers with virtual surround sound

Equally good audio output via 3.5mm jack

Fast camera overall

Quality photos

Front-facing camera flash

Lots of software features and bonuses

Great VR software and UI

The Bad

Spotty VR performance

Inaccurate and slow fingerprint scanner

Fingerprint scanner is hard to use thanks to design

No aptX Bluetooth audio support

Poor battery life

HDR photo processing hampers camera performance

Conclusion

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The Alcatel Idol 4s is an admirable jump into the semi-premium market for a company that was once considered one of the kings of budget phones, but the performance gap between this phone and similarly priced phones like the OnePlus 3 or Xiaomi Mi 5 might end up turning some users off. The competition is simply too fierce in the $300-400 market right now to release a product with a slower SoC and poor battery life, and it's these two factors that ultimately end up making the Idol 4s feel like less of a value than anything else. There's still plenty of positives for the phone though, and the value of the pack-ins coupled with the excellent external speakers, great build and tons of software features help bring this more in line with what is becoming expected at this price.  The battery life issues we had could definitely be an anomaly, and if anything these sorts of issues almost always get ironed out in the first update or two, especially given the size of the battery itself.

Buy The Alcatel Idol 4S