At $250 unlocked, Alcatel OneTouch’s Idol 3 costs less than half the price of a high-end smartphone. But it’s not half-bad.
The Idol 3’s performance is decent, the display is excellent, and the battery lasts well over a day. If it wasn’t for a middling camera, you might even wonder why the Idol 3 isn’t pricier. Now that some carriers, such as AT&T and T-Mobile, provide cheaper service when you bring your own handset, paying full price for an unlocked phone makes a lot of sense.
Cheap phone charms
While plastic was popular among high-end Android handsets just a couple years ago, companies like Samsung, HTC, and Motorola have since migrated to aluminum, glass, and leather, making the Idol 3 look cheap by comparison. Still, Alcatel has managed to avoid gaudiness, with no logos on the front glass, and no crazy colors or patterns elsewhere. The Idol 3’s wildest design flourish is the silver plastic trim that circles the phone’s top and bottom edges.
The phone’s easy to grip as well, despite its 5.5-inch display. The bezels around the screen are narrow enough that you can comfortably reach across with your thumb, and the rear panel’s brushed matte finish helps form an easy grip. At 7.4mm thick, the Idol 3 is only a hair thicker than Apple’s iPhone 6 Plus.
Neither frilly nor skimpy
You won’t find fancy features like a thumbprint reader or curved display on the Idol 3, but you shouldn’t expect to at this price. What’s more important is that Alcatel’s phone gets the basics down.
The 5.5-inch, 1080p display is especially impressive. At maximum brightness, it’s every bit as vibrant as an iPhone 6 Plus, with the only (minor) downsides being shallower blacks and a touch too much redness. Viewing angles are solid as well, avoiding the washout you sometimes see on low-cost phones.
Alcatel also makes a big deal out of the phone’s front-facing JBL speakers, and they indeed fared well against a first-generation HTC One, which I still consider the gold standard. While bass response isn’t quite as warm, music playback seemed louder without sounding unpleasant.
The Idol 3 is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 615 chipset—combining two quad-core processors with a 64-bit architecture—and has 2 GB of RAM. It sounds impressive, but in practice the phone’s speed is just average. Touch response feels slightly laggy, even though scrolling is smooth, and some apps needed a few seconds to launch when waking the phone from standby. These aren’t dealbreakers, but they’re a reminder that the Idol 3 is cheaper than it seems at first glance. Benchmark tests put the Idol 3 on par with flagship phones from a couple years ago, such as Samsung’s Galaxy S4.
The good news is that battery life is fantastic. Using it as my primary handset, I’ve yet to experience a day where there’s less than 50 percent battery in the tank at the end. We’re working on our battery rundown test, and will post the results shortly.
For software, the Idol 3 ships with Android 5.0.2. It’s not exactly the latest version, but at least it’s a fairly clean take on Android Lollipop, preserving most of Google’s Material Design flourishes. Just don’t expect stock Android; Alcatel has tweaked some of the iconography and open-source app designs, and has pre-loaded the phone with some bloatware apps such as AVG anti-virus and the Facetune Lite photo editor. The phone comes with 16 GB of internal storage, along with a microSD card slot.
The camera comedown
Camera quality tends to be the Achilles heel of cheap phones, and that includes the Idol 3. The phone’s 13-megapixel shooter is capable of decent photos, but you need steady hands, and the results always looked more yellow than the iPhone 6 Plus and Nexus 6, which I tested alongside the Idol 3. Low-light performance is atrocious without flash, and the lens had a much tighter angle of view than other phones, making it harder to fit more faces in the frame. The fact that Alcatel calls its camera “industry-leading” in marketing materials is laughable.
On the bright side, Alcatel didn’t seriously skimp on the front-facing camera, which captures at 8 megapixels. Minus the drop in detail, it’s about as serviceable as the rear camera.
Looking at the competition, most major phone makers either skimp on specs with their mid-range phones or ignore the U.S. market entirely. HTC’s latest attempt was a total disaster. The Moto G is a solid sub-$200 option, but it’s a clunkier handset with no 4G LTE version in the United States.
The most serious alternative to the Idol 3 is the OnePlus One, which starts at $300 and just became widely available. While it’s $50 more expensive than the Idol 3, it has a much faster processor, and the $350 version gets you a whopping 64 GB of storage.
There are still clear benefits to buying a phone for $600 or more. You’ll get better design, better performance, and a much better camera. But Alcatel has done a fine job of narrowing the gap, so spending considerably less is no longer a dubious proposition.
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