Last year, everyone was talking about the unbelievable value of the OnePlus One. It was undoubtedly one of the best value-for-money smartphones on the market. This year, another handset has come along to challenge for that title. The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 costs just $249, but its performance ensures that this is a device that punches well above its weight.
For the most part, the Idol 3 is an attractive device. The gray plastic on the back has a hairline brushed finish effect and the edges have a chrome trim. Even the camera lens has its own shiny chrome frame. Add that to the uninterrupted glossy, black surface on the front and you have a phone which looks both classy and understated. That’s not something you normally find on a low-end phone.
Despite having a large 5.5-inch screen on the front, the device is surprisingly comfortable in hand and easily pocketable. This is due to three key things. Firstly, at just 7.4mm, it’s very thin. Almost as thin as an iPhone 6 Plus. Secondly, its back is every so slightly curved near the edges. Thirdly, there aren’t any particularly heavy materials used in designing the Idol 3. It’s plastic, and thin plastic at that. It weighs less than 5 ounces.
Of course, thin light plastic has its downsides. You don’t get the feeling from the phone that it’s very durable. I haven’t done any drop tests to find out exactly how it fairs against a slab of concrete, but I’m not confident it would last many falls to the ground.
Clearly, when designing a phone with the aim of marketing it at a disruptive price, you can’t spend tons on metal unibody designs or the latest Corning Gorilla Glass. So some of the compromises aren’t unexpected. But I’m impressed by how good the device looks and feels.
The Idol 3 features a 5.5-inch full HD fully-laminated display at a 1080x1920 resolution. It’s sharp, and because there are no gaps between the screen and the glass, content looks like it’s floating on the surface. It also happens to have really good viewing angles. You lose a little brightness when looking at it from different angles, but you don’t really lose any of the color or see any of the typical discoloration on the whites.
On any phone, this would be a great screen. Perhaps not as vivid as the AMOLED panels found on the Galaxy Note 4 or S6, but for an LCD panel, it’s pretty fantastic. It’s bright and clear, and colors are lively. Normally on budget phones, you find severe compromises in display sharpness and quality. Not with the Idol 3. It matches some of the flagship 1080p panels out there and doesn’t look out of place next to the iPhone 6 Plus or HTC One M9.
What this means is that for watching videos, gaming, or internet browsing, you’re not left disappointed. In fact, I was left surprised.
Features and Software
Alcatel OneTouch opted to go with an almost-stock version of Android 5.0 Lollipop with the latest Idol. Sure, it has some colorful icons and a couple of software features here and there, but most of the time it felt just like using a stock phone. Almost like a Nexus with a subtle theme.
The Idol 3 has two really noteworthy features worthy of an honorable mention. Firstly, its twin front-facing speakers powered by JBL technology are loud and offer great quality sound. They also ensure that you don’t miss any notifications through lack of volume.
Secondly, the phone is fully reversible. It’s not just that you can turn the onscreen content on its head. It has an earpiece and speaker above and below the display, so you there is no such thing as upside down.
Although I doubt JBL had a hand in actually producing them, the Idol 3 ships with a pair of branded in-ear headphones. Sound quality through them is okay. I wasn’t blown away, but they seem fairly well balanced. And I accidentally tested their water-resistance by leaving them in a pocket in a wash cycle. You’ll be glad to know they still work.
Performance and Battery Life
If there’s one area you notice some signs of the Idol 3 being a low-end device, it’s in performance. It uses one of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 615 processors that makes light work of the transitions in between apps. In fact, animations like dropping down the menu in Android 5.0 Lollipop, unlocking the device or launching the app drawer are really smooth. It’s when you get to tasks that require fast frame rates that you see it could do with some fine-tuning.
Games that require fast reflexes can often become more than a little frustrating when the action stutters on screen as the animations get faster. Even scrolling quickly through apps like Instagram can cause the device to get slightly stuck.
As for battery life, the 2,910mAh cell inside is more than enough to get through a typical day’s use. At least with what I’d count as medium use. And you can’t really ask for more than that in such a slim device.
The 13MP Sony sensor in the Idol 3 almost has a case of Jekyll and Hyde. In bright daylight it can produce some really great results, capturing colors, detail and tone nicely. But get in to shade or low light and everything changes. Pictures get a little flat and lifeless.
No aspiring mobile photographer is going to be too won over by its limitations. But for the most part, there’s not much to complain about. There are many, many worse phone cameras out there. Some of them on much more expensive phones.
All in all, the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is easily worth the $249. In fact, anyone looking for a great smartphone experience without needing to sign up to an expensive plan or has a budget less than $300 should just get one. Whatever reputation Alcatel OneTouch may have had of releasing budget phones with terrible compromises has all but gone. This is a fantastic phone.