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Alcatel may not be a household name just yet, but it’s on its way. Last year’s IDOL 3 flagship Android smartphone was a hit for the manufacturer, with many reviewers pegging it as one of the most affordable and top-performing Android phones of the year. That success gave Alcatel a chance to follow up with a worthy successor – the IDOL 4S. Is it the best unlocked smartphone?
This new flagship ups the build and closes the IDOL’s gap with bigger name Android phones. And the best part is that it can be close to half the cost. Let’s check out if the IDOL 4S ends up being the new affordable standard or if there are too many compromises in our Alcatel IDOL 4S Android Smartphone review.
Price: $399 on Amazon
Available: July 2016
Model: Alcatel IDOL 4S
Summary: The IDOL 4S is a follow up to Alcatel’s successful, affordable IDOL 3 Android smartphone last year. It brings improvements across the board, including a premium build. We found that it’s a great step forward and a solid value in mid-range Android phones today, though there are some rough edges that keep it from matching up to the best.
What We Liked:
What We Didn’t:
Alcatel certainly felt that its flagship IDOL could use a more premium touch. The design of the IDOL 4S is an overhaul from what we saw just a year ago. And like many manufacturers in this same situation, Alcatel chose to go with glass back and metal frame.
Fear not, though. There’s plenty of design cues that sets the 4S apart from the fray. First, the underlying panel on the back gives off this neat light ray refraction that pivots about the fingerprint scanner. It’s a subtle effect; just enough to stand out but not be too flashy. Speaking of the fingerprint scanner, it’s probably the least intrusive one we’ve seen. The circular cutout is flush with the back panel and has an identical glossy surface.
It’s eye-pleasing, but unfortunately, ends up being impractical. With rear-placed fingerprint readers, you have to feel where to line up your finger. In a case like this, it’s hard to tell if your finger lands on the glass or the reader, leading to frustration. It’s also not the quickest reader out there, but at least, you don’t have to turn the phone on before using it.
Another not so nice factor is directly above – a considerable camera hump. It sticks out like a sore thumb, and will be prone to scratches. In fact, we strongly suggest getting a case right away. The potential of scratching the back is great, and the slippery nature of glass means there’s more potential for gravity to claim it.
One thing we really appreciate from Alcatel’s design is that it’s completely symmetric – from the top and bottom and front and back. It’s such a clean design. The curved metal frame extends from all sides. Coupled with a matte finish and shiny chamfers on both edges of the frame, we have an exterior as premium as any.
A considerate feature which most phones don’t boast are dual, front-facing speakers. You’ll catch speaker holes drilled into both extensions of the metal frame on the top and bottom of the phone, which go through to the back. I can’t say enough about how slick this phone looks.
The mid-range price of the IDOL 4S suggests that we won’t get the highest end chipset currently on the market, which this year has been the Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 (in the US, at least). That said, the octa-core Snapdragon 652 and 3GB of RAM powering the 4S is still more than capable, and we contend that you shouldn’t have any reservation about the horsepower keeping up with your demands. It performed admirably in our usage. Though, hardcore users may notice a slight delay in some executions compared to the best smartphones, we didn’t observe anything compliant-worthy, like lags or crashes.
The 4S is also equipped with 32GB of internal storage. That’s nothing special in this day and age, but luckily, there’s microSD card expansion support to help out media obsessors (up to 200GB). The 3,000 mAh battery capacity is also fairly standard these days. As expected, it consistently got us through a day of average-to-high usage. More so, we were glad that Alcatel didn’t forget about fast charging, which the 4S supports Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 2.0 standard. However, if you want a longer battery life, check our Huawei Y7 Dub lx3 review
It’s important to know that the IDOL 4S is an unlocked phone only. You won’t find it in a carrier store or with subsidized pricing for that matter. This also means, like most unlocked phones, that there is only support for GSM network connectivity. In the US, that only includes AT&T or T-Mobile. We used our review unit with T-Mobile’s network and it all worked flawlessly, LTE and all.
Also Read: Best Unlocked Smartphones
The IDOL 4S also does a swell job in the display department. It uses an AMOLED panel, like most of the high-end smartphones these days. That means that colors are vivid and even extreme angles of view are clear. Alcatel didn’t skimp on the resolution either; it matches the QHD pixel count (2,560 x 1,440) and sharpness that you find on the best of Android today. Not too shabby for a “mid-range” smartphone.
The performance of the primary camera often turns out to be the Achilles heel of lower-costing smartphones. Does the IDOL 4S’ camera fall victim of that trend? Well, you can be the judge from our image samples below.
The 4S sports a 16MP rear shooter, but at a modest lens aperture of f/2.0. The results in our opinion are what that implies – crisp shots in good lightning conditions, but questionable performance when conditions are not so ideal. However, overall, we feel that it coped well, especially for the phone’s price. Sure, you get dark areas or highlights in wide lighting range situations, but its performance didn’t go far south like most budget phones, which can quickly become grainy and blurry.
The camera interface is also satisfyingly responsive. But our only gripe is that, while there is HDR support, it’s not automatic. You have to manually toggle it when you feel the situation calls for it, like on yesteryear phones. This was an oversight for Alcatel, as most flagships these days now have Auto HDR.
Read: Best Smartphone Cameras
Like most new Android phones today, the IDOL 4S comes with Android 6.0.1 (aka Marshmallow) out of the box, though we never know exactly what we’re going to get in terms of manufacturer UI. Fortunately, Alcatel doesn’t go too wild with custom changes. Some of Android’s true elements are still visible, such as with the notification drop-down panel and Recent Apps carousel. For those who prefer devices that run on Android 9 software, then check out this Blu Studio 5 5hd Smartphone Black review.
Light additions are spotted on the transparent app drawer, and Alcatel’s own custom apps for the phone dialer, text messages, gallery, and music player app. Speaking of which, the company’s focus on audio also extends to the software. You’ll catch a feature called MaxxAudio in the sound settings. It’s pretty simple; it improves sound quality, which the user can tailor for music or movies (or enable automatic detection). There’s additionally different types of audio presets you can select, and an equalizer.
It’s also worth mentioning the additional functionality via the Boom key. It’s not the most intuitive system, but can be useful when you get used to where it’s utilized. That is, it does a different action depending on which app you’re in: serving as a shutter button in the camera app, boosting the audio with media, or creating a quick collage in the gallery app. If you don’t care for those app effects, you can change it to only one of three specific functions: camera toggle, instant screenshot, or launch a specified app. For when the phone is off, you can choose it to turn the screen on or quickly snap a pic with a double press.
Overall, Alcatel did an excellent job with its follow up to the successful IDOL 3 last year. The 4S’ construction is as impressive as top-end smartphones that come close to double the cost, and performance isn’t too far behind. That said, it doesn’t completely keep up, with a slower fingerprint scanner and inferior camera quality. And despite the aggressive $399 pricing, it still ends up in direct competition with the superb OnePlus 3. But the front stereo speakers and Boom key functionality give it a leg up. The IDOL 4S is a great proponent of the exceptional value for money in smartphones today.