Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3 review
We haven’t had an Alcatel Onetouch phone in our hands since March, when we were quite impressed with the Idol X+, an attractively priced and well-performing handset that was let down by a cheap build, slightly ropey software and a lack of storage expansion.
With the Idol 3, the Alcatel team seems to have addressed every one of these criticisms, with an updated design, a new Android Lollipop-based interface and a microSD slot. Is this the Onetouch we’ve been waiting for?
Picking up the Idol 3 is a pleasant surprise. This might be down to my previous experience with an Alcatel phone – a brief stint on a plasticky Alcatel Pop while my main handset was out of action. Compared to the Pop, the Idol 3 feels positively luxurious, holding its own against many of the flagship handsets out there. One oddity is a design cue taken from HTC’s One series: two speakers frame the handset at either end, set back from the main glass of the touchscreen, producing a two-level design. It’s not that noticeable from pictures, but it makes the handset feel somehow fragile.
The unusual design does at least make it look distinctive. The handset is a unibody design, offering no ability to change the battery, but the brushed grey plastic back is stylish enough to justify the trade-off. It has a metal trim all the way around, slightly reminiscent of the Samsung Galaxy Alpha, and curved corners and edges aren’t a million miles away from HTC’s more stylish models. The aesthetic magpie approach pays off: the Idol 3 is a very attractive smartphone that gives its rivals a lesson in looking good without breaking the bank.
It’s also remarkably light, considering its size. I tried the 5.5in model, which weighs just 141g and measures 7.4mm thick; it also comes in a 4.7in flavour, though this bizarrely adds an additional 0.1mm to its proportions.
There is one rather disappointing design quirk: the SIM card and microSD sit in the same tray, meaning that you can’t remove one without taking out the other. It’s not a big deal, as most people will install these once and forget about them, but if you’re the kind of person who regularly swaps SIMs, it makes the process a little more clunky.
A largely vanilla Android Lollipop experience
The stylish exterior is complemented by a customised version of Android Lollipop. It hasn’t been heavily customised, so anyone who’s spent time with a Nexus device will find it extremely familiar. Alacatel has added a few nice aesthetic tweaks, however: menu transitions flip and fold out in interesting animations, and the clock icon animates with the current time – something I hadn’t seen before on Android. Nothing earth-changing, certainly, but nice attention to detail that you might not expect from a mid-priced handset.
The big new feature, however, is head-scratching in its pointlessness. The company proudly boasts that this is the only phone in the world that allows you to flip your entire Android homescreen – that is to say, if you turn your phone upside down, the screen will flip to match, saving you literally seconds of inconvenience in turning it around.
I’ve got no complaints about how well this works, but I can’t say it’s a feature I’ve been crying out for. In theory, you should also be able to make calls either way round, but in my tests the sound seemed more faint at one end than the other. If Alcatel is struggling to come up with truly innovative features, that may merely be a symptom of the reality that smartphones do everything pretty well nowadays. This one certainly isn’t a game-changer.
Other than that, it’s pretty much business as usual. The Idol 3 comes preinstalled with a bunch of apps, some useful (currency converter, WPS Office), mostly not (Deezer? Puzzle Pets? Car Racing? Boyaa Texas Poker?). I’d much rather have a cleaner installation of Android, personally, but at least these unwanted guests can be easily uninstalled.
Swiping right brings up “Onetouch Stream”, which is a bit like HTC’s BlinkFeed, only far more pushy. Like BlinkFeed, it brings up things it thinks you’ll like, such as the weather, your agenda and the top news. Unlike BlinkFeed, it also pushes the hard sell with apps and game recommendations. While it lets you remove “featured wallpapers” and “top news” from its stream, the same can’t be said for “featured apps”, giving rise to the suspicion that Alcatel has been doing deals with app publishers.
Finally, there’s the keyboard. Bafflingly, Alcatel has decided against the latest Google keyboard and its swiping capabilities, instead defaulting a tappy one that’s maddening to a fat-thumbed user such as myself. Text entry involved a heady mix of frustration, typos and expletives. In that order. The good news is that it does come with SwiftKey as an alternative, and of course keyboards are easy enough to change.
Living with the OneTouch Idol 3
In use, the Idol 3 mostly feels slick and smooth. As with all Android handsets, I’d expect performance to deteriorate a little over time, but out of the box it feels generally very responsive. It does sometimes stutter, though, and the cause can be baffling – something as simple as typing a text message can cause occasional delay between keyboard input and the letters appearing onscreen.
More worrying is the heat the Idol 3 can generate, even when doing something pretty undemanding such as browsing Twitter. Extended periods of gaming make it even hotter.
On the subject of games, the Idol scores disappointingly on gaming benchmarks. In the GFXBench T-Rex HD benchmark, it managed just 15fps – three more than the Alcatel Idol X+, but a long way behind flagship handsets such as the Samsung Galaxy S6 (38fps) and HTC One M9 (49fps).
This is a pattern that repeated itself throughout the benchmarks: a little stronger than the Idol X+, but not strong enough to challenge the fashionable flagships. In Geekbench, the Idol 3 scored 655 for single-core and 2,408 for multi-core tests – respectable figures, beating out cheap and cheerful handsets such as the Moto G 2015 (529, 1,576) but lagging slightly behind the Idol X+ overall (522, 2,802) and in a totally different ballpark to the Samsung Galaxy S6 (1,485, 5,282) and HTC One M9 (838, 3,677).
The 2,910mAh battery does well. In our standard battery tests, the Idol 3’s charge dropped by 8% per hour while playing a 720p video at 120cd/m2 brightness, and just 5% with a podcast streamed over 4G. Practically, that means the Idol 3 has good stamina which should see it heading into a second day if not pushed to its limits.
The screen is good, too. A 1,080 x 1,920 affair, it offers a maximum brightness of 577cd/m2. This puts it well above average, with only the Sony Xperia Z3 (631cd/m2) and BlackBerry Passport (707cm/m2) really outshining it. With a contrast of 1,114:1, the screen is pleasingly sharp, and while colour accuracy is decent enough, it copes better with warmer colours than cooler ones.
The camera is 13-megapixel, and is decent for the price. Like most cameras outside the top tier, it match the best of them in well-lit conditions, but struggled a bit with zoomed-in subjects. And in darker light, the flash had a tendency to exaggerate contrast.
Video is captured in 1080p and, again, quality is decent enough to capture a moment, although serious documentary makers will want something better. The front-facing camera packs a surprisingly high 8 megapixels, producing acceptable results for both video chat and selfies.
When is a flagship smartphone not a flagship? When the vendor is Alcatel – at the moment. The Idol 3 looks the part, and largely acts the part, but performance is more choppy than you’d expect in a top-of-the-range smartphone.
Still, Alcatel’s phones are getting better, and the company seems to be progressively addressing our criticisms with each iteration. For just £200 SIM-free, the Onetouch Idol 3 is a phone you can be extremely happy with. However, we’re banking on the next version to be the handset that gets our solid, full-throated recommendation.