When Alcatel released the IDOL 3 last year, I called it the best budget phone of 2015. This year, Alcatel has come out with its successor that is meant to improve upon the IDOL 3 in every way. Unlike last year, competition has gotten incredibly steep around budget flagships in 2016, and the IDOL 4S has to give everything its got to carry the title of Best Budget Flagship this year. Let’s see if it can claim the crown once again!
Design and Build
Last year, Alcatel took a more subtle approach to the design of the IDOL 3. It featured a plastic back and sides that felt and looked nice but didn’t create an overall sense of luxury or precision. For its 2016 flagship, Alcatel completely ditched the plastic and opted for a killer metal and glass design. With a glass back and metal sides, the IDOL 4S is a stunner that screams quality straight out of the box. The glass on front and back is slightly curved along the side making the phone comfortable to hold for pretty much anyone.
Let’s take a look around the 4S before we dive in. On the front is the 5.5″ display that we will talk more in depth about later along with the dual front-facing speakers and selfie camera. On the left side, you’ll find the power button and SIM card/MicroSD card slot. On the right are your volume controls along with an extra button Alcatel refers to as the Boom Key. On the bottom are the MicroUSB port for charging and a microphone. Finally up top, you have your 3.5mm headphone jack (thankfully) and another microphone. Flip the phone over and you’ll find the main camera along with a fingerprint scanner.
Overall, the IDOL 4S is lightyears ahead of the IDOL 3 in terms of style and design. The glass and metal build feels incredible to hold. However, I have a love-hate relationship with the glass back because it is a fingerprint magnet. It is one of the worst phones I have ever used in terms of how quickly it picks up fingerprints. In fact, I put a case on it almost immediately just because of how often I had to wipe off the back. Also, the glass back means that any accidental drops could end up shattering it along with your screen. And trust me, this phone is slippery. Accidental drops are bound to happen.
As beautiful as the IDOL 4S is, I must recommend that you at least get a skin or a case to keep from dropping it and cracking the glass. Thankfully, Alcatel is one step ahead and includes a case and screen protector in the box.
While the power button is still located annoyingly on the left side of the device, the IDOL 4S kept the double-tap to wake feature from the previous generation. But I doubt you’ll even be using that as the fingerprint scanner on the back with also turn on the phone when you go to scan your finger. In terms of speed and accuracy, the fingerprint scanner impressed me. It is not as fast as the latest from Apple and Samsung, but it is plenty fast for most people.
The only main complaint I have is that it is not set off from the back of the phone at all. This makes it hard to locate blindly and position your finger correctly, but after a while, I found that I got much more accurate.
Alright, it is time for my favorite upgrade from the IDOL 3. This year, Alcatel ditched IPS for AMOLED and cranked the resolution up to 2K. All I can say is, nicely done! The increased resolution is great for gaming, video, and VR (more to come on that) and pairs nicely with the front-facing speakers.
Going for an AMOLED panel was the right choice as colors look clear and vibrant. Like the IDOL 3 before, the 4S has one of the brightest screens I have ever seen. I usually have to keep my screen at above half brightness, but I could easily turn the display on the IDOL 4S down to 30% with the same results. There is no need to worry about outdoor visibility with this display.
I would love to say that the display is perfect, but I found one major annoyance during my time using it. Even as someone who always makes sure to carry my phone is a separate pocket away from loose change and keys, the display on my IDOL 4S still picked up scratches. None are horribly obvious and cannot even be seen with the display on, but I was disappointed that the screen scratched so easily.
The IDOL 3 was a mid-ranged device that provided competitive performance at an incredible price, but that was in 2015. This year, the IDOL 4S got a price bump while other companies started focusing more on budget-friendly flagships. The 4S definitely has more competition this year so it better come with the performance to keep its high standing.
The IDOL 4S is running on a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 with 3GB of RAM and an Adreno 510 GPU, and while the processor may not be an 800-series, it still packs quite a punch. For storage, you get 32GB of onboard memory along with a microSD card slot to add extra space when needed. Needless to say, the IDOL 4S is more than powerful enough to handle even your craziest of social media binges. I was impressed with how snappy the Snapdragon 652 was as I was able to fly through most apps without a single frame drop.
Asphalt 8 seems to be the de facto game for testing a phone’s gaming performance so that is the app I used. Ninety percent of the time, the IDOL 4S handled the game like a champ. However, there were a couple of times where I noticed a slight frame drop. I doubt that most would even notice it before it went back to normal, but there were definitely a couple of slow downs. The phone itself never seemed to get hot enough to throttle so I am assuming the hardware just wasn’t fast enough to fully handle the game. Most games will play wonderfully on the IDOL 4S, but graphically intensive games may have a couple of struggles.
Last year, this would not have been a big deal since the IDOL 3 sold for $250 and smoked basically every other phone in that price range. However, the IDOL 4S is priced at $399 which puts it right up there with phones like the OnePlus 3, which is running a Snapdragon 820.
Along with price, Alcatel heavily marketing the IDOL 4S on how well it performed with virtual reality, and while the preinstalled titles do play well, more graphically intense VR games will likely exhibit some stuttering. We will have a post coming out soon fully dedicated to VR on the IDOL 4S so keep your eyes out for that.
So what does this mean for performance on the 4S? Overall, it is incredibly fast and smooth in almost every situation. However at this price point, there are phones that beat it on the performance side.
The IDOL 4S comes running a slightly skinned version of Android 6.0 Marshmallow (no word yet on a Nougat update). As far as most Android skins go, the one on the 4S is fairly minimal. It’s not as close to stock as something like the Moto G4, but it is nowhere near as intense as Samsung’s TouchWiz.
The IDOL 4S comes with a custom launcher, custom icons for basic apps, and Alcatel’s versions of stock apps like Contacts. There are some preloaded apps, but the majority of them can be uninstalled immediately from the phone.
Even with all the uninstallable apps removed, there are still several apps unique to the IDOL 4S that remain on the phone. These include VR apps and games, an equalizer app, an FM radio app, and some video editing and live streaming apps. While some of them are needed for VR applications, I still wish that they could be removed easily or uninstalled completely.
The custom launcher comes with a couple of neat tricks up its sleeve. The first is a parallax wallpaper effect that makes it seem like the icons are floating above the wallpaper. I am not a big fan of this effect, and it is easy to turn off from the wallpaper selector. If you are on the homescreen and push the Boom Key, there will be a visualization of the current weather in your location. While it is not particularly useful since the weather is also displayed on the homescreen widget, I cannot deny that it looks super cool, and I find myself pushing the Boom Key to trigger it all the time.
My single favorite feature from the IDOL 3 made a return on the 4S, and that is the Reversible UI. Basically, this allows the screen to rotate a full 360-degrees so that no matter what way you pick up the phone, it is always right side up. Unfortunately, I found this feature less useful now that there is a fingerprint scanner. When I hold the phone upside down and reach for the fingerprint scanner, I immediately realize that I am holding the phone wrong and flip it around.
The feature is still useful for quickly answering calls without having to spin the phone around, but I am sad to see my favorite feature become less useful.
One of my favorite features on the IDOL lineup are the dual front-facing speakers, and the IDOL 4S does not disappoint in this area. The JBL-certified speakers pump out a loud sound that is crisp and clean regardless of the volume.
Being phone speakers, the low end does leave some to be desired, but I would challenge you to find a better sounding set of speakers on any smartphone especially in this price range. Whether you are playing a game, watching a video, or just listening to some music, the IDOL 4S speakers will do more for you than basically any other phone speaker out there.
When you lay the phone face down while playing something through the speakers, it will actually route the audio towards the back of the device so that volume and quality are not hindered.
When you are using the speakers, pressing the Boom Key activates one of the special experiences of the IDOL 4S. Alcatel claims that pressing it boosts the bass and volume of the music, and while I did notice a volume increase, an increase in audio quality is questionable. Some of my music sounded fuller when the Boom Key was activated, but other times it sounded too echo-y. It does help with some songs, but it was not something that I enabled every time I listened to music.
The best time to use the Boom Key is while gaming. When I played Asphalt 8, I pressed the Boom Key and the audio became much more immersive. It almost seemed like surround sound at times. While the Boom Key might not improve all the audio you listen to, it definitely increases the immersion while playing games.
The camera on past IDOL phones has always been pretty good but consistently left me wanting more. The IDOL 4S comes with a 16-megapixel f/2.0 main camera and an 8-megapixel front camera, and I can fully say that these are the best cameras on any IDOL to date.
Throughout my time with the 4S, I found the camera is quick to focus and takes detailed shots with good color reproduction as long as the lighting is good. Unfortunately, it looks like many of the pictures I took with the IDOL 4S suffered from oversharpening like the IDOL 3 before it. While the camera often exposes correctly, I found that it has a tendency to overexpose and highlights easily get blown out.
Thankfully, the IDOL 4S had a pretty solid HDR mode. Unfortunately, there is no option for AutoHDR, which means you need to switch it on and off as needed, which makes taking quick shots more difficult. There are a few Boom Key features within the camera app. You can press it to take a photo, or while taking a video, you can press it to immediately livestream through the preinstalled app TiZR.
If you are looking to record video with the IDOL 4S, you were probably happy to see that it supports 4K at 30fps; however, there is no OIS (optical image stabilization) on the cameras so videos come out looking shaky even with the electronic image stabilization. I think that leaving out OIS was a big mistake on Alcatel’s part.
Overall, the camera is the same story that it was with the IDOL 3. The camera is okay and capable of taking some good shots, but it still has problems that hold it back from being a truly great camera.
I was pleased with battery performance on last year’s IDOL 3, but I am full on impressed with what I was able to get out of the IDOL 4S. The phone is powered by a 3000mAh battery and comes equipped with QuickCharge technology for a quick fill up when you don’t have much time.
I am a fairly heavy smartphone user, and I manage to kill most phones before the day is done. My typical day includes streaming music and YouTube videos for about an hour each. I text and check social media consistently throughout the day, and I also have 3 email accounts that are constantly pulling down new emails. Other than that, I do browse the internet over WiFi and LTE along with some light gaming.
After putting the IDOL 4S through its paces on a daily basis, I found that I consistently got over five hours of screen-on-time with some days tending closer to five-and-a-half hours. For a phone with a 2K AMOLED display, I am extremely pleased with the battery performance. I still have to charge it every night, but at least I am making it to the end of the day now.
There is no hiding that the IDOL 4S is a wonderful phone and a huge improvement over last year’s IDOL 3. However, the price jump of $150 dollars has put the IDOL 4S against some incredible competition. Phones like the OnePlus 3 and Nexus 6P are available close to that price and each of them comes with a beefier processor, which provides even better performance.
So is it the best budget phone of 2016? Unfortunately, I am going to have to say no, but that is simply because the competition is extremely fierce in the budget arena now. I’d be hard pressed to name any phone as the best budget flagship. That being said, the IDOL 4S is one of the best budget phones of the year. It has great build quality, a stellar screen, loud speakers, and strong battery life. I would definitely recommend the IDOL 4S to any interested, and I doubt it will leave you unimpressed.
One thing that the IDOL 4S has going for it is the inclusion of a case, glass screen protector, and VR goggles when you purchase it. Head on over to Alcatel’s website or Amazon and pick up an IDOL 4S for yourself for only $399!