Alcatel Idol 4 (with VR headset) Review
It’s not often a review needs to keep in mind more than just the core product and competition. With the Alcatel Idol 4 I feel I have to address more than just the phone.
Usually when I take hold of something new, I objectively work through pros and cons compared to the competition. Next I analyse unique features, then deliver a conclusion weighing up its position in the current price brackets. This is a tried and tested formula which rarely needs much tweaking.
With the Idol 4 however, Alcatel have delivered a box of things that add up to more than just a decent mid-range phone.
The inclusion of a VR headset is on one hand a gimmick riding the coat tails of a trend. That said it does add value here. As a package the Alcatel Idol 4 (and accessories) become better value the more you look at them.
What’s in the box
Usually I’d start a review by taking a look at the physical design of a product. I’ll move onto that in a minute but for once I’m going to begin with the box contents. It’s worth pointing out now that this review is based on the UK release (model #6055P).
Not only is there a unique VR headset, you receive a ‘Matrix’ flip case, a transparent bumper case and screen protector. Hunt deeper and an impressive pair of JBL in-ear headphones are included too.
That’s a lot of little extras. There’s no individual RRP for any of these items, although it’s not too hard to come to about £100 if these were all sold separately. The headphones and headset could probably both be sold for £40 a pop.
The Matrix case is Alcatel’s take on popular ‘window’ cases. With the phone inside, time, notifications and calls appear in a window, rather than lighting up the whole screen. The feature is activated with a toggle switch in the settings. The case works as expected but would be better if it stayed shut – there’s no clasp or closing mechanism.
The bumper and screen protector are thoughtful additions. Doubtless they were very cheap to manufacture and include, although in a time when many manufacturers are minimising the box contents to cut corners, the thought is definitely welcome.
Providing premium headphones is part and parcel of Alcatel’s marketing here. That strategy is to make you believe the Alcatel Idol 4 is every bit as worth something twice the price. If that means chucking in premium buds then so be it. And to be fair these are a pretty decent pair of noise makers. A modern flat cable makes for no tangles and there’s a lot of volume with plenty of bass reproduction.
It’s one thing when a major manufacturer like Samsung throws a bunch of premium extras in the box. When you pay five or six hundred pounds then you expect a little sweetener. Down here with an RRP of 229 though, budgeting is usually a priority.
Alcatel hitting this price and providing all of these gifts is a generous offer. Even if your use of everything thrown in is limited, you can’t help but admire the sentiment.
Getting in on the gimmick
Let’s move on to the VR aspect before we go any further. The tech world is in love with VR and AR at the moment. Whether it’s high definition thrills from HTC Vive or the basic Google Cardboard, everyone wants a piece. So where does Alcatel’s offering sit?
Mobile VR of this nature is a bit of a gateway experience at this time. Obviously it won’t come close to a thousand pound PC set up, but what can you expect?
If you’ve tried a Samsung Gear VR then it’s on a par with that. The resultant imagery is all a little grainy. After all you are just magnifying a 1080p screen an inch away from your eyes. The dedicated headset is far more comfortable and immersive than a Google Cardboard though, and that’s the obvious comparison.
That headset provides an adjustable strap and a comfy foam inner for around the eyes. There are also two touch buttons on the base for navigating through menus inside the Alcatel VR Launcher application. The only thing lacking against a Gear VR is a dial to focus the lenses. They’re fixed and even with good eyes I couldn’t get as sharp an image as Samsung’s kit.
Bundled with the phone is a set of 360° images and videos to introduce you to the technology. You can also boot up ‘Lamper VR’. This basic game tracks your head movement to control a character through an on-rails environment.
Other VR experiences are available through Alcatel’s VR app. Plus you can download anything from Google Play designed for VR. With the upcoming Android N providing native support for VR, we can expect a glut of content on the Play Store soon.
As with all VR content to date, the more stylised or ‘cartoony’ apps and images provide the best experience and avoid the uncanny valley. Even high-end rigs don’t do photorealism well yet. Once you’ve tried the ‘realistic’ content, i recommending loading up a few games. Even simple experiences are fun as you learn a new input/control method.
I installed Zombie Shooter VR to try things out and everything ran smoothly. I’m sure as VR develops, both high end and mobile experiences will push boundaries. More content from top-rated developers will become available and user-generated videos may soon become easily accessible.
As a way to get people into understanding VR, the Idol 4’s set up is an interesting proposition. Alcatel don’t have Samsung’s marketing power, although overall it’s far cheaper than a Gear VR and Galaxy phone.
I don’t think anyone will buy an Idol 4 just to play with the VR. I can though see people buying the Idol 4 and enjoying the VR when they try it. It’s excellent differentiation too. If an Idol 4 is on your list alongside another similar phone, this could swing the decision.
The mid range is often where design and form factor usually disappear from a phone’s list of pros. Below 300 pounds, cramming in the best possible processor is usually top of the list. We’ve recently seen LG’s X series try and stand out around this price point. The results have been a mixed bag and a far cry from their premium devices.
With the Idol 4 we have a phone that could easily pass for something far more expensive. The rear glass has an eye-catching reflective coating and the metallic edges define the frame. The speaker grilles are finely drilled in each of the four positions (top and bottom, back and front). Even the weight is well-balanced.
The little touches are also attended to smartly. For instance the SIM tray is perfectly flush. This might seem like a minor detail but I’ve seen plenty of cheaper phones with slightly wonky trays. Attention to detail is important when trying to make an impression in a crowded space.
A glossy, reflective coating on the back cover is stunning. When it’s wiped clean (a bit of a fingerprint magnet), it’s almost mirror quality. There also must be a pattern intricately moulded into the casing. With even a small amount of light hitting the back, a set of flares radially emanate from the central ‘a’ in the Alcatel logo. This effect dances around as you rotate the phone. It’s mesmeric and most certainly not the sort of design flair you’d expect at this price.
Some may argue the top and bottom bezels on the front are a little thick. I think that’s a personal issue and one that changes with fashion trends. They could be smaller but they’re not huge. The phone still creates a fine silhouette; also losing a centimetre in height could have made it feel a bit squat.
One major gripe has to be the positioning of the Alcatel ‘Boom Key’. This is a context sensitive button – more on that later – that sits centrally on the right edge. This happens to be exactly where your thumb lands. That in itself isn’t bad, however I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t intrinsically think it was the power button.
In fact I’ve lost count of the amount of times in the last week I’ve pressed it to try and unlock the screen. With constant daily use I’m sure you would condition yourself to use the actual power button in the top-left corner. That said the circular shape and positioning of the Boom Key almost demands it to be pressed. This can get frustrating quickly.
Boom Key positioning aside, this is a truly well manufactured bit of kit. All the buttons have decent travel with no wobble. The edges are cleanly machined and finished. The back cover engraving is sharp with a stunning light effect. I’ve seen £4-500 phones that don’t look and feel as good as this in the hand.
OK this is where the Alcatel Idol 4 will be chalk and cheese to a lot of our readers. The phone has Android 6.0 installed out of the box (good start), however there’s a lot of Alcatel customisation.
Now this doesn’t really affect the casual user. A couple of years ago there were issues with heavy, bloated skins causing problems for otherwise great phones. Of course in that time we’ve seen major increases in processing power and memory. It’s the age-old software/hardware issue – is the machine slow because of the software? Well it’s cheaper to add more power than make the software better…
Alcatel’s take on Android is fairly intrusive for those that like their system pretty clean. That said it runs very smoothly on the Idol 4. I haven’t experienced any significant animation issues or slowdown in my time. I would have expected the battery to last a little longer though.
Battery life is a contentious issue and so dependent on individual use it’s difficult to advise on. The 2,600 mAh cell is fairly average and to be honest I would probably have expected a couple more hours out of it. Alcatel’s heavy modifications to the system may be taking their toll here.
So what are those modifications? First up the Onetouch Launcher. Every big brand has their own launcher. Alcatel’s allows you to remove the Google search bar (something a few people like) and has a built-in response to the Boom Key being pressed. That response is little more than a frivolous lens-flare animation. It looks cool the first couple of times you see it, however after a few dozen accidental presses gets old quickly.
The launcher also allows you to add a ‘parallax’ effect to wallpapers. This is on by default, so as you tilt the phone, the wallpaper slides around slightly. It’s a subtle effect that gives the impression of the app icons floating above the surface. It probably draws a little extra battery power so power users might want to turn it off. I find it kind of cool though, a nifty little extra. Being able to add the effect to your own images is also appreciated.
The lock screen can be heavily customised if you use a pattern, PIN or password lock. First up is WallShuffle – this picks a random background image from a curated collection. As this is on by default, I’d recommend going through the available images or changing them to your own. Explaining why a baby’s face appeared on my lock screen was interesting when I don’t have any kids…
There are also a long list of potential app shortcuts that can be added to the lock screen.
Within the display settings extra options have been added. A choice of cool/normal/warm for the screen adjusts the blue/orange balance to your preference. You can also decide whether or not you want the advertised ‘reversible’ feature on. This flips the screen when the phone is held upside-down and will also flip the microphone/earpiece (there’s one of each at either end). The idea is you can never answer a call the wrong way up. During a call the screen doesn’t flip – when you pick up the screen gets locked until the call is over.
Other screen options are available for recognising the included Matrix Case and automatically launching the VR launcher when the phone is put in the headset. Finally the Settings app has options to customise the Boom Key and fully adjust volumes / mute and do not disturb notifications.
The core system apps (dialler, meassaging, downloads, file manager etc.) have all been lightly skinned with a flat design and consistent pastel colours. The app icons have also been turned into rounded squares á la Apple. A few Alcatel apps sneak on to the phone as well.
‘Boost’ is an optimisation app for storage and battery – these are getting popular it seems. A neat Compass application allows you to overlay information on top of a real time image from the camera.
SmartSuite is a fairly interesting sounding app. It partners with a desktop app and collates contacts, calendar events, messages, emails etc. We’ve see this before from both manufacturers and developers with varying degrees of quality. Unfortunately the current desktop version from Alcatel’s website didn’t load up on my Windows 7 work PC so I couldn’t test it out…
Finally a ‘User Care’ app provides some FAQs, tutorials, contact details and a diagnostic tool. These are nice additions to have, even if many users may not actually discover them.
3rd Party Apps
A few 3rd party apps are installed where Alcatel has partnered with developers. Some of these have been integrated into the system software so they can’t be uninstalled.
The removable apps include Facebook and Messenger and two games – Asphalt and Lamper VR. The games have been included to showcase certain features on the phone. Deezer also comes installed out of the box, offering a credible alternative to the likes of Spotify and Apple Music. A couple of other removable apps are WPS Office and Xender File Transfer.
Other 3rd party apps are fully integrated. For instance Waves MaxxAudio and SwiftKey cannot be removed. The same goes for Fyuse, Littlstar and TiZR Lifecasting. These last three you may not be familiar with.
Of these two, Fyuse and TiZR have been integrated into the camera app.
Fyuse allows you to create ‘spatial photography’. It’s a little hard to explain without seeing it in action (click on the link above). Imagine moving around an object or person, taking pictures / short video as you go. Now imagine all those images are turned into a continuous image, similar to a panorama shot.
A finished Fyuse is somewhere between a video and a GIF. The result is that you can rotate around the finished Fyuse by dragging the screen or tilting the phone. It’s a fun toy, but I can’t see much use for it beyond some casual play. Then again people said the same of Instagram. There’s a small but vibrant community so if you decide to have a play, you can create your own, share with the community, comment and ‘echo’ other Fyuses you like.
TiZR is a live video broadcasting service. It’s accessible from the camera app when you press the ‘Boom Key’ during video recording. The idea of TiZR is to be similar to Meerkat & Periscope, live streaming content either publicly or to select groups. The app is fairly sparse, to be expected for a startup launched earlier this year. Mileage from TiZR is going to depend on having a collection of friends and family on the app, or by following accounts from personalities. Research tells me the app is popular within the professional EDM scene.
The last of these non-removable apps is Littlstar, which is integrated into the VR experience. Littlstar is a hub for 360 videos and VR content. Some of this comes from celebrities, bands and news sources, as well as documentaries. As the technology becomes more mainstream, Littlstar are trying to position themselves as a go-to hub for VR content. Their main website shows collaborations with TV shows as well as live venues.
I count 4(!) extra app stores on top of Google Play. First up is a collaboration with Gameloft – alarmingly this asks for permissions to SMS when it launches! There’s a second ‘Games’ storefront by Alcatel. This appears to be a curation of the 3rd ‘Apps’ store by Alcatel. Finally a VR Store is available to hunt down VR specific content. The last of these is actually fairly useful and avoids complicated searches on Google Play.
I understand the want to drive traffic and potential payments through their own servers, however something never quite sits right with me when a manufacturer forces their own storefront on a device. I never liked the ‘Samsung Apps’ on Galaxy phones and even Sony’s (admittedly unobtrusive) attempts seem a little desperate.
Alcatel’s ownership under Chinese company TCL may have something to do with this. Issues with Google services in China have created a self-contained industry for app stores there. Even if the storefront doesn’t get much use outside of China, it’s a no-brainer to include it by default.
Imaging really separates the phones at the flagship tier. You can argue some top phone’s successes or failures can be attributed to lacklustre cameras.
In this tier however, camera quality doesn’t often matter so much. No-one really expects too much and it seems to be enough that the a £2-250 phone is ‘OK’.
The 13MP camera on the Alcatel Idol 4 does pretty well for itself. Fine detail is picked out well and the processing software handles colour reproduction admirably in most situations. A couple of times in the images below it seems the software wasn’t quite sure what to do.
In one the sky quickly turns from blue to near-white, although in this shot the sun was perpendicular to the shot and likely to interfere. With the other images containing clear sky, the blue remains almost perfectly uniform. Changes in focal length are also handled well. An image with a bush in the foreground resolves detail close and far, even with the bush blowing in the wind fairly quickly.
A couple of close ups on metalwork show up intricacies in rust and colour gradients nicely. The only sample image here that doesn’t quite work out is one with a high contrast – half the shot is brightly lit and the other in shade. The result is that in the shaded section, the (again highly contrasting) colours don’t sit right nest to each other. The magenta writing on the van seems superimposed, as if the sharpness has been adjusted to high with no natural fade between the objects.
Switch to the 8MP front camera and the app gives you a beautification option. A slider on the screen lets you ‘smooth’ over skin tones and wrinkles. There’s a before and after of my lovely mug in the images below.
Things get grainy quickly in low light but that is a drawback of many mobile cameras with small sensors. There is a night mode, although all this does is keep the shutter open for longer. This comes with the added frustration of keeping the phone still to avoid blur.
Alcatel’s app has a few added tweaks to play with but it’s nowhere near as feature rich as others. A manual mode is present with 100 – 1600 ISO, 1/800 – 1/2 aperture, 2000k – 8500k white balance plus a manual focal adjustment. There are more thorough apps available, but it’s nice to see Alcatel provide something more than the basic.
There are no presets or shooting ‘modes’ however, so it’s just auto or manual. A panorama feature is included, plus a couple of video tools. You can shoot in 30 fps slow motion albeit at a reduced resolution. The ‘micro-video’ utility is a fun little past time too. With this you can stitch together short bursts into a silly jump cut video.
At first glance Alcatel/TCL have delivered a good-looking and well-performing mid-range smartphone with some cool extras. After some time with the phone though I think it’s a little more than that. This is Alcatel trying very, very hard to make a noise and be heard.
The styling and design work are on point. When all smartphones are similar-looking rectangular blocks, it’s hard to impart some personality. The Idol 4 manages with clever use of edging and a beautiful back panel (which hopefully won’t scratch up too easily).
Piling accessories into the box and advertising VR are sure to win a few headlines. That in turn should result in extra sales. The VR may be a basic proposition when you actually play with it, however the implication is of something worth a lot more.
To be honest it’s very hard to see how Alcatel have priced all of this at £229. Even for the smartphone alone this would be a cracking price. It’s a bold statement to the rest of the market and should realign people’s expectations from a phone of this tier.
Buying an Android smartphone is becoming ever more like buying a laptop a few years ago. There are a handful of well known brands, plus some lesser-known names looking to carve out their own portion. Whichever option you pick means having to deal with the quirks and programs added by the manufacturer, most of which can be removed.
In this analogy, the Alcatel Idol 4 could be similar to any lesser-known laptop brand almost a decade ago. The manufacturer has a good homegrown reputation but not much brand awareness in the UK. Those who picked up say, Acer, laptops a decade or so ago may have found excellent bargains. Powerful, feature-filled machines that were one or two hundred pounds cheaper than the competition from HP or Toshiba.
Of course Acer are and were then a huge multinational. So are TCL who now own the Alcatel brand. Acer delivered great machines at a relatively low cost to the consumer. TCL are doing the same with the Alcatel Idol 4. And frankly I don’t see a problem with that.
The RRP may be artificially low in order to get a foothold in the market but that’s how the game works. The end result is a highly respectable smartphone and accessories at an excellent price. Unless you demand a purer Android experience, or the comfort of known brand recognition, there’s not much else I’d recommend under £250.