Alcatel Idol 4S review: Not quite the deal it hopes to be

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The Good Alcatel's Idol 4S comes packed with features and accessories. It has a high-end design and build, a great camera, impressive display and a convenience button dubbed the Boom Key.

The Bad The Boom Key needs finessing: It's easy to accidentally activate. The fingerprint scanner is small and sometimes difficult to engage.

The Bottom Line With a premium build, good camera and free accessories in the box, Alcatel's Idol 4S is a solid midrange buy.

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7.8 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Camera 8
  • Battery 7

Haven't considered buying an Alcatel phone before? The unlocked Idol 4S, made of metal, glass and moxie, will work its butt off to change your mind. It's got a large screen and excellent audio quality; a 16-megapixel camera and an 8-megapixel camera with front-facing flash; a convenience key to quickly launch apps; a fingerprint scanner; and a screen layout that orients itself as "up" no matter which way you pick up the phone. With competitive pricing and a list of impressive specs, the Idol 4S is aggressively taking on the excellent OnePlus 3, a CNET editor's choice phone. (Full list of specs, prices and phone comparisons below.)

It's a very good midrange phone, but Alcatel's ambition to make it a sleeper value hit, like last year's deal-of-the-century Idol 3, falls short. The price jumped up to $400 US (£385, AU$470 -- converted), but Alcatel includes among other things, a screen protector and VR headset for free in the box. Problem is, the screen protector dulls viewability and we'd rather just save some bucks on the phone than be pushed into a VR platform we didn't pick ourselves. In other words, that is "value" we just didn't want.

You can buy the unlocked Idol 4S directly from Alcatel's website. It runs on a GSM network -- in the US, that means you'll have to buy a SIM card from AT&T, T-Mobile, Cricket Wireless or MetroPCS.

Using the Idol 4S

Build and design: The first time anyone picks the Idol 4S up, they have the same reaction, "Oooh! This is nice." The glass and metal body remind us of the feel of the iPhone 4/4S. But much much slimmer.

Boom Key (convenience key): You can program this to open apps, like the camera, which is a shortcut. We love this in theory, but in practice, we kept accidentally taking unintended photos. Either it needs some finessing or we do.

The Boom Key has another trick up its sleeve. When you are on a phone call, press it to engage a noise-cancelling mode that improves voice quality. And get this: It works. But why isn't this feature just on all the time? And besides a small vibration, there isn't any other indicator (onscreen) that the noise-cancelling mode has been engaged. This led us to pressing the Boom Key repeatedly, uncertain if we were toggling the mode on or off.

Cameras: Overall, photos look bright, colorful and have wonderful contrast. In good light, the autofocus is fast and accurate. We noticed the phone lagged when processing photos both in HDR mode and in low-light conditions. Low-light photos sometimes looked soft, as if someone had smeared Vaseline over the lens.

Impressively, the Alcatel Idol 4S can shoot 4K video at 30 frames per second (fps). And for a phone, the video looks good. Personally, we'd probably still just shoot 1080p video because the files are smaller.