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

Alcatel throws everything at the Idol 4S except the kitchen sink. But it's not quite enough to be the best midrange phone.

Patrick Holland Managing Editor
Patrick Holland has been a phone reviewer for CNET since 2016. He is a former theater director who occasionally makes short films. Patrick has an eye for photography and a passion for everything mobile. He is a colorful raconteur who will guide you through the ever-changing, fast-paced world of phones, especially the iPhone and iOS. He used to co-host CNET's I'm So Obsessed podcast and interviewed guests like Jeff Goldblum, Alfre Woodard, Stephen Merchant, Sam Jay, Edgar Wright and Roy Wood Jr.
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Patrick Holland
Jessica Dolcourt
4 min read

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.)


Alcatel Idol 4S

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.

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.

The flash on the 8-megapixel front-facing camera can be extremely useful, but also harsh at times. Generally, we like having this as an option. There is also the increasingly popular beauty mode which beautifies (smears out) your skin's imperfections. Unlike other beauty modes that we've seen, this one has a slider that allows you to precisely dial in as much or as little beauty smear as you like. Here are some snaps we took with the Idol 4S.

Street shots: The Alcatel Idol 4S' 16-megapixel camera in action

See all photos

Fingerprint scanner: Located on the back beneath the camera lens, the fingerprint reader is small and sometimes not terrifically accurate. It helps to register multiple fingers, so you can kind of drag them along the back until one takes. There's NFC, so you can use Android Pay for mobile payments as well.

Reversible layout design: There's technically an "up" and a "down" orientation for any phone. If you grab the Idol 4S upside down, the optional Reversible OS mode flips the screen, allowing you to use the phone instantly. Though, we noticed if you have the fingerprint reader turned on, it very much matters which way is "up" -- as you can only unlock the phone from a single orientation.

JBL headphones and built-in JBL speakers: Over the built-in speakers, audio is particularly loud and rich for a phone. This is a great little extra if you play videos and music for others. The headphones also sound good. These are not the best in-ear headphones you can get for a phone, but they are definitely better than most complimentary ones in a phone package.

Screen and battery: The 5.5-inch 2,560x1,440 pixel screen is sharp and bright; especially for viewing videos and photos. But the battery-life is just OK. In our looping video test, the Idol 4S lasted 10 hours and 32 minutes.

The extras: The screen protector is a super thin piece of tempered glass; however, it collects finger smudges better than an episode of "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation." The soft plastic Incipio phone case, that came with our review unit, makes the fingerprint reader easier to hit. Alcatel's house-branded VR headset comes with a handful of experiences to get you started; though we certainly wouldn't recommend buying the phone just for VR.

With the Idol 4S, it feels like Alcatel is trying hard to give you everything it thinks you want. But when you compare it to other phones like the OnePlus 3, the Idol 4S just can't beat that device's performance and overall experience. It's hard to put a finger on why, but the OnePlus 3 just comes together better as a phone. And for a lot of people, that is more important than any number of included accessories.

Idol 4S versus its competitors: What are the differences?

Alcatel Idol 4SOnePlus 3ZTE Axon 7Motorola Moto Z Play
Display size, resolution 5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels AMOLED5.5-inch; 1,920x1,080 pixels5.5-inch; 2,560x1,440 pixels5.5-inch; 1,920X1,080 pixels
Pixel density 534 ppi401ppi538ppi403ppi
Dimensions (Inches) 6.06X2.97X0.28-inches6.01x2.94x0.29-inches6x3x0.34-inches6.16x3x0.28-inches
Dimensions (Millimeters) 153.9x75.4x6.99mm152.7x74.7x7.35 mm151.8x75x8.7 mm 156.4x76.4x6.99mm
Weight (Ounces, Grams) 5.26 oz; 149 g5.57 oz; 158 g6.53 oz; 185 g5.82 oz; 165 g
Mobile software Android 6.0.1 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0.1 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0.1 MarshmallowAndroid 6.0.1 Marshmallow
Camera 16-megapixel16-megapixel20-megapixel16-megapixel
Front-facing camera 8-megapixel8-megapixel8-megapixel5-megapixel
Video capture 4K4K4K4K
Processor 1.8GHz + 1.4GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 6522.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 8202.0GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 625
Storage 32GB64GB64GB, 128GB (varies by region)32GB
Expandable storage Up to 200GBNoneUp to 128GBUp to 2TB
Battery 3,000mAh (nonremovable)3,000mAh (nonremovable)3,000mAh (nonremovable)3,510 mAh (nonremovable)
Fingerprint sensor Back coverHome buttonBack coverHome button
Connector Micro-USBUSB-CUSB-CUSB-C
Special features Boom Key (programable key), Dual 3.6-watt JBL speakers, Quick Charge 2.0, NFC, Reversible OS, Dual-SIM optionNotifications toggle, dual-SIM, Dash ChargingDual-SIM optionMoto Mods connector, NFC, Turbo Charging
Price off-contract (USD) $400$399$400$450
Price (GBP) £385£329Converts to £345£344
Price (AUD) AU$470Converts to AU$530Converts to AU$605AU$594

Alcatel Idol 4S

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Performance 8Camera 8Battery 7