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Alcatel One Touch Idol review: Low-cost unlocked Android 4.1 phone, but no 4G

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Alcatel may not be a phone maker that rings a bell with you, but it's a fairly prolific enterprise that's inching its way into the U.S. market with phones like Cricket's Alcatel Authority and the better Alcatel One Touch Idol, an entry-level Android 4.1 Jelly Bean smartphone.

Alcatel One Touch Idol
6.0

Alcatel One Touch Idol

Pricing Not Available

The Good

Alcatel's unlocked <b>One Touch Idol</b> has a large display, a slim profile, an 8-megapixel camera with HD video capture, and strong call quality.

The Bad

The Idol won't deliver faster than 3G service. The entry-level device lacks NFC and has little internal storage.

The Bottom Line

With low-end specs and no 4G speeds, Alcatel's One Touch Idol can't compete with the LG Nexus 4.

Before diving into the review, there are three main things to know. First, the One Touch Idol sells unlocked and off-contract for $299 on Alcatel's Web site. Second, the Idol is a 3G-only phone. Really 3G; it doesn't support HSPA+ speeds. For me, this is a major setback, though I realize that not everyone leans on data speed as heavily as I do.

Third, the Idol isn't to be confused with the One Touch Idol X, a thinner phone with a lower resolution camera.

If you're still interested in the Idol despite its chief data speed limitation, I will say that it's an attractive, usable Jelly Bean smartphone that comes in at half the cost of today's top unsubsidized superphones -- and not a bad choice at all for someone minding a budget. Still, I can't recommend it. For the same price, LG's stock Android Nexus 4 offers faster HSPA+ data, double the internal storage, a higher screen resolution, and NFC.

Alcatel's unlocked One Touch Idol has Jelly Bean inside (pictures)

See all photos

Design and build
Slim and tall with rounded corners and a black face, the One Touch Idol is as anonymous as a dozen other smartphones lined up side by side. The dull, silvery finish on the rim and back plate may not scream "premium," but it classes up the affordable smartphone far more than glossy black plastic.

At 5.2 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.3 inch thick (or 133 x 67.5 x 7.9 millimeters), the Idol is medium-size by today's standards, and wedges into my jeans for short spurts of back-pocket toting.

Alcatel One Touch Idol
Alcatel's starter One Touch Idol boasts a 4.7-inch LCD display and Android 4.1 Jelly Bean. Josh Miller/CNET

It's very light at 3.9 ounces (110 grams) but not so weightless that it feels like a toy. Alcatel boasts that the Idol is also splash-resistant, though I wouldn't plan on taking it for a dunk in the pool.

The Idol's 4.7-inch screen is plenty large as far as I'm concerned, with enough screen real estate to comfortably read Web sites, play games, and watch videos. Screen snobs will sniff at its 960x540-pixel qHD resolution and 234 ppi pixel density.

Above the display is where you'll find the phone's 2-megapixel front-facing camera. Below it, there are three capacitive navigation buttons that, under the command of long or short presses, will go back, home, and pull up a list of recent apps; launch Google Now; and open a shortcut to managing apps, wallpaper, and settings.

Alcatel has sealed the Idol, keeping its internals away from poking and prodding. As a result, you won't be able to switch out the battery on your own and all ports live along the spines.

Door flaps on either spine lead to the SIM card and MicroSD card slots in this otherwise sealed device. Josh Miller/CNET

There's the microSD card slot on the left spine, for instance, and the SIM card door on the right, above a narrow volume rocker. You'll charge the phone through the Micro-USB port along the bottom edge, and will control power and your headset through ports along the top.

An 8-megapixel camera module and LED flash sit near the top of the Idol's b-side.

OS and features
LTE may not be in the cards, but Alcatel does offer plenty for Android fans. The device is fairly current with a Android 4.1 Jelly Bean foundation, which means it'll give you Google Now, a hot-spot feature, and data usage tracking.

NFC capabilities didn't make the cut, which means that there's no Android Beam. There are gestures, however, including ones I really like that will mute an incoming call when you tip the phone over, and lock the screen when you cover it with your hand.

If you're wondering, no, the Idol doesn't run pure Android. Instead, Alcatel has gone the way of most manufacturers to paint on a thin OS layer all its own.

The Idol adds a few extras, like practical gestures and a continuous shooting mode. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There are still the usual Android behaviors, like pulling down the notifications bar to see more, but following in the footsteps of other manufacturers, the Idol shows off a scrolling bar of one-touch system access icons, like for turning on Wi-Fi and airplane mode, and coarsely adjusting the screen time-out length.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that the Idol won't see much upgrade action; it'll be lower-priority than the One Touch Idol Scribe HD, for instance. Alcatel says there's no planned upgrade path to share at the moment.

However, since Alcatel sells the phone unlocked and not through any carrier, my guess is that any OS upgrade it does receive will come faster than other phones of its class, since it doesn't have to run through carrier rigamarole. Still, I'm also thinking that since it isn't a flagship model, it isn't at the tippy-top of the upgrade priority list.

Cameras and video
Let's talk about the cameras. Numbers-wise, the One Touch Idol has a generous 8-megapixel shooter with an acceptable 720p HD video recording feature and 1080p HD playback.

Alcatel One Touch Idol camera test
This close-up of some rope shows the Idol's upper threshold for detail. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

There's flash and autofocus, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera to round everything out. Camera features include panorama and HDR modes, a grid, built-in editing tools, white-balance presets, and all the rest. There's also support for continuous shot, plus a few other nicknacks here and there, like a 360-degree setting and taking a still photo while recording video (an Android OS trait).

This is the cleanest, clearest shot taken with the Idol's 8-megapixel camera. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

For the price and position as a beginner's device, I'd never expect the Idol to produce top-shelf image quality. Camera performance is variable and passable, but not great, and some shots absolutely fared better than others.

Flash went off to counteract the dim indoor lighting, but Editor Jaymar Cabebe's face is now overexposed. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The camera's flash went off at the right moments, but it had trouble with clarity, sharp lines, and true-to-life color reproduction. The front-facing camera likewise struggled with colors and skin tone, making flesh especially ashy and dull.

Alcatel One Touch Idol camera test
For shame! The Idol crashed and burned on this flower, whose central bloom suddenly grew a few shades hotter and indistinct. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Idol's 720p HD video took good, strong video at this resolution, though the microphone didn't clearly capture quieter sounds a bit further away. Strangely, videos I took on the Idol only played back in portrait mode on my device, never in the landscape orientation. That's clearly a drawback.

Ruffly leaves and petal edges are account for, but this photo once again lacks convincing focus and detail. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The Idol offers 4GB total storage for your multimedia, though it's more like 2.4GB that's user-accessible. You can overflow onto a microSD card slot up to 32GB in capacity.

A flash flare, unintentionally soft focus, and rusty tinge around the edges are camera flaws in this standard studio test shot. Josh Miller/CNET

Call quality
It may not be billed as a top-notch device, but call quality on the unlocked GSM-compatible Idol (850/900/1800/1900MHz) using AT&T's SIM card was more than just fair in my tests.

Audio sounded fairly clear when I called my usual tester on a landline phone, but a little more jangly and harder to hear when I dialed into an customer service number. There was no background noise on the calls, a bonus, though they did sound slightly muffled, with a hint of distortion from time-to-time.

On the upside, voices came across totally natural. That was with the volume notched up to maximum, though. If the room grew any louder, I would have reached the phone's audio threshold.

On his end, my testing partner said that the call produced fairly good voice quality. Audio was very slightly distorted, but comfortably loud and good. He said that I sounded totally natural, and really likes the phone's performance.

One quirk surprised me. The Idol gives off a jolt of haptic feedback whenever a call connects. I think I like it, at least in theory. On the plus side, you know when you've connected, and when you need to snap yourself out of your ring-through reverie to actually speak up.

Alcatel One Touch Idol call quality sample Listen now:

Speakerphone was very clear when I held the phone at waist level. It sounded strong and sturdy at three-quarters volume, then grew buzzy at high volume.

Again, it was loud enough indoors my quiet office, but if I were to take the phone outside or on a busy road while in the car, I'd struggle to hear clearly. Voices sounded natural at all volume levels, and there wasn't any background noise in my tests.

On his end, my test partner said that volume dropped a little, but otherwise, the Idol produced an excellent speaker phone with clear voice quality, strong clarity, and very little echo or reverberation. He ranked it as one of his all-time favorites from among all the phones I test.

Performance
It bears repeating that the Alcatel One Touch Idol lacks 4G in both HSPA+ and LTE configurations. That means that speeds creep as high as around 7Mbps down theoretically; that's even slower in real life when piped over a 3G network. As a reminder, I tested the Idol using an AT&T SIM.

Alcatel's entry-level One Touch Idol is indeed slower in terms of data and processing prowess than top-shelf phones. Screenshot by Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

I noticed the network pokiness right away, especially when trying to load Web sites that aren't optimized for mobile. Those that did still loaded in a reasonable length of time, though certainly not as quickly as over either flavor of 4G.

In addition to slower speeds, the phone also expresses more feeble processing power by today's considerations, a 1GHz dual-core chipset as opposed to the top phones' very speedy dual-core or quad-core processors with higher clock speeds.

As with data, the entire phone-operating experience is slower than I'm used to over 4G, I admit, and the processor speed shows definitely lag compared with the It phones of the moment.

Alcatel One Touch Idol (Unlocked, using AT&T)
Download CNET mobile app (3.7MB) 16.8 seconds
Load up CNET mobile app 9.1 seconds
CNET mobile site load 8 seconds
CNET desktop site load 19.4 seconds
Boot time to lock screen 38.5 seconds
Camera boot time 2.7 seconds
Camera, shot-to-shot time 2 seconds, with autofocus and flash

The Idol's 1,800mAh battery promises a rated talk time of 7.2 hours of calling time and 17.1 days of standby time. That's certainly within range to give you a full workday of power before you need to charge it, though the ticker's efficiency will always depend on how much you use the phone and how long you'd have it.

Battery efficiency decreases notably over time for all electronics. I'll update this section with the results of CNET's proprietary battery drain test.

The One Touch Idol has 1GB RAM and has a score of 1.4 watts per kilogram in its digital SAR tests.

Should I buy it?
I hate to say it all comes down to price and features, but it all comes down to price and features. Alcatel's One Touch Idol isn't for anyone seeking a high-end device, but if you're on the lookout for something cheap that's a cut above the basics, you could do much worse than this $300 Android Jelly Bean handset.

Unfortunately for Alcatel, you can also do much better. For the same off-contract price, LG's Nexus 4 piles on the features, and also gives you 4G HSPA+ speeds. The Nexus 4's lack of LTE hurts it in a mature market like the U.S., which has been taught to clamor for high network speed, but if you're realistically in a Wi-Fi zone most of the time anyway, you may not fuss over the highest megabits per second down (Mbps). Besides which, HSPA+ is still much faster than straight HSPA 3G.

LG's device has the added benefit of being first in line for OS upgrades on account of its status as a Nexus phone running stock Android.

On its own, the Alcatel One Touch Idol is a decent showing for a relative newcomer. Thrown into a competitive landscape where it competes with a better phone for the same price, it doesn't stand a chance. Regardless, it'll be interesting to track Alcatel's next move.

Alcatel One Touch Idol
6.0

Alcatel One Touch Idol

Pricing Not Available

Score Breakdown

Design 7Features 6Performance 5