The portable budget handset hides some excellent hardware and software touches that belie its low price.
The 4.7-inch version of Alcatel's OneTouch Idol 3 is smaller and slightly weaker-of-hardware than the 5.5-inch budget powerhouse that knocked our socks off for its price category -- it costs $180 in the US, about £150 in the UK and $299 in Australia. Still, this pint-size version has many of the same design and software OS attributes going for it, for even less cha-ching. It's a compelling buy.
Among those advantages is a slim, compact silhouette and a reversible software interface that lets you grab up the phone any which way without fumbling for "up." Strong JBL dual speakers also pump out tunes and conference calls better than most in this category, and the camera takes decent outdoor photos, with a few (frankly expected) indoor issues.
While the smaller Idol 3 here faces its staunchest competition from the excellent, customizable Motorola Moto G of late 2015 , it does just about the same for a little less (we only recommend the 16GB Moto G, not the 8GB model), however, battery life isn't quite as good as it is on the Moto G. This Idol 3 does, however, best the similarly priced HTC Desire 626 and stands out as one of the only decent phones these days with a screen size smaller than 5 inches. (Check out the full specs comparison chart below.)
In a nutshell, the 4.7-inch Idol 3 is a good hard-working option, but I'd also consider the latest-generation Moto G or the larger Idol 3 if you're not specifically seeking a smaller phone. In the US in particular, the Moto G's biggest gain is that it's water-resistant. Like the G, Alcatel's phone will run on AT&T and T-Mobile only.
You can pick it up from various online outlets like Alcatel's website and Amazon.
|Alcatel Idol 3 (4.7)||Alcatel Idol 3 (5.5)||Motorola Moto G (Late 2015)||HTC Desire 626|
|Display||4.7-inch 1,280x720 pixels||5.5-inch, 1,920x1,080 pixels||5-inch with 1,280x720-pixel resolution||5-inch with 1,280x720-pixel resolution|
|Dimensions (Inches)||5.3 x 2.6 x 0.30||6.0 x 3.0 x 0.29||5.6 x 2.9 x 0.48||5.8 x 2.8 x 0.32|
|Dimensions (Milimeter)||134.6 x 65.9 x 7.55||152.7 x 75.14 x 7.4||142 x 72.4 x 11.6||147 x 71 x 8.2|
|Weight||3.9 oz, 110 grams||5 oz, 145 grams||5.5 oz, 155 grams||4.9 ounces, 140 grams|
|Mobile operating system||Android 5.0||Android 5.0||Android 5.1.1||Android 5.1.1|
|Video capture||1080p HD||1080p HD||1080p HD||720p HD|
|Processor||1.2GHz quad-core Qualcomm Spandragon 410||1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 610||1.4GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 410||1GHz quad-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 210|
|Storage||16GB||16GB||8GB or 16GB||16GB|
|Graphics processor||Adreno 306||Adreno 405||Adreno 306||Adreno 304|
|Expandable storage||Up to 32GB||Up to 128GB||Up to 32GB||Up to 2TB (terabytes)|
|RAM||1.5GB||2GB||1GB or 2GB||1.5GB|
|Extras?||Reversible OS, dual front speakers||Reversible OS, dual front speakers||IPX7 water resistant (can survive in 3 feet of water for 30 minutes)|
|Price (US)||$180||$250||$180 or $220||~$200 (varies by carrier)|
|Price (UK)||£150||£200||£180 or £210||£130|
If you've seen the 5.5-inch version, this one looks just like it, but smaller. If not, here's what you get: a black face and dark gray, almost graphite-looking color on the spines and backing. The rim shines with faux-metallic gloss and the back has a brushed metal appearance. The top and bottom round out, but on the front, this part recedes to make room for those two JBL speakers, one on each end of the phone (they're pretty loud and clean for a smartphone). The placement also helps make the whole reversible concept work: what you get on the "top," you get on the "bottom."
There is indeed a true north to the Idol 3 phones, one that puts the power/lock button on the left side and the volume rocker on the right, plus a speaker jack up top and a Micro-USB card slot on the bottom. The rear camera mount lives in the upper left corner with the flash right below, so keep an eye out to make sure your fingers don't creep into any shots while you stabilize the phone for a snap.
The Idol 3's backing isn't removable -- and neither is the battery -- but you can insert a microSD card through a side tray.
Can we go back to size for a minute? Good, because I think it's important here. These days, phones with larger screens are presumed better, but it's also true that not everyone wants a handset that's bigger than their hands. This one slips more easily into my pocket, adds less weight to my already shoulder-bending purse and is generally easy to handle and maneuver. I miss that in a phone.
On the other hand, the relatively smaller screen does mean you'll have a smaller keyboard to work with and you may find yourself either holding the phone closer to your face or craning your neck to get a closer look at websites, photos and videos.
Editor's note: The OS is identical on the 5.5 version and on this 4.7-inch model here. Therefore, I took the liberty of lifting this section from my previous review.
The Idol, which was first announced last March, runs Android 5.0. It might not be the first of Alcatel's handsets to upgrade to Android 6.0 Marshmallow (the highest-end models typically see these first), but it's a fair assumption that it'll eventually acquire the new software. Android is recognizable beneath Alcatel's custom skin, though the company has added a few enhancements. Some are for the better, but a few tweaks are unnecessarily confusing or even hamper quick navigation, as if Alcatel wanted to make its mark, but wasn't sure exactly what to do. I'll point out a few.
A first for phones, Alcatel has made its interface "reversible," which means that the screen orients right-side-up even when you turn the phone upside-down, with the front-facing camera lens at the bottom. The dominant speakers and microphone also adjust to whichever side is "up," a must for making calls.
Reversible mode is a clever idea that's also pretty convenient. I gave the phone's orientation much less thought when sticking it in my pocket or purse, and setting it down on or grabbing it up from a surface. The only moment of awkwardness was when I wanted to use the camera. Because of its placement on a corner, my finger got in the way much more easily when using the phone upside-down.
Turn on reversible mode from either the settings or from its quick-access toggle on the notifications shade.
In my opinion, every phone should have the option to turn the screen on and off by double-tapping. A few already do, and I'm happy to see it here on the Idol 3. It's a time-saver on its own, but essential if you're using the phone in reversible mode, since you won't have to grope around for that power/lock button if you forget which way is up.
My two complaints are that you can't go dark from the lock screen or from the camera app, two oversights that seem to have no obvious cause.
Alcatel employs a sort of two-step notifications shade. Pull down as usual and you see your alerts, which you can dismiss one by one or sweep away en masse. Pull down again if you want to liberate the quick-access menu. I'd prefer to get this all in a single motion.
Though there's a brightness slider, there's weirdly no selection for automatic brightness, which would adjust the screen in dark or sunlit environments. In some Android skins, a long press on the Wi-Fi icon takes you to the full list of networks in Settings, but not so here. Here, you have to press the text below the icon. Alcatel says this is a Lollipop convention, but in this case, borrowing from rival OEMs would have been the better call.
Alcatel makes the lock screen its own with a row of shortcut icons along the bottom of the screen (including one for selfies) and shortcuts for the camera and dialer in the corners. So far so good, but using them isn't completely intuitive. You have to double-tap alerts and icons to open them.
You also have to swipe the corner shortcuts in unintuitive directions to open them. For instance, the camera icon in the bottom right corner swipes toward the left corner (rather than up to the right) to open. None of this is a big deal, but it may aggravate you if you're switching from another phone.
Image quality on the 13-megapixel camera here is pretty good, especially for a budget phone. Outdoor photos prevail and indoor and low-light snaps, while grainy, dim and lacking much distinction, don't fare worse than on other phones. In fact, in some cases it did better. There was one mild annoyance, though. I'm still not sure why, but I wound up taking more photos in error than I do on other phones. These are easy enough to delete, but it adds an extra little layer of time at the least.
If you're deciding between Moto G (Late 2015) and the 4.7-inch Idol 3, there are some trade-offs you should know about. When viewed on a computer screen, photos from both cameras and in all tested lighting conditions appeared richer on the Idol 3 and paler on the Moto G.
Built-in tools are fairly comparable, though the Idol does include a time lapse mode and dedicated scanner. For its part, the Moto phone has a low light mode and shoots slow-motion video.
Before we get into the photos themselves, a word on the camera app, which could be more user-friendly. The Idol 3 sticks to default Lollipop, making the photo review hard to find. There's no helpful thumbnail to see what you've just shot. Rather, you'll need to swipe the screen in order to see the photos that came before. I often felt that moment of uncertainty over whether I had really taken a photo or not, and had to stop what I was doing to find out. I hope that future builds bring back the option for thumbnail preview.
I'm not a huge fan of the layout in this app either. (By the way, the native app doesn't flip with the rest of the reversible interface, which is a shame.) For instance, the only way to return to the main menu is through the Back button, but you can't access the regular Home control or open recents while in the camera app.
Videos also begin recording as soon as you switch over from the camera mode, which wasn't usually what I wanted, especially if I accidentally opened the mode. Strangely, the phone screen didn't time out on my review unit when I accidentally left the camera app open.
The particular flavor processor that Alcatel uses here is very common among phones of this level, so it's expected that they notch similar scores in our standardized benchmark tests (see chart below). Bootup took 50 seconds, which is on the longer side, but still within the realm of normal.