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Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (5.5) review: Inexpensive but good, with a software surprise

Reliable budget handsets don't grow on trees. This midrange cheapy has a touch of class, and a unique software bonus.

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Jessica Dolcourt
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Jessica Dolcourt

Editorial Director / CNET Money, How-To & Performance Optimization

Jessica Dolcourt leads the CNET Money, How-To, and Performance teams. A California native who grew up in Silicon Valley, she's passionate about connecting people with the highest standard of advice to help them reach their goals.

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9 min read

Redemption at last. Alcatel's OneTouch Idol 3 manages to overcome the company's bad track record for phones with snazzy looks, but shaky performance and specs.

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7.6

Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (5.5)

The Good

The mega-affordable Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 has a large screen and takes nice outdoor photos. It wins bonus points for loud external speakers and a useful mode to use the OS upside-down as well as right-side-up.

The Bad

Its performance is a little sluggish, its low-light photography is poor and the OS lacks a few useful shortcuts common to other Android phones.

The Bottom Line

Delivering midrange features at an entry-level price, the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is the company's best smartphone to date -- and a great deal for the money.

Easily Alcatel's best phone, the Idol 3 confidently produces mid-tier levels of photography, screen resolution and internal hardware performance for the price of many lesser handsets. It also keeps current with Android 5.0, pumps out sound through dual JBL speakers, and surprises with two convenient OS settings.

On the other hand, the Idol 3 suffers from a slight navigational delay and some confusing design and layout decisions on its custom Android skin.

Its flaws are minor enough and price low enough that I'd recommend the OneTouch Idol 3 to customers looking for a high-performing budget phone. For $250, it beats Motorola's Moto G and Moto G 4G LTE , as well as the Moto E 4G LTE on camera quality and specs, but hovers in the same price bracket. While the Moto set is intended to be entry-level, if you have the opportunity to get the Idol 3 instead, you should take it. In the UK, Alcatel expects the Idol 3 to be around £270, putting it more firmly in the midrange. In Australia it's extremely well priced at just AU$379.

In the US, you can buy it at Alcatel's site.

Editor's note: This review pertains to the 5.5-inch model. Alcatel's 4.7-inch version has stepped-down specs, from the screen and camera resolution to the processor, storage and battery capacity.

Sleek-but-cheap: Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (pictures)

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Design and build

  • 5.5-inch LCD screen
  • 1,920x1,080p HD resolution (401ppi)
  • 6 by 3 by 0.3 inches (153 by 75 by 7.4 mm)
  • 5 ounces (142 grams)
  • 1.2-watt dual JBL speakers

About that screen. The 1,080p resolution is absolutely fine for a budget phone of this caliber, though images certainly aren't as detailed as they would be with a 1440p display. It's also nice and bright, even with brightness set midway. Budget phones usually look bold or sassy or blocky, or all of the above. The Idol 3 here has an air of elegance, with rounded corners framing a slim plastic body, a dark grey brushed finish, and silvery accents throughout. An embedded battery helps keep it thin but solid, and a slim bezel makes the screen seem even more expansive than its already-generous phablet proportions.

A pair of JBL speakers extends from the top and bottom edges of the screen, which adds to the visual appeal (but also collects particles). It also makes a huge impact on the Idol 3's audio quality. Music played back loudly and clearly from these mini speakers; loud enough to fill a fairly quiet room. I wouldn't count on it for entertaining a raucous party, but you could leave the portable speakers at home to catch some tunes at the park.

Alcatel's OneTouch Idol 3 looks better than budget. Josh MIller/CNET

Buttons on the Idol 3 echo the theme of "thin," but that may not be for the best. The sliver of a volume rocker can be hard to find by feel on the Idol 3's right edge. Ditto the left spine's power/lock button. Just below, a SIM card tool pushes out the combined micro-SIM and microSD card tray (there's a dual-SIM variant as well).

You'll find the 13-megapixel camera on the upper left corner, with an LED flash positioned just below. On the front, the 8-megapixel lens sits just to the right of center. You'll charge up through a Micro-USB port on the phone's bottom right edge, and plug your headset into the jack up top.

OS and features

  • Android 5.0 Lollipop
  • Reversible interface
  • Double-tap lock screen feature

Android 5.0 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.

Reversible mode

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.

With reversible mode, there is no "up". Josh MIller/CNET

Turn on reversible mode from either the settings or from its quick-access toggle on the notifications shade.

Double-tap

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.

Notifications menu

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.

Felling slim and strong. Josh MIller/CNET

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.

Lock screen

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.

Camera app

Why, oh why would a native camera app intentionally forego a shortcut to a photo gallery, giving you zero feedback after taking a picture? The Idol 3 sticks to this Lollipop train, making photo review hard to find. Instead, 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.

The 13-megapixel camera defaults to 10 megapixels when you first boot it up. Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Camera quality

  • 13-megapixel rear camera with autofocus
  • 8-megapixel front-facing camera
  • 1080p HD video capture (rear)

The first thing you should know is that the camera generates 10-megapixel photos by default, which you'll have to manually upgrade to 13-megapixel photos if you want larger images.

I took these test photos below using automatic settings, but you can also shoot panoramic shots and turn on HDR. A manual mode, time lapse, a QR scanner and skin tone filters (Face Beauty) fill out the portfolio. Another layer of settings governs options like shutter sound and resolution. For many of these, an icon on the left edge lets you drill down into settings for filters and things like white balance and ISO. The location of these detailed options could be more transparent.

So, how did the camera do? Pretty well, actually. Photos taken in abundant natural lighting were colorful and clear, though the Idol 3 isn't adept at capturing tremendous close-up detail or zooming in on faraway objects. Still, I was satisfied enough with the quality to share pictures on social networks and in emails with family and friends. In a few cases, lettering didn't come out as sharp as it first appeared on the Idol 3's screen, flaws that would be most apparent if I were to use a large version of the image in print or online.

The camera struggled with dark, undefined low-light shots, and a flash could create an overly harsh or blown-out scene. Selfies, on the other hand, were fairly good. As always, lighting is everything. Videos, too, captured and played back as expected when shot at 1080p HD resolution.

Check out sample photos below. Click to enlarge.

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The Idol 3 takes pleasing sunlit photos, but could go even deeper on details. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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Autofocus worked well in this crowded farmers' market scene. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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In the shade, the Idol 3 struggled to bring this dynamic duo to life. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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Not your ordinary J-E-L-L-O. The Idol 3 adequately relayed this culinary curiosity. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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This flat-looking landscape wasn't the Idol 3's best work. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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The Idol 3 did well in CNET's standard studio shot, focusing on and exposing the objects evenly. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET
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Alcatel has work to do on low-light shots. This dessert is hard to make out without flash, which suffused the dish with unnatural brightness. Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

Hardware performance

  • 1.5GHz octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 615
  • 16GB storage, 3GB RAM
  • Up to 128GB microSD

There's a sluggishness to the Idol 3 that belies its fancy-sounding octa-core processor and high scores on diagnostic tests. Regardless, it's unsurprising for a phone at this price to react a little slower. Chipset-makers produce tiered products based on the cost and performance that device-makers need. In this phone, you'll find you may wait a beat for the lock screen to tap on and off, and for the phone interface to rotate if you turn it upside down.

Other navigation and tasks are also a hair slower compared to top-of-the-line phones (like camera autofocus), but it shouldn't get in the way too much.

Performance tests

Test 1Test 2Test 3Average
Geekbench 3 2,5822,4772,5862,548
Quadrant 21,89222,52421,37321,930
3DMark Ice Storm Unlimited 7,3317,6767,7567,588

For reference, the premium Samsung Galaxy S6 got a Geekbench score of 4,608, a Quadrant score of 36,249, and a 3DMark result of 20,778. Although diagnostic tests like this do indicate performance, they don't always translate into real-life nimbleness. Still, the Idol 3 does very well.

Battery life

  • 2,910mAh battery
  • Embedded (non-removable)

Battery life was fairly robust, lasting a work day on a single charge, like most phones. The Idol 3 performed pretty well in our closed-loop video test in airplane mode, an average of 13.3 hours. Keep in mind, though, that activities like navigation and streaming video or music will run down your battery pretty quickly. So does keeping the screen on for long periods.

Call quality

  • GSM: 850, 900, 1,800, 1,900 MHz bands
  • LTE: 800 (band 20), 900 (band 8), 1,800 (band 3), 2,100 (band 1), 2,600 (band 7) MHz

Call quality is one of those shifting things that's different depending on where you are, which network you're on, and even the time of day. There were no red flags in San Francisco on T-Mobile's network; calls remained within the range of normal cellular service. The Idol 3's powerful speakers contribute to a nice and loud speakerphone.

Buy it or skip it?

Buy it. Alcatel seems to have corrected many past mistakes with its low-quality phones. This OneTouch Idol 3 is thankfully inexpensive without being cheap, and it even goes the extra mile by providing loud external speakers and a reversible interface.

No phone is perfect, but if low cost and high value are your watchwords, the Idol 3's flaws are easy to overlook. Its specs outperform the budget Motorola Moto G and E phones across almost every category, from screen resolution and storage to battery life and processing speed. The camera is a clear win as well.

Though the purpose-built budget Moto phones can be less expensive at full retail price than the Idol 3, the $100 difference, for instance, that you have to put into the Idol 3 is well worth the investment.

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7.6

Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (5.5)

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7Camera 8Battery 8
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