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

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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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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