Alcatel ended my long, stupid smartphone search with the Idol Onetouch 3

My recent relationship with my smartphones the past year have been interesting, to say the least.  Between ruining my Android installation to the point I couldn’t update my HTC One M7, to the Nexus 6 which liked to shut off randomly, on to a phone too slow for me to use, to the Alcatel One Touch Idol 3… all the way back to my HTC One M7 (not for lack of want on the Alcatel, there’s more of an explanation below).

I’m going to briefly go over my history leading up to the Idol below, but you can skip that section if you just want to read about my experience with the Idol Onetouch 3 (from here on out, Idol).

The History

HTC One

Getting bored with my phone at the end of 2014, an HTC One M7 which was roughly a year and a half old at that time, I decided I wanted to mess around and root my phone.  I wanted to try out CyanogenMod because they had released an “easy installer” that seemed like something I could handle intellectually.

Well, I was wrong and so was CyanongenMod.  I fancied myself at least somewhat intelligent enough to get a new OS on my phone, because I’ve taken apart computers, messed around with Linux, etc.  Basically, I don’t think I’m an idiot, but Android modification sure did make me feel like one.

I ran into issues with S-Off and that’s as far as I’ll get into the details.  My inability to run CM’s easy installer left my phone rooted, but back to the factory image (Android 4.1) which was an OS ruined enough that I couldn’t do OTA updates (the updates released by your carrier) so I was left with an OS that felt… dated.  This lead me to the…

Motorola Nexus 6

I was due for an upgrade anyhow, so after a week or two of researching the newest phones, I went with the Nexus 6.  It is a great phone, probably the best Android device I’ve used.  Beautiful screen, great performance and fantastic sound.

There was just one issue.

The phone had a glitch that made it randomly shut off and turn back on.  When it did this, it reset volume levels to max and played the AT&T chimes at the boot screen.  I had the pleasure of both being in a dead sleep and then a meeting with the entire office interrupted by my magical, restarting phone.

I researched the issue and I wasn’t the only one, but it wasn’t an epidemic by any means.

It was a bit too much for me to handle, however, because I had a hard time buying into what cell phone companies are doing by leasing you phones that you pay more for than they are worth, and you probably won’t even own at the end of your contract.  I could go on a verrrryyyyyyyyyy long rant about that, but I won’t.  The wireless carriers are doing that because they can, but since I had a real issue on the principal of leasing a phone and the fact that the Nexus 6 had a bug that may or may not have been fixed, I took it back.  On to the….

Moto G

This time I told myself that I was never going to give in to wireless carriers and their leasing programs, so any new phone I got had to be unlocked and (hopefully) not kill my wallet.

Those two qualifiers led me to the Moto G (2014), a sub-$200 unlocked phone that lacked the specs of flagship devices, but by all accounts an entirely usable device.

On the surface, I agree.  The phone was very usable.  The screen had a lower resolution, but looked great.  The camera was solid (see my little test shot gallery), call quality was fine and the front-facing speakers sounded better than expected.  The problem was that it was just so, so slow.  I was used to a tiny wait with certain functions with my HTC, but this turned those tiny waits into 10 to 30 second toe-tapping waits.

I boxed it up, sold it on eBay and (thankfully) only lost $20 dollars.  Basically the same monthly lease costs AT&T was trying to get out of me.  Maybe I was going to be paying for a phone per month, even if I didn’t want to.  After I sold the Moto G it was back to research which finally had me with…

Image shot with Moto G (2014)

Image shot with Moto G (2014)

The Review – Alcatel Idol Onetouch 3

I’m not going to get into too many explicit specs on the phone because I am trying to review this from a real-world, does-it-work? perspective.  I don’t care about benchmarks, I care about how I was able to use this phone in my everyday life.  If you want every technical detail, you can go here.

Hardware/Screen

The Idol is a 5.5 inch phone with a 1080p IPS screen.  The back of the phone has a plastic back, but not removable (so no battery swapping).  There are some faux-chrome accents that go around the device and the speakers (dual-front facing, more on that later) are at the very tippy-top and bottom of the phone.  The phone feels pretty nice in the hand and wasn’t hard to hold.

The screen is fantastic and one of the best features of the phone.  Alcatel uses some buzz-words to describe it (TECHNICOLOR!) but the simplest way to put it is that the screen is vivid, bright and crystal clear.  It’s not flagship level for 2015, that would require a QHD screen, but what it lacks in resolution vs. something like the LG G4 or Samsung Galaxy S6, it makes up for by being $300+ cheaper (off contract) than any other flagship device.  Simply put, the Idol’s screen is so nice, it doesn’t feel like it should be on a phone so cheap.

My other favorite hardware feature is the inclusion of a MircoSD slot next to the sim card slot (which are both in a tray that’s ejected from the left side of the phone).  I basically can’t buy a phone without extra storage because I prefer to keep as much music downloaded to my phone as I can, to avoid streaming (either due to data restrictions or having access to it when I am in areas with poor coverage).  The storage is up-gradable to 128gb, which goes on top of the 16gb the phone offers out of the gate (almost 10gb usable out of the box).

Sound Quality

The quality of sound I get from a smartphone is critical to me.  I’d say I place listening to music/podcasts as the number one use I have for a smartphone.  My HTC One has audio tuned by Beats, which then morphed into Boomsound, but whatever you want to call it, it sounds great coming from the device or listening via headphones.

I’m happy to say that the sound quality is another feature here that seems like it would come from a more expensive phone.  Here, Alcatel touts sound tuned by JBL with an option to turn that sound optimization on or off under the settings.  I much prefer the sound with the feature on and I’d say it easily rivaled my HTC One for sound quality both when listening from the device or with headphones.

There’s a speaker on the top and bottom of the phone, which is, in part, necessary for their upside-down feature.  Basically, you can pick up the phone for a call and it will be properly orientated regardless of it being right side up or not.  I don’t find the feature to be something that was of great use to me, but I can see the function.

Regardless of that feature, having two speakers on the phone is part of what makes it sound great.  Some newer phones, like the Asus Zenfone 2 have what looks like dual front speakers, but in reality only one speaker is at the top or the bottom.  The Idol gets LOUD when listening from the device.  Louder than my One.  I love this feature because it makes for listening to music or podcasts in the shower nice and easy to hear.  The speakers don’t even seem to become over-burdened when at full volume.

Sound quality is on par with the screen, giving the Idol 2 features that feel to be of much better quality that you’d expect from a phone in this price range.

Usability

Android Lollipop comes standard (I think I had 5.0 out of the gate) and is near stock.  Most of the non-stock features are removable.  I’ve grown to love stock Android vs. any skinned version of it, so that was a determining factor for me with the Idol.

The general, day-to-day use of the Idol is perfectly adequate, but not overwhelmingly speedy.  This was the first part of the phone that felt like “you get what you pay for”.  That’s not to say it’s not functional, because it very much so is.  Where as I found the lack of speed to be a factor in selling my Moto G, I had no such thoughts with the Idol.

There are no issues with multi-tasking, I was easily able to switch between music, maps, a browser and a game.  Things like that are just a bit pokey to respond.  Not pokey in the sense that it takes 30 seconds of your life from you, but sometimes a program might take 1 or 2 seconds longer to open than you’d see on a phone with a top-of-the-line processor/RAM setup.  Those 1 to 2 seconds seem annoying sometimes, but that just speaks to me and my lack of patience.  The reality is that this phone works perfectly well and should for the vast majority of users.

Call quality is perfectly adequate, but I am probably not someone who should even speak to that.  I spend, maybe, 10 minutes a week using my smartphone as an actual phone, but those 10 minutes work very well.  I come across clearly as does the person on the other end.  The speakerphone has the benefit of the dual speakers, just as a song or podcast does.

I feel like the hardware buttons would have been nicer if placed a littler lower.  Due to the phone’s size, I had issues with pressing the unlock button with one hand.  Not massive issues, since I’ve almost always used two hands with my phone, but for people who like a one hand device, this might not be it (if I’m being honest, I think this is a stupid reason to or not to buy a phone, I tend to just adapt to whatever device I select, but to each their own).  The USB port and headphone jack are where you’d expect them, on the bottom and top, respectively.

Battery Life

Another nice feature with the phone is battery life.  I don’t consider myself a super heavy user of screen time on a basic day, so I’d easily get home with 50+% after work and make it to bed with 30+% or more.  Having the phone on a recent vacation where I was heavy on camera use and GPS I found myself slightly more nervous with battery life, but the phone charges very quickly (60% in 40 minutes, I think) so driving 10 minutes from one place to another, I could give a quick boost and take that nervousness away.  Overall, very solid battery life for my (and I think most people’s) usage.

Camera

Shot with Alcatel’s built-in camera app.

Bridge Rivet

Here we get a 13MP rear-facing camera with a 8MP front-facing camera for selfies.  All in all, I was very happy with the camera performance.  In well lit situations, shots where clear and crisp.  Some low-light situations mad for poorer quality pictures, but that’s every camera phone, ever.  The biggest struggle for the camera was actually on a cloudy day.  I used the camera’s time-lapse video function to film a boat trip I took on Lake Superior and you can see that the phone struggles with it’s focus and makes the land look rather dark against the cloudy sky.  This could be user error, however, I’m not sure.

Like every other smartphone out there, there’s an HDR function in the menu to give a little more definition to your shots.  I think it worked as well as one would expect, but I stuck with the camera’s auto mode for the most part.  Check out this gallery here, here and here to see some shots in all sorts of lighting conditions.

Other than having the sun blare straight into the camera lens or overly dark shots, I really liked what the camera gave me.  Anything I see as a negative with the camera is just the reality of using a smartphone for your main camera due to convenience.  They are never going to perform like the best point-and-shoot units, but to have decent performance is nice and the Idol is a step or two above decent.

Final Verdict

I don’t think you can get this much phone for the money you pay, anywhere else.  The Idol is, very easily, worth the extra $70 you’d be spending over a Moto G.  The other phone that was hot in the running for me was the Asus Zenfone 2 (4GB Ram Version) but I picked the Idol for its superior sound quality and screen, both of which I think are better than the Asus.  I know that OnePlus has their 1’s at a lower cost right now, but the lack of a Mirco SD card took them out of the running for me, I keep a lot of music on my phone.

Overall, there is a trade-off between these less expensive, off-contract phones.  OnePlus and Asus focused on making a very responsive, powerful phone and Alcatel focused on a better media experience.  I don’t think you can go wrong with any of those three options, but the Idol Onetouch 3 was easily the phone for me….

…and I miss it.  As I alluded to earlier, I am back to my HTC One.  I got a little to into my desire to become Ansel Adams that I may or may not have dropped the Idol in a river in Northern Wisconsin.  I’d love to get another Idol, but it’s not currently in the budget and I DO have a phone that works, even if I can’t update it.  I plan to wait out until next year to see what the Onetouch 4 will bring.  Alcatel made a statement with this device and I hope to see them continue making phones at a budget price with specs and usability that outweigh the budget price point.

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