​Alcatel Idol 4S review: King of the mid-range?

It's better than many but with prices falling around it, how will it fare?

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Alcatel Idol 4S
  • Alcatel Idol 4S
  • Alcatel Idol 4S
  • Expert Rating

    4.00 / 5

Pros

  • Great screen
  • Good cameras
  • Decent price
  • Stylish

Cons

  • Crowded market
  • No fingerprint reader

Bottom Line

Alcatel is pushing out of its budget-brand comfort zone with a well-specified mid-range offering. The screen and cameras are attractive, but prices of better rivals are falling fast.

Would you buy this?

This phone has appeared in our Top Rated Android Phones in 2016 list and Best budget smartphones 2016 list.

Just last week we raved about the $399 Moto G4 Plus redefining what value meant in the current phone market. Now, just a few days later, here’s Alcatel with an offering that, despite being $200 dearer, may rival it.

We’ve always thought of Alcatel as a quirky French company which not only makes the machines that power the internet and mobile phone networks, but which makes great-value, low-priced phones. It also happens to be the third-highest seller of phones by volume in Australia (after Samsung and Apple). So our view has generally been positive.

But Alcatel’s APAC Managing Director was more specific. The customers behind Alcatel’s high volumes are apparently kids with no money, old people, poor people and the type of people who set off alarms when their credit-rating is checked. We were also told that the Idol 4S is gunning for Gen-Y users with an attention span of eight seconds or so.

We’re not really a fan of pigeon-holing but it’s certainly interesting to hear someone do that for their own products. Nonetheless, at $599 this is priced as a mid-range Android phone (but high-priced for Alcatel). That Alcatel is reaching so high, we hoped it would give the big boys a run for their money. We weren’t disappointed.

Key specs

5.5-inch, 1440x2560, 534ppi display, Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 Chipset, two quad-core processors, Adreno 510 GPU, 3/32GB RAM, NFC, Dual nanoSIM (one is shared microSD (up to 256GB) slot), 16/8-megapixel cameras, 2160p (4K) video, microUSB, 3000mAh battery, VR headset, 154x75x7mm, 149g. Full specs here.

Compared with Sony’s flagship

We’ll start by listing the rival specs of Sony’s recently-launched, hugely-disappointing flagship, the Xperia Performance. Remember that it retails at $999.

5-inch, 1080x1920, 441ppi, screen, 23-megapixel rear camera, 13-megapixel front camera, Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 quad-core processor, Adreno 530 GPU, 32/3GB RAM, NFC, nanoSIM, microSD card (up to 256GB), Android 6.0.1 (Marshmallow), microUSB, Fingerprint reader, Fixed 2,700mAh battery, 144x70x9mm, 164g. Full specs here.

So for $400 less Alcatel has a bigger, higher-resolution screen, Dual SIM cards, bigger battery and it comes with a VR headset (and plastic case) for free. Granted it’s not as quick when using power-intensive apps (Sony’s two, high-end dual core processors are faster than Alcatel’s Octa-core), but for day-to-day use, few would notice much difference. The camera is supposedly much better on the Sony but frankly, the Idol’s was very good indeed. Really the only usage difference is Sony’s fingerprint reader. Hmm.

Handling

Build quality really isn’t far off the big boys’ flagship phones and certainly up there with the likes of Oppo’s R9 flagship and HTC’s One X9 which cost similar. The metal band that runs round the middle is reminiscent of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 Edge while the shiny back looks classy and sophisticated.

Read more: ​Review: HTC One X9 and OPPO R9 - mid-range Android phones

What really stands out is the 5.5-inch AMOLED screen. We normally only see the bright, colourful AMOLED units on much more expensive phones so this was a treat. Add to that the 1440x2560 resolution (with a high-density 534 pixels per inch) and you’re looking at one of the best screens on the market. It gets very bright too.

The power button is at the top of the left side while the volume switch is at the top of the right side. Below that is something called a Boom Switch, which, “Does interesting things.” It can be configured in different ways but for the main part, when the phone is off you can instantly take a picture or rapid-fire pictures depending on how long you press it. If you press it just while looking at the main screen, the background wallpaper will run through a flashy animation. It can also boost bass in music and create funky “Gen-Y” animations.

All in all, this phone handles like every other (more expensive) phone we’ve tested lately including the excellent Huawei P9 (whose value we were raving about just a couple of weeks back), the above-mentioned Oppo and HTC plus the Moto G4 Plus.

Battery

Read more: ​Sony Xperia X Performance review: Sony’s most disappointing product in years

The 3,000mAh battery is a quite large for a phone this thin. We found it just lasted the full day in general use (the testing of all phones lately has been complicated by the battery vampire that is Pokemon Go, lately) but so long as you steer clear of that it was fine.

Camera

We were very impressed with the cameras both for stills and video. The main, 16-megapixel camera was fast and accurate in focusing, decent in low light, offered good colour accuracy and sharpness. Meanwhile, panoramas looked good and so did landscapes in general. The 8-megapixel camera on the front is also sharp and offers various degrees of “Beauty” airbrushing, if that’s your thing.

Impressive detail and colour on an overcast day.
Impressive detail and colour on an overcast day.
Perhaps a little dark, but exposure can easily be changed on the fly and colours are good.
Perhaps a little dark, but exposure can easily be changed on the fly and colours are good.
Colours are vibrant and focusing is accurate and fast.
Colours are vibrant and focusing is accurate and fast.
Low light exposure, sharpness and white balance is very good compared to many on the market.
Low light exposure, sharpness and white balance is very good compared to many on the market.
Capturing a panorama is a quick, sharp and accurate process.
Capturing a panorama is a quick, sharp and accurate process.
Landscapes were sharp and well exposed.
Landscapes were sharp and well exposed.
The selfie camera was generally bright and accurate.
The selfie camera was generally bright and accurate.

Video was also surprisingly good. 4K resolutions can be captured and quality is impressive. It’s one of the fastest-focusing video cameras we’ve seen – others really struggle to fend off blur unless you stop and rest for a while. It’s also consistent with exposure and white balance while others can vary wildly under changing conditions. However, the Electronic Image Stabilisation can’t help with a wobbling image while walking around - as with most other phone cameras, it’s much better when everything stays still.

Other features

Alcatel also includes a functional, light plastic case (similar to Huawei’s) which protects the phone without hiding its design. It also comes in a box that converts into a VR headset! This is very comfy and works rather well (as phones go) although content is limited (or NSFW) at present, it’s very nice to have and, to put things in perspective, Samsung charges $165 for its Gear VR Headset equivalent.

NFC is included and there’s even a DualSIM slot (which is shared with the microSD slot). There’s no fingerprint reader though. This is a shame as unlocking the screen in this way is becoming normal.

Conclusion

We’re not 100 per cent sure what the price of this phone will be when it appears in September: negotiations with carriers are ongoing but we’ve been told that if no agreement can be reached then it will be sold directly at $599.

There’s some interesting competition in this space, however: Huawei’s excellent P9 has an RRP of $799 but can already be bought for under $600. This will likely fall further by September. Meanwhile the excellent Huawei Mate 8 can also be had for under $600 (and falling) and offers a much bigger screen, battery and other features. Oppo’s flagship R9 and HTC’s One X9 are still options but aren’t anything special - we prefer Idol 4S. However, the Moto G4 S is still $200 cheaper and while it’s not particularly exciting, it is a very-well-made Android phone that’s worth considering.

Ultimately, though, this is a good-value phone from Alcatel and a great mid-range choice. Buying it depends on the price you can find for both it and its rivals, though.

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