Alcatel IDOL 4S First Impressions

Posted on November 4, 2016 by Paul Thurrott in Windows Phones with 28 Comments

 

Alcatel IDOL 4S First ImpressionsAlcatel’s new Windows phone, the IDOL 4S, offers high-end specs, a classy and thin form factor, and a reasonable price tag. But the selling point here, in some ways, is the bundled VR headset.

As you may have heard, Windows phone isn’t doing so well these days. It accounts for under 1 percent of all smartphones sold, and the app situation is dire: No major new apps are appearing on the platform and even existing apps are quickly being discontinued.

So I’m curious what the VR experience here is all about. After all, Android and iPhone users are treated to a wide variety of VR options, from dedicated platforms like Google Cardboard, Daydream VR, and Samsung Gear VR to legions of apps, and even VR videos on YouTube. What manner of content could Windows phone users expect to enjoy?

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I’ll get to that. But in the meantime, here are my initial impressions of the IDOL 4S. (The Windows phone version of the IDOL 4S, that is: Alcatel previously sold this device with Android as well.)

Shocker, but it’s a nice phone. And it feels incredibly light and thin in my hands, much more so than the other recent smartphones—like the Apple iPhone 7 and Google Pixel—that I’ve used. It’s got a glass back, which I’m not a fan of because of fingerprint issues. But it’s hard to argue with the materials for the most part: The edges are an aluminum-like metal and look exactly like most modern smartphones since the iPhone 6 first shipped, with the same antenna bands. And that glass back does feel nice.

camera

There are some other unique touches. Key among them is a circular camera button on the right side, which is tiny and cute, but really easy to find by touch. One cannot overstate the importance of such a button to the Windows phone community, and HP ignoring this on their otherwise high-quality Elite x3 is a sore point.

camera-button

Beyond that, there is also a fingerprint reader on the back that lets you sign-in to the device using Windows Hello. It’s not as accurate or fast as the versions on the Google Nexus 6P or Pixel XL, and it’s harder to find by touch.

The screen is gorgeous. It’s a 5.5-inch AMOLED display, and like the Pixel XL I’m currently testing it seems smaller than that somehow in use. At “just” 1080p—or 1920 x 1080 pixels—you may think the display to be on the lower range, resolution-wise. But I find it crisp and wonderful to look at. And in apps, in particular, text is clear and nicely-rendered, with no jaggies at all.

Inside, the IDOL 4S is powered by high-end components, including a flagship-grade Snapdragon 820 processor, 4 GB of RAM, and 64 GB of internal storage with microSD expansion available via the SIM drawer. That’s good enough to deliver on Continuum capabilities, which I know is a big draw for Windows phone fans these days. Less enticing, perhaps, is this phone’s T-Mobile tie-in: It’s only available by this carrier in the US, and I assume it’s locked to T-Mobile as well. Worse still, the T-Mobile apps are actually not removable. I’ve never experienced that with a Windows phone before.

Wait. I can't remove carrier apps? What fresh new hell is this?

Wait. I can’t remove carrier apps? What fresh new hell is this?

The cameras are an open question, or at least the rear camera is. It’s a 21-megapixel unit—yes, you read that right, 21 megapixels—meaning you can take 4:3 shots at 5344 x 4008, or 16:9 shots at 5312 x 2988. Those are big numbers, and the camera recalls the Lumia 1020 from Windows phone’s 2013 heyday. But is it any good?

IDOL 4S sample shot (with HDR on)

IDOL 4S sample shot (with HDR on)

So far, I’ve only taken a dozen or so sample shots, and since it’s been cloudy, it’s proven to be a better than usual test: Any modern smartphone can handle bright sunny days with aplomb. Using the default settings, the pictures are a bit dull overall, though the quality is there when you zoom in.

IDOL 4S sample shot (with HDR off). Note the dullness

IDOL 4S sample shot (with HDR off). Note the dullness

But low-light shots are decent, if not up to the performance we see with the Nexus 6P or Pixel XL.

When I enabled HDR, things improved nicely, at least in shots with adequate light. Colors pop nicely, and the background auto-bokeh effect seen when you focus on an item in the foreground is solid. Camera speed performance is good, which isn’t always the case with Windows phones, but you really need to manually and carefully focus when you take a shot. Otherwise, the shots are uniformly and disappointingly blurry.

Overall, I’d rate the camera at “good” (as opposed to “very good” or “superior”) at this point. But a handful of shots is only a handful of shots.

And then there’s that VR headset.

vr

If you’ve experienced something like Google Cardboard, which is among the most basic and affordable of VR solutions, you’ll be underwhelmed by what Alcatel provides here. The hardware is cheap, though of course the foam noseguard is much softer and more comfortable than what most Cardboard sets provide.

vr-2

But there are issues. First, the optics are low-end, worse even than Cardboard, with obvious pixelization and a roundish field of view. And there just isn’t that much VR content to be had on Windows phone, though to be fair to Alcatel, they do pack several VR apps and games on the device. And if you’ve never experienced VR, this is an OK introduction.

vr-w-phone

For example, I enjoyed the game Captain Fellcraft VR, where you fly down a virtual tunnel, avoiding objects while picking up power-ups and enjoying a vaguely 80’s synth soundtrack that reminded me of the Amiga days.

flying

Zombie VR is less successful, with no control over movement or shooting: If you’re pointed at a zombie or certain trigger objects, you’ll shoot. It also made me a bit queasy.

zombie

There are also lots of video apps for VR—Tube 360 for YouTube, VR360Video, VRVideo, and more—and if you just place the phone in the headset, a basic VR front-end comes up.

I guess what I’m trying to say is, don’t buy this phone because of the VR. But since you will get it for free, do be sure to check it all out. And then prepare to pay more for a better VR experience elsewhere.

The Alcatel IDOL 4S costs $480 and is available only from T-Mobile.

 

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14 Comments
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  1. 0 | Reply
    jbuccola Alpha Member #1511 - 1 month ago

    With Google suddenly dominating the high end of Android, one wonders if W10M rises from the depths of its sub 1% status. Especially given the ARM commonality -- this will be an interesting experiment from Alcatel, though the diehards will point to carrier exclusivity if it goes nowhere. Dual-platform phones aren't new, but the game is different with Google now firmly in the hardware business. If they start going lower end, Android phone manufacturers have nowhere else to go.

  2. 0 | Reply
    bbold Alpha Member #669 - 1 month ago

    At almost half the price of the HP Elite X3, I may be upgrading to this through T-Mobile. I'm on the switch anytime plan. I just wish the camera was better quality. That's the huge issue I had with the X3 (and returned it), the crappy X3 camera, and of course the phone restarting constantly and not being very reliable. I think I'll upgrade to this when it comes out, which is November 10th?

  3. 0 | Reply
    engellion Alpha Member #2269 - 1 month ago

    According to Windows Central, the Idol 4S is SIM unlocked.

    "the phone can take other SIMs including AT&T and still get an LTE connection too. We also tried the phone on Vodafone (UK) with success in getting LTE as well, and it is expected to work on o2/Giffgaff and EE as well."

  4. 0 | Reply
    Shmuelie Alpha Member #119 - 1 month ago

    Can you get the US version without TMobile less? (Or will the Global one work with TMobile?)

    1. 0 | Reply
      evox81 Alpha Member #1939 - 1 month ago
      In reply to Shmuelie:

      The LTE band support on this phone is specific to T-Mobile and therefore doesn't cover all of AT&T's frequencies... So, you'd probably be able to use it unlocked, but you might not get a signal everywhere.

  5. 0 | Reply
    EnterMegatron99 Alpha Member #189 - 1 month ago

    Paul - No one's really mentioned if NFC is supported...are you able to confirm if its there or not?  Thanks!

    (And I'm assuming those bananas aren't really that color...)

    1. 0 | Reply
      ldsands Alpha Member #642 - 1 month ago
      In reply to EnterMegatron99:

      Windows Central said that it doesn't have NFC. Bummer.

    2. 0 | Reply
      bbold Alpha Member #669 - 1 month ago
      In reply to ldsands:

      I don't really see the benefits of NFC on a Windows Phone. Yet. Microsoft Wallet is seemingly still in its infancy stages and doesn't support that many banks or companies. So I wouldn't make that the one reason you wouldn't consider such a phone.

    3. 0 | Reply
      EnterMegatron99 Alpha Member #189 - 1 month ago
      In reply to bbold:

      Honestly, I use it to pair with devices that have it around the house...not very often mind you, but it is nice when it's available.  Its not a 'gotta have it' feature.  

  6. 0 | Reply
    skborders Alpha Member #1309 - 1 month ago

    Looks like a nice enough phone. Does it offer a continuum dock or do you use the Microsoft one?

    1. 0 | Reply
      EnterMegatron99 Alpha Member #189 - 1 month ago
      In reply to skborders:

      You can simply buy a USB-C multiport adapter from Amazon for $30 or less and use that...no special dock required.

    2. 0 | Reply
      evox81 Alpha Member #1939 - 1 month ago
      In reply to skborders:

      I'm not sure you can use the MS dock with anything other than a Lumia. (Although, to be fair, I haven't actually tested this, so that's pure speculation.) The definite answer: You can use it over Miracast with a Bluetooth keyboard/mouse, or via the Connect app on a Windows 10 machine.

    3. 0 | Reply
      phytio Alpha Member #1802 - 1 month ago
      In reply to evox81:

      I've heard you can use the Microsoft thing with the new Macs and their USB C ports, so I guess you can use it here if it has USB C...

  7. 0 | Reply
    dcdevito Alpha Member #220 - 1 month ago

    Wow, a Windows Phone device review/first look. I thought I slipped into a time machine back to 2010 :)