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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