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Review: Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3

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Apr 27, 2015, 10:00 AM   by Eric M. Zeman   @phonescooper

Alcatel is pitching its Idol 3 smartphone as the ideal device for people who like to live free of commitments. It's a near-premium handset that costs less than many mid-range handsets. Is Alcatel's Android phone worth your time? We answer this and more in our full report.

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Is It Your Type?

Alcatel is marketing the OneTouch Idol 3 — its flagship smartphone for 2015 — from a very specific angle. Alcatel plans to sell the device online only, directly to customers, unlocked. Its pitch? The Idol 3 lets you live the "unlocked life," which is devoid of carrier contracts and other commitments (and this is apparently desirable). So who is the Idol 3 really for? People who want a high-end device but don't want to pay through the nose to get it.

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The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is a compelling smartphone that should appeal to large swaths of people who are unable to afford premium phones like the iPhone, Galaxy S6, or One M9. Alcatel is a Chinese company still working to gain recognition in the U.S., and it knows better than to aim for the true top of the U.S. market right now, which is owned by Apple and Samsung. The Idol 3 offers a near-premium experience at less than half the cost of the class leaders. Moreover, the Idol 3 is a good challenger to mid-market handsets from LG, HTC, Kyocera, and others thanks to its refined design and strong spec sheet.

The Idol 3 is a phablet. It's bigger than the iPhone 6 or Galaxy S6, but it's smaller than the 6 Plus or Nexus 6. It's not a small phone. (Alcatel has a smaller version of the Idol 3 on deck for later this year.) Alcatel dressed the Idol 3 to kill. The black front of the phone is framed in a pleasing chrome-colored band. Ditto for the back surface. Though the side edges are dark gray, Alcatel switched to chrome where the side edges meet the front and back surfaces. The phone has a classy, dressed-up look no matter what angle you view it from. You can almost see it in the hands of a celebrity as they walk down the red carpet. Almost.

Given its dimensions (6 x 2.96 inches), the phone isn't for every hand. I had no trouble using it, but others might. The side edges aren't round; instead, the corners are angled just the right amount to give phone a pleasing feel in the hand. There are no sharp edges digging into your skin here. I like the Idol 3's weight, which is just enough to prevent it from feeling cheap. The phone measures 7.4mm thick, which is quite thin. You can shove the phone into most pockets and it's smooth enough that retrieving it is no problem.

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Alcatel says the display is protected by Dragontail Glass, but the side and back surfaces are all plastic. The company worked hard to create different textures and colors within the same materials. You'd never know it at a glance, as the chrome coloring is easily mistaken for metal. The glass feels great under your thumb, and the plastics exude strength. Alcatel did a good job assembling the phone; the fit and finish are quite good.

Most modern slates have nothing but glass on the front and the Idol 3 is no exception. When the display is off, only the user-facing camera is visible (and only then when viewed from just the correct angle.) Alcatel opted for the on-screen buttons, so there are no physical keys marring the otherwise pristine glass. I wouldn't be surprised if you miss the stereo speaker/mic grilles entirely. The speaker holes are drilled into very narrow pieces of plastic above and below the glass. They are nearly invisible, which helps the Idol 3 maintain is clean look.

You'll find the screen lock button high on the left side of the phone, practically at the top. It's not a hard-and-fast rule, but the vast majority of smartphones position the screen lock button in the middle of the right edge of the phone, or, if not there, then on the top surface. I couldn't get used to the positioning of this button after using the phone for a week. The button does have a good profile, but travel and feedback aren't great. This is one of the only physical components of the phone that actually feels kind of cheap. The volume toggle, positioned on the right edge of the phone, has a similar profile but much better travel and feedback.

The Idol 3 has one neat trick up its sleeve: the UI is reversible. In other words, no matter which way you hold the phone the user interface reorients itself so you're not looking at upside-down text. If you do hold the phone upside down, the side buttons are even harder to reach and more awkward to use, especially the screen lock button, which is now in the very bottom corner on the right. You can turn this feature off if you want. It use useful, however, for answering phone calls. With the reversible UI feature enabled you can pick up the phone in either orientation and, thanks to mics and speakers are both ends, conduct phone calls with the Idol 3 right side up or upside down.

The SIM card tray is tucked into the left edge of the phone, the stereo headphone jack is on top, and the microUSB port is on the bottom. Looking for the memory card tray? Alcatel did something rather neat and combined the SIM and memory card trays. They are a single, long tray. The SIM card sits deeper in the phone than the memory card. It's pretty cool.

There is at least one drawback to the Idol 3's design. The back cover — pretty though it is with a brushed metal look — cannot be removed. You won't be able to swap out batteries, though of course you can use external battery packs to make up for this shortcoming.

Speaking frankly, if Alcatel's logo weren't painted on the back of the phone, the Idol 3 might easily be mistaken as a phone from LG or some better-known manufacturer. It outclasses many other mid-range handsets. Alcatel did a great job with this piece of hardware, especially given the price point. I've reviewed phones twice as costly that didn't feel as good to use.

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