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Hands On with Alcatel's Idol 4 and 4S

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Feb 20, 2016, 1:00 PM   by Rich Brome   @rbrome

Alcatel’s new flagship phone for 2016 is the Idol 4S. It’s accompanied by the Idol 4, a smaller and more affordable cousin. Both phones sport a “reversible” design similar to last year’s Idol 3, but with a more premium metal frame and glass back. The specs on the 4S are impressive, and not too shabby on the 4, either. There are small differences that are only apparent upon close inspection. Read on for our hands-on impressions.

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The Idol 4 and 4S look and feel extremely similar, which is to say they both look and feel pretty great. The metal frame feels solid, thin, light, and high-quality. Glass on both the front and back also lends a quality feel, although that glass back collect fingerprints like mad.

Idol 4S  

The buttons are placed relatively high on the sides, which reduces accidental presses, but makes the lock button a bit harder to reach than on most phones. The buttons do work well, though. There's also a “Boom” button on he side that does a number of gimmicky context-specific things like enhancing sound or re-arranging your photos. Fortunately, it also works as a camera button, and that's probably how it's best used.

The way the stereo speakers peek out from under the glass at the ends — first seen on last year's Idol 3 — is distinctive and attractive. In the Idol 4 series, that design symmetry has been taken a step further, and carried over to the back. Like the Idol 3, you can use the phone upside-down if you like. But now — thanks to speaker holes on both the front and back — you can hear great stereo sound even with the phone sitting face-down on a surface. I'm not quite sure why that's important, but it's cute. What does matter is that the stereo speakers are JBL speakers pumping out 3.6 watts, which is a whole lot for a phone. They sound pretty great indeed.

Idol 4  

The 4S is slightly larger than the 4. Visually, the difference is small, but in hand, it's quite noticeable. The 4S feels like most flagship phones today (pretty big) while the 4 feels surprisingly compact for a phone with 5.2-inch display. The fastest way to tell the two apart visually is the camera placement: The 4S has a centered camera “hump” to accommodate the larger 16-megapixel sensor and lens, while the 4 has a more modest 13-megapixel imager tucked in the corner.

Looking even closer, the front and back glass on the 4S has a gentle curve at the sides, making it more comfortable to hold and swipe sideways on the screen. Curved-edge glass is always a nice touch. The Idol 4 has flat glass. Another small difference is the SIM and memory card tray, which is cleverly hidden on the 4, but has a more traditional design on the 4S.

The Idol 4 has a crisp and bright 5.2-inch, full-HD LCD display. The 4S steps up to a very lovely quad-HD OLED display measuring 5.5 inches. The 4S is also one of the first phones with the new Snapdragon 652 processor chip from Qualcomm. (The 4 has a Snapdragon 617, like the HTC One A9.)

VR Goggles Packaging  

The extra screen resolution and processing power in the 4S makes it well-suited for VR, at least on paper. That's why Alcatel has come up with packaging that doubles as VR goggles for the phone. It's like a simple version of Samsung's Gear VR, or a fancy Google Cardboard. It may not ship with the phone in all versions and all markets. I tried the VR functions using a demo app. It looked very good, but had quite noticeable lag when moving my head around. To be fair, that may have been an issue with the pre-production nature of the units I used, or it may have been an issue with the specific app I tried.

For all of Alcatel's bragging about how “reversible” the Idol 4 is, sadly the USB connector is not; it's the older micro-USB style instead of the newer (reversible) USB Type-C.

Interface  

The software on the Idol 4 series is pretty much standard Android 6.0 as designed by Google, with only the very lightest customization by Alcatel. International versions may have more custom software, but Alcatel like to keep things Google-y for its U.S. customers. The app drawer, notification shade, and settings interfaces are all 100% standard Google.

The camera app is mostly standard fare, with HDR, panorama, and a basic manual mode. (You can control exposure and white balance, for example, but not shutter speed.) There's a special Fyuse mode that captures something like a Google Photo Sphere. It's basically a panorama that you can scroll through by moving your phone around, VR-style.

One more nice feature Alcatel threw in is NFC. Unfortunately, there's no fingerprint reader.

Alcatel talks about the Idol 4 as a series of phones, and hinted that it may include other models beyond the 4 and 4S. The 4S will sell for around 450 Euros ($500) and the 4 for around 280 Euros ($310). Both should ship in the second quarter (April - June). There are also plans to bring some form of the Idol 4 series to the U.S. later in the year. The Idol 3 did come to Cricket, so we look forward to seeing the Idol 4 series come Stateside as well.

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MWC 2016
Alcatel
 

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