Last year’s Alcatel OneTouch IDOL 3 made a name for the company, and for good reason. In 2015 a $249 smartphone with a killer display, epic speakers, and decent specifications caught our attention. In the year since, however, things have changed. The market is now absolutely flooded with mid-range Android smartphones, and most are pretty awesome.

Now Alcatel is back with a new name, a new price tag, and a whole new goal in mind. So is its latest smartphone, the IDOL 4S, actually worth your attention? Let’s take a closer look.

The best gifts for Android users

Hardware

The first big thing to talk about on the IDOL 4S is its build. After the IDOL 3 had an entirely plastic build that was fine, we were left wanting more. And oh man did Alcatel deliver. The new IDOL 4S packs a premium metal & glass design which feels like a phone twice the cost but also looks quite familiar. A lot of the same design cues from the IDOL 3 can be seen on the 4S, they just look better now.

The problem with this build is grip. There isn’t any. Even compared to another metal and glass device, the Galaxy Note 7, the IDOL 4S is hard to hang on to. I had the phone slide out of my pocket in the car multiple times, and it even slides around on a table if it isn’t level. That’s probably why the company included several cases with my review unit.

The back of the phone also houses the fingerprint sensor, which is also glass and doesn’t have much of an indention. This is a fairly odd move in my opinion, making it hard to tell if your finger is aligned correctly.

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Around the metal frame, you’ll find the power button on the left side, a move that definitely takes some getting used to, with the volume button and “boom key” on the right. There’s also a SIM/microSD card slot under the power button.

Specs, Software, Performance

Under the hood on the IDOL 4S, you’ll a find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor along with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage. This is pretty run-of-the-mill for mid-range Android smartphones, and combined with the near-stock build of Android Marshmallow, you’ll get solid performance on the IDOL 4S.

My day-to-day usage consists of running through various social media apps such as Twitter and Google+, playing casual games from time to time, and browsing the web multiple times throughout the day. Through this, the IDOL 4S kept up without a problem, only encountering lag or dropped frames when I had too many apps open at a given time, or when loading up intensive applications or games.

That said, the IDOL 4S doesn’t provide the same bang-for-your-buck performance that other devices in the same price range will. Pick up another $399 phone like the OnePlus 3 or Axon 7 and you’ll be getting a faster phone. Does that mean you should dismiss the IDOL 4S as an overpriced device? No, because it isn’t. Despite the slightly slower performance, you’re still getting a phone that will handle what you need it to, it’s just a half-step behind some of the competition in this area (benchmarks shown below).

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For software, you’ll find Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow on the IDOL 4S. Alcatel’s skin over top of Android is pretty light, and few if any of the changes feel intrusive or unnecessary. You’ll see several changes on the launcher such as a different folder design, UI tweaks to the app drawer, and a parallax animation on the wallpaper. This translates through the rest of the UI with some minor tweaks here or there, but nothing major.

Bloatware is a bit of a touchy subject on this phone. There are a lot of pre-loaded apps, but they don’t feel that way. Some of the pre-loaded applications like Facebook and Twitter are ones you would have downloaded anyway, while others are a little out of the norm, but in a good way. For example, Fyuse is pre-loaded with the ability to take “360” photos and download/view them. Not everyone will want to use it, but it makes sense for it to be pre-loaded since the IDOL 4S comes with a VR viewer as the box (more on that soon). Several other VR related apps come pre-installed, but they can be uninstalled as well.

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Display

One of the places we’ve really seen mid-range devices improve in the past year is the display. Where most cheap phones used to ship with 720p or lower, LCD displays, most now ship with displays that rival high-end flagships. On the IDOL 4S, Alcatel has really outdone itself, including a 5.5-inch, Quad HD AMOLED panel which is nothing short of fantastic.

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Colors pop, brightness is great, and I seriously have no complaints with the display on this phone. Even compared with phones like the Galaxy Note 7, I can easily say that this is one of the better displays I’ve ever seen on a smartphone, much less a mid-ranger.

VR Is Here, And Alcatel Is Embracing It

That display is a key feature for the IDOL 4S for a big reason: VR. For over a year now VR has been a big deal, and it’s only going to get more and more important. Alcatel is fully embracing the new platform by not only including a VR headset with the IDOL 4S but literally packaging the phone inside of one.

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This not only makes for an interesting unboxing experience, but it helps consumers get into VR right away. Sadly, the experience isn’t as great as the first impression would make you think. The headset itself doesn’t provide a very wide field of view, and comfort isn’t great, especially if you have a slightly larger than average nose.

The setup process also isn’t without issues. The headset is supposed to launch a VR launcher when the phone is inserted (likely by NFC), but it rarely works. Luckily, most VR apps work well. The great display makes for a sharp viewing experience, and games, photos, and videos all look great. This headset just doesn’t provide the same level of immersion that others do.

This is a bit disappointing, to say the least. I had high hopes for Alcatel’s VR experience after seeing that the company had signed on to work with Google on Daydream. While the phone is great for VR, the headset is not. Luckily it’s free.

Battery Life & Charging

One highlight of Alcatel’s previous IDOL 3, at least for me, was its solid battery life. This time around Alcatel has kept that up, at least to a certain extent.

Over my testing with the phone, I could generally get a couple hours of screen on time over an average 15-17 hour day. Keep in mind, of course, that I’m not a particularly heavy user. On my heaviest day with this device, I found the endurance good, but not outstanding. Luckily the IDOL 4S packs Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0, and it’s definitely fast.

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Camera

On the IDOL 4S, you’ll also find a 16MP rear camera, flanked by an 8MP front-facing sensor. The rear camera is… fine. The sensor can produce shots that rival some flagships, but it’s not consistent. Sometimes a shot will be great, other times it will be terrible. On most devices with this problem you can save things a bit with HDR, but on the IDOL 4S HDR only makes it worse. Low light shots also weren’t very impressive.

To make matters a little worse, the camera app itself is pretty slow. Swiping between modes is sluggish and the app is a bit slow to actually take a shot.

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Audio

So far things have been mixed with the IDOL 4S, but its biggest redeeming feature if the audio. There’s nothing special about the headphone jack (although some solid JBL earbuds are included in the box), but these speakers are incredible, and that’s putting it lightly.

The 3.6W JBL speakers on this phone are insane. They are far louder than any other device I’ve tested, and the quality is great. It’s a “flat” sound, meaning there’s not a ton of bass, but it’s fantastic nonetheless.

Alcatel has also made some really smart decisions with the speakers on this phone. They are of course front facing, but you’ll also find an identical setup on the rear. While this doesn’t mean you’ll have four speakers going at the same time, it does mean that regardless of if the phone is placed face up or face down, it’s still going to play un-muffled audio. Really, there’s nothing more to say here. These speakers are awesome.

The “Boom” Key

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One of Alcatel’s big talking points on the IDOL 4S is the “boom key,” but it really shouldn’t be. If you thought some of Samsung’s features were gimmicky, this just outdid all of them. This button is advertised as being a one-click way to enhance what you’re doing on your device, but it doesn’t really do much. Out of the box, the Boom Key is able to do the following:

  • Turn on the display (note: it does not lock it)
  • Double Tap to take a photo (note: take a photo, not open the camera)
  • Long-press to take a burst photo
  • Press on lockscreen/launcher for weather details
  • Surround Sound while watching videos
  • Boost volume and bass while listening to music
  • Boost volume during a phone call
  • Create a photo collage
  • Add video effects
  • Start a live stream through the camera
  • Boost in Asphalt Overdrive

Just from these brief descriptions, it should become pretty clear how gimmicky this is. Some things like boosting volume, weather details, and even the burst photo options are all somewhat useful, but come on, a boost option in one game? You’re better than this Alcatel.

Really, the Boom Key is just… there. You can customize it to make it better, but honestly, I don’t think the phone would be any different without it.

Final Thoughts

When it comes down to it, the IDOL 4S is an excellent smartphone, it’s just here way too late. If Alcatel had released the IDOL 4S in place of the IDOL 3, it would have been much more popular. Likewise, a lower price point would have done the same. This really is a good smartphone, in just about every way, it’s just here a year after it would have mattered.

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Where To Buy

If you’re interested in buying the IDOL 4S, you can do so from Alcatel’s website — and that’s it. Pricing lands at $399 ($35/month through Affirm) and with that you’ll get the VR headset, a free pair of JBL headphones (which are pretty good), and a free case.

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