Towards the end of last year Alcatel moved into the top five mobile phone vendors in the world. The company’s strength is in low cost feature phones and smartphones in emerging markets, but it is also beginning to produce handsets that could make a dent elsewhere.
With the Idol S Alcatel is following the template set by Motorola and the Moto G, combining a budget price with specs and design that would be better expected on something more expensive. Could this be the handset that makes the One Touch series the one to have?
The Idol S makes an impressive first impression. At just 7.4mm and 110g it is as thin and light as an iPhone 5S and fits beautifully in hand and pocket. Even with a 4.7 inch display it does not feel large. Build quality is surprisingly stellar too. The soft touch plastic back is pleasant, and nicer than that on the S5 which retails for more than three times as much.
Our review sample was a very conservative grey, but brighter coloured options are available if you prefer. The phone is solidly built with no flexing, and the screen is made from Dragontrail glass, a lesser known alternative to the omnipresent Gorilla Glass that should ensure it remains in good condition for some time.
The biggest disappointment on any budget phone is normally the screen, and it undermines all the positives a device might otherwise offer. Alcatel clearly recognises this and has equipped the Idol S with an IPS display with 720p resolution.
It’s a great screen for the price, and way ahead of budget offerings from the likes of Samsung or HTC. It is crisp and has excellent viewing angles, and it’s also fairly bright, although the auto-brightness setting tended to choose something far dimmer than we were happy with.
The Idol S runs Android 4.2, with no word yet on any upgrade plans the company has. Alcatel has tweaked it in places and has redesigned the icons, but otherwise it looks and acts like stock Android, and is much better for it.
There are a number of extra apps and games that have been added. These can be useful for the first time smartphone owner, and can be removed by everyone else. Games like Asphalt Racer are included in the bundle, and they add very little value because you still need a hefty download before you can start playing, and even then you still need to make in-app purchases to get the most from the title.
Storage is an issue with just 4GB on board and less than half that available to the user. There is a memory card slot that you can use to offload some of the pressure on the space. The 1GB of RAM is also about average for this kind of phone and is enough for general use but will be used up quickly with heavy use of even common apps like Chrome.
The processor looks like the biggest compromise to meet the low price point. It’s a dual-core Mediatek CPU clocked at 1.2GHz. Motorola has proven recently that paper specs don’t count for much in a well optimised device, but then Motorola uses the superior Snapdragon processors and gets a real performance boost because of it.
The Idol S delivered what we might diplomatically describe as a leisurely smartphone experience. It was not laggy in the way that devices with low end processors so often are – scrolling and swiping was generally smooth – but it was by no means fast.
Again, new users would be fine with it, but those with more to compare it to would find it frustrating. It isn’t a phone for gamers either, with anything heavier than casual titles struggling.
Elsewhere the phone performs well. The 8MP camera is a notch above what the Moto G offers with good quality and fast performance in good light (it inevitably drops off as light levels fall), and it can shoot full HD video.
The speaker around the back pumps out the volume to a loud level without distorting. There’s 4G support for fast data connectivity. And battery life is quite good too. It drops quite rapidly under heavy use, but for less demanding tasks, like social networking and watching locally stored videos, it will get through a day before you need to top up the charge.
The Alctatel One Touch Idol S is another example of how Android phones at the bottom end of the market are becoming more compelling. With nice design and build quality, and a great screen it is a more attractive proposition than most of the devices in the same price bracket, and it even manages to surpass what the Moto G has to offer in certain places.
Only the sedate performance level lets it down, yet for the target market the benefits by far outweigh the negatives.