Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3 Review18 Jun 2015
My Nexus 5 had an update this morning. From Android 5.1 to 5.1.1. I couldn’t tell you what it changed. I hope it fixed the memory leak that’s been plauging me for a while now. I doubt it did. Honestly I don’t really care any more. It’s been a great phone. I bought it almost two years ago and it’s done everything I wanted it to and more. My needs haven’t really changed since I’ve owned it, but the market for cost effective off-contract phones has. Dramatically.
In June of 2014, almost a year to the date of this writing, Google announced their new “Android One” initiative. The long story is that manufacturers can build low cost devices for emerging markets and turn over the software to Google (kind of makes me wish Google would do the same for all devices, but that’s another story). The short story is that Google is currently completely dominating that market with their Android system, and with that comes the influx of new customers for their services and more faces to throw ads at. It’s a win-win. Look at the fact that the Moto G, a $149 off-contract phone is Motorola’s best selling phone of all time. At first that may not seem to impressive, but remember another phone Moto made at one point: the Razr. How many people did you know that owned Razrs? I knew dozens. How many people do you know that own Moto G’s? I know maybe one person. So where are all those device sales coming from? Emerging markets.
Thanks to that massive success, I can’t help but imagine that other manufacturers are realizing that the need for low-cost high-quality off-contract Android devices isn’t exclusive to third world markets. We’ve seen the somewhat viral success of phones like the Oneplus One, which ships with a near stock version of Android (there’s quite a bit more to that story, but I won’t speak of it here). Motorola claims to be making a profit on each Moto G sold, so why wouldn’t other manufacturers try it out? We’ve seen devices come out from Acer, Oppo, Huwawei and others but all of them seemed to be inheritnely flawed in one way or another. But suddenly, another device showed up from a company I had never heard of.
The inexplicably named Alcatel Onetouch Idol 3. I think the company is named Alcatel Onetouch, and the phone is named Idol 3. Who cares. It retails for $249 off-contract. The 5.5 inch phone had several key features that grew my excitement: dual high quality JBL front facing speakers, a micro sd card slot, and a larger battery than my Nexus 5. That was enough to get me interested. “I’m sure they destroyed it with an awful Android skin, or it runs like Froyo or something” I told myself as I clicked links to find more. I was somewhat shocked and pleasently surprised to find out neither of those things were true. It runs a near stock Android build and currently has 5.0 lollipop. Pretty impressive as many flagship $600+ phones don’t currently have either of those things.
My excitement grew as I learned about some great insights Alcatel put into this experience. Since there are speakers and mics on both the top and bottom of the screen, you can hold the phone either way to talk on it and use it. Really not that great I guess, but when you get a call at 6 am because some senior citizen namen Kathy is giving out your number as her own and the senior shuttle wants to let her know that they’re there to pick her up for the day activity (yes, this happened/is happening), it can be nice. Even sublter, the speakers are slightly recessed behind the screen so if it’s face down they won’t be completely muffled. How great! I mean, the actual use of something like is arguable, but small consideration like that are very welcome in an age when the customer seems like an afterthought and all manufactureres are concerned about is how much they can cram onto their spec sheet.
Top all of that with a micro SDXC card slot. Definately not a feature I put high on my priority list, but it’s nice to have. I also loved the overall design. It looks basically like an oversized Nexus 4, another phone I owned and loved. The back is plastic but it’s brushed in a way that looks like metal. The camera sits completely flush on the back which apparently is uncommon in a day when Apple is photoshopping camera bulge out of their product pictures. The sides have two metal rings the sandwich a plastic middle. It feels fine. Honestly I’m not a huge fan of the ultra
slick slippery all aluminum bodies that seem to be so in style right now. All in all it was right up my alley.
I kept waiting for the flaw that would just kill the whole deal. With hardware perfect, surely they would have completely botched the software with a horrible skin and bloatware. I was shocked to find that was not the case. They do have some customizations but they are very minimal and unubtrusive. Really the extent of it is that they changed some of the stock apps (dialer, clock, contacts, etc) icons. I would prefer it if they had left that tweak out, but they’re not bad icons by any means. There’s also a “sweep all” icon on the multi tasking menu. I like the concept, but it does this really weird animation where it will swipe the app to the far side, hang for a moment, then get rid of it. It really looks like it’s lagging but it’s not. But really, this was far more stock Android than not.
With all of that, I was sold. I’ll admit that I tentatavely held out for Google I/O in hopes they would announce an updated Nexus 5 which of course they didn’t because screw you that’s why. After that I pulled the trigger, and I pulled it hard. I even upgraded for one day shipping.
Inside the box was the phone, a wall charger, a USB cable, a sim card ejector, and incredibly a pair of high quality JBL earbuds. I’d say the headphones are worth and easy $20 at least. They’re really great! All the other accessories were equally high quality. They definately did not skimp on packaging or accessories, something surprising in a phone this low budget.
When I first took the phone out of the box, I was a little bit shocked at how large it is. Sure they say 5.5 inches but who the heck knows what that actually feels like? Though now that I say that, the iPhone 6+ is also 5.5 inches. My friend Colton got one of those and when I saw it I was in disbelief. It just seemed unusabely huge. This phone definately feels big, but not as big as the 6+. It has a nice 1080p display that really looks quite good. In fact, it is the best display I have ever seen when in direct sunlight. In the past I’ve just gotten used to not being able to see anything on my phone if I was outside in the sun, but this phone isn’t like that. It’s almost hard to explain. I have no idea what they did to the display to make that happen, but other phones have a lot to take from here.
I should go back to the speakers. They are absolutely incredible. They reach levels almost ludicrously loud. Setting an alarm I had to set it on the lowest possible setting other than mute in order to not completely fall out of my bed in the morning. Music, movies, and games all sound incredible on this. Combine that with a 5.5 inch laminated 1080p display and this phone is a true media experience. Something I had never seen or expereinced on really any portable device, especially a phone. Showing my wife a funny video I came across was an absolute treat, even in a busy restaurant. The speakers can more than handle it. I find myself actually using the phone as more of a portable speaker. Playing music while in the shower is totally fine. I probably wouldn’t DJ my housewarming party with it, but it’s great for pretty much anything other than that. While navigating, I enjoy getting crystal clear directions, even if the phone is in my pocket.
Speaking of having the phone in my pocket, it doesn’t like to stay there! I think it’s a combination of how big the phone is, as well as how thin and light it is, but it just slides right out of my pocket. I’ve had to fish it out from under the car’s seat several times. Even at work sometimes sitting in my chair, I’ll just hear a plop and the phones on the ground. That issue has been negated somewhat by using a cheap (though nice) gel/rubbery case.
The real reason for buying a case wasn’t so much to help with the sliding, but another issue. The screen’s bezels are so thin on the sides that when holding it with one hand I frequently would accidentally touch the sides of the screen and click things and wreak all sorts of havok. Who would have thought, the phones bezels being too thin would be an issue? That was really why I got the case, just to give me a little something more to hold onto. And it’s a nice case as well, super thin and looks great. With the added protection, it’s more than worth it.
Another slight annoyance is the button layout. The power button is on the upper left side, with the volume buttons on the upper right side. Basically opposite from any other phone. I have no clue why Alcatel would go for something like that, but it’s a really minor issue. You could say that there’s just as much reason to have the power on the left as there is to have it on the right. And it was maybe a day getting used to so no complaints there. One tiny quirk is that the micro USB charging slot is not centered on the bottom of the phone, but more off to the right of the bottom of the phone. Again, not really an issue, but it’s just interesting.
The Idol 3 has an incredible battery in my opinion. 3000mah, roughly on par with the 6+’s battery. This thing can go all day with NFC, WiFi, cellular, as well as moderate use with at least 50% left at the end of the day. That I love. It seemed like my Nexus 5 just ripped through it’s battery, whether I used it or not. It will be interesting to see if battery life diminishes at all as I use it more.
The software was a little bit worst and a little bit better than I expected it. Most of the apps are the stock Android Open Source apps. Things like the dialer, clock, etc. The issue is that those open source apps aren’t really considered to be “stock” Android apps because Google has gone off and made their own proprietary versions. So they are not the same apps that show up on a Nexus device. Well, I guess that’s not entirely true. It’s very close. It came pre loaded with some “bloatware” apps. I actually don’t even remember what they were because uninstalling them was the first thing I did. Keyword there: uninstall. Because you can. You’re not locked into anything. Alcatel also included a few of their own utility apps like a file manager, a notes app, and a sound recorder. They are high quality and actually usefule. They keep very much the theme of material design and I think you’d be surprised to find out Google didn’t make them. They’re all things I had on my phone anyways, so it’s just nice to have them there. The phone does have a slightly tweaked launcher, but I uninstalled that in favor of the Google Now Launcher. The only drawback is that the phone features a double tap to wake/lock feature. Waking works fine (well, sort of), but double tap to lock only works in their stock launcher. Oh well I guess. It also has an FM radio built in, which is cool and maybe potentially useful?
I think the camera app is custom made my Alcatel. I tried the Google camera, and it was laggy and didn’t work nearly as well as the stock camera, so I switched to that. I rarely take pictures on my phone, so it is a bit of a moot point for me. I can say that the camera doesn’t dissappoint me. I have a DSLR camera for when I want to take DSLR quality photos. Snapping pics of my son works just fine with this camera. I guess I’m neither impressed or uninmpressed. I just don’t really care about a phone’s camera. If it didin’t have one, I might not even notice.
The double tap to wake just doesn’t really work that well. Half the time it straight up doesn’t work, and when it does it takes so long to respond that I’ve already pressed the actual button and they end up cancelling each other out. Alcatel has promised to tweak it in future updates, but we’ll see what happens. Honestly I’m not really crossing my fingers, though software updates are what will make or break this phone.
Community support (aka custom roms) is still very limited (nonexistant) at this point. It’s just too early to tell. Alcatel has promised to release the source code for the bootloader and rom in order to comply with the GPL. I honestly have faith that they will. It will be nice to see where we’re at a year from now.
At the end of the day, it’s not a “flagship killer” by any means. It isn’t supposed to be either though. This phone is intended to redefine what an off-contract phone can be, and it certainly does that. Alcatel put more thought into what customers might actually want than Samsung could do if their lives depended on it. I think that’s the best way to describe this phone: it’s just great to use. I don’t need lasers in my camera. I don’t need 100 megapixels in my camera. I don’t want a 4k display crammed into my pocket. And I don’t need an 8 core processor with 8 gigabytes of ram to check my email. This phone has exactly the specs it needs to have. Nothing more, nothing less. With that, it has exactly the price it needs to have. This is the first portable I’ve owned that I felt like I could actually use for what I wanted to do with it. It looks great, and it feels great. I don’t regret getting rid of the Nexus 5 at all. I’m sure other phones will come along, and I can only hope they take some queus from this incredible phone.
Here are some crappy photos taken in horrible lighting: