Aug 9th, 2016 publishUpdated   Oct 27th, 2017, 3:12 pm

The battle for the biggest and baddest smartphone always dominates the headlines these days, but there are a lot of interesting mid-range devices which are worth paying attention to. The Alcatel Idol 4S is one of those devices.

While mid-range phones typically come with standard HD displays and paltry amounts of RAM, the Idol 4S has a 5.5-inch Quad HD panel, 3GB of RAM and 32GB of onboard storage. Priced at $400, the Idol 4S is a steal when compared to mid-range devices from LG, Samsung and HTC. And that’s before you factor in the included VR headset, JBL earphones, Incipio case and tempered glass screen protector that are included in the box.

Alcatel Idol 4S Specifications

  • 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display
  • Snapdragon 652 processor
  • 3GB of RAM
  • 32GB internal storage
  • microSD card support (up to 200GB)
  • 16MP main camera with two-tone dual-LED flash, f/2.0 aperture, Sony IMX298 sensor
  • 8MP front-facing camera with and 84° wide-angle lens and flash
  • Front-facing stereo speakers (JBL certified)
  • 3,000mAh battery
  • Quick Charge 2.0
  • Android 6.0 Marshmallow

Design

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At quick glance, the Alcatel Idol 4S could easily be confused with the Samsung Galaxy S6. The phone features glass panels on its front and back and an aluminum frame which wraps around the edges of the phone. The glass panels are a little smaller than the frame of the phone, revealing the stereo speaker grills on both the front and back sides of the phone. The choice of build materials and unique design elements give the Idol 4S quite an attractive look. The metal frame is a bit sharp in the hand, but not too unpleasant. One thing is certain, the Alcatel Idol 4S looks and feel like a phone that should be selling for $600.

The only element of the design I’m not particularly fond of is the placement of the Boom Key – a multi-function button which enhances the user experience when using the phone’s stock apps. Its design and feel bring back memories of the power buttons on Sony devices from a few years back, but its placement relegates the actual power button to the left edge. Fortunately, you can double tap on the phone’s display to turn it on or off.

Performance & Battery

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For a mid-range device, the Idol 4S performs quite admirably. The Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor used inside the phone is powerful and its 3GB of RAM is adequate for quick multi-tasking. The phone won’t be able to keep up with flagship devices running on a Snapdragon 820, but it’s more than capable of playing games like CSR2, Leo’s Fortune or any other of the stunning 3D games available on Android. The games themselves take a while to load, but once they do, the gaming experience is surprisingly enjoyable.

The phone’s battery life isn’t anything special, but it manages to keep the phone running for a bit longer than you might expect. The non-removable 3,000 mAh cell is exactly what you’d expect from a phone in this category. Despite the phone’s 5.5-inch QHD display, the Idol 4S can easily manage 14-16 hours between charges for heavy users with more than 4 hours of screen-on time.

With light use, the Idol 4S can even manage to make it through two full days. Since the phone is using a Qualcomm chip, it support’s Quick Charge 2.0. This means to can charge the phone from zero to 30 percent in roughly 15 minutes or charge the battery completely in roughly 70 minutes.

Audio

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The phone’s gaming enjoyability factor is enhanced by the JBL-certified stereo speakers on the Alcatel Idol 4S. If you’re looking for a phone with great audio, you definitely need to hear what this phone is capable of.

While most devices on the market rely on a single speaker on the bottom edge or back side of the phone, the stereo speakers on the Idol 4S are uniquely designed to pump out audio on the front and back of the phone. There’s simply nothing like it on the market. The phone’s audio experience is also enhanced by the Waves MaxxAudio app which allows you to select various equalizer presets for music and movies or create your own to fit your personal preferences. While the HTC 10’s custom audio tuning is hidden away in the phone’s settings, 4S users can quickly toggle between the various presets from quick settings.

The included JBL earphones won’t be winning any prizes for outstanding audio quality, but they are comfortable and their build quality is a step above what you usually get with a $400 phone.

Software

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The Android 6.0.1 software build on the Idol 4S is like a breath of fresh air when compared to the heavy Android modifications that are imposed on Samsung and LG smartphone owners. If you look past the rounded-corner icons and the lightly tweaked app launcher, you might think that the phone is running on stock Android. A nice refinement that Alcatel has added is a parallax and blur effect to its stock launcher. The wallpaper moves slightly when the phone is rotated and then blurs when your finger approaches the display.

You also get Alcatel’s version of the always-on display which shows the clock and notifications when the phone is picked up or pulled out of your pocket. In addition to double tapping the screen to turn it on or off, the 4S also includes gesture shortcuts which can be customized to launch specific apps when you trace the letters C, W, M or e on the display when it is turned off. We’ve seen these features on devices from Motorola, Samsung and Huawei before, but it’s nice to see Alcatel incorporated them as well.

As for the Boom Key, the Idol 4S could have done without it. The purpose of the button is to make the user experience better, but there simply aren’t enough Boom enhancements built into the phone to make it worth having a dedicated hardware button for. We’re sure that some people will enjoy the Boom weather enhancements on the homescreen or the instant collage in the photo gallery when the button is pressed, but the only thing I used the button for was to snap pictures with the camera.

Virtual Reality

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The only aspect of the phone’s software that could use a little more work is pre-installed VR applications found on the Idol 4S. In an effort to keep the VR experience as simple as possible, Alcatel has its own VR launcher and VR store apps. The VR launcher is pretty similar to the Google Cardboard app, but the VR Store is simply a library displaying a small selection of VR apps available on Google Play.

Using the app could give users the impression that there isn’t a whole lot of VR content for them to consume and interact with. Google doesn’t have a dedicated VR section within Google Play yet, but Alcatel could have come up with a better solution for their VR store.

Fortunately, the VR headset which is included with the phone is a lot better than most Google Cardboard kits out there. Remove the front panel, snap the phone into place, adjust the elastic Velcro straps and you’re all set for your virtual adventure. The headset isn’t too heavy and the capacitive buttons located along its bottom edge allow you to easily interact with the VR content with your thumbs. The lenses aren’t adjustable, but that’s to be expected since it is a free accessory.

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Playing the pre-installed VR games and watching 360-degree video with the Alcatel Idol 4S’s VR headset is an enjoyable experience. My daughters have wasted a handful of hours with it over the past week and friends who have tested it have all been amazed when putting the headset on. If you’re really into VR, there are a lot of better options out there, but the Idol 4S may be the perfect device to get people hooked on VR.

It’s worth noting that the phone’s 5.5-inch display plays a huge factor in delivering an enjoyable VR experience. A QHD AMOLED display is typically not seen in phones at this price point. The display is sharp, bright and its preset color balance didn’t pose any issues for me. Those who have issues with the color tone can tweak the display settings to their liking. Like most AMOLED panels these days, the display is still usable in direct sunlight and can get extremely dark if you’re using it in bed at night. I didn’t have any issues with viewing angles unless you count the glare from the protective glass panel.

Camera

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When you buy a mid-range smartphone, you typically don’t expect to get a device with a good camera. That’s not the case with the Alcatel Idol 4S. The camera on the back is equipped with a Sony IMX298 sensor, f/2.0 aperture lens and two-tone dual-LED flash. If you don’t know, the Sony IMX298 is the same sensor used in the OnePlus 3, Huawei Mate 8 and Xiaomi Mi 5.

Capturing a good shot is pretty easy. Contrast, exposure, and white balance fall in line perfectly most the time. If you’re the type who enjoys taking full control, the manual mode allows you to adjust the ISO, shutter speed, white balance and focus settings manually. The images captured by the Idol 4S are quite good and the shutter speed is quick enough to freeze moving object without much blur. Like some of the phones mentioned above, the 4S performs adequately in low-light, but it’s not on the same level as the HTC 10 or the Galaxy S7. There’s typically a lot of noise in the shots and you can easily end up with a blurry image if you don’t keep the phone stable. The only thing I’m not really fond of is the phone’s HDR photos since you often get glowing halo effect where the sky meets the object in the foreground. Hopefully, this can be addressed with a future software update.

The images captured by the Idol 4S are quite good and the shutter speed is quick enough to freeze moving objects without much blur. Like some of the phones mentioned above, the 4S performs adequately in low-light, but it’s not on the same level as the HTC 10 or the Galaxy S7. There’s typically a lot of noise in the shots and you can easily end up with a blurry image if you don’t keep the phone stable. The only thing I’m not really fond of is the phone’s HDR photos since you often get a glowing halo effect where the sky meets the object in the foreground. Hopefully, this can be addressed with a future software update.

Those who love snapping selfies will be more than happy with the 8MP front-facing camera. It can even capture decent selfies in a low-lit restaurant thanks to the front-facing flash. Just be sure you turn down the beauty mode setting so that the faces in your pictures don’t come out as a smudgy mess.

Conclusion

If the Alcatel Idol 4S was judged against mid-range devices from HTC, Samsung LG and Sony, it would stand head and shoulders above the competition. The problem is that we have flagship-level devices from Xiaomi, OnePlus and ZTE which are also selling for $400. While most of these devices have a compromise or two, they all feature much faster processors and RAM.

But that doesn’t make the Idol 4S a bad buy. The phone’s clean software, gorgeous display and impressive audio give the Idol 4S a unique experience which isn’t offered by the low-cost flagship phones from China. In the end, it’s up to the buyer to decide if more processing power (which isn’t really a necessity) is more important than the other refinements offered by Alcatel.

Alcatel Idol 4S
Rating: star_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_empty (4.0 / 5)

The Good

  • Beautiful glass and metal design
  • Great audio
  • High-quality display

The Bad

  • A bit under powered
  • Camera HDR halo effect
  • Overpriced when compared to similarly-priced devices

The Bottom Line

If you’re looking for a well-rounded mid-range smartphone with a great audio experience and a handful of bundles accessories in the $400-range, you can’t go wrong with the Alcatel Idol 4S.

 

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