Alcatel One Touch Idol (Unlocked) review

The unlocked Alcatel One Touch Idol smartphone is light and attractive, but that's not enough to make up for dated hardware and lackluster performance.
Photo of Alcatel One Touch Idol (Unlocked)

You might have seen the Alcatel One Touch Idol in Iron Man 3. I haven’t seen it yet, but with its sleek, thin design, I can see how the Idol looks like a natural pairing for Tony Stark’s rich-boy bravado. But I can’t imagine that Iron Man himself would ever use a device that’s so behind the times. The Idol has no LTE, for instance. There’s no HSPA+ either, which means you’re stuck in the Internet slow lane. Performance is less than stellar across the board, voice dialing doesn’t work, and the camera takes photos that border on impressionistic. The attractive design and $299.99 price tag may make the Idol seem tempting, but you don’t need to spend more money to score a much better phone.

Design and Call Quality
Aside from the price, the best thing the Idol has going for it is its design. The phone measures 5.24 by 2.66 by 0.31 inches (HWD), which feels like the perfect size for a big-screen phone you can still comfortably hold in one hand. It is extremely thin, and at just 3.88 ounces, Alcatel claims this is the lightest phone available for its size.

The phone has a unibody construction, made entirely of high-quality plastic designed to look like brushed aluminum, with a buttonless, all-glass front panel. I reviewed the silver model, but the phone comes in a number of much louder colors like green, red, and turquoise. There’s a volume rocker and SIM cards slot on the right, a headphone jack and Power button on the top, and a microSD card slot on the left. The back of the phone is completely sealed, so there’s no access to the 1,800mAh battery. I prefer a removable back, so you can carry a spare battery if necessary, and the Idol was only good for 6 hours and 31 minutes of talk time on AT&T’s network.

The Idol’s 4.7-inch IPS LCD is a mixed bag. It gets very bright, but the 960-by-540-pixel resolution makes it considerably less sharp than many of the 720 and 1080p screens we’ve been seeing lately, on phones like the Oppo Find 5 and Sony Xperia ZL. Alcatel claims there’s a special coating on the display that repels fingerprint oil, but it didn’t seem to look noticeably different than any number of new phones we’ve tested.

The Idol is unlocked, so you can use it on either AT&T or T-Mobile’s network, or with smaller GSM-based carriers like Simple Mobile (which uses T-Mobile’s network). But no matter which carrier you choose, the Idol is running at painfully crippled network speeds. There’s no LTE support, or even HSPA+. The phone maxes out at HSPA 7.2, which places you firmly in 3G territory. I tested the phone on AT&T’s network and got fine reception, but the phone struggled to reach download speeds of 1Mbps. Uploads were even worse. That means unless you’re connected to Wi-Fi (the phone supports 802.11 b/g/n), using the Idol can feel frustratingly slow.

At least call quality is good. Voices sound extremely crisp and clear in the phone’s earpiece. Calls made with the phone sound round and full, though aggressive noise cancellation can make voices sound slightly muted. The speakerphone is not loud enough to hear outdoors. I paired the phone with a Jawbone Era Bluetooth headset. Calls sounded fine, but I was unable to use voice dialing. I tried again without the headset, but the voice dialing app doesn’t seem to work at all.

Performance, Android, and Apps
We’re seeing more and more quad-core phones every day, but so far there’s nothing wrong with a phone still powered by a good dual-core processor. Unfortunately, this one isn’t. The Idol uses a dual-core 1GHz MediaTek MT6577 chip, which turned in some pretty low benchmark scores. It’s fast enough that navigating your way around the phone feels fine, but opening apps can take a while, and 3D gaming performance is poor. You’ll still be able to run most of the 800,000+ apps in the Google Play store, but they may not run optimally.

(Next page: Camera, Multimedia, and Conclusions)

The Idol runs Android 4.1.1 (Jelly Bean)—that’s good. But Alcatel says it doesn’t plan to upgrade the phone to newer versions of Android in the future—that’s bad. Since you’re stuck with the version of the OS onboard indefinitely, you’d better like it.

Alcatel hasn’t done much to modify Google’s stock OS, aside from some graphical changes here and there. You get five customizable home screens to swipe between, which come preloaded with some core apps from Google. There’s quite a bit of bloatware on the phone, like AVG AntiVirus, Evernote, Facebook, and Twitter, but you can delete them if you don’t want them.

If you want to share the content of your phone on the big screen, there’s DLNA support and Alcatel’s One Touch Share app. There’s no NFC support, and little else in the way of extras.

Camera, Multimedia, and Conclusions
The phone comes with just 2.17GB of internal storage available. My 32 and 64GB SanDisk cards worked in the empty microSD slot, which helps offset the paltry amount of built-in storage.

The phone comes with a decent pair of wired earbuds with an attached mic. I was able to play AAC, MP3, OGG, and WAV music files, but not FLAC or WMA. Sound quality was fine over the included headphones, as well as another pair I had lying around, but for some reason I couldn’t properly connect my pair of Bowers and Wilkins C5 headphones to the phone. Though they use the same 3.5mm jack, they just wouldn’t fit. So if you can, you may want to make sure your headphones will fit before buying. For video, all of our test files played back at resolutions up to 1080p, except for H.264 files, which maxed out at 720p. And while watching videos, audio was slightly out of sync over a pair of Bluetooth headphones.

The Idol’s 8-megapixel rear camera is a major letdown. It snaps photos quickly, in just 0.4 second, but that’s about all it has going for it. The photos I took all had a pinkish cast and poor color reproduction. Fine detail is nonexistent; it looks like someone slathered the lens with jelly. The same goes for the video camera, which records 720p video at 29 frames per second, but is seriously lacking detail. There’s a 2-megapixel camera on the front of the phone, which is fine, but no great shakes.

I may not have see the third one, but the Alcatel One Touch Idol is a lot like an Iron Man movie itself: Sleek and glitzy on the outside, but not much going on aside from the Hollywood good looks. If you want an unlocked phone in this price range, your best bet is the Google Nexus 4, which has a sharper display, better camera, more powerful quad-core processor, and faster network speeds. Your options increase the more you’re willing to pay. The Sony Xperia ZL has all the same improvements as the Nexus 4, along with LTE support and an even better video camera, but it costs more than twice price. There’s also the unlocked version of the HTC One. We haven’t reviewed it yet, but the carrier models we’ve tested, like AT&T’s, have been fantastic. And if you don’t necessarily need an unlocked phone, the Samsung Galaxy S 4 is available on all of the major carriers, and gets our vote for the best Android phone right now.

Specifications
Phone Capability / Network GSM, UMTS
Screen Resolution 960 x 540 pixels
NFC No
Dimensions 5.23 x 2.65 x 0.31 inches
802.11x/Band(s) 802.11 b/g/n
Video Camera Resolution 720p Rear
720p Front-Facing
Battery Life (As Tested) 6 hours 31 minutes
Available Integrated Storage 2.17 GB
GPS Yes
Service Provider AT&T, T-Mobile
Total Integrated Storage 4 GB
High-Speed Data EDGE, HSPA 7.2
Weight 3.88 oz
Screen Type IPS LCD
Operating System as Tested Android 4.1.1 (Jelly Bean)
Physical Keyboard No
Camera Resolution 8 MP Rear
2 MP Front-Facing
Screen Pixels Per Inch 234 ppi
Bands 850, 900, 1800, 1900
microSD Slot Yes
Form Factor Candy Bar
Screen Size 4.7 inches
Bluetooth Version 4

Verdict
The unlocked Alcatel One Touch Idol smartphone is light and attractive, but that's not enough to make up for dated hardware and lackluster performance.
Published under license from Ziff Davis, Inc., New York, All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2012 Ziff Davis, Inc