The Idol 4S is a lot of things.
Alcatel's first truly flagship phone is one of the most affordable ways to get into VR right now. It's smart and it's fast and it's packed with features. And it might even be a big enough bargain to rival the mighty OnePlus 3.
In case you think I’m going loopy, run through a checklist of must-have phone features in your head. 2K OLED screen? Expandable storage? Fast CPU and loads of memory? Camera tech from a big-name brand? The Idol 4S has them all. Oh, and I think it looks pretty good for the price too.
ALCATEL IDOL 4S DESIGN - ALL ABOUT THAT GLASS
When I say that the Alcatel Idol 4S looks 'pretty good', that is with the 'at this price' caveat. It was never going to truly rival high-end phones from the likes of Apple and Samsung for appearances - but then again it costs half the price. The OnePlus 3 is the real competition, and here it's a much closer-run thing. Ultimately though, the French challenger just loses out. There’s just that little bit too much plastic, and the glass back feels just that little bit dated.
That doesn’t mean Alcatel hasn’t paid attention to the little things, though. The metal frame gives it a sturdy, rigid feel, even if it doesn’t weigh very much in the hand at a lowly 149g. Look a little bit closer and you’ll spot stereo speakers on the front and back of the phone - but more on those later.
My review sample had a subtle black finish, but that’s not the only colour on offer. Naturally, you get a choice of metal hues to choose from, as seems to be mandatory for all 2016 phones. Thanks, Apple.
One of the features Alcatel is promoting about the Idol 4S is its 'mirrored design'. This supposedly means that it doesn’t matter which way you pull the 4S out of a pocket, with the display rotating accordingly. OK, so the power button floats around in no-man's land near the top of the phone when it should really be in the middle for true symmetry, but tap to wake means you don’t have to scramble for it. If Alcatel somehow manages to fit a screen on the back for the sequel, it would be truly ambidextrous. Something to think about, chaps?
Also, there might be a 5.5in screen up front, but the whole thing sits comfortably in the hand.
ALCATEL IDOL 4S SCREEN - OLED BRILLIANCE
The screen is Alcatel’s trump card, the one feature that’s guaranteed to turn heads - if you’re after a budget phone that looks the business, you’re going to struggle to do better than a 2K OLED display.
That 2560x1440 resolution is easily sharp enough to do justice to your smartphone snaps, full HD video, or any forays into virtual reality. The fact that it's an OLED means you get pure self-illuminating gorgeousness, too. Dark pics and videos look brilliant, with deep blacks and rich colours.
In fact, things look a little too vibrant at times - but fortunately Alcatel has plucked a trick out of Samsung’s book and added a colour temperature setting so you can tweak things to suit your own taste.
Brightness doesn’t hit the lofty highs of Samsung’s Galaxy S7 when you step outside, which can be a real problem on sunny days. Inside, you’re fine, but you’ll need to step into the shade to see things properly outdoors. Still, it comes pretty close for the cash.
ALCATEL IDOL 4S AUDIO - TURN IT UP
The Idol 4S is a multimedia marvel for other reasons, too - mainly the twin speakers that pump out properly powerful stereo sound. There are grilles on the front and back, so audio gets fired straight at your ears, and won’t sound muffled when you put the phone down on a desk.
You’ll be blown-away by just how loud they can go - forget pairing it to a Bluetooth speaker, you can fill a small room with sound just using the phone by itself. You might not get the party started once there’s a bit of background noise, but for solo Netflix or Spotify sessions, you’ll be fine.
Sound quality is pretty damn good too, with a clear mid-range. Bass was always going to be a bit weak, but the top-end had a surprising amount of detail. Think US$50 Bluetooth speaker quality and you’re not far off. You’ll still want a pair of headphones for critical listening, but the bundled pair of JBL in-ears do a fine job if you don’t have any to hand.
ALCATEL IDOL 4S FEATURES - HERE COMES THE BOOM
It helps that you’ve got a built-in EQ which tweaks the sound to suit a wider range of music genres - and that’s only one use for the very handy Boom Key, a physical button which serves several purposes.
For instance, it can also double up as a screen wake button when the phone’s sat on a desk, or activate custom modes and features once you’re inside the OS.
I set it up as a camera key - launching the camera app and then doubling as a physical shutter button once I was inside. There’s no halfway press to focus, but it’s still handy to have. Maybe you’re an Instagram addict instead? You can use it launch any app from anywhere in Android, so you never miss a chance to tag your tea and bag those all-important likes.
The camera itself is really impressive for the money. Alcatel’s pinched a 16MP Sony sensor, complete with phase detect autofocus and an LED flash, which means it can cope with most shooting situations.
It does a great job with details, especially when you get up close, but in bright sunlight (and with HDR turned on), things can start to look unnaturally vivid. You’ll have to experiment, as there’s no instant preview.
HDR can work well, but we got just as many shots that ended up over-processed and exaggerated. Flicking on HDR also slows things down, taking about a second to fully capture each shot.
Colour noise can start to creep into your pics in even the brightest lighting conditions, but only when zooming in - you won't notice it at all if your snaps are destined for your Facebook feed. Even more noise starts to creep in once the light levels drop, and you've got to hold the phone steady for at least a second to stop it from blurring your snaps.
That’s hardly a surprise from a mid-range phone, though, and for the most part the Idol 4S is the ideal smartphone snapper for social media addicts.
ALCATEL IDOL 4S OPERATING SYSTEM - ICON EYE-SORE
Beyond the Boom key, the other stand-out software tweak is the aforementioned reversible OS. Turn it on and you’ll always be the right way up, whatever way you pull the phone out of your pocket. Gimmicky? Definitely. Handy? Very.
Alcatel’s loaded the phone with apps, but most just duplicate the features and functions Google already does better. The default launcher won’t let you hide them either, so you’ll need to add a different one if you want to keep things clean.
You mostly get a stock Android experience underneath Alcatel’s changes - you’ve just got to look past the cartoony icons.
ALCATEL IDOL 4S PERFORMANCE - SETTLE FOR SILVER
You’ve got to wade through a fair bit of pre-installed bloat, sure, but the Idol 4S feels pretty snappy in day-to-day use. That’s mostly thanks to the Snapdragon 652 CPU inside it, which is a lot quicker than the Mediatek chips you usually find in cheap phones.
It’s an octa-core CPU, so it’s pretty tasty when it comes to apps and games. Or at least it would be, if it was paired with a 1080p screen. As it’s actually driving a 2K panel, you’ll spot a fair few dropped frames and stuttery scenes in more intense games.
It won’t challenge any Snapdragon 820 phones - namely the OnePlus 3, which is faster in benchmarks and in games. It all boils down to what you want from a phone: put up with merely average power and you’ll get a higher-res OLED screen.
The battery takes a bit of a pounding when you’re mainlining Pokemon Go, but for everyday use, it holds up pretty well. I managed 10 hours of streaming video from a single charge, which should be enough to get you through the whole day - as long as you’re not slamming VR as well as snapping photos or scrolling through Facebook.
ALCATEL IDOL 4S VR - GOGGLE BOX
That middling CPU leaves the Idol 4S in a bit of a dilemma.
It ships with a VR headset in the box, and has plenty of pre-installed content that goes much further than Google Cardboard, but without the frame rates to back it all up, goggling up can leave you feeling pretty woozy. You’re not guaranteed to lose your lunch - I personally had no problems in VR, but others that tried it could only manage a few minutes before they had to take a break.
The headset itself is great stuff for the cash, with an elastic head strap for hands-free VR and touch-sensitive controls on the bottom. It doesn’t plug in over USB like Samsung’s Gear VR, but the phone is still clever enough to know when you’ve loaded it into the front.
It’s best for 360-degree videos and photos, where the frame rate stays consistent, and some of the pre-loaded games are fine for a five-minute blast, but once more detailed VR games appear the Idol 4S will start to struggle.
If you want to get the best mobile VR experience you'll be better waiting for Google Daydream-ready phones to arrive in 2017, but if you want VR now this is a great budget setup.
ALCATEL IDOL 4S VERDICT
OK, so it doesn’t quite beat the brilliant OnePlus 3 in the style stakes. Glass backs are all just a bit 2014, and it feels like there’s a fair share of plastic in there too. But the Idol 4S more than makes up for those minor flaws with some top-notch hardware.
That screen is gorgeous, the speakers are so insanely loud you don’t need Bluetooth to get the party started, and even though it doesn’t have the fastest CPU around, it still makes Android feel snappy. VR is a nice little bonus, even if it can’t quite keep the frame rates high enough for the latest games.
We’re not ready to call it a sleeper hit just yet, but don’t be surprised if it ends up shifting huge numbers - and not just in Alcatel’s native France. Maybe this time next year we'll be proclaiming its successor the heir to the OnePlus 3's throne...