Alcatel’s new Idol 4S doesn’t just play to the manufacturer’s strengths but goes above and beyond them. Though the Idol 4S’ competitive price point doesn’t hurt, the Chinese manufacturer’s latest smartphone delivers an experience that’s polished, modern and not be dismissed on price alone.
From there, the inclusion of virtual reality can’t help but sweeten the deal. All up, there’s a lot to like about the Idol 4S. After a week of regular use, we came away pretty impressed though, as always, the usual caveats apply.
A more-premium upgrade on the similarly-priced Idol 4, the differences between it and the 4S are largely technical.The 4S boasts bigger on-board storage, a superior camera and a more-powerful processor. In fact, given the advantages the Idol 4S offers in terms of performance, we recommend shelling out the extra $200.
A surprisingly thin thing, the Idol 4S’ 5.5-inch AMOLED display makes it nice to look at and nicer still to use. It’s lightweight enough to pull out for rapid use but the frame is solid enough that it never feels fragile. A sleek and steel-lined bundle of glass and aluminium, it bears more than a passing resemblance to more-expensive flagship devices it’s competing with.
On the whole, the whole package feels more expensive than it should.
The Idol 4S comes with a plastic case that clips-onto the device. While this case is very quick to smudge, it does give the Idol 4S a much better fit to your palm – even if having to take it on and off whenever you want to mess around with virtual reality is a bit frustrating.
Both the 4 and 4S feature the same reversible design as the Idol 3 predecessors but they take it further by extending that reversible quality to the speakers. Audio played on loudspeaker sounded clear and pleasantly crisp.
Unfortunately, this didn’t extend during calls. Conversations I had on the Idol 4S often sounded a little muffled. Thankfully, the device comes bundled with a pair of JBL earbuds that help make up the difference.
The Idol 4S also boasts a 16MP rear camera, plus an 8MP one on the front. It’s easy to toggle between the different camera settings and the results, seen below, are quite sharp.
There’s a lot of options here with Idol 4S possessing the functionality to take panoramic images, slow-motion videos and Vine-ready micro-films. It also comes integrated with Fyuse ‘spatial photography’ app.
Performance-wise, the Idol 4S is quick and smooth for the most part. It’s powered by Android 5.0.0 (aka ‘Marshmallow’) and boasts a considerable battery life that lasted between 12 and 15 hours.
Obviously, this can degrades or variate based on how frequently you utilise the VR and other battery-heavy functions.
Beyond that, the biggest feature of the Idol 4S is The Boom Key.
A small, round metal nub, the Boom Key serves a different function depending on the context in which it is pressed. It can act as a quicker way to take photos when the device is in standby-mode, generate collages of photos in gallery mode, summon a three-dimensional weather effect onto your home screen and optimise audio being played through the music player.
It’s an interesting concept but it’s weighted down by half-baked execution. Put more simply: some of the Boom Key functions are more useful than others. It feels like the idea of the key was conceived far in advance of it’s proven utility.
I barely used the weather effect, hardly noticed the difference with optimised audio and rarely opted to generate collages with the Boom Key over Instagram’s superior app.
Still, there’s a lot of potential here – and it is nice that you have the freedom to configure what the Boom Key does. It’s a good feature: hopefully future iterations see it realised with greater dividends.
Both the Idol 4 and the higher-end Idol 4S put virtual reality front and centre – though at this stage it feels like less of a fully-formed feature and more of a glorified tech-demo.
Both come with a set of VR goggles included and a small-suite of OneTouch VR applications pre-loaded.
Though the current software line-up here is a little limited, it remains a cool component of the Idol 4 experience. It doesn’t really sit on the cutting edge of what virtual reality can offer, nor does it feel like a cheap knock-off.
However, the design of the headset (which can be snapped into a carry case with ease) isn’t too shabby – even if it sometimes feels like a glorified Google Cardboard.
The headset itself is reasonably comfortable to wear, the adjustable straps letting you find the best fit. That said, it can occasionally be a hassle to take on and off.
It looks pretty much how you expect, and there’s a definite appeal to that quality – even if it’s a little unrefined in style and quickly garners a collections of smudges.
More frustratingly, the two buttons at the base of the visor (used to select and cancel out of VR applications) often failed to function.
While it’s not exactly a deal-breaker, it certainly kills the mood when you’re trying to show the tech off to someone.
With an Octa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 652 processor and 3GB of RAM behind it, the Idol 4S offers a window into what VR could be – even if it is just a window for now.
It’s an impressive package both despite and because it still fits snugly within that lower-budget space that Alcatel are known for. This is the closest they’ve ever gotten to delivering a ‘flagship at half the price’. While the Idol 4S doesn’t hit every mark, it hits enough of them and hits well enough that some of its competitors should pay attention.
The Alcatel Idol 4S comes with the higher price point of $599 and will go on sale in September, with Alcatel planning to sell directly online to customers if an arrangement with local carriers isn’t reached.