Alcatel Idol 5 review: An outstanding Cricket Wireless exclusive

I’ve used phones on all four major carriers in the US – AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. I have opinions about all of them, such as T-Mobile going from bad to arguably the best (for many) in the last couple of years. And Sprint still needs some work. I’ve never used one of the smaller prepaid carriers such as Virgin Mobile or MetroPCS, but my recent experience with Cricket Wireless was so good that I actually ported my number from Verizon during this review. Both the phone and small carrier were among the biggest surprises of the year for me, and the Idol 5 is my current daily driver. So let’s take a look at this duo that kind of blew me away.

Design

Although this is my first Alcatel smartphone, I did use a BlackBerry DTEK50 last year and it was basically the same thing. TCL Corporation makes both Alcatel and current BlackBerry devices, and the DTEK50 was simply a rebadged Alcatel Idol 4. It was a solid bang for the buck at the time at only $299 and really opened my eyes to Alcatel. The design of the Idol 5 is very similar, but there are a few refinements. For starters, it has an all aluminum unibody design instead of just an aluminum frame with a glass or soft plastic (DTEK50) back. The front facing stereo speakers have seven machined holes on the top/bottom of the extended metal frame, where earlier models just had plastic inserts. These are somewhat subtle improvements, but they make a much better impression and the phone feels like it costs more than twice the price. The display is 5.2-inches and the front facing camera has its own flash at the top left. There’s also a white notification light.

The back is a clean slab of aluminum with top and bottom antenna bands that, uh, look like the iPhone 7. It’s a clean design, however, and everyone copies everyone these days. Cricket Wireless is the exclusive carrier and their name is nice and shiny at the bottom, but it’s not overkill. There’s a single 12MP camera at the top left next to a dual-LED flash.

The bottom houses an endangered 3.5mm headphone jack on the left and USB Type-C port with fast charging on the right. A microphone port sits between them. There are small chamfers that span both the top and bottom of the sides and add a bit of class to the design. At only 7.62mm thick (it feels even thinner), it’s a classy, understated device.

The SIM tray sits at the top of the left side with the power button underneath. A microSD tray is behind the SIM with support for up to 256GB cards. The volume rocker is on the right side. I prefer the opposite arrangement (volume on left, power on right), but I got used to it soon enough.

There’s a programmable hardware button under the volume rocker called the “Now key” and can be set to open an app or trigger a function (call a contact, take a selfie, etc.). The BlackBerry DTEK50 had a similar button and it’s great to see it again. I have mine set to take a screenshot, which has proven to be very convenient.

The top of the phone is clean with just a microphone port.

I just can’t say it enough. This simply doesn’t feel like a sub-$200 phone and the design/build quality is right up there with the best from HTC or LG, although Samsung’s Galaxy line is in a class of its own.

Hardware

 Alcatel Idol 5
AnnouncedSeptember 2017
Released October 2017
Display5.2-inch IPS LCD, 424 ppi (1080 x 1920), Corning Gorilla Glass 3
ProcessorMediaTek Helio P20 / MT6757 octa-core CPU 2.35GHz
RAM2GB
Storage32GB with microSD support (up to 256GB)
Rear Camera12MP with dual-tone flash
Front Camera8MP wide angle with CRI flash
Battery2850mAh (non-removable)
ChargingUSB-C with fast charging
SoundDual front facing stereo speakers, 3.5mm headphone jack
SoftwareAndroid 7.0 Nougat
ConnectivityBluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac, NFC
SensorsAccelerometer, ambient light, proximity, compass, gyro
Measurements 148 x 71.88 x 7.62mm
Weight147g
ColorsMetal Gray

Performance

The specs don’t look particularly great on paper, but specs and real-world performance are two different things. I’ve had smoother performance on a Moto Z2 Play than a Galaxy S7, so there’s more to it than just raw horsepower. That being said, this isn’t a top flagship phone and it’s not going to perform like one. Under the hood is a MediaTek Helio P20 coupled with 2GB of RAM. It’s no Galaxy S8, but basic tasks like opening apps, web browsing, watching YouTube, multitasking, etc. were fluid and stutters were virtually non-existent. Alcatel’s Joy Launcher over Android 7.0 Nougat is very light and fairly close to stock, and the smooth performance reflects that. Moderately intensive gaming was great, but the most resource intensive games can bog it down a little. I had no problems playing titles like Plane Simulator 3D and Smash Hit, and the phone never got too hot.

The 5.2-inch 1080p IPS LCD display is one of the best parts of the phone. Viewing angles are excellent and at 424 ppi, it’s as sharp as your eyes can perceive. There is an optional VR headset that could benefit from a QHD display, but I’ll get to that later. With the exception of Samsung’s latest AMOLED panels, this is arguably the best screen I’ve used in quite some time. What makes it particularly great is the amount of control Alcatel gives you to tweak an already solid LCD. The MediaTek processor allows for MiraVision’s Display Picture Quality Optimization, which provides full control of contrast, saturation, sharpness and color temperature. There’s also a “standard” and “vivid” mode if you just want to keep things simple. After tweaking things a bit, my screen looked like a high-end OLED panel, but with perfect LCD white backgrounds. This is not the first device to have such a deep level of display customization, but it’s definitely rare. Google could learn a thing or two here and all phones should provide these settings to users.

Outdoor viewing is solid overall and I could use the display in bright daylight, but if the sun is hitting the screen directly, it can get a little tough. It’s not the brightest LCD out there.

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The front-facing stereo speakers actually rival the Pixel 2. They get loud and stay clear at high volume, with respectable bass and high end. They definitely put bottom firing speakers on $800+ smartphones to shame. The combination of excellent sound and a fantastic display make the Idol 5 a perfect media consuming machine.

Calls were loud and clear through the phone’s earpiece, and the speakerphone was outstanding. Cricket Wireless uses AT&T’s network and my service was solid throughout Los Angeles and during a drive to Palm Desert. I never experienced a dropped call or audio noise, and LTE was fast and reliable.

Battery

The 2850mAh battery is bigger than the Pixel 2’s 2700mAh tank and it got me through a full day and night with around 15% left. That’s cutting it close and heavy users might have to plug in as night approaches, but it comes with Alcatel’s PumpExpress + 2.0 fast charging via USB Type-C. Everyone seems to like fancy names for their fast charging tech, but charging times on the Idol 5 were very impressive. I went from 0 to 100% in about 80 minutes (that’s fast). A battery saver option is also available if you’re away from an outlet.

Software

As mentioned before, Alcatel went with a light approach when overlaying Android 7.0 Nougat and we’re left with a mostly stock experience. It’s more of a Google Launcher than Pixel Launcher, looking a little dated compared to recent Motorola devices or the Essential Phone that adopted the new Pixel design. I personally like what Alcatel has done with its Joy Launcher and never missed the swipe-up gesture for the app drawer.

With the exception of those killer screen controls I mentioned earlier, the programmable Now key, some gesture controls and typical bloatware, this reminds me of the old Nexus phones. And that’s a very good thing. Okay, software updates clearly aren’t the same, but the overall user experience is (after the initial session of uninstalling and disabling crap). Alcatel didn’t try to fix what wasn’t broken and it’s a welcome departure from what Huawei and LG (among others) try to do. I have no desire to install Nova or any other third party launcher. A phone like the Moto G5 Plus might do it slightly better, but Alcatel has done some excellent work here.

Let’s get back to the updates for a second, or lack thereof. The Idol 5 is sitting on Android 7.0 Nougat with an ancient June 5th security patch. Neither is a deal breaker for me, but I understand if it is for some, especially the lack of security updates. And who knows if/when it’ll get Android 8.0 Oreo. If you stick to the Play Store and rarely, if ever, install anything from “unknown sources,” you should be fine. The Amazon Appstore, for example, is one of the only apps I install outside of the Play Store. I also have a free app called Trustlook Security installed for added peace of mind. In addition, Google’s Play Protect continuously monitors your phone for security issues and that alone will keep the vast majority of users completely safe.

This doesn’t excuse Alcatel from not doing a better job updating the phone’s security, but with the other things in place and a general level of user care, you’re very unlikely to encounter a problem (even with the scary headlines we see from time to time).

Camera

The cameras have been another pleasant surprise. The pictures I got were on par or even better than phones costing two or three times as much. There’s a 12-megapixel shooter on the back and an 8-megapixel one on the front, which also has a flash. Outdoor shots were well balanced and sharp, and the only downside was an occasional, slight delay to record the picture. It doesn’t click them as fast as Samsung’s best, but the end results were closer than a sub-$200 phone’s camera should be. And Alaska the horse isn’t very photogenic (but check out Fred the donkey).

Indoor shots were also kind of a shock. My expectations were low, but the camera produced very nice pictures in a wide range of lighting conditions, with excellent exposure and minimal noise.

It wasn’t the best when the lights really went down, but it also wasn’t a disaster. Focus can be a little soft and there’s an expected amount of noise (although not too bad). There are much more expensive phones from Motorola, Essential and Razer that don’t fare much better, however.

Night shots were another real surprise. Taken late at night with a black sky, exposure was great, noise was minimal and the results were more than adequate for sharing on social media. I can’t believe these came from such an inexpensive camera.

The main camera also has an impressive array of options. There’s the increasingly rare manual mode, allowing you to control ISO, shutter speed, color temperature and more. You can shoot both panorama and 360-degree photos, 1080p and slow-motion video, and choose from a variety of fun effects. Cinemagraph creates short, looping clips that add motion to elements in a picture. For example, a candle on a cake will flicker in an otherwise still shot. Light trace allows you to capture streaks of light from moving cars, someone holding a sparkler, etc. HDR and electronic image stabilization (EIS) are also onboard.

There are also a lot of Instagram-like filters available that can be added before or after the shot is taken.

The 8-megapixel front-facing camera can also shoot in 1080p, has a beauty mode, timer, and mirror selfie option, so the picture won’t flip after taking it. You can also shoot a panorama or Instant collage, which stacks one shot on top of another. You simply shoot one that saves at the top, then a second that saves right below it. It’s, well, there if you want it. A questionable feature or two aside, the cameras are packed with useful and fun options, especially given the price.

Virtual Reality

The Idol 5 has an optional virtual reality headset called the UNI360, which retails for $49.99. It’s a well built, comfortable device without a separate hand controller and is more like Google Cardboard than Google’s Daydream View. The phone is also compatible with Cardboard if you currently have a headset. Two large buttons at the top allow you to select an option or go back, and a focusing ring makes it easy to get the virtual world sharp. That sharpness is limited, however, to the phone’s 1080p display and there’s noticeable pixelation. A QHD panel would’ve improved the experience, but for less than $200, I’m happy with 1080p.

The lack of resolution doesn’t make the headset unusable as it’s still a decent VR experience and a lot of fun. Things are a little simple without a separate hand controller, but if you’ve ever used Google Cardboard, you’ll be right at home. Apps from both the included VR store and Google Play will run on the Idol 5, but more intensive games (or a fast movement of your head) can cause the phone to stutter. A Galaxy S8 in a Samsung Gear VR is going to provide a more refined and comprehensive experience, but for an entry level setup, I walked away impressed. I was even able to read a text message and take a phone call while in Alcatel’s virtual world.

Closing

I’ve used a Pixel 2, LG V30 and Galaxy S8 over the last few months, and this sub-$200 phone has impressed me the most. It’s not the fastest phone with the best specs, but for the price, it’s pound-for-pound among the best. The build quality and screen are better than a Moto G5 Plus and the few dollars saved for a Moto E4 isn’t necessarily worth it, but there is a huge caveat. The Idol 5 is only available on Cricket Wireless and I wouldn’t go so far as to recommend that you ditch your current carrier for it. If you’re on Cricket or looking to switch to a less expensive, high-quality network, the phone is then worth serious consideration. It can be had for as little as $149.99 with a number transfer or $179.99 with a new number. No contracts, no payment plans.

There’s another Alcatel smartphone, the Idol 5S, that’s unlocked for all US carriers and can be found for as little as $200 when discounted on Amazon (current price is $279.99). There used to be a less expensive Amazon Prime version with lock screen ads, but it’s apparently been discontinued. The phone is similar to Cricket’s Idol 5, but has a Snapdragon 625 processor and 3GB of RAM, and trades NFC for a rear fingerprint scanner and glass back. It has a silver metal frame instead of dark gray and also works with the UNI360 VR headset. If you want the Idol 5, but also want to stay with your carrier, the Idol 5S is an excellent choice and even a slight upgrade.

I’m well aware that better, near flagship level experiences are out there for just a hundred or two more. In fact, I usually gravitate towards a Galaxy S8 or Pixel 2 caliber device. And although lowish mid-rangers are fun to play with, I rarely consider them to be daily drivers. With the Idol 5, the overall package is just greater than the sum of its parts. The all metal build and front firing speakers are outstanding, and the screen is better than most 1080p IPS displays thanks to a smorgasbord of picture quality controls. The cameras are great, performance is solid, microSD support is there and NFC is included for Android Pay. There’s even a headphone jack. All that being said, it’s not waterproof, doesn’t have wireless charging (and can’t with an all-metal design), lacks a fingerprint scanner and is behind on software updates.

The bottom line… I’m paying $35 per month for 5GB of LTE data and unlimited talk and text on Cricket Wireless, which runs on AT&T’s robust network. I simply can’t get over how good the user experience is for the price (both phone and network). I’ll likely run with this setup well into 2018. It’s just the principle of the thing.


About the Author: Erik Slaven

He was born and raised in Virginia, but escaped to Southern CA. Started out as a BlackBerry addict until he bought HTC’s Droid Eris and never looked back. He's owned dozens of Android devices and can rarely settle on a daily driver for more than a few months. He's currently using a Galaxy S8 and BlackBerry KEYone. He rides motorcycles for fun and would live on the beach if it was legal. Marketing and freelance pr help keep the lights on.