Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 review: Living unlocked doesn’t mean compromising

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Unlocked or locked? That is the question that millions of people have to ask themselves when purchasing a new phone. The biggest factor, and it’s no surprise, is cost. Take a look at any of the latest flagship phones on the market today. The majority of them cost more than $500. The last two years, though, have seen off-contract prices of phones dramatically fall. Now it takes only a few hundred dollars to bring home a phone that is capable of very much. Alcatel OneTouch, a brand underneath TCL Communication, believes to have met a premium experience with an affordable price for everyone with the new Idol 3.

The Idol 3 is touted by Alcatel OneTouch for its ‘3-in-1 experience’ that centers on the display, camera, and sound. The company is not wrong for doing so because those are three areas that consumers look at when purchasing a new phone. Does it look good? Can I take clear photographs? Are the speakers loud? Alcatel OneTouch says yes.

We have our own take on those questions and more regarding the Idol 3. Hit the break for the full review.

Design

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The glass on the front of the Idol 3 sits atop the phone’s body, so you will notice that it’s slightly raised from the rest of the phone. The upper and lower portions of the front have the speakers. Aside from the front-facing camera, you would never know which way the Idol 3 is being held.

The Idol 3 measures 157 x 75.14 x 7.4mm and weighs 140.7g. Those numbers position the Idol 3 as thinner and lighter than the OnePlus One, another 5.5-inch phone that seems to be Alcatel OneTouch’s biggest competitor. Not once did I think about the phone’s weight. The height of the Idol 3 did make one-handed use difficult but manageable.

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The rear has a dark slate color with what looks to be a brushed aluminum finish. No, a brushed aluminum finish is not actually there. That would make the Idol 3 too expensive to be a viable unlocked option. The rear is plastic just like the rest of the phone’s body. Although it does not suffer from ‘flexing’ seen with other plastic devices, the Idol 3 is slippery.

Two ports, one for the audio jack and one for micro-USB charging, are split between the top and bottom of the phone, respectively. In my opinion, audio jacks should not be on top of a phone because any connected wires easily make it uncomfortable to hold. The only two buttons on the Idol 3 also frustrated me because the layout goes against just about all other phones. The two volume buttons are on the right side but the power button sits on the left. Also, both are positioned very high. Buttons need to be reached comfortably on a phone with a 5.5-inch display.

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Hardware

The Idol 3 features a 5.5-inch Full HD (1920×1080) Technicolor IPS display (400 ppi), a 1.5GHz octa-core Snapdragon 615, Adreno 405, 2GB of RAM, 16GB of internal storage, microSD card slot for up to an additional 128GB of storage, 13MP rear camera, 8MP front camera, dual front-facing speakers, 2910mAh battery (non-removable), WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n, and Bluetooth 4.1.

Bands:

GSM Quad (850, 900, 1800, 1900)
UMTS/HSPA+ (850, 1900, 2100, 1700)
4G LTE (2, 4, 5, 7, 12, 17)

Performance

Normally, a flagship phone in the United States would have a processor belonging to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 series. The Idol 3, despite being Alcatel OneTouch’s flagship, instead has the Snapdragon 615 inside. Here, we have eight cores based on 64-bit architecture and Qualcomm designed it to be energy efficient. This processor is no slouch either. I found it to run at the same pace, maybe better or worse at times, as my HTC One (M8) when launching apps, multitasking, or calling upon Google Now. The Idol 3 pleasantly surprised me with running games, especially ones that are complex. I installed Mortal Combat X and it ran smoothly on the Idol 3 without any hiccups. While load times were a bit long, animations refused to stutter and graphics were sharp. I assume the 2GB of RAM does its job very well.

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The 5.5-inch display of the Idol 3 presents itself clearly with Full HD (1920×1080) resolution. However, the Idol 3 does not have a display as dense as the Samsung Galaxy S6 or HTC One M9 because its pixels per inch count comes in at 400. The other two phones have 577 and 441 pixels per inch, respectively. Can our eyes really distinguish a difference between all of those pixels? Not really. Pixels per inch has quickly become another item of the spec sheet for companies to try and one-up each other.

The best part of the display is how vivid and vibrant it is. The Idol 3 has Technicolor Color Enhance technology. Terms like that are sometimes marketing ploys but the Idol 3’s display made my One (M8) look cold and dim. The display was leaps and bounds more visible in direct sunlight, too. And remember, this is an LCD display we are talking about. They typically fall short of AMOLED displays in outdoor tests. Outdoor performance of the Idol 3’s display was excellent.

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Just like the last three flagship phones released by HTC, the Idol 3 has dual front-facing speakers. Through the years, HTC worked with Beats and Dolby to provide powerful stereo speakers. Alcatel OneTouch enlisted JBL Audio for its own dual front-facing speakers. Compared to the One (M8), the Idol 3’s speakers are louder but slightly less crisp. Alcatel OneTouch has solid viewing experience on the Idol 3 due to the execution of the display and speakers. The included earphones are also fine-tuned with JBL/Harman technology.

Battery

The Idol 3 does not operate as a power-hungry phone by not having a Quad HD (2560×1440) display or beastly processor. The non-removable 2910mAh battery serves well by having the Idol 3 powered from morning to night without worry even on just a 4G LTE connection, based on use that ranges from monitoring Twitter to exchanging emails and Hangouts messages to browsing Google Maps throughout the day. With heavier use, of course battery life gets a bit more squeezed. Expect battery life to be greatly extended when the Idol 3 has a hold of a WiFi connection. I found myself using the Idol 3 into the next day before needing its charger.

Software

The phone’s software has been customized only slightly with Android 5.0.2 running at the core. Alcatel OneTouch made very few changes to how the operating system looks and functions. The lock screen and manufacturer-made apps are the only places where you would question it not being a stock Android experience. Alcatel OneTouch went for a very simple experience rather than throwing everything at users like Samsung and LG do.

An extremely thoughtful touch, one that I am amazed with, is the tailoring of apps to align with Material Design. Practically all of the apps that Alcatel OneTouch made itself (20+) match Google’s vision for Android. It elevates the user experience with the Idol 3 because everything feels connected. Congratulations to Alcatel OneTouch for doing something that seemingly no one else cares to do.

The software takes advantage of the look by offering a ‘Reversible’ toggle. When activated, the Idol 3 can be used if it were rotated 180°. It flips content on the display and phone calls work in this mode as well. So, actually, there is no way that one can be told that they are holding the Idol 3 incorrectly.

Any software updates for the Idol 3 will come directly from Alcatel OneTouch. There are no carriers present to act as a middleman since this is an unlocked phone. Because not many people are aware of Alcatel OneTouch’s handling of software updates, the company provided the following statement:

“We’re committed to ensuring that we always have the very best user experience possible and plan to have IDOL 3 software updates available to consumers via over-the-air updates. Timing on these updates will be on a rolling basis as needed.”

Alcatel OneTouch included some pre-installed software from third-party developers, but doing so lowered the cost of the Idol 3. The pre-installed software includes Adobe Acrobat, AVG AntiVirus Pro, Dropbox, Evernote, Facebook, Facetune (Lite), Flipboard, Twitter, WhatsApp, and WPS Office. Did I mention that all ten can be uninstalled? Yes, any of those apps can be removed if you have no use for them. That leaves software from Alcatel OneTouch and Google left.

Camera

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The camera snaps photographs quickly and, in proper lightly, the results are decent. Outside, the Idol 3’s 13MP camera, which uses a Sony IMX214 sensor, produces images that are worth sharing. Enter a low-light setting and pretty much any hope of a quality photo is gone. The Idol 3’s flash somewhat improves things. The issue is that images look grainy and washed out, the lack of optical image stabilization does not help.

The front-facing camera of 8MP takes selfies of standard quality that we have seen from other phones.

There are various modes included: Auto, HDR, Pano, Manual, Time-lapse, Scanner (for QR codes), Face Beauty. The photos below were all taken with Auto.

Outdoors

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Low-light

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Closing

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The Idol 3 is a very appealing option for people seeking to live unlocked. The phone’s display, camera, and sound are unrivaled in the sub-$300 market. The display is vivid and bright, the camera can pull off decent outdoor shots, and the sound cannot go unheard. Alcatel OneTouch did not need the help of a carrier to subsidize the cost of the Idol 3. That’s impressive because I never felt like I made any compromises were made. While the phone is not priced as high as the OnePlus One ($299) or Moto X ($399), the Idol 3 undercuts them at $249 and specifications are competitive. The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 makes it possible to get an affordable unlocked phone that does not feel like you settled.

[Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3] [Amazon]


About the Author: Justin Herrick

Born and raised in New Jersey, Justin is a graduate of Fairleigh Dickinson University where he studied marketing with a focus on digital marketing. He's very talkative and enjoys discussing anything from technology and sports to video games and television. As for Justin's current device rotation, he carries around the Google Pixel and Nexus 9. In the rare case that his phone or tablet is not in his hand, he is either flicking through cards on his Moto 360 (2015) or typing away on the Microsoft Surface Book. Justin is patiently waiting for the day that Google replicates the Galaxy Nexus with modern day specifications.


  • Cole C

    I thought LCD was better for in sunlight

    • Justin_Herrick

      It really depends upon the variant. Super LCD does perform quite well in sunlight.

  • JessieWFong

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  • JAB

    I pre-ordered this phone. Everything was good except for a nasty bulge on the side. Tried contacting the company through Amazon and the emails from their website and no response for over a week now. I wanted to exchange for another one, but seems like I can only get a refund from Amazon. Such a shame, it was a nice phone, but customer service is crap.