Review: The Alcatel Idol 4S launches Windows phones into the VR generation
At $470, however, it's still a significant investment.
By Mark Hachman
PCWorldNov 10, 2016 6:00 am PST
At a Glance
A solid though limited VR experience
Outstanding battery life
Camera can’t quite top the Lumia 950
No NFC tap-to-pay
Aren’t earbuds mandatory these days?
Alcatel’s Idol 4S is the first Windows phone expressly made for virtual reality. Excellent battery life and performance offset a mediocre camera and lack of apps.
Alcatel’s Idol 4S Windows phone debuts at a time when the news grows ever grimmer for this platform. Market share is below one percent, and Microsoft devices chief Terry Myerson downplayed Windows phones in a recent interview. Acer and HP have offered up corporate Windows phones, but consumer devices have largely disappeared. This is where the Idol 4S hopes to make its mark.
Alcatel’s argument is a simple one: Pay $470 (a bit more than the $400 Microsoft charges for its 5.2-inch Lumia 950) and receive a larger, 5.5-inch phone. Add to that a VR headset and a few subscription freebies—a 45-day free trial of Hulu Plus, a 30-day trial of Microsoft’s Groove Music, and a free copy of the Windows 10 Mobile game, Spartan Assault—and you’re buying the best Windows consumer phone on the market. Not that there’s many of them.
A Windows clone of an Android phone
Although I haven’t compared the two phones side by side, the Windows version of the Idol 4S on paper appears to be similar to Alcatel’s existing Android version of the 4S—a surprising reincarnation of the strategy HTC employed with Windows and Android versions of the HTC One M8 in 2014.
Like the HP Elite x3 business phone, the Idol 4S is built around excellent hardware, though peripherals and additional services are what really set each phone apart. The phone itself measures 6.06 x 2.97 x 0.28 inches and weighs 0.33 pounds, a bit on the light side. The single-SIM device (sharing a slot with microSD up to 128GB) has a Qualcomm Snapdragon X12 LTE modem.
The metal-and-glass construction of the Idol 4S looks particularly elegant, with a brass metal band sandwiched between the display glass and the plastic backing. Incidentally, the band extends slightly beyond the glass, offering what appears to be a degree of protection.
The Idol 4S’s 5.5-inch, AMOLED display is where you’ll first discover the differences between the Windows and Android versions. The Android version’s screen is 2560×1440; the Windows version’s is only 1920×1080. The Android version also uses a Qualcomm octa-core Snapdragon 652 chip, while the Windows version includes the more powerful four-core Snapdragon 820. A few other specs favor the Windows phone: Available memory is 3.5GB, versus 3GB for Android, and the included storage is 64GB, double that of the Android version.
In daily use, I was a little surprised that I could stack and stack applications in the background without any apparent slowdown, and everything I threw at the Idol 4S ran fluidly. As our benchmarks demonstrate, the powerful 820 chip places the Idol 4S neck-and-neck with the HP Elite x3 as the most powerful Windows phone.
One of the only native Windows phone benchmarks is AnTuTu, which we’ve broken out for clarity’s sake. Again, the Elite x3 and Idol 4S report virtually identical scores.
I was also shocked at how the Idol 4S battery life excelled. The included non-removable 3,000 mAh battery is powered with a USB-C connector, the de facto cable for modern phones. Part of the long life is certainly due to the 1080p display, its relatively low light output (210 nits at full brightness) and the Snapdragon 820’s power management technology. Still, the Idol 4S lasted a whopping 9 hours, 48 minutes looping our 4K test video, topping the Elite x3’s 9 hours and 28 minutes.
Not everything about the phone was so impressive, though. One key omission is NFC support, meaning the phone won’t be able to use Microsoft’s tap-to-pay Wallet app. I also struggled with the rear-mounted fingerprint sensor, which logs you in via Windows Hello. My finger had trouble finding it, and when it did, its accuracy was unreliable.
The Idol 4S’s 1.2-watt front-facing speakers pack a solid punch, loud enough to comfortably fill a small room. Unfortunately, pushing the volume above about 20 (out of 30) introduces noticeable distortion at the high end. Earbuds are an option, but you’ll have to supply your own. Though Alcatel’s Android Idol 4S ships with JBL earbuds, Alcatel omitted them from the Windows phone bundle.
The Idol 4S doesn’t ship with a display dock, though Alcatel generously supplied a third-party Incipio Digital AV USB-C multiport adapter to prove that it could run the Continuum experience under third-party hardware. It’s a slightly awkward solution —there’s only one USB port, no ethernet, and the cables place the phone at an awkward angle—but the on-screen experience works.
The Idol 4S camera: competent, with a touch of lag
There are three things you should know about the Idol 4S camera: one positive, one negative, and another somewhere in between. First, the good news: its 21MP rear camera sensor (an IMX230 sensor from Sony) ensures crisp pictures. The other, unfortunately, is characteristic of some other Windows phones we’ve reviewed: When you tap the camera icon to take a picture, there’s a noticeable delay (about half a second) before the picture is actually snapped.
Not all is lost, however, as there’s a middle ground: the popular camera button. Even with the screen off and locked, pressing the camera key triggers Microsoft’s camera app. (In the Android version of the Idol 4S, this “Boom button” animates the weather and creates photo collages, features not available in the Windows version.) From there you can tap the button again to shoot, or adjust the settings and focus. Still, as a guy who’s constantly trying to snap shots of his kids as they zoom by, the overall delay disappointed me.
To test the time to shoot, I took pictures of a stopwatch app beginning with the phone’s screen off, measuring the difference between when I pressed the camera button and what the camera actually recorded. I then averaged the shot times together to generate a final score. A lower time is better. (To be fair, even phones with Windows Hello or a PIN require a few seconds to unlock, pushing the HP Elite x3, for example, out of contention.)
In our photo-quality testing, the Alcatel Idol S performed fairly well, at least in full light. We test four lighting scenarios: studio lights at full brightness, minimum brightness, and then under lamplight with and without flash. I didn’t like how the Idol S performed under low-light conditions, with or without flash. See for yourself:
Another possible reason for the lower-quality shots may be the encoder technology. The cameras inside the Acer Liquid Jade Primo and Idol 4S use Qualcomm’s JPG encoder. I discovered that the file size of the first studio photo I shot with the 4S was just 1,345KB, versus 3,670KB for the Lumia 950 at nearly identical resolutions and identical color depths. Sure, Qualcomm’s encoder may be quite efficient. But it’s also possible that quite a bit of digital information is being left on the cutting-room floor, so to speak, degrading the images significantly.
On the other hand, I thought the 8MP front-facing camera shot rather nice selfies. The 84-degree wide-angle lens captures quite a bit in the available frame. Video can be recorded at 1080p (30 frames per second) quality, and played back at 1080p (60 fps).
Something new for Windows: Virtual reality
Unless you have the available funds to pick up a Microsoft HoloLens, the Windows phone world has been basically bereft of augmented or virtual-reality solutions—until now. Each Idol 4S ships with a pair of Idol 4S VR Goggles, and Alcatel clearly intends them to be one of the phone’s chief selling points. Don’t expect to be overwhelmed—with a few exceptions, a lack of available content dims the experience considerably. Generally speaking, though, the available content moves smoothly enough to avoid lag-induced nausea.
Alcatel was clearly inspired by the Samsung Gear VR, and the same basic hardware design applies here. A front cover snaps off, allowing you to clip in the phone and even store it there. A pair of lenses split your vision into separate screens, helping create the stereoscopic 3D imagery that tricks your brain into thinking what you’re seeing is real. An elastic strap holds everything in place.
Alcatel did a bang-up job of designing the goggles’ frame, as long as you don’t put too many demands on it. Everything felt light and quite comfortable, and my eyes adjusted naturally. Plastic shells on the front and rear snap in and contain the dangling straps and smartphone when not in use, wrapping it all up in a neat plastic package.
I don’t wear glasses, however, and there’s no focus knob to make the necessary adjustments for those who do. Alcatel’s goggles also include a pair of control buttons, and the phone has to be properly aligned for them to work. More often than not, they didn’t, though I wasn’t sure if that was due to the apps or a flaw in the hardware itself.
Anyone who knows Windows phones, though, grimaces when they hear “apps” mentioned. Overall, the app landscape for Windows phones has somewhat improved—but not VR. There’s only a trickle of content available, even third-party apps.
Alcatel makes a valiant effort to show off at least some of the VR content via its VRLauncher app, which serves as a hub of sorts for other apps on the phone. Basically, the available content comes down to a bit of 360-degree photos and video supplied by Alcatel itself, a pair of decent 3D VR games, as well as Tube 360, a small series of up-to-date 360-degree videos that are actually worth watching.
Personally, I felt that Alcatel’s bundled videos were the worst part of the experience. I quickly ejected from a 360-degree wingsuit video which didn’t rotate quickly enough to convince my sense of balance that it was in control.
It’s a credit to Alcatel’s hardware designers, though, that the two bundled games—Fibrum’s Captain Fellcraft VR and Zombie VR—played smoothly. Fellcraft was a bit difficult to control—inclining your head from side to side to control an endlessly falling BASE jumper isn’t that comfortable—but I was left without the nausea that the videos induced. The Windows Store app also offers a few VR apps, though most are specifically designed for repurposed Google Cardboard.
Make no mistake about it, however: VR headsets and content in the Android world are leaps and bounds ahead. Compare our Gear VR hands-onfrom 2014, for Pete’s sake. Meanwhile, Windows phones still lack an official YouTube app, let alone one that can show 360-degree content.
The best Windows consumer phone we’ve seen
Your consumers Windows phone choices boil down to two: the Microsoft Lumia 950 or the Alcatel Idol 4S. The Lumia 950’s superior camera offers a significant edge. I’ll back any phone that delivers outstanding battery life, however, and the Idol 4S’s silky-smooth performance complements this feature perfectly. As for VR? Without compelling content, it’s gimmicky, but what little there is, is implemented well.
From here on out, you know the story: Without any assurance of a Surface phone (or device) on the horizon, Windows phones may be on their deathbed. But for those willing to take that chance, the Alcatel Idol 4S delivers.