Alcatel may not be a phone maker that rings a bell with you, but it's a fairly prolific enterprise that's inching its way into the U.S. market with phones like Cricket's Alcatel Authority and the better Alcatel One Touch Idol, an entry-level Android 4.1 Jelly Bean smartphone.
Before diving into the review, there are three main things to know. First, the One Touch Idol sells unlocked and off-contract for $299 on Alcatel's Web site. Second, the Idol is a 3G-only phone. Really 3G; it doesn't support HSPA+ speeds. For me, this is a major setback, though I realize that not everyone leans on data speed as heavily as I do.
Third, the Idol isn't to be confused with the One Touch Idol X, a thinner phone with a lower resolution camera.
If you're still interested in the Idol despite its chief data speed limitation, I will say that it's an attractive, usable Jelly Bean smartphone that comes in at half the cost of today's top unsubsidized superphones -- and not a bad choice at all for someone minding a budget. Still, I can't recommend it. For the same price, LG's stock Android Nexus 4 offers faster HSPA+ data, double the internal storage, a higher screen resolution, and NFC.
Design and build
Slim and tall with rounded corners and a black face, the One Touch Idol is as anonymous as a dozen other smartphones lined up side by side. The dull, silvery finish on the rim and back plate may not scream "premium," but it classes up the affordable smartphone far more than glossy black plastic.
At 5.2 inches tall by 2.7 inches wide by 0.3 inch thick (or 133 x 67.5 x 7.9 millimeters), the Idol is medium-size by today's standards, and wedges into my jeans for short spurts of back-pocket toting.
It's very light at 3.9 ounces (110 grams) but not so weightless that it feels like a toy. Alcatel boasts that the Idol is also splash-resistant, though I wouldn't plan on taking it for a dunk in the pool.
The Idol's 4.7-inch screen is plenty large as far as I'm concerned, with enough screen real estate to comfortably read Web sites, play games, and watch videos. Screen snobs will sniff at its 960x540-pixel qHD resolution and 234 ppi pixel density.
Above the display is where you'll find the phone's 2-megapixel front-facing camera. Below it, there are three capacitive navigation buttons that, under the command of long or short presses, will go back, home, and pull up a list of recent apps; launch Google Now; and open a shortcut to managing apps, wallpaper, and settings.
Alcatel has sealed the Idol, keeping its internals away from poking and prodding. As a result, you won't be able to switch out the battery on your own and all ports live along the spines.
There's the microSD card slot on the left spine, for instance, and the SIM card door on the right, above a narrow volume rocker. You'll charge the phone through the Micro-USB port along the bottom edge, and will control power and your headset through ports along the top.
An 8-megapixel camera module and LED flash sit near the top of the Idol's b-side.
OS and features
LTE may not be in the cards, but Alcatel does offer plenty for Android fans. The device is fairly current with a Android 4.1 Jelly Bean foundation, which means it'll give you Google Now, a hot-spot feature, and data usage tracking.
NFC capabilities didn't make the cut, which means that there's no Android Beam. There are gestures, however, including ones I really like that will mute an incoming call when you tip the phone over, and lock the screen when you cover it with your hand.
If you're wondering, no, the Idol doesn't run pure Android. Instead, Alcatel has gone the way of most manufacturers to paint on a thin OS layer all its own.
There are still the usual Android behaviors, like pulling down the notifications bar to see more, but following in the footsteps of other manufacturers, the Idol shows off a scrolling bar of one-touch system access icons, like for turning on Wi-Fi and airplane mode, and coarsely adjusting the screen time-out length.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that the Idol won't see much upgrade action; it'll be lower-priority than the One Touch Idol Scribe HD, for instance. Alcatel says there's no planned upgrade path to share at the moment.
However, since Alcatel sells the phone unlocked and not through any carrier, my guess is that any OS upgrade it does receive will come faster than other phones of its class, since it doesn't have to run through carrier rigamarole. Still, I'm also thinking that since it isn't a flagship model, it isn't at the tippy-top of the upgrade priority list.
Cameras and video
Let's talk about the cameras. Numbers-wise, the One Touch Idol has a generous 8-megapixel shooter with an acceptable 720p HD video recording feature and 1080p HD playback.
There's flash and autofocus, and a 2-megapixel front-facing camera to round everything out. Camera features include panorama and HDR modes, a grid, built-in editing tools, white-balance presets, and all the rest. There's also support for continuous shot, plus a few other nicknacks here and there, like a 360-degree setting and taking a still photo while recording video (an Android OS trait).
For the price and position as a beginner's device, I'd never expect the Idol to produce top-shelf image quality. Camera performance is variable and passable, but not great, and some shots absolutely fared better than others.
The camera's flash went off at the right moments, but it had trouble with clarity, sharp lines, and true-to-life color reproduction. The front-facing camera likewise struggled with colors and skin tone, making flesh especially ashy and dull.
The Idol's 720p HD video took good, strong video at this resolution, though the microphone didn't clearly capture quieter sounds a bit further away. Strangely, videos I took on the Idol only played back in portrait mode on my device, never in the landscape orientation. That's clearly a drawback.