After years of being thought of as low end, Alcatel is trying to win the hearts and minds of cell users with higher-end fare. But that’s not enough, so they also decided to embrace virtual reality by bundling their latest Android phone with an actual VR headset.
I never talk about packaging, but it’s worth noting that Alcatel very cleverly packed this thing so that the VR headset is essentially the box itself. Everything is really well packed. You get the headset, the phone, a pair of headphones, two straps to hold the set with, and some documentation. Also included are a free case as well as a glass screen protector.
A ton of thought went into this hardware. Take the 4S – it’s a very carefully crafted mix of metal and glass. It’s almost a work of art. Unfortunately, the old truism about art can be paraphrased here – I may not know industrial design, but I know what I like. The large 5.5 phone is totally a phablet, and feels like it. That would be fine, but it also feels slippery. This may be the slickest phone, physically speaking, that I have used in years. Not only did it slip out of my hands twice, it also slid off the table once!
The included Incepo case is clearly supposed to offset that, but even the case was slicker than average. I do like that the case makes the slightly raised camera lens appear flush though. If it sounds like I’m being cruel here, I’m sorry, but so much was done right here that it just seems so odd to make the phone so friction-free.
Let’s focus a bit on what they got right. The AMOLED screen is great, with a dense 534 ppi resolution. This makes perfect sense when you think about the VR aspects (we’ll get to it, I promise). This screen looks amazing in outdoor conditions – a rarity. If you like music, know that the Idol 4S has some of the best sound I’ve heard on a phone, especially one with this price point. There are actually four speakers, which is insane. The bundled JBL headphones are far higher quality than the disposable ear buds some phones come with, too.
The front of the Idol 4S is featureless, with a fingerprint scanner on the back. I did not find the scanner as fast or accurate as the recent HTC and Huawei, but it got the job done. I was more impressed by the included 32 GB of storage. The Octo-Core Snapdragon powering the phone is not the highest end, but it very much gets the job done too. They also set things up so you can use dual SIMs or a SIM and a MicroSD card. You also have a “Boom button” that can be programmed, but I personally did not use it much.
I doubt anyone is buying this phone for the camera, but if they did they’d not be disappointed. There are a few stabilization issues, but overall it’s a usable 16 MP with surprisingly good color depth. Almost any casual user with a steady hand is going to like it.
As for software, the 4S is running Android 6.0.1 with what looks like minimal overlay but isn’t. There’s some customization for audio in the notification bar and a few tweaks here and there. I’m not going to go into it here, but it’s worth exploring. There are also a bunch of “value added” apps, but most of these are needed for the VR.
Let’s get a look at that VR! The headset is essentially a higher-end version of Google Cardboard, made for comfort. I had some initial issues adjusting the straps to fit with my glasses, but other wise it was much less fussy than my NY Times freebie Cardboard set. You interface with the Cardboard functions via either two buttons on the bottom of the headset (left button back, right button select) or the headset button (long hold back, short hold select). It’s very intuitive. I had to adjust the settings to get things to “eye level”, but once I did that it was great.
It’s hard to describe the VR experience. Again, it’s important to note that this is all Google Cardboard-centric. Alcatel has included a “VR App Store”, but at the end of the day, this is a higher-end hardware take on something that’s been out a while now. That said, if you’ve tried Cardboard and liked it, you’ll love it on this. The sharp display, comfortable headset, and immersive sound make it easy to get lost in virtual worlds. Not all worlds are created equal. Some VR games are meh, but it’s a new category. The 360 videos were absolutely breathtaking, and a game that took me from planet to planet made me forget where I was. I got a bit dizzy using it too long, but that’s on me.
At the end of the day, though, the VR is almost a gimmick. It’s a way to make the Idol 4S stand out in a sea of Android smartphones. The good news is, it works. To make the VR work right, Alcatel has invested in a far better screen than almost any mid-range phone on the market, and better sound than some flagships. Indeed, if not for the slightly slower chip and the disappointing-because-I-am-spoiled 10-12 hour battery life, I would call this a flagship.
It’s sure not priced as a flagship. When an unlocked version costs only $399, that’s impressive. There are other phones at that price point with good features, and some may have one feature or other that is as good or better. However, you’re just not going to find a combination of that good a sound system and screen on any other phone for less than $450-$500. I foresee many people buying this for the headset combination, and falling in love with the phone itself.
Just don’t forget the case – you will need it.
Note: Alcatel provided a 4S for review purposes. If you need me I’ll be in the Matrix.