The original Alcatel Idol 4S VR kit was my surprise review of 2016. I was not expecting it to win me over. Yet it did. Now, they’re back with a hardware update and a new operating system, Windows Phone.
While the camera remains the same (good, but no optical zoom or stabilization), the screen is still fantastic, and the speakers are still maybe the best I’ve ever used on a phone. I must note that, tragically, Alcatel left out the amazing headphones that were in the Android version. Additionally, some people had issues with some older headphones. Still, Alcatel has upgraded the chipset (to the same one on the Google Pixel) and switched out the Micro-USB jack for a USB-C one. The result is a smoking fast phone, bundled with the same VR headset. I also love that they made the multi-purpose “boom button” into a dedicated camera button. Calls are crisp and clear, tap-to-wake works like a charm, and you can even set it to lie about your MAC address (a unique identifier that can track you) when on public networks. With 64 GB of storage, you may not even need a MicroSD card, but they are supported.
Now for the big “but”…
I come not to bury Windows 10 for phone, but I sure as heck don’t come to praise it. I could go on and on about the things they do right (Cortana, if used right, is better than Google Now and certainly kicks Siri’s rear), or I could rant about how they got rid of features I loved (Your FB and text messages all in one thread? Favorite webOS feature and then WP). I could even do a few thoughtful paragraphs about how Continuum is the feature Microsoft needed in their phone OS since day one–the ability to run your phone as a desktop/laptop.
But all those words would be wasted, because it boils down to one things–apps. Until Microsoft updates Windows 10 for phone to allow Universal Apps (applications that run on both desktop and mobile chips), their phone OS is essentially a vast app wasteland. Most of the apps I use day-to-day do not have Windows Phone equivalents–heck, there are almost no banking apps at all!
It’s easy to blame developers, but I just can’t. Why in the world would you waste time developing for an OS that had only two phones come out in 2016 (did I miss any)? Other than this and the HP Elite, there’s very little in the way of current hardware. Now, they’re both amazing phones, but that does not change the fact that there’s little to no incentive for developers to make Windows ARM apps.
Thankfully, Universal Apps are coming to Windows Phone at some point, and some already exist. There’s also the 3D aspects, with Microsoft pushing 3D hard for Windows Phone. Alacatel’s bundled VR headset and the few VR functions work fine (although if you want to remove the bundled VR apps, tough luck). It’s possible that the next Windows 10 Phone update will make this an indispensable phone… but right now it just isn’t.
This all sounds like a great big “do not buy,” but here’s the thing–if you are a Windows phone user still, this is your best option. The specs make it future-proof for a while, at least, meaning whatever comes next from Redmond, you have a solid phone. And even if you look at it for just now, you have an exceptional multimedia phone. I cannot stress enough how good the audio is on the Idol 4S, and the video is topnotch as well.
At $469 retail price via T-Mobile, you might balk at buying it. But I’ve seen a few good deals around. I personally think it’s worth keeping an eye on, and if you see it for $300, snag it.
Note: Alcatel sent me the Idol 4S for review purposes.