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Alcatel One Touch Idol Smartphone: Nothing to Be Idolized

How do you introduce the world to a new smartphone from a company that most people have never heard of? With a cameo in “Iron Man 3,” of course.

Alcatel One Touch is a cellphone brand from Chinese consumer electronics company TCL Communications. Its first U.S. smartphone, the mid-range Idol, will make its debut at the end of the month. To get the name in front of more eyes, the Android-based handset is featured in the latest installment of Marvel Comics’s “Iron Man” film series. But in real life it faces the heroic task of going up against smartphone stalwarts like Samsung, HTC and LG.

Unfortunately, this smartphone isn’t going to reach superhero status. I’ve been testing the Idol over the past week, and I found it to be unremarkable. The phone lacks 4G LTE support and is somewhat sluggish, which makes it frustrating to use. Plus, it’s currently priced at $299 without carrier backing. For that money, you’ll get a lot more from the Nexus 4 by LG.

There’s really nothing that sets the Idol apart from the competition. The design resembles a lot of other all-touchscreen smartphones, and without any type of branding on the front of the device, you’d be hard-pressed to pick it out of a lineup of Android devices — not that I want a huge company logo splattered across the front. Alcatel One Touch does offer the Idol in a number of colors, including red, green and blue, but, alas, I received the boring silver one.

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The smartphone measures 5.24 inches tall by 2.66 inches wide by 0.31 inch thick, and weighs 3.84 ounces. It’s smaller than the Samsung Galaxy S4, but bigger than the iPhone 5. The construction of the phone is largely plastic, but I didn’t think it felt particularly cheap or fragile. It was comfortable to hold, and I had no problems navigating through the menus with one hand.

The Idol has a 4.7-inch touchscreen with a resolution of 960 by 540 pixels. That’s on par with other midrange smartphones, and the display was bright and clear for reading text and viewing videos. But for the same price, you can get the Nexus 4 with a 4.7-inch, 1,280 by 768-pixel touchscreen, which offers sharper image quality.

Another advantage to the Nexus 4 is that it’s running the latest version of Google’s Android Jelly Bean operating system (4.2.2). The Idol runs on Android Jelly Bean 4.1.1, so it’s not too far behind, but the rate at which it will receive software updates may not be as quick as the Nexus, since the latter is offered directly by Google.

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The good news is that the Idol’s user interface is clean and easy to use. The company hasn’t added too many of its own customizations, and it’s not bogged down with useless software. A couple of apps that I found particularly useful were MobiSystem’s OfficeSuite for viewing and editing Office documents, and Movie Studio for editing videos right on the phone.

The quality of the Idol’s main eight-megapixel camera is mediocre. As with many camera phones, I got the best results when taking pictures outdoors in natural light. But even then, I didn’t find the colors to be that vibrant. Photos taken indoors or in low-light conditions were a bit grainy, and using the built-in flash only washed out colors. There were other issues, as well.

To focus, you can tap on the screen, but I found it slow at times (the phone also makes a weird clicking noise). There were also delays when I tried to launch the camera from the lock screen, and a couple of times the camera app unexpectedly closed as soon as I launched it from the main menu. It didn’t give me much confidence for using the Idol’s camera to capture spontaneous moments.

A photo taken with the Alcatel One Touch Idol's 8-megapixel camera.

A photo taken with the Alcatel One Touch Idol’s 8-megapixel camera.

Unfortunately, performance issues weren’t uncommon during my time with the Idol. It’s powered by a slower processor than other phones in its price range, and I ran into delays when launching apps or loading social networks like Facebook. There was once instance where it struggled to even get to the main menu of apps, which I have never seen before. The problems weren’t constant, but it was enough to make it frustrating. The speed of the Nexus 4 offers a more fluid experience.

Also, the Idol doesn’t support 4G LTE for faster data speeds. Instead, it works on another 4G standard called HSPA+, which can be just as fast or faster than LTE in some places, but in my testing I didn’t find this to be the case. Using the iPhone 5 on AT&T’s LTE network in San Francisco, I averaged download speeds of 22.04 megabits per second and upload speeds of 18.17 Mbps. Meanwhile, the Idol averaged 3.77 Mbps down and 1.03 Mbps up. To be fair, the Nexus 4 also lacks 4G LTE.

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Calls sounded clear, and I didn’t experience any dropped calls. Voices sounded natural, without any disruptive background noise. But the volume can get piercingly loud, even at mid-levels. My friends had no major complaints on their end.

For my battery drain tests, I simulated a voice call with Wi-Fi on, allowing the screen to time out after 30 seconds, and the Idol offered six hours and 18 minutes of continuous talk time. In real-world usage, where I used the phone to check email and social networks, read articles on the Web and watch a couple of YouTube clips, I needed to recharge the phone by early evening.

Sadly, Iron Man can’t save the Alcatel One Touch Idol. At its current price, the smartphone doesn’t hold a candle to the more powerful and robust Nexus 4. Even if the smartphone was eventually offered by a carrier at a cheap price or even for free, the performance issues aren’t worth it.


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