Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 Hands-on: two sizes, sub-$300 price

Over the last year, we’ve expended many words on a relatively unknown Chinese OEM not called Huawei, Xioami or ZTE.

Alcatel OneTouch is a strange brew of a manufacturer, a company trying its best to maneuver the North American market like an upstart while selling enough smartphones in its home country to be considered a top-five worldwide OEM by sales volume.

With the OneTouch Idol 3, the company has its first so-called “hero” lineup, a set of two smartphones that, unsurprisingly, skim more than a little off the top from the world’s most successful company. Available in 4.7-inch and 5.5-inch versions (with North American distribution likely limited to the latter), the Idol 3 is, first and foremost, a really nice smartphone.

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AOT has always touted itself as a value-conscious smartphone brand, eschewing top-of-the-line specs for either aging internal components or a thorough revisiting of what it means to employ “metallic” plastics. The Idol 3, especially the 5.5-inch version, like a high-end device, and both devices tout decent camera sensors, excellent screens and few tradeoffs that would turn off even the most ardent skeptics.

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The 4.7-inch version, which is light and compact at 7.5mm thick and 110 grams, has one of the nicer 1280×720 pixel screens I’ve seen in some time. Like the iPhone 6, these models feature IPS LCD panels that are fully laminated and bonded to the glass, cutting down considerably on reflections.

The company also worked with Technicolor to tune the LCD panels of the Idol 3 line, and sourced parts that reach read-in-daylight brightness of 600 lumens. The 5.5-inch version, which is even thinner at 7.4mm and a manageable 141 grams, reached 650 lumens, though we’re going to have to test those claims when we receive a review unit.

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Figuring that name-brand collaborations with companies North Americans would recognize would increase perceived legitimacy among its customers, AOT also worked with JBL to outfit powerful front-facing speakers on both models, which sounded excellent in our brief tests — really loud, without distortion.

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The third tenet — Steve Cistulli, Senior Vice President of AOT North America says that number “3” in the name is for three important tenets consistent throughout both models; the first two are screen and sound — is the 13MP Sony IMX214 camera sensor. This is the same one found in the Nexus 6, LG G3 and many, many others, but AOT has paired it with an F2.0 lens to ensure good results in low-lit areas.

Unlike most OEMs, AOT is interested in publicizing its individual collaborations — JBL, Technicolor, Sony — because these are brands that potential buyers will pick out from a spec sheet.

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It’s after these core fundamentals the two models diverge. While AOT isn’t certain of North American prices, the $50 or so variance between the two sizes accounts for a number of component exchanges. The 4.7-inch model sports a quad-core 1.2Ghz Snapdragon 410 chip, 1GB of DDR3 RAM and 8GB of storage, powered by a 2,000mAh battery; the 5.5-inch version comes with an octa-core Snapdragon 615 chip, 2GB of DDR3 RAM and 16GB of storage, along with a 2,910mAh battery.

Both devices awkwardly place their power buttons on the left side and volume on the right, a trend popular with the Chinese market, but should probably have been changed before creating a Western SKU.

On the software side, we’re looking at a fairly lightweight version of Android 5.0.2 Lollipop, and I was quite impressed by AOT’s relatively light touch; unlike previous versions of its Android skin, there were few cartoonish embellishments.

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When I spoke to him, Cistulli was happy to point out the symmetry in the Idol 3’s design: they can be turned upside down and used in either vertical orientation, due to a variable microphone and antenna array that adjusts to the hand. The rear cover is a soft touch plastic, matte and without affectation. This is a value OEM playing to its strengths, and it seems to be working.

Along with the AOT Watch, which is set to be released later this month on Alcatel OneTouch’s Amazon portal (which should be coming to Canada soon, I am assured), the Idol 3 is the company’s flagship play for the next few months. Despite being on only Bell and TELUS, Cistulli tells me the company is a top four OEM for total sales in Canada, finding great success with its Idol X+ and Pop mini devices.

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There’s something comforting knowing that Canadians can look forward to a lot of relatively well-made, high-performance, low-cost smartphones in 2015, ones that address a certain segment of the market looking only for a phone free on contract. Cistulli praises the Canadian carriers for pushing the company to not only bring its prices down but adopt the latest technologies — both devices are Cat-4 LTE compatible, thanks to the use of recently-released 64-bit Qualcomm chips.

When asked about software upgrades, which AOT is known for ignoring, he told me that AOT is working with its carrier partners to push out Lollipop for older models, though he wouldn’t commit to a time frame.

The Idol 3 should be available, in either one or both models, sometime in Spring 2015.

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