After many years as a major player in the mobile phone business, Alcatel almost faded into obscurity. Searching for new lease on life, the company revived itself in South Africa as Alcatel OneTouch, and reckons it can be a player in the mid-to-high end.
A number of models have made their way onto South African shelves, but the company is betting big with the OneTouch Idol Alpha – hoping that it will resuscitate its business model in a country which has all but forgotten about it.
Does it have enough up their sleeve with their latest smartphone to be taken seriously again, or is history doomed to repeat itself?
The most unique feature of the Idol Alpha is that the top and bottom of the phone’s body is made out of clear plastic – giving it a see-through appearance with a screen wedged in between. It is rather striking, but it also serves a purpose. Making use of LED lights, the top bar glows when a notification arrives, and the bottom bar lights up when the back, home or settings keys are pressed.
The pieces glow a bright white, but it would have been perfect if different colours represented different notifications. We would have liked to a see red LED if a call was missed, a blue bar for incoming calls, or a green bar for any messages or emails that arrived. But looking at the design, it wouldn’t have been practical, as there is only so much space or LEDs and white is a perfectly suitable and neutral colour.
Holding it all together, an aluminium band that goes all the way around the phone. The trim and the non-removable back are the same colour, but don’t be fooled – they are not of the same material. It’s not necessarily a bad thing that the rear is plastic, as it’ll be a lot more durable than aluminium when it comes to scratches, but it doesn’t help to make the phone feel like quality.
The trim also houses the volume, power and charge port and the SIM card try – much like Apple’s iPhone. Oh, and its only 7.5mm thin.
There is one huge design fubar which almost consigns the whole experiment to the bin: Alcatel OneTouch has opted to remove the 3.5mm jack that is traditionally used for earphones and hands-free kits. It is shipped with a microUSB-to-3.5mm adapter, into which the hands-free is plugged into. Which means you can’t charge the phone and listen to music (unless you use Bluetooth).
It’s not the fastest kid on the block, but the quad-core Mediatek 1.2 GHz Cortex-A7 processor gets the job done pretty easily. The 1 GB of RAM doesn’t do it any favours, but once again, it gets the job done feeling neither sluggish nor superfast and helping to convince us that the big leaps in phone performance are behind us now.
It also has an accelerometer, proximity sensor, and a rather nifty compass built-in (which you would expect) as well as a FM radio with RDS (which you might not). In terms of connectivity, 802.11 b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA and Wi-Fi hotspot will get you connected. Sadly, it only supports 3G and not 4G/LTE.
Running on Android 4.2.2, the phone comes installed with a plethora of apps ready for use, but while some of them are useful, the majority are either arbitrary or Alcatel OneTouch proprietary. Things like Alcatel Help, Media Share OneTouch Live are all fine to have, but there are other much better apps that will do the job just fine.
The UI is overlaid with Alcatel’s own variety, so if you have used a different phone in the past, it might take some getting used to. There are also no buttons on the front, as the Home, Back and Options buttons are all touch-based.
If you have used a Samsung phone, your biggest annoyance is going to be that the Back and Options buttons are swapped around on the Idol Alpha – you hit back instead of Options far too often.
Working the same as other Android-based, the notification panel can be accessed by simply dragging it down. Here you can access things like screen brightness, data connection, airplane mode and review any notifications or missed calls you might have.
Unlike it’s rivals at the asking price, the Idol Alpha doesn’t have a full HD screen, presumably to save costs. Alcatel OneTouch rather opted to go with a 720p screen. The touch surface measures 4.7 inches with an approx. 312 ppi pixel density, so it’s not the best screen that is currently available, but it is more than capable to do the job.
The In-Plane Switching (IPS) LCD capacitive touchscreen is capable of displaying up to 16-million colours, and makes use of a Oleophobic coating on the Dragon Trail Glass.
Even with a lower ppi, the screen is as crisp as anything else and you would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between it and a high-end phone. On such a small scale, the fact that it is only 720p becomes almost negligible.
The one thing that we did notice however, is that the touch actions don’t always respond as intended, or at all. There has been a number of instances where we were convinced that we pressed a button, only for the device to do nothing. Only by pressing the button again, did the resulting action occur.
Thankfully cameras in smartphones have become much better over the last two years or so, and even smartphones that fall into the budget range can now have great quality hardware inserted into them.
The Idol Alpha has a 13 megapixel camera, which is on par with LG’s newly launched G3 smartphone, albeit a slightly smaller image size. While the G3 clocks in at 4160 x 3120 pixels, the Idol Alpha give users 4128 x 3096 pixels – which is practically negligible.
Apart from the usual features such as autofocus and face detection, the camera also makes use of geo-tagging, has the functionality to take panorama photos and has HDR built in. After taking an image it is really easy to review, as you only need to swipe the screen to the left.
Taking videos of 1080p at 30fps is also rather easy, as you only need to press the video button at the bottom of the screen the make the switch. There is almost a seamless transition between the two modes. The front, secondary camera is really nothing to write home about, as it is only 1.3 megapixels.
The 2000 mAh battery should provide for plenty of juice to get through the day, but if you are interested in specifications, Alcatel OneTouch claims that you will get about 10 hours of talk time if connected to a 3G network, and rates it as good for 360 hours in standby mode.
In our tests, the Idol Alpha made it home from a day at the office with over 30% charge left every day. Which is on a par with most
The battery is non-removable, meaning that you won’t be able to take it out and swap it for a different one. Non-removable batteries have become a bit of a standard among mobile phones, but it presents a maintenance problem when the battery gives up the ghost.
The Idol Alpha is good looking smartphone, and performs for the most part like it should. But it does have a number of quirky things that could possibly drive users up a wall – most of them software related. For some odd reason, it doesn’t place related text messages into the same conversation. The initial text will be displayed, and then thereafter all subsequent messages will be grouped together in a different conversation.
It is also a bit ironic that the keys don’t vibrate with haptic feedback when the phone is put into Vibrate mode. Worse, however, is that the screen doesn’t always go off during a call, so your ear is likely to start pressing random buttons while you converse.
And the whole issue with no headset port? Bad Alcatel, bad.
It does have some redeeming qualities though, like the ability to automatically schedule the phone to go on and off at certain times.
Overall, the Idol Alpha is responsive, has great screen clarity and barring a few software quirks which may (or may not) get patched out functions the way it should. We love the transparency, for the simple reason that at least it’s making an effort when most phones are defaulting to near identical design philosophies. The problem is that it’s up against some highly polished contenders at the R6K tag, and you’re going to get fewer issues with anything from Sony, Samsung or Huawei at the same price.
Still, if you’re after something a bit different, this is it.
Price: R5 999
Display: 720 x 1280 pixels, 4.7 inches, IPS LCD capacitive touchscreen
Operating System: Android 4.2.2
Processor: Quad-core 1.2 GHz Cortex-A7
Memory: 1 GB RAM
Battery: 2 000mAh
Camera: 13.1 megapixel
Networking: 802.11 b/g/n, Wi-Fi Direct, DLNA, Wi-Fi hotspot