10 December 2014

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha review

Key Features: 4.7-inch 1,280 x 720 pixel IPS screen; Android 4.2; 13-megapixel camera with LED flash
Manufacturer: Alcatel

What is the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha?

The Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha is a bit of a departure from the phones from the Alcatel OneTouch stable. It’s higher-end, offering a more design-led approach than normal.

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha review

Some of its choices are rather odd, though, and its core hardware just isn’t quite good enough in one too many areas to justify the fairly elevated £300 SIM-free price. While Alcatel OneTouch is known best for its affordable phones, this one simply isn’t cheap enough. Even if you find it at a knockdown price, it suffers from a few serious issues.

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha – Design

The Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha wants to stand out from the crowd, at least a little. It’s a phone with clear plastic bits above and below the screen, where you find the LED lights for the phone’s notifications and soft keys.

We saw similar moves in some Sony phones of last year, including the Xperia SP. It gives the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha quite a striking look face-on – something that we don’t often see in Alcatel OneTouch phones.

In practical terms, this isn’t quite such a smash, though. While the lower plastic cut-out highlights the back, home and menu soft key icons, it’s only the non-illuminated area above that’s actually touch-sensitive. The soft keys aren't so much marked as mis-marked. You get used to this, of course, but it takes some shine off the design.

What’s less easy to get used to is quite how bright the notification LED is. We generally like our notification lights to be soft, simple glows that are easy to see yet not too distracting, but the Idol Alpha's triple LEDs are quite bright, with a large area of effect thanks to their light being fired through a diffuser before reaching the see-through area. You can thankfully tone down the notifications in the Settings menu, but there are only three options: off, mid and full.

A little like the Samsung Galaxy Alpha, the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha is a mostly plastic phone with a band of aluminium running around the outside to give you a harder, more expensive feel.

The lightly bevelled edges are a little on the harsh side, but it’s a phone that looks and feels its money. It’s also nice to see a phone that isn't styled just like the competition. As detailed, though, any claims of originality are over-egged.

There’s one element of the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha hardware that we hate, though. And we think a lot of you will, too. It doesn’t have a 3.5mm headphone jack, instead forcing you to use an adapter that plugs into the microUSB slot. One comes bundled, but this strikes us as a terrible idea for a handful of reasons.

It means no listening while you’re charging, plus you need to remember to keep the bloody thing with you, and if you lose it you’re stuffed. As you have to use an adapter that sticks out a fair way, it also makes the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha hard to fit in some pockets with earphones attached. The final insult: the feature is flat-out broken in some respects, as the on-body speaker doesn't stop playing when used with certain headphones with inline remotes.

What were they thinking?

The headphone jack cull seems to be part of an attempt to make the OneTouch Idol Alpha as simple and streamlined as possible, but this is already scuppered by having so much screen bezel on show. The more futuristic-looking phones are almost all-screen. This one isn’t.

Another casualty of this hardware purification is the microSD slot. There’s a decent 16GB of internal storage, but that's not enough for the Idol Alpha to be used as a serious music or video player.

Aside from the microUSB port, the only slot on the Idol Alpha is for the pop-out micro-SIM tray. Like the iPhone 6, it needs a tool to open.

We understand what Alcatel OneTouch was going for with the phone’s design, but it doesn’t seem to have married up practical and aesthetic priorities at all well.

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha – Screen

The Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha has a 4.7-inch screen, a size that these days fits among lower mid-range phones rather than more expensive ones. It’s a decent size, and lets the phone stay relatively small and easy to handle. The thin-ness helps, too: it’s a very slender 7.5mm thick.

Resolution of the Alcatel OneTouch Alpha screen is a little disappointing, though. You get 720p, which is fair for the size, but not really for the price. With reams of 1080p phones available at £300, we find the display resolution a little hard to accept.

The effects in use are minor, though. There’s a little more blockiness around the edges of characters, but only a tiny amount. The Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha's display is still very sharp.

Colours are fair but not fantastic, with slight over-saturation designed for ‘pop’ rather than accuracy. And, as with most LCDs, the flawed black levels become apparent in darker rooms. We’d have no issue with the display if it wasn’t for the price. Selling at the same price as the Nexus 5, and £50 more than the Honor 6, the Idol Alpha's limitations are actually quite serious. Just ‘fairly good’ doesn’t quite cut it at £300 SIM-free.

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha – Software

One of the most glaringly out-of-date parts of the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha is its software. It runs Android 4.2.2 where Android 5.0 Lollipop has already rolled out to a bunch of phones.

The phone is a full two years behind the pack in this respect. An update may come, but we’d advise not relying on the fact.

It's distressingly outdated if you think about it too much, but the custom UI on the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha does mask it to an extent. Lots of the changes people notice most between Android 4.2 and 5.0 are aesthetic, and would be wiped out or altered by a custom launcher anyway.

This is a fairly light interface, though. It alters the look of the home screens and apps menu, but retains the style of the dropdown notification bar. One of the more significant things you’ll miss out on that’s included in Android 5.0 Lollipop is lock screen notifications. Here you just get an unlock widget that lets you head straight to the camera, dialler or SMS app instead of the homescreens.

As we found in the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 2 Mini, the Idol Alpha has been packed with a few too many apps – particularly games. However, many can be uninstalled if you want to give the phone a spring clean. It seems even more of a shame here than in the Idol 2 Mini S, though, detracting a little from the classy vibe the hardware design tries to portray.

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha – Performance and Games

Once again, the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha is let down by its hardware when you look closely at the processor running the show. It has a quad-core MediaTek MT6589 chipset clocked at 1.2GHz, with 1GB of RAM. This is effectively very similar architecture-wise to the Snapdragon 400 CPU used by the Moto G and many others, but with a PowerVR GPU instead of an Adreno-series one.

Looking at benchmark results, the Idol Alpha is very disappointing for the price. In the Geekbench 3 test it scores 1114 points, roughly on par with what we’d expect from a Snapdragon 400 phone.

Day-to-day performance hits are relatively minor, but we did notice some keyboard lag and some slow-down in things appearing on the home screen at times – especially if, for example, the phone's downloading something in the background at the same time. App load speeds are often quite slow, too, with particular waits for the high-end 3D games we use to test gaming performance.

Getting this sort of hardware for £300 represents poor value for money. Even the LG G3 has been seen at this price, and it offers more than twice the power.

As we saw with the Moto G, gaming performance is acceptable in most titles, but switch them up to max graphical detail – available in some high-end 3D games such as Dead Trigger 2 – and you start to see a performance hit, with less-than-smooth frame rates. While the GPU is powerful enough to mostly cope at the screen’s 720p resolution, we should be getting more for our £300.

The lacking performance isn't just seen in the processor. It also lacks 4G mobile Internet, something that's been expected at this sort of price for a while now. Much like the processor, 3G would be fine if the phone was a lot cheaper. But it isn’t. So it’s not.

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha – Camera

The Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha has a 13-megapixel camera with flash. At almost any price, that's a decent resolution. Sure, it’s topped by the Sony Xperia Z3 Compact and Samsung Galaxy S5, but a great 13-megapixel camera will more-than satisfy.

This is only an OK 13-megapixel camera, not a great one. In the right lighting, you can produce some great shots, but it doesn’t have the chops to maintain image quality in more challenging lighting.

In lower light, images become very noisy, and with mid-level indoors lighting we noticed pretty significant light blooming around light sources, which generally makes images look terrible. We were also disappointed with the Idol Alpha’s rather weak HDR mode.

The poor dynamic range of most phone cameras will introduce either highlight blow-outs to images or make these photos look desperately dull. HDR should be able to fix this, but we found the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha’s HDR just too weak to produce the effects we’re after.

However, this is not a flat-out bad camera. In daylight it can produce some images worth keeping, and while low-light shots are noisy, you can fix them up with a bit of post-processing on a computer. And, if we’re honest, it’s roughly what we expected from the Alcatel OneTouch, which most likely uses one of Sony’s fairly decent image sensors.

We’re pretty happy with the camera app, too, which values simplicity over packing in loads of extra modes and features.

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha – Battery life

Last time we reviewed an Alcatel OneTouch phone, its battery life was abysmal. That was the Idol 2 Mini S. Thankfully, the Idol Alpha is much, much better, despite having exactly the same battery capacity of 2000mAh and significantly higher screen resolution.

In our usual looping MP4 video test, the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha lasted for 9hrs 10mins, which is the same sort of performance we saw from the original Moto G (superior to the 2014 Moto G).

In daily use you should easily be able to get a day’s use off a charge. As long as you’re not playing games for extended periods or watching lots of streamed video, you should be able to clock in at around a day and a half between trips to the power socket. Just check WhatsApp a few times and you won’t see the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha drain down by more than a few per cent each hour.

Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha – Sound and Call Quality

We’re back down to more of a normal performance with the call and speaker quality. Both are adequate, but nothing special. There’s a secondary microphone for noise cancellation during calls and the earpiece speaker is reasonably clear, but not remarkable.

The main speaker is a mono unit on the back, but it's about as thin and quiet as you'd expect from a phone only 7.5mm thick. It’s not great.

Should I buy the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha?

The Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha is an interesting handset with some eye-catching design motifs. However, start using the phone and begin to assess it within the wider market and it just doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

Most core elements are fine: the camera’s decent enough, the processor is a fair match for the 720p display and the resolution is just about sharp enough for the screen size. However, there are some design blunders that we find hard to accept when the specs are already a stretch given the SIM-free price.

The lack of a headphone jack is unforgivable, we don’t like the soft keys much, there’s no 4G and the software is very old. If you don’t want to use your phone for music at all, and can find the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Alpha at a much lower cost than the standard SIM-free price, this is a perfectly respectable phone with rather good battery life. But we do mean a much lower cost.


While solid in most respects, some annoying design decisions and a high price lose the Alpha a recommendation.

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