It's amazing what type of technology a couple of hundred bucks can get you these days.
While many people pay $600 to $700 for high-end smartphones (and yes, even if you buy a flagship phone on contract from a carrier for an initial $200, you're still paying the full price as part of your monthly service rate), more and more companies are offering perfectly decent mobile devices for a fraction of the cost.
The latest contender is Alcatel, whose new OneTouch Idol 3 phone sells for a mere $250. That's $250 outright, with no contracts, commitments or obligations to pay inflated monthly bills for the next two years. You can take the phone and use it wherever you want -- on any carrier compatible with the AT&T or T-Mobile LTE network in the U.S., including prepaid providers that'll charge as little as $30 to $45 per month with no strings attached.
A simple but versatile form
In terms of looks, Alcatel's OneTouch Idol 3 isn't far removed from Samsung's pre-Galaxy S6 style. The phone is predominantly plastic, with a trim made to look like shiny metal and a back that features an emulated "brushed metal" finish. It's reasonably attractive, though a little insubstantial -- especially the back panel, which has a paper-like texture and isn't exactly delightful to the touch. But remember: This is a $250 phone. When you adjust your expectations accordingly, it's actually quite impressive. And while the Idol 3 is a bit on the big side, it doesn't feel particularly cumbersome compared to most current flagship phones.
Speaking of size, the Idol 3 has a 5.5-in. 1080p IPS LCD display that doesn't disappoint. It's not going to blow you away like the screens of many top-of-the-line devices (but again: Expectations). It's bright, crisp and certainly no cause for complaint. And it's flanked by two speakers that deliver loud and clear -- if somewhat tinny -- audio.
One unusual element of the Idol 3 is the fact that the phone is fully reversible, meaning you can use it in any orientation. That functionality extends even to calls: Thanks to microphones on the top and bottom of the phone's face, you can actually make and receive calls while holding the device upside-down. The entire user interface rotates -- you can barely even tell anything's out of the ordinary.
It's a clever concept, but there's one issue that keeps it from being entirely useful: When you receive a call, the Idol 3 locks into whatever orientation was last used on the phone. So if you were using the phone normally and then shut off the screen and dropped it into your pocket upside-down, an incoming call would work only in the normal right-side-up orientation -- and the phone wouldn't allow the orientation to change until the call had ended. That's apparently due to an FCC requirement, but it's still a bummer that weakens the benefit of this feature.
The OneTouch Idol 3 offers an interesting security option called Eye-D. The biometric system uses blood vessel patterns in the whites of your eyes to recognize you (via the front-facing camera) and unlock your device.
It worked consistently well: The system identified me every time, even in extremely dim lighting and as of this writing, has yet to authorize any impostors. The process is a bit poky, though: You have to carefully position the device so your eyes land in the appropriate place on the screen, which typically ends up taking several seconds each time. Neat as it is in theory, I suspect most folks will get frustrated with the delay and end up turning the feature off.
Beyond the bells and whistles, the Idol 3 runs custom software based on Google's Android 5.0.2 Lollipop operating system. For the most part, Alcatel has stuck with Google's stock Lollipop-level UI, which makes the user experience pretty pleasant.
The company has made a handful of unfortunate design tweaks -- like redesigning system icons and folders with an out-of-place iOS-like appearance and adding a bafflingly redundant second Back button into the Camera app -- but they're mostly things you can get around by installing a custom launcher and downloading official Google apps to replace the Alcatel-modified versions. The core UI itself is generally commendable.
The Idol 3's performance is also solid: The phone initially felt a little laggy and jerky, but a prerelease software update sent late last week went a long way toward improving its speed and smoothness. Camera quality is mediocre: The device's photos are neither fantastic nor consistent, but you shouldn't have much trouble capturing a decent-looking image that's fine enough for sharing. And onboard storage is a low point, with just shy of 10GB available, but the Idol has a microSD slot hidden within its SIM card tray that lets you add up to 128GB of additional space.
Last but not least, battery life is acceptably average: I've typically been able to make it from morning to night -- though sometimes just barely -- with around three to four hours of active screen-on time.
My recommendation for an inexpensive yet satisfactory Android experience is usually Motorola's Moto G, which runs $180 unlocked. For an extra $70, the Idol 3 gives you a larger, higher-resolution display and LTE connectivity -- something the U.S. model of the Moto G lacks. And while Alcatel's software isn't quite at the level of Motorola's, it's very usable, and its pain points are easily covered up. (Of course, Motorola is known for providing Android OS upgrades quickly and reliably to its devices, while Alcatel is more of a wild card in that regard.)
I'd be remiss not to mention that at $250, the Idol 3 is dangerously close to the price of the $298 OnePlus One -- an unlocked phone that manages to pack flagship-caliber hardware into an unusually affordable package (and that, following months of an invite-only ordering system, is actually now available for anyone to buy). For a difference of $48, it's impossible not to at least mull over that next-tier option.
The OnePlus One is an outlier, however -- and the OneTouch Idol 3 really does deliver an awful lot of bang for the buck. If you're looking for an impressive midrange smartphone at an affordable price, Alcatel's latest offering is definitely one you'll want to consider.