This is the era of cheap Android unlocked phones that don't feel cheap and have nearly flagship specs. The illusive OnePlus One ushered in the era, and now we have the even more affordable Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3, a $249 unlocked GSM Android smartphone with a 5.5" full HD IPS display, US LTE 4G and the latest Android 5.0 Lollipop OS. Cheap unlocked phones often lack LTE and more often than not run on an older version of Android, but not the Idol 3. Alcatel is a well-known brand with an international presence, so you're not buying a no-name phone from an importer with little or no support. This makes the Idol 3 doubly promising. Carriers don't sell the Idol, instead you'll buy it from places like Amazon and it's compatible with AT&T and T-Mobile in the US, but not Sprint or Verizon since it's a GSM phone. Why buy an unlocked phone without a contract? To save money and to have a phone you can use with a variety of SIM cards--handy for travel or if you change carriers. It's also an affordable way to replace a broken or lost phone if you're not yet due for a new 2 year contract renewal.
The OneTouch Idol 3 runs on the octa-core, 64 bit Snapdragon 615, a midrange CPU. It has 2 gigs of RAM, 16 gigs of storage and a microSD card slot. It has dual band WiFi 802.11ac, Bluetooth, NFC and a GPS. The phone has a 5.5", 1920 x 1080 IPS display that's sharp and very bright with good contrast, though color saturation isn't wildly strong (it's plenty decent for the price). The phone is extremely thin at 7.4mm, and it's fairly light despite an ample 2910 mAh battery inside.
The phone's party trick is that you can use it right side up or upside down when making calls since speakers flank the top and bottom of the display, as do mics. This might sound trivial, but I've often quickly pulled my phone out of my bag or pocket to answer a call, realized it was upside down, and then frantically flipped it before I missed the call. The other bonus is that you get fairly loud JBL front-facing stereo speakers, not unlike HTC's BoomSound speakers, though I wouldn't say these are quite as clear and rich in bass.
Unlike budget phones of old, the Idol 3 has a heaping of style. The casing might not be glass or metal like the HTC One M9 and Samsung Galaxy S6, but it's nonetheless a very good looking phone, in part because it's so thin. The matte gray back has a striated finish that has its own unique look--it's not trying and failing to imitate metal nor is it cheesy glossy. The chromed sides have a sandwich of this matte finish, and the result is a phone you'd be proud to brandish in front of your phone geek buddies. Build quality is good with no uneven seams or scary squeaks and creaks. Again, for the money we're impressed.
The phone is sealed, and there's a single tray on the side (the kind you pop out with a paper clip) that has an extra-deep tray with spots for the microSD card and micro SIM card--an unusual but functional arrangement. Of course that means if you want to pop the microSD card slot out to transfer files using a card reader, you'll pull the SIM card out at the same time, temporarily disabling cell service. Better to use the micro USB cable to connect the phone to your computer for file transfers. The micro USB port is on the bottom and the headphone jack is up top. The volume controls are on the right and the power button is on the left.
Budget phones generally have frankly budget cameras that remind us of flagship cameras from 2 years past. Or they have suspiciously high megapixel numbers (particularly the front camera) yet shoot dim and noisy photos and video. Camera technology has progressed far enough that midrange doesn't have to make us wince. The Idol 3 rear camera uses last year's very good Sony 13MP sensor, and it frankly takes very nice photos. Both the front 8MP and rear camera shoot 1080p video (sorry, no 4K video recording at this price), and you get HDR, facial recognition, time lapse, panorama and QR bar code scanner features. It's not as good as the Samsung Galaxy S6 and LG G4 cameras, but we're cool with that on a phone that's less than half the price.
Deals and Shopping:
Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 Video Review
Asus ZenFone 2 vs. Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 Comparison
The mid-range 1.5 GHz Qualcomm Snapdragon 615 processor has a pair of big-little quad cores, meaning it's an octa-core with 4 fast cores and 4 low power cores for less demanding tasks. It's also 64 bit, but with 2 gigs of RAM, that's not wildly important. The 615 with Adreno 405 graphics is unsurprisingly slower than last year's Snapdragon 805 flagship and this year's Snapdragon 810 (the higher the model number, the faster the CPU). That's not a death sentence because it's still a decently fast CPU and GPU with respectable benchmark numbers. These days smartphones have more processing power than needed, but it's important for marketing as is CPU speed in PCs. That said, we did notice occasional lag and stutters--just enough to remind us this isn't a flagship phone. Alcatel's fairly clean Android 5.0.2 Lollipop helps keep things relatively smooth and responsive, despite the mid-tier processor.
The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is a GSM unlocked world phone, so you can pop in any GSM carrier's micro SIM card (Verizon and Sprint use CDMA rather than GSM, so they're not supported). It has worldwide 3G HSPA+ and US 4G LTE for both AT&T and T-Mobile. It supports LTE bands 2,4,5,7,12 and 17. Note for those who want to buy the phone for overseas use, Europe uses mostly bands 3, 7 and 20, so you'll get 3G HSPA+ there but likely not 4G LTE. Reception was good in our tests with both carriers' SIM cards, and the phone automatically configured the data connection so we didn't have to enter APN settings. We noted stronger reception, measured in db, versus the Asus Zenfone 2, a competing unlocked phone with LTE.
Call quality is good, with adequate volume and reasonably full sound with no unwanted digitization. It's not as clear and sharp sounding as the Samsung Galaxy S6 and iPhone 6, but it's still a very useable voice phone.
The Idol 3 has a 2910 mAh battery that's sealed inside and it ships with a compact 5v, 2 amp charger. That's a standard charger and not a quick charger, and the phone doesn't support quick charging or wireless charging. Battery life on AT&T's LTE network was quite good thanks to the midrange CPU, ample battery and reasonable full HD resolution display. In two weeks of testing, it never dropped below 30% at bedtime unless I'd been playing Real Racing 3 for an hour or two.
The Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is currently the best budget unlocked Android phone you can buy, particularly if you're in the market for a big screen phone. It's slim, stylish, has a pleasing 1920 x 1080 full HD IPS display, 4G LTE for the US and battery life is quite good. Even the cameras' quality pleasantly surprised us given the price. At $250 full retail with no contract, you already know you're not getting the fastest phone, or the phone with the best camera, but you are getting a well made phone that handles all the basics well. Our only question is how quickly or often Alcatel will release OS updates--budget phones don't always get that level of support. Perhaps Alcatel will buck that trend.