“The Idol 5S offers a lot of phone for a very reasonable price”
- Stylish design
- Snappy performance
- Powerful speakers
- Good Android experience
- Mediocre camera
- Smaller battery over last year’s Idol 4S
- No fast charging
Last year’s Idol 4S smartphone from TCL-owned Alcatel didn’t wow us. It distanced itself from the rest of the pack with some key advantages, but at $400, the asking price was simply too high. Alcatel has taken that lesson to heart this time around. In our Alcatel Idol 5S review, we found the phone to retain much of what worked with its predecessor, but it’s offered in an easier-to-swallow $280 price tag.
Elegant, unique design
Like Alcatel’s previous contender, the Idol 5S makes an excellent first impression. Not only does it feel like a high-end device in your hand, but it manages something even some more expensive phones can’t – it stands out.
Idol 5S’ metal frame extends just slightly over the top and bottom of the body to house the phone’s loud, dual front-facing speakers, as well as the antenna bands. It’s not terribly different from last year’s design, for good reason. It looked great then, and it looks great now.
On the front, the sheet of Asahi Dragontrail scratch-resistant glass curves slightly at the edges, which makes swiping off-screen feel very smooth. The glass around the back likely isn’t going to win a battle against the pavement, but it sure does have a nice sheen to it.
From the rear, the Idol 5S looks nearly identical to last year’s model, between the center-mounted fingerprint sensor and branding. One notable difference is the camera, which has been relocated to the top left. The Idol 4S’ user-programmable “Boom Key,” which served various functions in different apps has unfortunately been removed.
In our testing, the fingerprint sensor responded quickly when the lock screen was active. When the display was off, however, it took a hair longer to unlock.
If the design and build quality haven’t taken a hit, you might wonder where Alcatel cut costs to get the Idol 5S out for $120 less than its predecessor. The answer becomes apparent the moment you wake the phone’s 5.2-inch display.
The Idol 5S trades the 4S’ 5.5-inch 2,560 x 1,440 resolution AMOLED panel for a smaller 1,920 x 1,080 LCD unit. It’s not a terrible loss. A QHD screen would have been an unexpected luxury on a sub-$300 device, and the one Alcatel has replaced it with is satisfyingly bright and vibrant.
Alcatel’s handset was nearly flawless in terms of overall performance.
Word to the wise, though: the “Vivid” color option that is enabled out of the box will make your apps, photos, and videos look almost cartoonish with oversaturation. Fortunately, you have the ability to turn it off in the display settings.
Under the hood is Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 625 processor, paired with 3GB of RAM, and a 2,620 mAh battery. Much like the display, the 625 is a step back from the 652 in last year’s Idol 4S. But it’s strong enough that we didn’t see any problems in daily usage.
Alcatel’s handset was nearly flawless in terms of overall performance. Launching and switching apps was quick and painless, and most tasks, like browsing in Chrome, perusing Facebook, and streaming YouTube videos were handled with ease. There were odd stutters in the Google Play Store from time to time, but the Idol 5S rarely missed a beat in testing.
The specs indicate the Idol 5S is right on target with some other popular devices in price tier, like the recently-released Moto G5 Plus. The benchmarks showed that was the case.
- Antutu: 63,374
- 3D Mark Sling Shot Extreme: 464
The Idol 5S’s 3DMark test is one point higher than the G5 Plus. Its AnTuTu score of 63,374 was similarly a hair above the G5 Plus’ 63,190.
In terms of storage, the Idol 5S comes in just one 32GB configuration. It’s the bare minimum for a phone in 2017, and for most it will suffice. However, the aforementioned G5 Plus offers double the capacity as well as an extra gigabyte of RAM for just $20 more. Fortunately, the Idol 5S has a MicroSD card slot you can use to expand space.
Satisfactory battery life
The lower resolution screen and more efficient 625 chipset means Alcatel was able to get away with downsizing the battery in the Idol 5S to 2,620mAh. A little extra juice would have been nice, considering other phones in this segment, like Huawei’s Honor 6X, well surpass the 3,000mAh mark. Even the $180 Moto E4 Plus offers a 5,000mAh battery.
Nevertheless, the Idol 5S delivers typical longevity. A day of moderate usage consisting of phone calls, Spotify streaming over Bluetooth, an hour’s worth of YouTube videos and some basic web and email browsing got us down to 35 percent by the end of the night, nearly 13 hours since taking it off the charger. If you’re a bit more careful, you should be able to stretch it past the one-day mark.
The lack of near-field communication, or NFC, is a little more disappointing. Unfortunately, it’s fairly common for phones in this price range to skimp out on the technology used for contactless transactions like Android Pay. A few years ago, this wouldn’t have been a major issue. But today, more and more stores, banks, and devices are jumping on the tap-and-pay bandwagon every month – and the omission is becoming an increasingly frustrating one.
Recharging won’t be as quick as its competitors — although the Idol 5S utilizes USB-C, it lacks fast charging capabilities.
A mediocre camera
Alcatel has included a host of camera features in the Idol 5S, like the ability to take 360-degree photos, a mode for recording light trails at night, and even a “Cinemagraph” mode to capture still images with subtle motion. In spite of all the bells and whistles, however, the photography experience is just average.
The Idol 5S’ rear shooter is rated at 12 megapixels with an f/2 aperture and large 1.25-micron pixels on the image sensor designed to improve low-light photography. That’s not bad for a budget device, but in the real world, the results are mixed.
In the right scenario — outdoors with balanced lighting — the Idol 5S can hold its own against competitors with vibrant and detailed shots. When lighting is scarce, or fails to illuminate the scene evenly, the camera has trouble reconciling the differences between light and dark. The result can leave you with some washed out and dull photos, where highlights and shadows are left lacking color and definition.
As far as the camera interface is concerned, Alcatel’s app is simple, easy-to-use, and lag-free. Its layout actually bears a strong resemblance to the iPhone’s built-in camera app, though the Idol 5S claims one notable advantage – manual controls for things like ISO, white balance, and shutter speed.
A light take on Android Nougat
The Idol 5S runs Android version 7.1.1 Nougat, and like most phone makers, Alcatel has made some modifications to the experience. While that would be a point of contention for purists who demand Google’s unadulterated vision for the platform, the changes are subtle and add a few welcome features.
For example, the lock screen has a customizable row of shortcuts at the bottom. There’s a convenient three-finger swipe shortcut to snap a screenshot. And the selection of Alcatel’s stock software, from the file manager to the aforementioned camera app, is well-designed and not intrusive. Bloatware is thankfully nonexistent, outside of FM listening app NextRadio, and Xender File Transfer.
Your software experience will be dependent on how you purchase your Idol 5S. Alcatel and Amazon are selling a Prime Exclusive version of the phone at a greatly reduced cost — $200. The downsides, of course, are lockscreen ads and an assortment of Amazon apps.
If you don’t mind Amazon offers mixed in with your notifications, the Idol 5S becomes a sweet deal at that price.
Pricing and warranty
The Idol 5S is available in the United States exclusively through Amazon. It retails for $280, though the Prime Exclusive version, for customers of the online retailer’s subscription service, is just $200.
Alcatel’s warranty covers defects and product failures up to a year following the date of purchase. It does not include normal wear-and-tear or water damage, and is voided if you root your phone, or use it in in tandem with accessories “not supplied or recommended” by the company.
The Alcatel Idol 5S is a jack of all trades that doesn’t necessarily outperform its rivals, but nevertheless offers a lot of phone for a reasonable price. Sadly, the budget market is extremely competitive and there are better options to choose.
Is there a better alternative?
Yes, several. With 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage, the Idol 5S falls right smack dab between the two configurations of the Moto G5 Plus currently offered in the U.S. – the 2GB/32GB version at $230, and the 4GB/64GB option at $300. So if you’re already willing to fork over $280 for the Alcatel, another $20 can get you more memory, more internal storage, a bigger battery, and a better camera. It’s certainly worth the added expense. If you spring for the Prime Exclusive version of the Moto G5 Plus, it will set you back just $240.
There’s also the lower-end Moto E4 Plus to consider. While it may feature an inferior processor compared to the Idol 5S, it costs far less — $180, with another Amazon ad-supported version available for only $140. A battery equal in size to the E4 Plus’ 5,000mAh is rare, making it one of the few cheap smartphones to truly deliver on the promise of two-day battery life.
There’s another contender worthy of consideration: The Huawei Honor 6X. Huawei’s 5.5-inch, dual camera-toting budget phone was already an excellent value at $250, but recently it’s been popping up at retailers for just $200. Fitted with 3GB of RAM, a larger 3,340mAh battery, and the company’s own Kirin 655 chipset, it’s an excellent value at the price point. For more options in this price range, check out our best cheap phones guide.
How long will it last?
If you don’t crack the screen, the Idol 5S should last 2 years at the least. As far as software updates are concerned, things get a little murkier. The benefit of an unlocked phone is that updates aren’t left languishing for months pending carrier approval. But Alcatel doesn’t have the best track record with regard to timely system updates, so you may have to wait quite a while before receiving Android O – if it arrives at all.
Should you buy it?
No. At $280, we believe you’ll get a better bang for your buck with the marginally more expensive Moto G5 Plus.That’s not to say the Idol 5S isn’t a compelling product — it has dual front-facing speakers, great performance, day-long battery life, and a solid software experience. If you can put up with the ads, the $200 Prime Exclusive variant is one of the best values on the market.
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