Alcatel Idol 5 Review: Form & Function For under $200
The Idol 5 is a device that shouldn’t be overlooked
Alcatel’s Idol series of smartphones is the flagship series of devices for the company, and its latest, the Idol 5, was released on Cricket Wireless a little earlier this year. We’ve been able to spend the past week or so with it to see how it stacks up and see what it has to offer, and whether it’s a good enough value for the money. For the most part our initial first impressions of the phone is that it’s a stylish device, so it’s certainly likely to appeal to consumers on Cricket Wireless who prefer to have a phone that looks good. As for the function and features, you might be surprised at all that the Idol 5 actually offers, from decent mid-range specs to some unique software touches that not all manufacturers are implementing. Though it doesn’t come with the phone, Alcatel has also made the Idol 5 compatible with UNI360 Goggles, which is Alcatel’s VR headset of sorts. This isn’t like the Gear VR or Daydream View, and is more like a fancy Google Cardboard viewer. Nevertheless it’s well-made and works well.
On paper, the Idol 5 may seem a bit underwhelming when it comes to the hardware, especially considering this is Alcatel’s flagship line and when compared to other flagships the specs really aren’t on the same level. The nice thing about the Idol 5 and past Idol devices is that it carries mostly high-end hardware components, just not from the top of the line brands. For example, it uses a CPU from MediaTek instead of Qualcomm, but it’s still a pretty powerful CPU.
The Alcatel Idol 5 is powered by the MediaTek Helio P20 octa-core processor. That processor can be found in many lower-end handsets because it’s still powerful but it’s available to vendors at more of a budget cost, meaning it can be placed inside devices which are meant to be high-tier low-end, or mid-range phones. That processor is paired with 2GB of RAM, 32GB of internal storage, and up to 256GB of expandable storage with a microSD card if you need more room than what’s allowed on the device, though the microSD card doesn’t come with the phone. To keep the device powered on, Alcatel used a non-removable 2,850mAh battery and the device uses USB Type-C for charging and comes with the PumpExpress + 2.0 technology, so it does charge up pretty fast even when the phone is just about dead.
For the cameras, the Idol 5 carries a 12-megapixel sensor on the back with LED flash, and an 8-megapixel sensor on the front for selfies and video chat. All of those pictures and video can also be viewed on the 5.2-inch Full HD display that’s protected by Corning Gorilla Glass 3, making this a pocketable phone and one with a display that will hold up to scratches and scuffs, and perhaps the occasional ding without too much trouble. The phone is also running on Android 7.0 Nougat with Alcatel’s user interface tweaks and design, so the software is mostly up to date, though keep in mind it won’t look like stock Android software here, nor will it function exactly like it as it does have some extras. Perhaps the only thing this phone is lacking is the fingerprint sensor, as most phones have one these days. Lastly, the Idol 5 comes with front-facing stereo speakers, which is something you won’t get with even quite a few top-tier phones these days, such as the original Google Pixel, so this was a plus when using the device for videos or other entertainment like games.
In The Box
There isn’t a ton of stuff in the packaging with this phone as you just get the basic stuff you need for it to work. This means the charger, which consists of the wall adapter and USB C cable, the phone, and the quick start and warranty guides.
Hardware & Design
Alcatel has made a stylish device with the Idol 5. Just like with the Idol 4 and Idol 4S, the Idol 5 is pretty sleek, so not only is it functional on a budget, it looks quite a bit better than a fair amount of phones out there which cost double the price. Though this is also something that is subject to personal opinion. Some may not care for the design of the Idol 5. That said, it should look pretty good to most consumers, as it’s thin, and it’s made of metal so it feels really premium in the hand when holding it, and that’s always a plus especially when you’re not paying a lot for the phone. Speaking of cost, the Idol 5 is less than $200, so you really aren’t paying a lot for the quality that you’re getting. Some aren’t a fan of the antenna bands showing on the backs of phones, and if you’re one of those people then you may not like the looks of this phone from the back, as they are showing. This isn’t really a huge problem though for me personally. Alcatel has given the phone chamfered edges all the way around the frame on both the back and front of the device, and even the buttons have the same matching chamfered edges, save for the shortcut button on the right side of the device. The Idol 5 does have some pretty big bezels on the front, but overall the design is still pretty nice.
When it comes to the hardware used, the power button and the SIM card tray are both on the left side of the frame, while the volume up and down button, as well as the trigger function shortcut button are on the right. The top is bare except for the mic, and on the bottom you’ll find the USB Type-C charging port, as well as a 3.5mm audio port for plugging in a standard pair of wired headphones if you prefer to use them over a wireless Bluetooth pair. The front camera will be just to the right of the top speaker, while the rear camera will sit in the top left corner of the back along with the LED flash, which is a pretty common place for OEMs to put this particular component.
The screen here is nice enough because it’s a decent size for the average user, and it’s Full HD, but it’s definitely not going to cut it completely for those who prefer a higher quality display resolution, especially since they’re becoming more and more common on phones now. Despite this though, I never really personally found an issue with the screen. Its crisp, gives off a pretty bright backlight even when the brightness isn’t turned up all the way, and the color reproduction is pretty good with colors being nice and vivid but not overly saturated because it’s an LCD panel and not an AMOLED, which tends to come with a little more saturated colors and deeper blacks.
The display does have MiraVision technology integrated with it, which means you are able to change the picture mode if you feel like the display needs more color to pop off the screen. It’s set to standard by default, but you can change this vivid if you want more color, or user mode if you want a little more control to adjust and fine tune the color and picture by changing values like contrast, saturation, picture brightness, sharpness and more. Some may never use these settings at all, but for those that have used them on other phones or may want to play around with them, it’s nice that they’re there. Touch responsiveness was good here too, never once having had any issues with the screen not working in certain spots or not recognizing my finger presses. It also didn’t seem to have any issues with light bleed or dead pixels, so if you’re not particularly needing to have a 2K display, then you shouldn’t be disappointed with what’s on offer.
Despite having a budget processor inside, the Idol 5 holds its own for multitasking and entertainment. That’s because although the CPU is from MediaTek, which does tend to offer more budget CPUs, it’s the Helio P20, which is one of MediaTek’s higher-end ones. Even with just 2GB of RAM the device seemed to be ok with most tasks and with running multiple apps in the background, though it is possible to encounter a little bit of lag if you’re trying to run too many RAM-intensive apps or games. While we didn’t run into any problems with having multiple apps open in the background, we did also want to test the Idol 5 with gaming to see how it would hold up to more stress on the CPU and GPU during longer periods of high-quality games. For this, we booted up Modern Combat Versus, one of Gameloft’s newest titles, as this comes with some of the best graphics of any FPS on Android that was actually designed for mobile.
This game mostly ran ok, but it’s clear that the hardware was holding back the performance a bit as Modern Combat Versus is a pretty demanding game, and the Idol 5 could probably benefit from a little bit more RAM here. Overall though it did work and the game was still very much playable, you’ll just end up noticing some stuttering here and there. If you’re into mobile gaming a lot and you want the best possible performance, this may not be the best device for playing high-end mobile games. If you’re into more casual gaming, then you’ll be able to get by just fine with the Idol 5. If you’re not really into mobile gaming at all and you’re just planning on using this for other forms of entertainment, say for media streaming, in addition to things like web browsing, social media, photos, and email, then the Idol 5 will do just fine for these things too. For the most part the performance was decent, but it does come up a little short in the gaming department.
While the Idol 5 might be lacking a tiny bit in performance, it makes up for it with the battery life. With just a 2,850mAh battery inside the Idol 5 is capable of getting at least 7 hours of screen on time on average. This is pretty much what we got when we used it with things like web browsing, videos, and the occasional game, and it matched up for the most part with the battery test that we put it through using PCMark, which resulted in 7 hours and 36 minutes of screen on time. This is better than the average smartphone and paired with the PumpExpress + 2.0 technology and a USB Type-C port, you shouldn’t have any issues with the device lasting you through the day as the battery life is already good, and it’ll charge up quick when you need it to as well. Long story short, the battery is definitely a strong point for the Idol 5.
Just like we do with all phones and mobile devices we review, we put the Idol 5 through some benchmark tests to see how it would come out on paper with the scores. These are semi important as they can give you an idea of what to expect with performance, but they’re not so important that a bad score means the device will perform terribly in the real world. We put the Idol 5 through AnTuTu, 3DMark, and Geekbench 4, and it came out with some decent scores for its device range. If you’re interested in checking out the scores you can see them from the screenshots just below.
As mentioned above the VR headset that we got to try out with the Idol 5 is Alcatel’s UNI360 Goggles, which is more or less just a Google Cardboard-style viewer. This means it works with Google Cardboard content that you can find on Google Play, but you can also grab stuff straight from the VR Store app that Alcatel has pre-installed, and this might be a bit easier if you want to browse through just VR content. As to the headset itself, this is a $50 piece of equipment though it’s not quite available according to Alcatel’s website. This is a pretty standard VR headset and it comes with decent construction as it’s made with solid plastic, and has an easily removable front plate so you can insert the phone and lock it in place. The headset also comes with back and select buttons at the top of the headset at the right and left corners, with a wheel in the middle for adjusting the focus of the lenses so you can get the view just right. The headset also comes with an optional head strap which you can choose to put on if you want to use the headset hands-free. This is a nice strap too, as it wraps around the back and it goes over the top which means you’re going to get a really secure fit when you use the UNI360 with the strap. Overall this was a nice headset for the price, and you can even pick one up to use with other phones as it’s compatible with plenty of other Android devices and even some iPhones.
Though you may not think it from a phone that costs around $200, the Alcatel Idol 5 actually puts out some pretty good sound thanks to the front-facing stereo speakers. This was another strong point for the device as not only did the stereo audio make for a more immersive and more enjoyable experience with videos, music, and games, but the audio was louder because the speakers face the user, being positioned just above and just below the edges of the screen on the top and bottom. While the phone may not be the best for high-end gaming, the sound is still great for anything else you might need it for and it gets plenty loud. In the end if you value decent audio the Idol 5 won’t disappoint you.
Though the Alcatel Idol 5 doesn’t have a stock Android look to the design of the UI, it doesn’t come with many software extras either. That’s not a bad thing, though, it just means it will probably feel a little more stock than it looks. That said, there are some cool features to make note of. For example, the shortcut button (called the Now Key) on the right side of the phone’s frame that sits under the volume keys. This is pretty useful and it’s configurable to a decent degree. You only get three shortcuts here, so you definitely have to go through and figure out what you will use the most, but the nice thing is that you can easily go and change what comes up when you hit this button.
As for what shortcuts you’ll be able to bring up, you can access the flashlight, the camera, the calculator, and your recent calls list just to name a few. You can even have it compose a message or take a selfie. If you’re like me and you use Google Assistant a lot, you can also use one of the shortcuts to bring up Google Assistant. If you really don’t want shortcuts to functions, you can also choose to have it trigger the launch of an app. This can be any app you have installed on the phone, so there are no limits with that in particular. Lastly, you can also disable it if you want it to do nothing, which could also be useful as the Now key does sit in a somewhat awkward place and it’s easy to press it accidentally.
The phone software also allow for a couple of gestures, though it really is just a couple. Literally, there are only two, which includes the three-finger swipe down to take a screenshot, or turning the phone over to mute it if you have an incoming call. This isn’t much, but you can easily add more by using a third-party launcher like Nova which lets you configure quite a few different gestures. That’s really about it for the software, though keep in mind this is running on Android 7.0 Nougat, so as mentioned above you do have Google Assistant available and pretty much any other Nougat-specific features.
I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Idol 5 when it came to the camera mostly because this is a $200 device and in my personal experience cameras on phones this low-priced aren’t always the best, but I am occasionally surprised. In this case I was exactly that as the camera did produce some pretty nice photos, even when not in the most optimal of lighting conditions. However, it is worth noting that it could have done a little bit better in darker situations. Overall picture quality was pretty good though with photos coming out with a good level of detail, sharpness, and good contrast of colors.
As for camera features, you don’t have a pro mode, but you do get more than just your standard photos and video recording options. It does come with a panorama as well as a slo-mo mode, and though it doesn’t offer a pro mode with as many options, there is a manual mode with quite a few adjustments and you really aren’t missing much from a pro mode like you’ll find on other devices. With manual you can change the ISO, the exposure composition, the shutter speed and more. You can even swap the images between jpg and RAW jpg formats. In addition to the manual mode you also have micro video, cinemagraph, 360 photos, an instant collage mode, and the light trace mode which is what you would want to use if you’re taking pictures where objects with light would be moving at a faster pace, say if you’re taking pictures of traffic with cars whizzing by you and you want to capture that cool blurred line effect from the tail lights. One other cool feature is that there is a manage button you can tap which lets you configure which of all those modes you can access quickly from the bar next to the shutter button, which seems to default to video, slo-mo, photo, and pano modes. For the most part the Idol 5 has a good camera. It’s not lacking too much, and it puts out a pretty good photo especially for the cost of the phone.
Great battery life
Low price point making it affordable
Great value for the price
PumpExpress + 2.0 for fast charging
Android 7.0 Nougat with Google Assistant
Pretty fast processor
Front-facing stereo speakers
Now key for quick access to shortcuts
3.5mm audio port for wired headphones
Low amount of RAM causing some sluggishness for high-end games
No fingerprint sensor
Only available on Cricket Wireless
Odd placement of the Now key, though you can disable it if it becomes a problem with hitting it accidentally
Alcatel isn’t known for making the most premium smartphones on the market, but that hasn’t stopped them from delivering a good quality smartphone. The Idol 5 is a great device and it only costs $200 at full retail, and that’s a huge plus, if you’re willing to switch to Cricket, or if you’re already on Cricket. For those who use a different carrier, though, and are happy with their service, it’s hard to recommend the Idol 5 since it’s not available unlocked.
Should you buy the Alcatel Idol 5?
As stated above, since this is only available on Cricket and it’s not unlocked, it’s hard to recommend this device to just anyone. It does have loads of nice features though, and it performs decently for the average user if they’re not looking to play the most high-end demanding games on mobile. It comes with a great camera with lots of features, it has excellent battery life, and perhaps best of all, it has front-facing stereo speakers, so the audio for videos and such is already better than plenty of other phones in this price range. If you can handle the carrier exclusivity, then this is a great device to pick up, as this is a solid offering with plenty of enticing features, making the Idol 5 a device that shouldn’t be overlooked, though you will have to go straight to Cricket or the Cricket website to get the phone.Buy The Alcatel Idol 5 - Cricket Wireless