To be clear, what I have is a pre-production, SIM-unlocked unit from Alcatel, not a retail-fresh one from T-Mobile. I feel it's important to get that out of the way immediately, because should anyone think about importing one from the U S of A you'll end up with one locked down to T-Mobile. And you don't want that.
I really like this phone. And I really hope that it'll be sold internationally at some point.
My first experience of the Idol 4 family of phones was back in February at Mobile World Congress. I actually went to the launch event in Barcelona, albeit without a hint of Windows 10 in sight. What we've got is a little different, but different isn't bad.
This is the sleek, stylish consumer flagship
Visually it's the same phone. Two panes of glass with metal frames and all the electronic bits and pieces sandwiched inside. The Idol 4S has always been a good looking phone, and it stands out from the admittedly slim crowd of other Windows 10 phones. Where the HP Elite is the all-singing, all-dancing goliath for the enterprise world, the Idol 4S is the sleek, stylish consumer flagship.
The Lumia 950 XL is a great phone, no doubt, I wouldn't still be using it if it wasn't. But next to the Idol 4S it feels a bit boring and more than a bit utilitarian. A plastic rectangle with a screen on the front. The Idol 4S has a bit more glamour about it, and the black finish with gold metal trim looks hot. It baffles me why so many phone makers go with white and gold when, clearly, black and gold is much better looking.
Where the Idol 4S is impressing me the most is in the battery life department. A combination of better power management on the Snapdragon 820 and 'only' a 1080p display means that I'm able to use the phone all day, still have plenty of battery left, fall asleep at night forgetting to charge it, wake up, still have battery and then charge it. It doesn't have the largest battery you've ever seen, but it knows how to use it.
Incredible battery life, buttery smooth and always cool to the touch
What you also get from that Snapdragon 820 is buttery smooth performance and very little in the way of excess heat being generated. The 'Snaptoaster 810' as it was often dubbed that the Lumia 950 XL has is certainly prone to getting a little warm, but so far the Idol 4S hasn't been anything like it. That also includes when it has been strapped into the VR headset.
The VR headset that comes with the Idol 4S is both good and bad. It's good because it's both free and an excellent quality headset. But it's bad because for all the work Alcatel put into it, there's just no real content on Windows 10 to make use of it. That makes me sad and it's something I hope there'll be a brighter future for, even if I'm not holding my breath.
The headset is a neat little package that is its own box, which is also commodious enough to hold the head strap if you ever take it on the road with you. It's also only for the Idol 4S, since the tray for the phone is shaped to fit it perfectly and lock it into place. The strap has a good, very comfortable cushion for the back of your head, and there's virtually no light bleed when you're wearing it. The black interior also helps ensure minimal reflections in front of your eyes.
The lack of VR content is sad when the experience here is so good
It really is a terrific mobile VR headset.
That's what so sad about the lack of content. Even though the display isn't QHD, the VR experience is very good. The pre-loaded games look vibrant and are fairly enjoyable, if a little simple. Alcatel also built a VR launcher that activates when the phone is docked into the headset, a copy of the very same app it puts onto its Android versions. Again, it's very good, and you get a few other bits and pieces too, including Tube 360 for watching 360-degree videos from YouTube.
There are also a few apps in the Store, but nowhere near enough to take full advantage of what is actually a very good experience.
Back to using the phone as a phone, though, and another win for me over the 950 XL is the fingerprint scanner on the rear for Windows Hello. The Iris scanner is a neat thing to have and show off to your friends, but I almost never use it these days because it's quicker to just enter a pin. Touching the fingerprint scanner on the Idol 4S while the screen is off and having it just turn on and unlock the phone is so much better.
A fingerprint scanner is hands-down better than an Iris scanner
The scanner isn't perfect, and I think that's mostly because it's flush to the back of the phone and has a very fingerprint attractive surface. It's definitely easier to locate with the phone in a case, but it still needs a wipe pretty often to keep it free of lingering prints that can interfere.
Also on the back, naturally, is the camera. Starting with the good, and the front-facing shooter is decent. It's better than the one on the Lumia and has a dedicated flash for those night time selfies. Not that I take many selfies at all, least of all at night. But I'm never one to turn my nose up at features.
The rear camera isn't bad, but it's not a patch on that found on the Lumia 950 XL. It's not quite as quick to focus, and it doesn't seem to handle auto settings very well at all. Whip out the manual controls and it's still possible to get some good shots, but it does highlight how much Microsoft and Nokia spoiled us. I do like that there's a physical camera button, however unorthodox its placement is. But it's workable.
The camera is the only area of the Idol 4S that gives me any issues, too, just as it does on the Lumia 950 XL. The stock Windows Camera app remains to this day the biggest source of swearing at my phone. And now it's on another phone, so I'm not blaming Alcatel for that one. I sit and hope that one day it'll just work every time and let me take pictures when I want to.
These speakers are LOUD, really LOUD
But back to good things. I want to round out my thoughts on this phone with a look at the front of the phone. That 1080p display is really nice, it's very crisp and it looks terrific. Throw in the dual front-facing speakers and you've got a portable media monster. I often use headphones around the house just because my phone speaker isn't loud enough, and I'm a frequent Twitch viewer on my phone as well.
But the Idol 4S is LOUD. So loud that where other phones I'd turn up as high as possible, I avoid doing on the Idol 4S because I don't want my neighbors to join in the fun. I'm loving just setting it up in the kitchen to listen/watch as I do kitchen things. The sound is good quality too, easily the best of any Windows phone I've ever used.
The bottom line is that I love this phone (in case you hadn't noticed). Sure, it isn't perfect, there are things I'd change and there are still frustrations with software that aren't Alcatel's fault. I've mostly ignored any software quirks though because I use Windows 10 Mobile every day, and those aren't anything I haven't seen on a Microsoft phone. Alcatel launched this with the Anniversary Update and it's already been updated again recently (looking at you Acer), so it's at least the best it can be.
More than anything I want fans around the world to be able to buy this. It's a fair bit cheaper than the Elite x3 while still having things like a Snapdragon 820 processor and 64GB of internal storage. It's a stylish phone, very much a high-end device and in the absence of anything from Microsoft, the new consumer flagship for the platform. I'm extremely lucky to have one, and I want other people to be that lucky too.
See at T-Mobile
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