How about some VR with your smartphone? Alcatel will give customers a taste of virtual reality, bundling a VR headset with its new flagship smartphone, the Idol 4S. Available for $349 pre-order until August 3 — the price increases to $399 afterward — the bundle also includes a pair of JBL earbuds, an Incipio phone case and a tempered glass screen protector.
The Idol 4S is the more premium of the two phones Alcatel will release this year. It comes with a 5.5-inch 2560 x 1440 AMOLED screen, Snapdragon 652 chip and higher-res 16-megapixel camera. Alcatel's other new phone, the Idol 4, has a 5.2-inch full HD screen, Qualcomm Snapdragon 617 processor 16GB of onboard storage and a 13-MP rear cam. For more on that model, check out our hands-on post of the Idol 4 from Mobile World Congress.
As for the Idol 4S, the phone, which is glass-covered on both sides, feels slick when you pick it up. Its rounded glass edges make the Idol 4S aesthetically akin to the Samsung Galaxy S7. As with Samsung's phone, the rear 16MP camera protrudes out the back, right above a small fingerprint reader that proved to be very responsive when I tried it out.
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At 5.2 ounces, the Idol 4S is light for a phone its size; the Galaxy S7, which has a smaller 5.1-inch display, weighs 5.36 ounces, and the 5.5-inch S7 Edge comes in at 5.5 ounces.
Like the Idol 4, the Idol 4S runs Android 6.0 and has 3GB of RAM, an 8-MP front cam, microSD card and dual JBL front-facing speakers. A side-mounted "Boom Key" acts as a programmable button, and lets you perform a number of functions, such as launching the camera, taking a photo or triggering another application. I set it up to act as a shutter button for the camera and found it to be pretty quick — the camera app opened in about a second.
When I hovered my hand over the Idol 4S display, the background wallpaper blurred out, a feature aimed at making the app icons more prominent. I found this to be more distracting than anything.
At first glance, the Idol 4S's 16-MP camera takes some pretty good photos, as evidenced by this shot of seared salmon over a bed of greens. However, I'll reserve final judgment until I use it in a variety of situations.
The VR headset bundled with the Idol 4S lies somewhere between Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR in terms of looks and functionality. Like Samsung's headset, Alcatel's is made of a clean white plastic with a translucent black front, and a comfortable foam-lined headband that you can adjust. There are also two buttons on the headset's bottom edge that let you navigate Alcatel's VR app. However, Alcatel's VR headset lacks the focus wheel and touch-panel of the Gear VR, which means that if your eyes have trouble focusing using Alcatel's device, you're out of luck. Also, the Idol 4S does not meet the requirements for Google Daydream, according to company representatives.
Alcatel preloads three VR apps on the Idol 4S: VR Launcher, VR Store and Littlstar. VR Store is essentially another way into Google Play, but it takes your directly to VR-related media and games. VR Launcher lets you access all your VR-related content in an easily navigable interface; menu options include Games, Video, Photo, 360 Video, 360 Photo, and Littlstar. What's Littlstar? It's another app that curates and aggregates 360-degree videos.
I downloaded a 360-degree video of some people flying down a mountainside in wingsuits, as well as a Formula One car zipping along a track. I couldn't watch the wingsuit gliders for more than a minute or so for fear of getting dizzy, but the racecar video was great. However, there's no way to re-orient the video in the goggles, so I had to look down and to my left to see the front of the car, which was a bit annoying.
I also downloaded a Star Wars game from the VR Store, but the game started in non-VR mode, requiring me to remove the Idol 4S from the headset. Its VR content wasn't very compelling, just a few short videos. The Insurgent VR "game" wasn't any more engaging, consisting of just a clip from the movie, presented as if I were watching it in a theater.
The headphones bundled with the Idol 4S are workable. They did a good job of blocking out ambient noise, felt comfortable in my ear, and produced well balanced sound. The bass line in Ariana Grande's "Into You" was fairly well defined, didn't drown out the vocals and only sounded slightly distorted at louder volumes. Too bad the in-line controls only pause or play music; there's no volume control.
To keep from damaging your phone, Alcatel is also bundling an Incipio case and a screen protector with the Idol 4S. They're nice add-ons, which probably would cost around $50 to $75 if you were to buy them separately.
For $349, Alcatel is offering a nice little bundle with the Idol 4S. For those looking for a new phone, and wanting to test out this whole VR thing, this could be just the ticket. Before you buy, though, wait for our full review of the Idol 4S, where we'll test its performance and battery life.