The Alcatel Idol 4S is one of the first Windows phones to launch in some time, and instead of feeling like the last gasp of a dying OS, it serves as proof that Windows phones are still viable. Exclusive to T-Mobile, it's the same phone on the outside as the Android version we reviewed earlier this year. But under the hood it has a more powerful processor and runs Windows 10 Mobile, allowing it to take advantage of unique features like Continuum. It's also the first Windows phone to support virtual reality, and comes with a dedicated VR headset. Overall, the $469.99 Idol 4S is a great device for both entertainment and productivity, held back only by Microsoft's relative lack of mobile apps compared with Android and iOS.
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The Idol 4S is a sleek and attractive phone made of two panes of glass held together by a strip of metal running along the sides, resembling the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge at a glance. It only comes in black, and the understated design gives it a classy look when compared with the bulky plastic build of the HP Elite x3.
The 4S can be called a phablet at 6.1 by 3.0 by 0.3 inches (HWD) and 5.4 ounces, but it has nothing on the gigantic Elite x3 (6.3 by 3.3 by 0.3 inches, 6.8 ounces). Its dimensions are identical to the Google Pixel XL, and both phones are a little too wide to reach across with your thumb. A long press on the Start button launches one-handed mode, which cuts the screen in half to give you easier access to live tiles.
A SIM/microSD card slot sits on the left side of the phone along with a power button, and it worked fine with a 256GB Samsung Evo+ card. On the right side you'll find a volume rocker, along with a circular button that served as the programmable BoomKey on the Android Idol 4S. Here it's been repurposed to launch the camera from the home screen and to act as a shutter key when the camera app is open. A USB-C charging port can be found on the bottom, and there's a 3.5mm audio jack up top.
Among its notable physical features, the Idol 4S has both back- and front-facing speakers on the top and bottom edges. Audio quality is excellent, possessing greater depth of sound and higher volume than most phones on the market. It's rivaled only by the booming front speakers on the ZTE Axon 7.
The back is home to a fingerprint sensor, powered by Windows Hello. Registering a fingerprint isn't much different than in Android or iOS—you simply scan your digit and set up a PIN code as a backup. I found the sensor to be a bit slower and less accurate than on the Pixel XL and Apple iPhone 7 Plus, though, requiring more tries to unlock.
The Idol 4S has a crisp 5.5-inch, 1,920-by-1,080 AMOLED display with excellent viewing angles and rich colors. The resolution works out to 401 pixels per inch (ppi), which isn't as sharp as the Quad HD panel on the 6-inch Elite x3 (494ppi) or the 5.5-inch Axon 7 (538ppi), but matches the 1080p display on the iPhone 7 Plus. The dark theme favored by the Windows 10 UI looks particularly good, thanks to AMOLED's ability to only light up pixels when needed.
The 4S is the first Windows phone with a VR focus and a headset comes included in the box. It's made of sturdy white plastic with a plush velcro strap. The phone clicks in easily, but unlike the Android Idol 4S it doesn't automatically recognize it's been placed into the headset.
The VR Launcher app allows you to play games and view 360-degree photos and videos, but I found the capacitive forward and back buttons on the bottom of the headset were often unresponsive. In some apps they didn't seem to work at all, while in others they functioned, but lacked haptic feedback. The headset is comfortable, and playing games and watching video on it is enjoyable, though I did notice some pixelation more than I did with the Quad HD Android version of the phone.
Along with the preloaded VR Gallery, Video, and Launcher apps, there's also a VR Store, allowing you to download more games and 360-degree media. The selection is sparse, though. Many popular VR games that can be found in the Google Play Store like Insidious VR, Flight Simulator, and Sisters: A Virtual Reality Ghost Story, aren't available. It's a microcosm of the same issue we've encountered with app availability on Windows phones in general.
The Idol 4S is exclusive to T-Mobile, and its selection of LTE bands makes that particularly clear. It only supports bands 2/4/12, the same as entry-level carrier phones like the LG K7. You'll get a much more comprehensive set of LTE bands on the Axon 7 and HP Elite x3, and with them better download and upload speeds. In our testing in midtown Manhattan, we largely recorded download speeds in the single digits. The phone also supports dual-band Wi-Fi, but not NFC.
Call quality is great. Transmissions are loud and clear on both ends, and there's no crackling or distortion. Noise cancellation is also excellent, with some faint wind noise being the only background sound that came across. Earpiece volume is loud, and the speakerphone is thunderous.
The 4S is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 processor clocked at 2.15GHz with 4GB of RAM. It's a powerful chipset you'll also find on the Axon 7, Elite x3, S7 Edge, and other high-end phones. But because of the lack of benchmark test apps available for Windows Mobile devices, it's difficult to gauge performance against Android phones. I ran JetStream in the Edge browser and received an excellent score of 61.6, outperforming both the Axon 7 (43.3) and the Elite x3 (60.7).
In real-world usage the 4S proved to be smooth and responsive. It had no issue launching apps, multitasking, and playing demanding games like Asphalt 8. I was also able to run Continuum with very little lag. More on that in the next section.
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Battery life is solid. The phone clocked 6 hours of full-screen video streaming over LTE at maximum brightness. That's as long as the Axon 7, but nowhere near the Elite x3, which lasted for 9 hours and 58 minutes. That said, I found the Idol's battery life to be more than sufficient for an average day's use. Qualcomm Quick Charge 3.0 is supported with the included adapter, allowing the phone to be charged to full in roughly 90 minutes.
The 4S has a 21-megapixel rear camera that proves to be a decent shooter, but doesn't do much to distinguish itself. Pictures taken outdoors are clear, but somewhat soft in direct sunlight. Color reproduction and auto exposure are well balanced, though, avoiding the oversaturation of the Axon 7. Low-light shots are okay, but don't come close to matching the camera on the S7 Edge.
The phone is also capable of recording 4K video at 30fps. There's no optical image stabilization, but the digital image stabilization did well to keep video smooth and stable as I panned around. The 8-megapixel front-facing camera takes generally good, clear pictures both indoors and out. It's great for video chat and selfies.
Windows 10 Mobile is an operating system you simply don't see much of, which is a pity because it's a smooth and intuitive OS. The phone's home screen is composed of live tiles, which are resizable and update automatically with new information. Swiping to the right takes you to a list of all apps and a search bar, and pulling down the notification shade gives you a quick overview of recent activity and settings toggles.
The phone itself is relatively free of bloatware. You get Microsoft's useful suite of apps like Excel, Skype, Word, and Xbox. There are also nine VR apps from Alcatel, a T-Mobile account app, Hulu Plus, and Uber. Only the latter two apps and two VR games can be uninstalled. That leaves you with 58.2GB free out of a total of 64GB of storage, which is an ample amount of room, and you can always add a microSD card.
Some of the more interesting aspects of Windows 10 Mobile include the Cortana voice assistant and Continuum. Cortana managed to answer most basic questions like, "When is the presidential election?" and "Who is the Democratic presidential candidate?" and perform commands like, "add an event to my calendar." But generally, Cortana can't fully match the capabilities of Google Assistant, because Assistant has access to Google Search, Google Map, Google Calendar, and a range of other widely used Google services. We also experienced two app crashes while testing Cortana.
Windows Continuum allows you to hook the Idol 4S up to a monitor using a dock (not included) and run Windows off of your phone. It's a great for productivity, allowing you to create Word documents, work on Excel spreadsheets, and browse the Web on a larger screen with mouse and keyboard as your input devices. There are some instances of lag, but generally, the Idol 4S ran in Continuum without any trouble. You won't find a feature like this on either Android or iOS.
Despite all of its innovations, Windows 10 Mobile still has one major problem: Apps. Even outside of Continuum there aren't nearly as many mobile apps available from Microsoft as there are from Apple or Google. Notable omissions include every single Google app, which is a big loss for anyone who relies on the company's services. Other missing apps include eBay, Lyft, Reddit, and Snapchat.
For $470, the Alcatel Idol 4S is the best Windows phone you can buy, offering T-Mobile users a sleek build, powerful hardware, VR capabilities, and extensive productivity features. The only other new Windows phone on the market, the HP Elite x3, is a powerful device, but it's big, expensive, and primarily geared toward enterprise users rather than everyday consumers. In the Android world, the best alternative is the unlocked, Editors' Choice-winning ZTE Axon 7, which gets you a metal unibody build, a higher-resolution display, and a far more comprehensive selection of apps, including the all-important Google services. The Android version of the Idol 4S is another good option, though it has a weaker processor and less RAM. Overall, the Idol 4S is an excellent phone for entertainment and productivity, but we only recommend it if you can live with the relatively limited app selection.