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OneTouch Idol 3 review: How good can a US$250 smartphone be?

JR Raphael | April 28, 2015
That's US$250 outright, with no contracts, commitments or obligations to pay inflated monthly bills for the next two years.

It's amazing what type of technology a couple of hundred bucks can get you these days.

While many people pay $600 to $700 for high-end smartphones (and yes, even if you buy a flagship phone on contract from a carrier for an initial $200, you're still paying the full price as part of your monthly service rate), more and more companies are offering perfectly decent mobile devices for a fraction of the cost.

The latest contender is Alcatel, whose new OneTouch Idol 3 phone sells for a mere $250. That's $250 outright, with no contracts, commitments or obligations to pay inflated monthly bills for the next two years. You can take the phone and use it wherever you want — on any carrier compatible with the AT&T or T-Mobile LTE network in the U.S., including prepaid providers that'll charge as little as $30 to $45 per month with no strings attached.

A simple but versatile form

In terms of looks, Alcatel's OneTouch Idol 3 isn't far removed from Samsung's pre-Galaxy S6 style. The phone is predominantly plastic, with a trim made to look like shiny metal and a back that features an emulated "brushed metal" finish. It's reasonably attractive, though a little insubstantial — especially the back panel, which has a paper-like texture and isn't exactly delightful to the touch. But remember: This is a $250 phone. When you adjust your expectations accordingly, it's actually quite impressive. And while the Idol 3 is a bit on the big side, it doesn't feel particularly cumbersome compared to most current flagship phones.

Speaking of size, the Idol 3 has a 5.5-in. 1080p IPS LCD display that doesn't disappoint. It's not going to blow you away like the screens of many top-of-the-line devices (but again: Expectations). It's bright, crisp and certainly no cause for complaint. And it's flanked by two speakers that deliver loud and clear — if somewhat tinny — audio.

One unusual element of the Idol 3 is the fact that the phone is fully reversible, meaning you can use it in any orientation. That functionality extends even to calls: Thanks to microphones on the top and bottom of the phone's face, you can actually make and receive calls while holding the device upside-down. The entire user interface rotates — you can barely even tell anything's out of the ordinary.

It's a clever concept, but there's one issue that keeps it from being entirely useful: When you receive a call, the Idol 3 locks into whatever orientation was last used on the phone. So if you were using the phone normally and then shut off the screen and dropped it into your pocket upside-down, an incoming call would work only in the normal right-side-up orientation — and the phone wouldn't allow the orientation to change until the call had ended. That's apparently due to an FCC requirement, but it's still a bummer that weakens the benefit of this feature.


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