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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.

Eye-scanning security

The OneTouch Idol 3 offers an interesting security option called Eye-D. The biometric system uses blood vessel patterns in the whites of your eyes to recognize you (via the front-facing camera) and unlock your device.

It worked consistently well: The system identified me every time, even in extremely dim lighting and as of this writing, has yet to authorize any impostors. The process is a bit poky, though: You have to carefully position the device so your eyes land in the appropriate place on the screen, which typically ends up taking several seconds each time. Neat as it is in theory, I suspect most folks will get frustrated with the delay and end up turning the feature off.

Everything else

Beyond the bells and whistles, the Idol 3 runs custom software based on Google's Android 5.0.2 Lollipop operating system. For the most part, Alcatel has stuck with Google's stock Lollipop-level UI, which makes the user experience pretty pleasant.

The company has made a handful of unfortunate design tweaks — like redesigning system icons and folders with an out-of-place iOS-like appearance and adding a bafflingly redundant second Back button into the Camera app — but they're mostly things you can get around by installing a custom launcher and downloading official Google apps to replace the Alcatel-modified versions. The core UI itself is generally commendable.

The Idol 3's performance is also solid: The phone initially felt a little laggy and jerky, but a prerelease software update sent late last week went a long way toward improving its speed and smoothness. Camera quality is mediocre: The device's photos are neither fantastic nor consistent, but you shouldn't have much trouble capturing a decent-looking image that's fine enough for sharing. And onboard storage is a low point, with just shy of 10GB available, but the Idol has a microSD slot hidden within its SIM card tray that lets you add up to 128GB of additional space.

Last but not least, battery life is acceptably average: I've typically been able to make it from morning to night — though sometimes just barely — with around three to four hours of active screen-on time.

Bottom line

My recommendation for an inexpensive yet satisfactory Android experience is usually Motorola's Moto G, which runs $180 unlocked. For an extra $70, the Idol 3 gives you a larger, higher-resolution display and LTE connectivity — something the U.S. model of the Moto G lacks. And while Alcatel's software isn't quite at the level of Motorola's, it's very usable, and its pain points are easily covered up. (Of course, Motorola is known for providing Android OS upgrades quickly and reliably to its devices, while Alcatel is more of a wild card in that regard.)

 

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