The promise of Virtual Reality has been with us for decades. VR has the potential to change education, television and even healthcare but first, it will be gaming, and how we play that changes. This is the year of VR, as technology leaders like Facebook, Google, Samsung and HTC launch products that can, virtually, transport you from your sofa to a planet on the other side of the universe. VR headsets are not cheap and it may be a year or two before they enter the mainstream, but phone maker Alcatel may have stolen a march on the tech giants with their new mid-range phone, as it comes packaged, inside a VR headset.
Unpacking the Idol 4 reveals a good looking phone. Its 5.2” screen is full HD and the phone itself weighs just 135g. Available in four colours, including Rose Gold, the Idol 4 is a stylish looking phone that feels better than its mid-range price. It comes with Android 6, Marshmallow installed and Alcatel have done a great job of adding their twist to the operating system. The Idol 4 has 16GB of storage and 3GB of RAM and you can add a Micro-SD card for up to 512GB more of storage.
I was a little surprised at their use of a mid-range processor, the Snapdragon 617, but any fears were allayed when I started using the phone as it switches apps and deals with intensive tasks quickly and smoothly.
As well as its Micro USB, headphone socket and volume keys it has a very obvious button on one side. This is the programmable Boom key. Amongst the clever features this well thought out addition brings is, even when the phone is sleeping, double-clicking the key twice will instantly snap a photo.
If you tap it when you’re in the gallery it arranges the photos in collage form. Within various applications the Boom key adds something to the experience, whether it’s the home screen right through to gaming or shooting a video but the most spectacular results is when listening to music. Powered by Wave audio technology, pressing the Boom key lifts the audio to a new level with a deep bass tone and additional clarity.
The audio in general, from the Idol 4 is impressive given its beefy 3.6 watt stern speakers and the included headphones deliver a good hi-fi sound experience.
The cameras are decent, with a rear and front of 13MP and 8MP. The rear has a dual-tone flash and the front also has a flash, and a feature called Real Time Face Beautification for the selfie-generation. Although the camera struggled a little in low light, they produce bright, colour-filled images in good conditions.
After I’d set up the phone, made some calls and snapped some photos and video, it was time to try the VR headset. Part of the packaging is used as the headset, but this is not a Google cardboard imitator. The Idol’s VR headset is really well made and comes complete with an adjustable strap that holds it firmly in place on the head and the foam cushioning on the rear of the headset make it comfortable to wear.
The Idol snaps firmly in to place in the headset and there is a cover that attaches to the front of the headset to give it a futuristic look. There are buttons on the bottom of the headset, rather than the side, but this is a clever design as they’re perfectly placed for the user’s thumbs. Entering the world of VR is as easy as launching one of the preloaded apps and there is a dedicated Alcatel VR store, although it was a little short of content. I downloaded additional VR content from the Google Play Store and those apps, created for Google Cardboard worked perfectly on the Idol VR.
The VR experience is good, and exceptional when you consider this is a mobile phone doing the hard work, rather than a dedicated PC. I tried a few games, from space exploration to golf and the navigation is intuitive and easy with good sound delivered via the headphones. I did noticed a small lag when turning my head quickly during game play but overall it’s a good, immersive VR experience.
The Idol 4+VR is a clever move by the maker, Alcatel. The phone performs well and looks good, while it offers a nice introduction to virtual reality with a well built headset. It isn’t going to disrupt the top-end of the smartphone or Virtual Reality market but the package is a good one and differentiates itself for the right reasons.