Yes, that's me holding a phone upside down while pretending to make a phone call. It may look silly, but that's exactly what the folks over at Alcatel OneTouch want to see going viral on the streets soon. What we have here is the new "orientation-free" Idol 3 smartphone series, which lets users quickly pick up phone calls without having to check whether they are holding the device -- either the 4.7-inch version or the larger 5.5-inch model -- the right way up. The trick? It's all down to the symmetrical design consisting of a speaker and a mic at each end of the phone; and yes, you do get to use the two front-facing speakers in stereo mode for entertainment purposes.
Gallery: Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 hands-on | 23 Photos
Gallery: Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 hands-on | 23 Photos
According to Alcatel OneTouch Global Design Director CW Park, his team wanted to bring a different story to the table -- as opposed to just squeezing in the best possible specs into a phone -- while brainstorming for what would eventually become the Idol 3. They decided to focus on one pain point: the clumsiness of picking up the phone out of the pocket or handbag, especially when your hands are already occupied while, say, cycling or carrying groceries.
"When I pick up my phone out of the pocket, chances are more like a 50-50 in terms of the orientation of the device," Park said. "If you get the right orientation of the device, then you're lucky enough to receive the call directly; otherwise you take risk to fix the orientation with your hand. It's kind of like juggling on your hand. By doing that process, you have a certain level of risk of dropping your phone."
The Idol 3 series should therefore, in theory, solve this problem: If you hold these phones upside down, the UI, speaker and mic will also switch around accordingly. We say "in theory" because while the design is largely symmetrical, there are still the odd protruding parts (the power and volume buttons), the logo and the cameras that may dissuade anxious users from just letting the devices deal with the orientation issue. Perhaps this is just a matter of getting used to it over time.
As you'd expect, the two Idol 3 phones exactly mirror each other's look and feel. We dig the subtle curvature on the back and the shiny plastic bezel -- the latter of which gets its impressive brushed metallic look thanks to a special nine-layer coating, which took Alcatel OneTouch and its partners over a year to develop. Much like the OnePlus One, the Idol 3's screen piece gently recedes from the edges of the frame, so it appears as if it's floating on top. For the sake of adding a premium touch, Park's team took it one step further and added a UV spin pattern on the loud, JBL-tuned speakers. The seemingly solid build quality on our preview units also helps, too.
In terms of specs, the 5.5-inch Idol 3 is clearly a lot more powerful than its little sister. It comes with Qualcomm's Snapdragon 615, a 64-bit octa-core chipset (1.5GHz x 4 + 1GHz x 4), to drive the high-luminosity 1080p IPS screen, LTE connectivity (Bands 1/3/7/8/20), 13-megapixel main camera (with a single LED flash), 8-megapixel front-facing camera and Android 5.0. You'll also find a 2,910mAh battery (not bad for a 7.4mm-thick phone), 16GB of internal storage, microSD expansion of up to 128GB (some regions may feature a second micro-SIM slot instead), dedicated audio DAC (AK4375) and audio amplifier (NXP's TFA9897), plus NFC to boot. This isn't quite in the same league as the upcoming Snapdragon 810 devices, but given the expected €249 (about $280) base price, contract-free price point, we won't be complaining too much. Oh, and the phone will come with a pair of JBL earphones as well.
As for the smaller, 4.7-inch Idol 3, everything is the same except for some trade-offs: 720p IPS display, 64-bit quad-core Snapdragon 410 (1.2GHz), 5-megapixel selfie camera and 2,000mAh battery. It'll start from €199 (about $220).
On the software side, both models come with Android Lollipop (our units ran on 5.0.2, to be exact) with a fair amount of customization by Alcatel OneTouch. Most notably, you can slide all the way to the left on the home screen to get to the OneTouch Stream, a hub that gathers detailed local weather information, a short timeline of your upcoming appointments, top news, recommended wallpapers, featured apps and even an accessories showcase for your consideration (although we'd rather have the option to disable this one).
As with previous models, the Idol 3 comes preloaded with some apps and Gameloft games (which you can delete, thankfully), but we're more interested in the phone maker's very own OneTouch Mix app, which gives you a virtual DJ deck with BPM analysis, auto or manual mixing, crossfading and even disc scratching to let users make full use of the devices' audio features. You can also stream and mix music from Rdio as well.
The camera app's tools aren't bad, either: You get the usual HDR mode, panorama mode, manual mode, time-lapse, barcode scanner and face beautification -- which is enhanced with FotoNation's fast face-detection technology.
Other tidbits include Technicolor Color Enhance for the display, double-tapping the screen to wake the phone, flipping to mute incoming calls, quick-launch buttons on the lock screen and a still under-development "Eye-D unlock" option -- powered by biometric specialist EyeVerify -- that detects the white space on your eyeballs for identification. As cool as this security feature sounds, we'll remain skeptical until we get to try the finalized version of the Idol 3.
With its upcoming affordable smartwatch and these orientation-free smartphones, it looks like Alcatel OneTouch is doing something right. We continue to be impressed by the ever-improving design and build quality, especially given the company's insistence on targeting the masses. And more importantly, it's all about thinking outside the box to actually fix the little annoyances we come across daily. The idea of an orientation-free phone is so simple that it does make us wonder why no one else has done this yet. To that, we say kudos to Alcatel OneTouch.
For those who are keen to try one of the two Idol 3 devices, they are scheduled to land in Europe around April, then Latin America in May, followed by the US in June.
Update: We have amended the prices mentioned in this article.
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