I also wish Alcatel had gone with physical or capacitive navigation buttons below the Idol 4S's screen, instead of relying on the software keys in Android. Those digital buttons take up a row of display space, and disappear whenever I play a game or full-screen video.
On the right side sits a round silver button that Alcatel calls the "boom key." You'll also find a circular fingerprint sensor etched into the Idol 4S's rear, right under the camera. This placement is designed to be easy for your finger to reach while the phone is in use, but it's not the easiest to find by touch, because the area isn't depressed like it is on other phones.
When you first open the Idol 4S packaging, you'll find a white rectangular box with a silver circle on the bottom. Press that, and you can pull apart the whole setup. The top half is the headset, which at first blush looks nearly identical to Samsung's Gear VR, while the bottom half is a case that contains accessories.
The Idol 4S VR Goggles (yes, that's the official name) differs from the Gear VR in a few ways. Alcatel placed its controls on the bottom of the viewer, as opposed to on the right edge like Samsung. The Idol 4S also comes with an extra headpiece to help the headset sit more comfortably on your head.
Most important, Alcatel's system is based on Google's Cardboard, whereas Samsung's is the result of a collaboration with Oculus. Those who have never used the Gear VR probably won't notice the difference in quality, but since I've spent a good deal of time with both, it's clear to me that the Alcatel viewer is not as immersive. I've never noticed pixels when using the Gear VR, but a few minutes into a 360-degree video on the Idol 4S VR Goggles I started spotting the fine dots.
Otherwise, the headset, which is spongy around the eyes, feels light and comfortable enough to wear for extended periods. If you wear glasses, putting the goggles on may be a hassle, but it's not much more difficult than with other setups.
Alcatel provides a VR launcher app that serves as your gateway to compatible content. With it, you get a basic navigation menu with seven tiles floating in a horizontal row over a starry backdrop. These icons let you see games, regular pictures and videos, 360-degree images and videos, a tutorial and Littlstar.
The latter is a third-party provider of VR video content from channels such as ABC News, Discovery VR, Showtime and other independent brands. Its offerings are mostly short, entertaining clips that occasionally look suspiciously like promotional material for those brands' upcoming shows. In the week that I've had the Idol 4S, though, the Littlstar library doesn't appear to have been updated with new stuff. But to be fair, neither Alcatel nor LIttlstar promises frequent additions to the selections.
Thankfully, Littlstar isn't the only way to get good VR content on the Idol 4S. You can also go into the VR store app or find more media through Google's own apps for Cardboard section. Unfortunately, the Idol 4S isn't certified for Google's Daydream mobile VR platform yet, so it might not be forward-compatible with upcoming media. Still, for the price, the Idol 4S Goggles and the basic content Alcatel offers is an easy and accessible way to dip your toe into virtual reality.
Display and sound
Just like its predecessor, the Idol 4S has a bright panel that's easy to see even in direct sunlight. Its 5.5-inch Quad HD AMOLED display is vibrant and sharp, which makes watching Netflix and playing games more immersive. Colors looked more saturated than I'm used to on my iPhone 6s screen. Even though I did eventually start noticing pixelation in VR content when looking through the viewer, high-res videos generally appeared crisp on the phone itself.
One other novelty in the Idol 4S is its dual JBL-certified speakers that pump out sound through both the front and back of the device. This prevents muffling of the audio when you put your phone down on a surface, and worked surprisingly well on both an office table and my bed. I noticed slightly clearer echo when the phone was face up rather than down, but the difference isn't noticeable unless you go looking for it like I did.
The Idol 4S's speakers were also satisfyingly loud, and I never had to struggle to hear it at top volume. The included Waves MaxxAudio app lets you change sound profiles for specific situations such as Music, Movie or General. You can also customize the output of bass, treble and revive, but, in general, I left these settings alone.
Like any respectable phone being launched this year, the Idol 4S ships with Android 6.0.1 Marshmallow. The company said an update to Android Nougat is on its way, although it hasn't given a timeframe yet.
As is its habit, Alcatel has skinned the otherwise stock OS with the company's own icons for apps such as Messages, Dialer, Camera and Contacts. This cartoonish look won't be for everyone, but it's simple enough to resolve with a theme download.
A new feature for the Idol line is the aforementioned Boom key on the device's right side. Pressing this in specific apps launch specialized tasks, such as activating photo collages in the Gallery, volume and bass boost in a music player, enhanced surround sound in a video playback and improved voice quality and loudness during a call. These are preset in the software, and you can't change them or add more, but you can customize what pressing (or double pressing) the Boom key does when the phone screen is off and on.
The in-app Boom functions are hit or miss: I didn't ever need photo collage mode when viewing my Gallery, but I found the volume boosts very handy. I also liked being able to open a specific app of my choice with one press while the screen is on.
Thankfully, not much bloatware comes loaded on the Idol 4S. In addition to the VR apps mentioned earlier, Alcatel also includes its fun Music app that has a Mix mode for turntable-style DJ-ing on the go. You'll also get useful titles such as Facebook, Twitter and Whatsapp, and the just-tolerable NextRadio and Swiftkey.