Alcatel crams flagship features into its affordable smartphones

18:9 screens and dual cameras don't have to cost a fortune.


    When I first saw its 2018 phone lineup, Alcatel was clear: Its plan for this year was to make premium smartphone features available for much less than typical flagship prices. In this case, Alcatel means giving 18:9 screens, fingerprint sensors, and elaborate camera setups to as many people as possible. Based on some hands-on time here in Barcelona, Alcatel seems to have done a fine job democratizing these features; the real question is how the phones will stand up to the rest of the impressive low-cost devices we expect to see as the show goes on.

    Anyway, let's start with the Alcatel 5 -- it's easily the most interesting of the brand's lineup, if only because of its unusual design. The bezels around the sides and bottom of its 5.7-inch display are barely there, but there's lots of space between the top of the phone and the top of the screen. (If anyone remembers Sharp's AQUOS Crystal phones, it's like one of those, upside-down.)

    That extra space would be completely unsightly had Alcatel not put that room to good use. There's a clever dual-camera system in place that pairs a 13-megapixel primary camera with a 5MP sensor for 120-degree wide-angle selfies. It's probably no surprise that photos taken with either camera were passable at best, but the phone is at least smart enough to automatically switch to the wide-angle mode when it detects more than two faces in the frame.

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    While the single 12-megapixel camera around back is more traditional, it also produced much better photos. Most sample photos were decently bright and punchy -- a shot I took of a croissant bathed in light made me a little too happy -- but it sometimes struggled with accurate exposures and limited dynamic range. A "social" mode injects a little levity into an otherwise straightforward camera experience: You can use it to quickly assemble 4-photo collages and photo strips. All told, the results are good enough to pepper your Facebook feed, but I wouldn't recommend printing any of them out.

    Beyond its oddball design and largely decent cameras, the Alcatel 5 gives off an above-average vibe. Benchmarks were verboten, but the octa-core MediaTek chipset running the show kept up well with my fiddling. Jumping between running apps was quick enough, and the whole experience was a smooth one. Alcatel's relatively light touch with software certainly helped with this. It's definitely not a stock Android 8.0 Oreo experience -- Alcatel loaded this thing up with a lot of extras -- but it comes pretty close. Its 5.7-inch, TCL-made LCD display featured some muted colors but held up surprisingly well against the brilliant Barcelona sun. I do wish the screen ran at a resolution higher than 1440x720, but such trade-offs are inevitable considering the 5's €230 price tag.

    Gallery: Hands-on with Alcatel's 5 and 3-series phones | 17 Photos

    Still, it's nice to know you can get a phone that packs a fingerprint sensor and a face-unlock method for that kind of cash. If you're really concerned about security, though, you should probably stick to the former. Alcatel's so-called Face Key feature detects 100 points on your face using the front-facing camera to verify your identity, and could theoretically be fooled by a detailed photo. It's convenient and decently fast, but I wouldn't use it as my only unlock method. In any case, the speed at which flagship features become mainstream seems to pick up every year, and with the 5, Alcatel proves it can keep up with the pace of progress.

    Don't worry if you don't have that kind of cash handy, either. The next step down from the Alcatel 5 is the Alcatel 3V, which packs many of the same features as its (slightly) more expensive cousin. Face Key is here, as well that handy rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. The really weird bit is that, for €190, you'll get a phone that in some ways surpasses the Alcatel 5.

    Chris Velazco/Engadget

    At 6 inches diagonal, the 3V's screen is the biggest the phones in the company's new lineup, and it runs at a higher resolution (2160x1080), to boot. Alcatel also opted to run with a dual camera on the phone's back -- a 12-megapixel sensor does most of the heavy lifting and yielded photos of similar quality to the Alcatel 5's, but a secondary 2-megapixel depth camera adds a nice dash of bokeh to tight shots. And for those who can't deal with the 5's odd look, the Alcatel 3V features a more conventional design, with a glossy, curved back. Some will find this aesthetic pretty generic, but it's still a comforting alternative to the 5's angular body. And while its performance isn't quite as fluid to use as the Alcatel 5, the 3V's quad-core MediaTek chip never felt sluggish. It's a passable performer and handled a few preloaded games without issue.

    And the list goes on. Seriously. If you like most of what the 3V offers but would rather save a smidge and get a wide-angle camera, well, there's the €180 Alcatel 3X. Don't even need to shoot wide-angle photos? No worries: How about the €150 Alcatel 3? We could keep this game up until we hit the Alcatel 1X, a perfectly adequate smartphone with an 18:9 5.5-inch display and some surprisingly nice finishes. Normally, I'd say this is midrange overkill, but hey -- there really is something for everyone here (unless you want something truly premium, that is).

    The worst part of craving a newly announced phone is having to wait for the release, but Alcatel should be getting these things out the door very quickly. In fact, while the 3 series and 1 series phones will be launched in the coming weeks and months, you can go out and lay claim to an Alcatel 5 right now. The one caveat: Alcatel hasn't discussed plans to release any of these devices in the United States, so domestic phone fans on a budget will have to look elsewhere for now.

    Catch up on the latest news from MWC 2018 right here.

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