Budget smartphones are becoming increasingly popular, with a number of capable but affordable choices on the market. Such demand has prompted us to pluck the months-old Alcatel OneTouch Idol Mini out of its box a year after its initial announcement.
Priced at £80 (but you can probably find it for less), the Alcatel OneTouch is in hot contention with the more recent Motorola Moto E, but is it a budget smartphone with the goods to keep pace with Moto's current market monopoly?
Plastics in disguise
Budget phones aren't ever going to be built from premium materials because the numbers just wouldn't add up. But the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Mini does a good job of hiding that it's all all-plastic construction.
The rear has been fashioned to look almost metallic, with a speaker grille to the lower portion, protruding camera lens and subtle "onetouch" logo centred towards the top third of the body.
The back section isn't removable which makes for a subtle join-line between the side and all-black front panel. To the side there's a microSD slot to expand on the 4GB internal storage as found in the UK model (other European options tend to have dual SIM, 8GB storage and no microSD expansion option, but not so here in Blighty).
READ: Motorola Moto E review
For a £80 phone the Idol Mini looks like something more premium and its 7.9mm thickness keeps it trim and easy to handle. It's a full 50 per cent slimmer than the Moto E, so that's Brownie points right there, and roughly 50 per cent lighter too. However, as it weights under 100g that plastic build can really be felt and you're often wondering if a gust of wind is going to steal your phone from your hand - it's that light.
The Idol Mini has a 4.3-inch screen which isn't quite as "mini" as the name might suggest. Indeed it's bigger than the iPhone, a device increasingly dwarfed by almost every smartphone on the market these days.
The 480 x 845 pixel resolution isn't exactly astounding though. It's hardly going to make your eyes bleed, of course, and text is still crisp and legible, but it's not got a touch on more premium devices and sits slightly behind the Moto E's same-size panel.
However, Mini by name but mighty in the visual performance stakes. The screen brightness is really good, delivering a clean image that, to our eyes, was a little cool in colour but easily legible. Although reflections aren't absent, as in any smartphone, we found the viewing angles to be immpressive at this price point thanks to an IPS panel - there's only some colour and contrast loss when viewing at steeper angles.
If you're new to smartphones but looking for something cheap, then it's useful to know about the available operating systems, which are split into three main camps: Google's Android (as found here), Apple's iOS and Microsoft's Windows Phone 8. Apple doesn't make a budget phone for under £100, and in terms of Windows your best bet is the Nokia Lumia 630.
The Idol Mini is built on Google's Jelly Bean version of the Android system, running here in version 4.2.2 if you're into the finer number details. That means it doesn't have some of the software features of the more up-to-date v4.4 form, but there aren't major absences.
There's the voice-controlled Google Now available available via a press-and-hold of the Home key, Google's Play Store is available to download apps as you please - from web browsers to games and more - and customisable home screens with selectable widgets and icons.
However we found the overall user interface experience to be slightly lacking in immediate response, with screen-to-screen swipes sometimes proving laggy.
The usual trio of Android control keys - Back, Home and Menu - also only become active and glow white when pressing them towards the lower section of the phone, so you'll often need to press twice.
Notifications appear in the top bar, so when you get an email you'll be visually alerted - as well as audibly and by vibration if you wish - but it's not the more complex breakdown of more modern Android phones, such as the Samsung Galaxy S5. But then at £80 it was never going to be. It's still eminently usable and makes accessible key settings and alerts easy to manage.
We've found the OneTouch Idol Mini fine for taking calls or sending text messages, but it's not a total write-off for some more serious tasks either.
Loading apps requires a fair bit of patience, and if an app is updating in the background the dual core 1.3Ghz processor and 512MB RAM quickly finds its limits and will leave you waiting around yet longer.
But Asphalt 7 Heat ran just fine - imagine a game with all its minimum settings boxes ticked, of course - so even gamers looking to plug in to a bit of Candy Crush Saga or Angry Birds will still get some use out of the Idol Mini. Just don't expect heavyweight performance like a flagship device would offer.
It's multi-tasking that the Idol Mini shows its limits because of the lowly amount of RAM. When streaming a YouTube video, for example, a device rotation from landscape to portrait orientation caused a visual pause of a couple of seconds, while then heading back to the home screen from the app left us hanging in wait while app icons appeared to load.
Don't buy the phone under the premise it's a powerhouse and you'll be fine. But just because it's budget doesn't mean this Alcatel OneTouch is incapable either.
Connectivity maxes out at 3G speeds, which will be ample for most, but doesn't achieve the sought-after faster speeds of 4G which you can get from the £99 EE Kestrel. So you get what you pay for, and such antennas aren't commonplace in a sub-£100 phone market right now.
READ: EE Kestrel review
Despite no super-fast speeds eating away at the battery life, we found battery performance was reasonable rather than great. We've dropped from 15 per cent to nothing in the space of taking a handful of pictures, for example. Alcatel OneTouch claims there's nine hours of juice per charge in the 1700mAh cell when using 3G, but active as we are with phone use we didn't quite get a full day's use out of it.
We've never seen a budget smartphone that comes with a decent camera and the Alcatel OneTouch Idol Mini doesn't buck that trend. It takes pictures, granted, but we wouldn't use it for anything critical.
The 5-megapixel camera on the rear isn't fast to focus, often proclaims to achieve focus when a subject is clearly still not in focus, there's poorly judged colour balance and the image processing is coarse. Jagged edges and general image noise nasties are clearly visible to see, particularly in dimmer conditions.
Like we say, it'll take pictures, and there's even a built-in flash and 720p video capture capability, but the Idol Mini won't be a dream camera replacement by any means.
The Alcatel OneTouch Idol Mini does a good job of disguising its budget asking price by delivering a slim, good-looking smartphone package. It's the look that's among the phone's strongest traits.
It's not the perfect package, though, but then that's hardly a surprise given the asking price. The camera isn't great, the software sometimes lags and you won't get flagship performance or 4G connection speeds. But you probably already knew that. In the same way the Nokia Lumia 630 has its strengths and weaknesses, the Idol Mini is in a similar boat - the 512MB RAM boat being one particular weakness for multi-tasking performance.
However, what you do get is an affordable and often well rounded Android experience despite the numbers behind the scenes. The screen is bright and easy to read, microSD means you can expand the on-board storage and there's still just enough power to do all the basics and even some things beyond.
Given that the Idol Mini 2 will be on the shelves later this year and the Motorola Moto E is an invariably stronger device (save for its chunkier build) there is the suggestion that waiting or spending a few extra quid would serve a better purpose. But budget smartphones aren't about waiting around, they're here to fill an immediate need.
In that respect the Idol Mini ticks a box and for £80 it's hard to complain. But the sheer strength of the Moto E and the EE Kestrel's 4G connectivity see the Idol Mini fall a step behind where it could be, with all eyes falling on its follow-up due in the coming months.