The territory between the best smartphones, be they Android or iPhones, and bargain-phones that trade off lots of performance and polish for a very affordable price point is pretty barren ground. However, we found one phone that fills that void admirably, earning accolades from experts and users. That's the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 (Est. $250), a mid-priced device that Jerry Hildenbrand at AndroidCentral.com says "may be the best value in mobile today," and other reviewers largely agree.
Eugene Kim at PCMag.com, where the Idol 3 earns Editors' Choice recognition, notes that Alcatel doesn't exactly spring to mind as a maker of top-flight phones. "Alcatel is in the business of producing dirt-cheap smartphones, and has been for years now, but with few exceptions, you get what you paid for—at best cheap, at worst dirt," he says. But Kim quickly adds that this Alcatel smartphone is out to change perceptions.
The hardware line up certainly punches the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 above its price point. The Snapdragon 615 processor won't keep up with the processors found in flagship models, but will outperform, at least slightly, the cheaper, lower-power processors typically found in phones that cost the same or less. The Alcatel OneTouch phone ships with a meager 16 GB of storage, but will accept a microSD card if you need extra space for photos, music, or what have you. The battery is non-removable, but feedback indicates that battery life is pretty good -- not far off from what the iPhone 6 delivered in PCMag.com's grueling test, so it should get you through a day of moderate to heavy use.
The display on the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 is a nice plus for a phone in this price range. The 5.5-inch, 1,920 by 1,080 pixel resolution screen has the same pixel density as the iPhone 6 Plus (Est. $750 and up), TechRadar.com notes, while Kim says that the "full HD LCD looks superb—color depth, contrast, and maximum brightness are all top notch."
The camera on the Alcatel Idol 3 is another pleasant surprise. It's not a category leader, but the 13-megapixel back camera uses the same Sony-built image sensor found in the Nexus 6 ($490 and up), and performs fairly well under all but low-light conditions. Selfie shooters won't find much to gripe about with the 8-megapixel front camera.
Continuing on a theme, the dual front-facing JBL speakers on the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3 are also better than what you would expect in this price range. "Not only was the audio loud enough to be heard everywhere in my two-room Manhattan apartment, but Hilary Duff's vocals and the whistling introduction in 'Sparks' were also distinct and rounded," says Cherlynn Low at Tom's Guide.
Like most phone makers, Alcatel couldn't resist adding on its own custom interface, but thankfully it doesn't harm the base Android Lollipop experience too much. "In the case of the Idol 3, Alcatel kept it simple." says TechRadar.com's Mike Stenger. Reviewers do find a few of the enhancements at least somewhat useful, such as a reversible interface that orients the screen right-side up regardless of the orientation of the phone. "The dominant speakers and microphone also adjust to whichever side is 'up,' a must for making calls," says CNET's Jessica Dolcourt. The ability to turn the screen on or off by double tapping it is another plus.
The grey-colored, all plastic Idol 3 doesn't break much new ground when it comes to design, though the brushed finish back and fake metallic accents give the phone an "understated, classy, and well-executed" look says Kim, who also praises the overall fit and finish of the device. The phone is only sold unlocked through retailers, not the carriers themselves, and can only be activated on AT&T and T-Mobile, as well as most prepaid carriers (Cricket, MetroPCS, etc.) that use those networks.
Motorola makes two budget phones that also will please smartphone shoppers looking for decent performance and an easy to swallow price. Like the Alcatel OneTouch Idol 3, the just released 3rd generation Motorola Moto G (Est. $180 and up) is only available in versions for AT&T and T-Mobile (as well as prepaid providers that use those networks). Initial reviews are very positive, with some putting the phone in the same value class as Alcatel's offering. Raves include Editors' Choice selection at sites such as PCMag.com and Tom's Guide.
The Motorola Moto G phone lags specs-wise against the Alcatel Idol 3, but it's also a bit cheaper. Reviewers look at a step up version with 16 GB of storage, but that adds around $40 to the price of the base version, which has just 8 GB. You can expand installed memory via a microSD card (up to 32 GB). The rest of the base hardware includes a Snapdragon 410 processor (a tier lower than the Snapdragon 615 in the Idol 3) and 1 GB of system memory. Those specs, and benchmark testing at CNET, puts the Moto G "solidly in the mediocre part of the smartphone spectrum," says Scott Stein. But as long as you don't place unreasonable demands on the Moto G's hardware (such as multitasking or playing graphics intensive games), things move along pretty well for everyday use.
The 5-inch display on the Motorola Moto G only sports a resolution of 1,280 by 720 pixels. TechRadar.com's Gareth Beavis says it's "pretty bright and vivid for a low-cost handset – it's a little washed out at times, but again for the price it's excellent," and that more or less represents the mixed take we saw across various reviews. The 13 megapixel rear camera is improved over previous generations; results look pretty good when there's ample light, but not so hot when the lighting gets dim. The 5 megapixel front camera is a good selfie shooter.
Those who like their operating system clean and easy to use will appreciate that Motorola's UI is as close to a pure Android experience as you will find from a mainstream phone save for the Google Nexus 6 ($490 and up). Unlike a lot of budget phones, the Moto G ships with the latest version of Lollipop. The phone is also water resistant. That's a feature of most top level phones, but rarer in phones in this price category. CNET suggest that while showering with the phone is fine, swimming is still probably a very bad idea. In any event, the phone should survive if you get caught out with it in a sudden storm.
The Motorola Moto G phone comes in basic black or white. However, while the battery is not removable, the rear cover is and can be swapped for different color options, with 10 available (Est. $15 each). Battery life is excellent, with CNET reporting a day and a half with casual to moderate use.
The second generation Motorola Moto E (Est. $100) is cheaper still, and is available unlocked and in versions that will run on all major carriers and prepaid networks. It's not a head turner style wise, and its specs are budget all the way, but that's okay, CNET's Nate Ralph says: "if you're looking to save a few bucks; what the Moto E lacks in flair, it makes up for in affordability."
Under the hood, the hardware lineup on the Moto E is very similar to the Moto G. You'll find the same Snapdragon 410 processor, 1 GB of system memory and 8GB of system storage. The latter is pretty cramped, so you'll want to make use of the microSD card slot to add additional storage for media and other files (up to 32 GB).
The Motorola Moto E runs a stock version of Lollipop with only Motorola's light-handed enhancements, but everyday performance should be spritely enough to please typical users. "The phone never got in the way of my testing, and I comfortably zipped through menus, bounced about the Web, and streamed video over YouTube with a minimum of fuss," Ralph said. Even casual gaming is a go, though stay clear of graphically-intense titles to avoid disappointment.
It's only when you look to the screen of the Motorola Moto E and, especially, the camera that you can see some obvious corners cut. Compared to the Moto G, the screen is shrunk down in size to 4.5 inches with a resolution of 960 by 540 pixels. However, reviewers note, that's not as major an issue as it sounds: "The phone offers a pixel density of 245 pixels per inch (PPI) and everything onscreen, from app icons to text, looks pleasantly crisp," Ralph says.
But the Moto E's cameras are a different story. The Verge's T.C. Sottek calls the 5-megapixel rear camera the "only truly upsetting feature" of the Moto E. "Sure, there are bad cameras all up and down the Android price range, but the Moto E's camera is actual garbage that belongs in an actual garbage bin," he says. Other reviewers are a little more charitable, but only a little: CNET says that the images are "generally bland and devoid of detail," while PCMag.com calls it "a serviceable camera if all you need is a visual record of something where quality isn't paramount." The VGA front camera isn't much better -- fine perhaps for video chats, but little else.
The battery on the Motorola Moto E is non-removable, but battery life is a highlight. It does well on the tough battery drain tests conducted by reviewers, and easily lasts a day under more typical conditions. Available in black or white, you can add a little style and personalization to the phone with optional color bands (Est. $20 for a pack of three) that run around the edge of the phone.