Apr 21 2014

Review: TCL (Alcatel One Touch S950) Idol X

TCL Idol X

TCL Idol X, or Alcatel One Touch Idol X in Europe, is a beautiful and slim smartphone that offers great features for its price.

What are TCL and Alcatel?

TCL Corporation logo

TCL was founded in China in 1981 and was later incorporated in 1985 as TCL Telecommunication Equipment Co Ltd. It started manufacturing consumer electronics for the Chinese market and later began to sell overseas in the early 2000s. In 2003 TCL created a joint-venture with a French multimedia company Thompson SA (now known as Technicolor) to produce televisions and DVD players. The products would be marketed under TCL brand in Asia and either Thompson or RCA in Europe.1

In 2004 TCL and French telecommunication company Alcatel-Lucent formed a joint-venture to create smartphones that would be sold as TCL in Asia and Alcatel in Europe. In 2005 TCL acquired Alcatel’s share of the company.1

In 2008 TCL invested in LCD TV productions lines in China and tripled their LCD TV sales to 4.2 million units compared to the previous year. In the following years TCL continued to heavily invest in TV production and in 2012 TCL began manufacturing integrated HDTVs and entertainment systems for the Swedish furniture giant IKEA.1

TCL sells its products under the TCL brand name in Africa, Asia, Australasia, South America and Russia, under the Alcatel brand in Europe (it acquired the right to use Alcatel brand from Alcatel-Lucent in 2005), and under the RCA brand in North America.

Specs

TCL Idol X promo picture

Priced at $199/150 € (spring 2014) TCL Idol X offers pretty impressive specifications for the price:

  • 5″ 1920×1080 display
  • MediaTek MTK6589T Cortex A7 Quad Core 1.5GHz
  • 2 GB RAM + 16 GB ROM
  • PowerVR SGX544MP GPU
  • Dual SIM
  • 3G WCDMA 900/2100 MHz
  • 13 MP back camera(f/2.0 aperture) + 2 MP front camera
  • 2000 mAh battery
  • Dimensions: 140 x 67.7 x 7.2 (9.5 measured from camera) mm
  • Weight: 122 g (with battery)

Unboxing

TCL Idol X box

The box includes the TCL Idol X, 2 x screen protector films, headphones, a charger, a warranty card and a user manual (only in Chinese).

TCL Idol X unboxing

Chassis

TCL Idol X front side

The front side is fully covered by Dragontrail glass3. It does not have the “TCL” logo printed in the glass, the logo you will see in the photos is in the screen protector film. The three capacitive buttons below the screen – back, home and context – are back-lit and are in that particular order. For example in my Xiaomi Mi2 the order is context, home and back. On top of the display there are phone call speaker, front facing camera and proximity & light sensors. Bezels are quite thin: 2.45 mm on both sides. The bottom and bottom bezels are 14.6 mm.

TCL Idol XTCL Idol XTCL Idol X

TCL Idol X features two physical buttons: power button on top of the device and a volume rocker on the right side. I found the power button to be hard to reach. I am accustomed to activating the screen with the power button and then swiping the screen open. Luckily the volume rocker can be used in the same manner.

TCL Idol X

TCL Idol X

TCL Idol X

The sides are made out of good looking material that looks like brushed aluminum. However I believe it is not aluminum or other metal but rather hard plastic. Anyway, it looks really good.

The back side has “TCL” logo in the middle. The main camera is top center. A mono speaker is located at the bottom right corner. At the bottom there are also some fine print: WCDMA, TCL S950, CMIIT ID, some Chinese characters and certification logos.

IMG_20140419_141806

IMG_20140419_141834

TCL Idol X

The dual SIM card slots are located on both sides of the phone. There is no need to remove the back cover to access the SIM card slots. Actually, you even cannot remove the back cover. The micro USB connector is at the bottom.

TCL Idol X

One negative thing about the otherwise well built and high quality hardware is the servomotor that is used for generating the vibrating motion in notifying the user. The vibration gives a nasty rattle as if there would be some loose parts inside the phone.

Display

TCL Idol X

The 5.0″ display has full HD resolution of 1920×1080 and it is super sharp, has really vivid colors and it is very bright compared to many other smartphones. The touch functionality works well and it is sensitive. The display has really wide viewing angle and it preserves the colors well in all angles. Like other displays with a high glossy cover glass, the Idol X display can be difficult to read when outside in bright sunlight. TCL Idol X uses Dragontrail glass and the updated version Idol X+ uses Corning Gorilla Glass version 2 to protect the display3. Gorilla Glass was first introduced with the original iPhone and has since been used in over 1 billion devices (mobile phones and tablets).

Android OS

The pre-installed Android version is 4.2.2 (Jelly Bean). It feels really quick and smooth. As of today (April 2014) the Android version 4.2.2 is the highest a Mediatek powered phone can have. There has been rumors that Android 4.4 (KitKat) would be coming soon to phones using Mediatek chipsets.

TCL Idol X Screen Unlocking

One nice feature is the four-way screen unlocking that is also found in MIUI for example. When you press and keep your finger in the unlocking circle, it will give you quick access to phone call log, SMS text messages,

Languages/Locale

TCL Idol X Languages

The stock ROM supports the following languages: UK and US English and two Chinese variants (I suppose Mandarin and Cantonese). The default keyboard does not support any characters that are not part of the supported languages charsets but luckily it is easy to add support for your own language characters by installing Jelly Bean Keyboard from Play Store.

Unfortunately I was not able to install custom language packs. Also Set Locale & Language does not work because the ROM provided by TCL does not support any other language than listed in the system dialog.

Additional languages can only be installed be changing the ROM to something else from the TCL custom ROM. This page lists the options including MIUI and Lewa ROMs. First you need to root the phone. The phone I got was already rooted by Merimobiles.

Mediatek and GPS

Mediatek chipsets are notorious for taking their time to get GPS fix. It is the time that it takes to get a proper location set based on different GPS satellites’ positions. There is a well-known fix to correct the slow positioning on Mediatek powered phones but during the test period it was not necessary to apply. TCL Idol X got the position in about 15 seconds and I feel that it is fast enough. But if you feel that it takes too long, you may apply the fix and please report me how it worked.

Software

Merimobiles had already rooted the phone for me and installed Gapps (Google apps, including Google Play, Gmail, Maps, etc.). In the order process, just select the “root” option to have it rooted and Gapps installed. It costs only $7 (4 €) extra but it can save you hours of struggle of trying to install Google Play for example. The rooting tools are often only in Chinese and are difficult to use, as I learned with the ZTE Nubia Z5 mini.

TCL Idol X came from Merimobiles with some standard Chinese apps, such as Baidu and Weibo, and you are free to uninstall them. There was also TCL’s Tcloud service but I did not try it. I think the Tcloud servers are located in China and uploading data there could be painfully slow.

Unobtrusive Call Recording

TCL Idol X Call Recording

None of the “mainstream” Android smartphone manufacturers (Samsung, HTC, Sony, LG) support phone call recording at all. It is available in some of the custom ROMs, such as MIUI, for the large manufacture phones. Call recording was possible with a 3rd party app on Nokia phones but it resulted in nasty “beep” sound that was constantly audible on the receiver end. The Chinese manufacturers are a welcome exception. Unobtrusive call recording has been in Xiaomi Mi2, Jiayu G3, ZTE Nubia Z5 mini that I have previously reviewed and now in TCL Idol X.

Benchmarks

TCL Idol X AnTuTu

With AnTuTu Benchmark v. 4.4 I scored 15,321 points. With that score it sits between Samsung Galaxy S2 and S3. The Galaxy S2 has Samsung’s own Exonys chipset running at 1.2 GHz and has 1 GB of RAM. The Galaxy S3 has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon S4 running at 1.5 GHz and has either 1 GB or 2 GB of RAM, depending on the model. With the Idol X’s hardware (quad-core 1.5 GHz + 2 GB RAM) I would have expected it to be closer (or even above) the Galaxy S3. But as I have learned, Mediatek phones tend to score less than for example their Qualcomm equivalents having about the same raw power.

TCL Idol X AnTuTu

GFXBench 3.0.11 gave the TCL Idol X in T-Rex test a score of 88. For comparison the Samsung Galaxy S2 (GT-I9100G) gets 237 and Galaxy S3 (GT-I9300) gets 722 points. That is a really disappointing result meaning that it cannot run newest games smoothly.

TCL Idol X Benchmarking

TCL Idol X Benchmarking

TCL Idol X Benchmarking

3DMark Ice Storm gave a score of 2867. This score places it between THL W11 and Huawei Ascend D2. Samsung Galaxy S2 scores and the Galaxy S3 scores 3039.

Vellamo benchmarks are HTML5: 1542 and Metal: 560. Samsung Galaxy S3 had HTML5: 1615 and Metal: 542. Vellamo benchmarks are more equivalent to Galaxy S3.

TCL Idol X Booting

With the stock OS without any modifications the device does a cold boot in 33 seconds (from pressing the power button to a fully ready and operable state).

Super Fast Charging

TCL Idol X Super Fast Charging

One of the most amazing things about the TCL Idol X was its super fast charging. Using my old Nokia micro USB charger, I was able to charge it 15% → 95% in 30 minutes! In my opinion this is pretty darned amazing!

Camera

With the large aperture of f/2.0 I expected good quality photos. Large aperture should mean good photos in low lighting and excellent bokeh in macro shots meaning that while the object is sharp, the background is softly blurry. The resolution of the 16:9 photos is 4096 x 2304 which yields 9.44 million pixels per photo. The reason why the photos do not have 13 million pixels even when the sensor is 13 MP, is that the sensor actually has a native aspect ratio of 4:3. The 16:9 aspect ratio is achieved by simply cutting the picture from the top and bottom and thus losing some of the pixels of the “full frame” photo. What annoys me is that we are living the year 2014 and still all camera sensors are 4:3 even though we have not had 4:3 televisions or monitors or displays in ages.

For reference, I have taken some of the the same shots also with my trusted Xiaomi Mi2, which I still consider one of the best mobile phone cameras. It has an 8 MP camera sensor with a wide-angle (27mm) and large aperture (2.0) lens.

Camera Settings

There are only few camera options to choose from. Flash mode, face detection, aspect ratio (16:9 or 4:3), HDR, panorama, secondary (front/selfie) camera and video mode. There are no ISO setting, macro mode, night time mode with longer exposure, sport mode with faster shutter speed, white balance, color temperature, grid guidelines, picture size (resolution), timelapse, or slow motion (high-speed) video recording. So the camera software provides only the very basic options but it is safe to say that they are enough for the majority of people. It is only people like me, the photographers, who need the extra settings.

Normal Shots

TCL Idol X Normal Shot

TCL Idol X Normal Shot

TCL Idol X Normal Shot

TCL Idol X Normal Shot

TCL Idol X Normal Shot

TCL Idol X Normal Shot

The camera is really good in regular shots with good lighting and it can replace a digital pocket camera easily. The auto-focus is fast and the camera takes photos quickly. In regular daily use it does not matter that the camera software does not have all the tweaks and settings a more professional camera app has. Color reproduction is good, photos look sharp, they have good contrast and little noise and they can be zoomed a little still preserving the sharpness.

Macro Mode

TCL Idol X Macro Shots

TCL Idol X Macro

TCL Idol X Macro

TCL Idol X Macro

TCL Idol X Macro

TCL Idol X Macro
The TCL Idol X has a large f/2.0 aperture. What it means is that the opening in which the light passes through onto the sensor is large. A large opening means that it generally is better in low light environment but also creates a blurrier bokeh in macro shots. The other way is to create it by zooming and focusing on the object from far away but since mobile phones don’t have optical zoom lenses (yet), the only way to create a DSLR-like smooth and blurry bokeh is to take a macro shot.

Xiaomi Mi2 Macro Shots

Xiaomi Mi2 Macro

Xiaomi Mi2 Macro

Xiaomi Mi2 Macro

Xiaomi Mi2 Macro

Xiaomi Mi2 Macro

Xiaomi Mi2 Macro

There is a difference between the macro shots of TCL Idol X and Xiaomi Mi2. I personally prefer the higher contrast and also the richer colors of the Idol X photos above. Both cameras can create wonderfully soft and blurry bokeh in macro shots.

HDR Mode

The High Dynamic Range can help when the lighting is challenging, there are bright and dark areas and if you adjust the shutter speed to the other, then the other will be over/under exposed. The HDR mode takes several photos (usually 2-3) with different shutter speeds and then combines the optimally exposured areas from each photos into one result photo. I love HDR and I use it personally really often. What it also usually does is that it saturates colors giving the photos more vivid and richer colors. Not all photographers like the color saturation but it a matter of personal preference.

TCL Idol X HDR

TCL Idol X Normal

TCL Idol X normal

TCL Idol X HDR

TCL Idol X Normal

TCL Idol X Normal

TCL Idol X HDR

TCL Idol X HDR

TCL Idol X takes two photos with different exposure levels (shutter speeds) and combines them to a third resulting photo. It also saves the two temporary images so that you are able to see them later. Not all phones save the temp photos but only the result HDR photo. What bothers me is that it takes really long time, about six seconds, to take and calculate the HDR photo. It feels like it takes forever when you are holding the phone and try to keep it as steady as possible in your hand. For comparison my Xiaomi Mi2 takes HDR in about two seconds.

TCL Idol X HDR

TCL Idol X Normal

TCL Idol X Normal

TCL Idol X HDR

Xiaomi Mi2 HDR

Xiaomi Mi2 HDR


As a reference, here is what the Xiaomi Mi2 HDR photo looks like. Although it distorts the colors, I still like it better than Idol X HDR and it is way faster as it takes the (three) temp photos and calculates the result HDR photo in one third of the Idol X time.

Panorama Mode

TCL Idol X Landscape Panorama

TCL Idol X Landscape Panorama

The panorama mode is super fast and accurate! Where my Xiaomi Mi2 takes really long time to calculate and stitch together the resulting panorama photo, the TCL Idol X does all this really amazingly fast. And the resulting panorama photo is really accurate having no visible glitches or anomalies.

TCL Idol X Portrait Panorama

TCL Idol X Portrait Panorama

Low-Light Conditions

I dare to say that all modern smart phone cameras take good pictures when there is enough light, for example in bright daylight or sunshine. The true quality of the optics is revealed when there is little light available. There are no ISO or exposure level settings so you just have to trust the auto settings.

TCL Idol X Low-Light

TCL Idol X Low-Light

In my opinion the auto settings do a pretty decent job compared to my reference photos of Xiaomi Mi2 below. Both have a lot of noise but you cannot avoid noise with these mobile phone optics that have lenses that are small in diameter.

Xiaomi Mi2 Auto

Xiaomi Mi2 Auto

Xiaomi Mi2 Night Time

Xiaomi Mi2 Night Time

Secondary Camera

TCL Idol X Secondary Camera

The secondary or “selfie” camera on TCL Idol X has the resolution of 1792 x 1008 yielding 1,8 million pixels. It is more than enough for regular Instagram selfies but is not quite full HD (1920 x 1080). However the optics seem to be just fine for self portraits.

Video

The video looks sharp and smooth, it does not drop frames so the processor and the internal storage is up to the task. The video resolution is 1920 x 1088 which is actually 8 pixels higher than full HD. The format is 3gp and the frame rate is 29 fps. There are no settings for the resolution or the frame rate. It is shown in the video that the auto-focus adjusts the focus on the fly, resulting in some small but noticeable back and forth focusing. It is nice though that the focus can be adjusted while recording because there might be objects appearing closer and further while filming.

Battery Life

One weakness of the TCL Idol X is the 2,000 mAh battery. With excessive usage, playing videos and games, may drain it in less than a normal 08 am – 10 pm (08-22). What helps though is the super fast charging. But it requires a charger or a power bank with you. If you think 2,000 mAh battery is too small, please check the Idol X+ model below.

Pros & Cons

Pros:

  • Really great, large (5.0″), fast, sharp and bright display with vivid colors
  • Moderately priced ($199/150 €)
  • Really lightweight and slim
  • Thin bezels
  • Compact size despite the large display (5.0″)
  • Notification LED
  • Two SIM card slots
  • A good camera with a large aperture
  • Appealing and original design (this is of course subjective)

Cons:

  • Below expected benchmark results
  • Average 3D performance (games)
  • Basic camera software with few options and shooting modes
  • Only English and Chinese languages
  • No NFC or gyroscope
  • A noisy servomotor
  • A small non-user-replaceable 2,000 mAh battery

Where to Buy?

TCL Idol X can be bought from various Chinese brokers such as Merimobiles, Fastcardtech and AliExpress.

The TCL Idol X in this review came from Merimobiles.

TCL Idol X vs. TCL Idol X+

In early 2014 the TCL Idol X was given extended life with some upgraded hardware. As we all know, octa-core processors began slowly replacing quad-core processors in the high-end models in 2013. The main difference is the new Mediatek MTK6592 Octa Core 2.0 GHz processor and chipset. It manages to score over 32,000 points in AnTuTu, a score equivalent of Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 powered devices. It even beats Samsung Galaxy S4. The other main improvement is the increased battery size from 2,000 mAh to 2,500 mAh. TCL has still managed to keep the phone size the same with the larger battery so it is super slim. At the same time the Idol X+ now supports over 70 languages! The Idol X+ camera also has fast auto-focus and image stabilization. Audio gets a boost from the dedicated ES9018 Hi-Fi headphone amplifier and Maxim 9720 dual speakers.2

The plus upgrade addresses many issues that I had put in the Cons column in my Pros & Cons section above. It gives an awesome performance boost taking it to the level of modern flagship phones of 2014. The increased battery size helps it last a day and many want to use their phone in their native language. Camera and audio improvements are welcome. The price for these improvements is in my opinion still moderate, the TCL Idol X+ costs about $300. OK, the relative difference is +50% meaning the Idol X+ costs 1.5 times Idol X but still $300 is pretty cheap for a modern flagship smartphone with top-notch performance.

Summary

If you don’t play the latest 3D games or need special options in photography, the TCL Idol X is an excellent choice: it is beautiful, compact and slim and has a good camera and an awesome display. Plus it is very affordable. However, if you wish to get the latest cutting-edge performance and play the newest and most demanding 3D games and are concerned about battery life, then you will be better off with the updated version Idol X+.

4 Responses to “Review: TCL (Alcatel One Touch S950) Idol X”

  • Emilio Says:

    Hi Ari,

    Thank you for the review on the Idol X S950. One of the most thorough and professional I have read.

    I have bought one for my wife that should be arriving shortly (I hope!). The only ‘cons’ that worries me is ‘Basic camera software with few options and shooting modes’. My wife will use the camera for her paintings and she could use some extra features like ISO setting, macro mode, night time mode or sport mode. Do you know any app that can do those things? Or any custom ROM?

    Thanks in advance.

    Regards.

    • arinium Says:

      Hi Emilio,

      Take a look at ProCapture app that Huawei has pre-installed to their Honor 3C that I recently reviewed. It has great features and settings that I as a photographer enjoyed. ProCapture costs about $5 (3.50 €) but it totally worth it.

  • winter Says:

    Bonjour je possède le tcl idol s950 Depuis je cherche le zoom sur l’appareil photo mais rien. En vous lisant j’ai compris que le zoom n’existe pas et c’est bien trisie Moi qu’il l’avait acheté pour son prix et ses pixel
    Merci pour ces commentaires
    AW

    • arinium Says:

      Hi winter,

      My French is a bit rusty but using Google Translate, I figured out that you thought that the camera would have zoom but it does not have it. I don’t know any smartphones that would have a real optical zoom but the zooming effect is rather achieved by cropping the photo with software.

Leave a Reply