A sign that VR is about to become the new standard, Alcatel is shipping its latest flagship phones (“IDOL 4” and “IDOL 4s”) with their own VR headset at no extra cost. We got our hand on the IDOL 4 and it’s headset to see if it can bring VR to the masses. Their approach seems a bit similar to Samsung who offered free Gear VR on S7 pre-ordered about a year ago. I’ve tried the headset and the IDOL 4 for quite a ride to make sure I get the whole picture of this initiative.
The headset is quite unusual. When I took it o ut of the box, it looked like another box. Almost sealed tight, because there is a huge back cover that is simply protecting the headset lenses inside. You remove it by pushing the big silver “Boom” button (That’s how they call it) to remove the cover. The covers can easily be removed without actually push the button. Even when pushing, the cover requires the same force to open. There is also the front cover, a semitransparent plastic, that also requires some force to detach. It is not required to maintain the phone inside the headset.
I expected to find straps inside the cover because there were none in the box. Unfortunately, even though there are straps slots on the headset, it is not included. Since the “Cadboard” branding, allowing you to put the Cardboard logo on your box, requires units to be strapless, I thought that was maybe the reason. After verification, there is no Cardboard logo or mention anywhere in the box or the starter guide. So if you want straps, go buy yourself one. Even then, the straps slots are not well designed. I tried to fit in my GearVR straps as well as the BoboVR Z4, but they wouldn’t fit. The leather tips just could bend into the too tight curve. I managed to fiddle a bit with My RiemII Straps to make them pass through. Once the straps are in place, it blocks the back cover clip, rendering it useless. That made me wonder if the back cover was meant to be thrown out.
The other thing I noticed is the lack of any lenses adjustments. Unlike the GearVR that supports various phones and allow to adjust the focus by distancing the phone from the lenses, the Alcatel VR only supports the IDOL 4, while the IDOL 4S has another headset to fit its larger size. The setting could have solved many of its issues. Yet the real issue is Pupillary Distance (often referred as IPD) of the lenses. I am unable to see the image as a single 3D image when in any downloaded apps. I see two distinctive images, aka double vision, and I feel my eyes forcing to get a straight image. Note that double vision is less of an issue in the Alcatel VR Hub, as if they optimized the app for their lenses, instead of optimizing there lenses for the Cardboard and Downloadable apps. My other headsets don’t have this issue even using the idol 4 in them. While this might not be an issue for all, those who have the perfect distance might be OK. After only a few minutes, my head started to hurt, but I was determined to continue using it with a few breaks to adjust my eyes, but in the end I just couldn’t use it more than a few minutes. The safety indications say to take 10 to 15 minutes every 30 minutes of usage. I strongly suggest following it. In fact, I just suggest using something else.
The positive thing I can say, it’s one of the only unit on the market offering two input buttons which allow to input a Click and a Back action. While most VR Headset on the market don’t even offer the required Click (or trigger) input to be able to enjoy most VR apps, they came with metal capacitive touch buttons that responds to the slightest touch. Yet it requires the use of both hands to be able to manipulate the buttons properly without dropping the unit, if you have no headstrap.
The clip system feels robust but requires both hands to insert without any risk. The clip side consists of a cheap mechanical button clamp to hold the phone. Since the headset only supports the IDOL 4, there is no centering required. We have tried fitting more than 10 different phones but none would fit. Putting the Idol 4 in the clip while on the home screen triggers the VR mode of the IDOL 4, but it won’t start if you launch a Cardboard App so you can use both without any problem. It is possible to trigger the VR mode with a small magnet on the corner of the phone, but you don’t have to. VR Mode is an app and can be launched outside the headset (fortunately) with just a tap.
The padding is thin and uncomfortable, but since the width is a lot smaller, it covers lightbleed from behind. Glasses can still be worn while wearing the headset. At least it is removable, leaving the possibilities to get some custom, more padded ones.
Not to mention The VR Mode. It consist of a launcher with a nice background, from where you can launch games, browse all sorts of media stored in the phone (including 360 photos and Videos) and integrated LittlStar, a Video streaming app where you can view a lot of content found on many other platform. LittlStar is available on the Android Market (iOS to confirm) and can be run inside or outside VR on any phone. The interface is copied from Google Cardboard app (introduction to VR). Since the headset doesn’t add any sensors, the applications mostly behave like Cardboard app with quite a similar latency. For games to appear in VR mode, you have to get them from the Alcatel VR Store that consist of 30 titles (link to the play store) and five 360 degree videos.
The IDOL 4 in VR
I must admit the phone responded a lot better than I expected on this aspect. The sensor used to track movements responded better than my previous Carboard experiences with Samsung phones, but was still far from the GearVR and Daydream performances. The HD resolution and 424dpi (IDOL 4S 2K @ 534dpi) OLED screen gives it a great image for VR, but the slower processor and RAM allowance also provoke some performances issues in graphic intensive games. I had to switch viewer and tried the phone inside the BoboVR Z4 and it did respond and was more comfortable to use. Even the trigger button worked.
- Touch buttons
- IDOL 4 performances