Alcatel 3L (Hands-on) Review: When did Budget Phones get This Good?

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Alcatel 3L is a phone that I'm happy to carry without a case
Alcatel 3L is a phone that I'm happy to carry without a case IBTImes / Jeff Li

The Alcatel 3L Loaded with the latest Android (Photo: IBTImes / Jeff Li)

Who is the Alcatel 3L for?

  • People who are fed up with paying laptop prices for flagship phones, the 3L is one of the most affordable phones in the market that retains a lot of expensive phone features
  • Those who values the camera quality and flexibility on their phone would find plenty to work with in the 3L’s triple camera set up, including a 48 megapixel shooter
  • If you’re someone who wants to be free from carrying around a fragile piece of glassware - which describes most of the flagship phones these days, the 3L has a premium finished plastic back that won’t shatter from accidental drops

Ever since flagship smartphone prices hit the $1,000 mark, many like me have also hit the disillusionment point. Is it really worth paying the price of a laptop for a phone? Quickly noticing this disillusionment Google was one of the first to respond, and they proved the existence of this niche with the great success of Pixel 3a. It was a phone that retained the most important feature of its flagship cousin: the camera, while giving it a plastic back, LCD screen and curiously (giving back) the 3.5 mm jack, making the budget version of the phone have arguably more function and not less.

While Apple and Samsung have also hopped on the trend of releasing mid-ranged versions of their top models, Alcatel went ahead and made it their design brief to make a super affordable phone that retains flagship features people care about.

So does the Alcatel 3L possess enough premium features to make it worth considering as one’s main phone? I spent a good 2 months with the 3L, and here are my long term hands-on impressions and verdict.

Is that plastic? (Photo: IBTImes / Jeff Li)

Plastic phones strikes back

More than the front of the phones - which these days are just covered by its screen, there is much more space for tweaking in the back of the phone. Recent premium phones have transited mostly from aluminum backs to glass back - mostly for the purpose of adopting wireless charging.

In terms of aesthetics, at first glance, I wasn’t sure whether the Alcatel 3L had a curved glass or a plastic back - which already told me something: the two materials didn’t make a whole lot of difference in terms of looks and even the feel of the phone. The 3L has in fact a Non-Conductive Vacuum Metallization (NCVM) plastic back with a glossy clear coat that makes it almost indistinguishable from glass. While this does not make much difference in appearance, it keeps the phone feel lightweight and more susceptible to accidental drops.

In terms of scratchability, I’ve been using the 3L for the last 2 months without a case, and I’ve yet to notice any scratches. The finish on the Alcatel has held up perfectly from day to day use, which makes it very useful. These days even with flagship phone designs, they are mostly wrapped in plastic or rubber cases because firstly they are glass and can’t be dropped, not even once. Secondly because they cost as much as a full fledged ultrabook laptop. To be able to use a phone that is cheaper and more durable means that the phone bulk in my pocket was significantly smaller while using the 3L.

The triple camera array (Photo: IBTImes / Jeff Li)

Triple camera setup

This is one of the areas that Alcatel chose not to compromise, and they have included a triple camera setup, containing a macro camera on top (2 megapixel), the main camera capable of 48 megapixel photos, and a 5 megapixel wide angle camera on the bottom.

At first glance one might frown upon the 2 and 5 megapixel resolutions, but for posting photos on social media these days, they are sufficient as long as the other characteristics like dynamic range and auto-focus are done well - and they are done well in the 3L. If you really need printed photos, or want a photo to look sharp on a 4K display you can always switch to the 48 megapixel mode, and take 6000 x 8000 pixel photos.

What impressed me after some experimentation is the camera app that Alcatel developed. Rather than including gimmicky functions, I found every shooting mode it included useful and effective. For example it has a ‘Light Trace’ mode, and it really worked as the name suggests. Even without a tripod, you can get someone to write in the air with a torch and capture what they are writing in real-time on the phone. ‘AR Emoji’ was another surprise for a budget phone like this as it tracks your face and projects it onto a computer generated character, and the animation can then be recorded and sent off like a customized emoji along with sound on instant messengers.

Most phone cameras have no trouble when the lighting is good, and only struggles in low-light situations. The 3L team has the camera nicely tuned so that even night shots without a tripod, it is still able to take good photos using its AI technology.

Packing a 4,000 mAh battery (Photo: IBTImes / Jeff Li)

Great battery life

With a decent 4,000 mAh battery, the battery life was not a concern from the get go. What improved matters further is the 720p screen, as well as the Mediatek MT6762 chipset, both of which are less power hungry than what flagship phones are usually equipped with.

Yes, that does mean the display resolution on the 6.22” screen takes a hit, as well as the smoothness of transitions and animations in the phone - but it’s always a game of trade-offs. Sure you can run with 4K resolution on a 90 Hz display - but even the manufacturers usually turn those off by default because of how power draining they are, and arguably how little that adds to the day-to-day phone user experience.

The 3L screen can be unlocked instantly with the fingerprint scanner or the front facing camera (Photo: IBTImes / Jeff Li)

Fast unlocking by fingerprint or face scanning

Another simple thing that I demand for my phones to do well is its unlocking speed. Since unlocking is one of the things that gets done the most frequently throughout the day, it makes a big difference in the user experience.

The Alcatel 3L gets this right too, with fast fingerprint unlocking from the back of the phone, which unlocks on the first try almost every time. The face unlock system on the 3L is not as fast as the fingerprint unlock, but we’re talking split second differences. So if you’re a face unlock person, it has this box ticked too.

Alcatel 3L is a phone that I'm happy to carry without a case (Photo: IBTImes / Jeff Li)

Final remarks

How important is it for you to multitask a million apps on your phone? And how much are you willing to pay for a buttery-smooth user experience? If you’re not willing to pay up to five-times the amount the Alcatel 3L costs, which has enough premium features to satisfy most users. The low cost and plastic durable construction might just mean the encased phone bulk can be swapped out for a slender phone, while your wallet loses less bulk from all the money you just saved.

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