Flagship head to head: Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro vs Lumia 950 XL

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I've done numerous head to head comparisons between the Lumia 950 XL and other top end smartphones, but every now and then I get the chance to do one between phones in the same ecosystem. In this case, of course, answering the question of which is 'better', the 22 month old 950 XL or the brand new Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro?

IDOL 4 Pro and Lumia 950 XL

As the quotes above suggest, 'better' is obviously subjective, but there are still plenty of data points and observations below.

As usual, I've shaded in green an obvious 'win' for either device, I honestly have no idea which way this one's going to go (as I start to compile the feature)... Any row where a winner would be totally subjective is left uncoloured. Or, where both devices are utterly excellent but in different ways, I've given both a 'green'(!)

[By the way, if you're viewing this feature on (ironically) a smaller-screened Windows Phone then the table may well cause you problems. Try viewing in landscape mode? Failing that, go view this on a laptop or tablet and then roll on Windows 10 Mobile across the board on all the older phones!]

  Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro Microsoft Lumia 950 XL
Date first available August 2017 November 2015
Current price, availability £420 (SIM-free in the UK, inc VAT), from the Microsoft online Store. See your local version for pricing. £380, SIM-free, from Amazon UK, inc VAT, but now only via third party sellers - watch out for this on clearance prices around the world?
Dimensions, form factor, weight, design

154 x 75 x 7mm, aluminium frame with toughened glass front and back, 152g.

152 x 78 x 8mm, plastic chassis and replaceable backs (plastic/leather/wood etc, from Mozo), 165g

Durability No specific durability metrics, plus the dual sided glass design means a case is a must. If water gets in then you're pretty much out of luck. Sadly.
No specific durability metrics, though the fact that the back comes off will help enormously for water damage, i.e. taking out battery and cards immediately, drying out the internals. Damage to the back or corners is trivial through replacement, but the screen's exposed, of course.
Operating system, interface Windows 10 Mobile, (dismissable) virtual controls
The same, obviously - Windows 10 Mobile, (dismissable) virtual controls
Display  5.5" AMOLED 1080p, Dragontrail Glass 5.7" AMOLED QHD (1440p), Gorilla Glass 4, ClearBlack Display polarisers help with outdoor contrast, Glance screen available (in various colours) for always-on time, day and notification icons
Connectivity LTE up to 300Mbps (all bands), Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac, integral wifi tethering, Bluetooth 4.1, Continuum connectivity to use external displays as secondary screen, independent of the phone display. Note that - perhaps significantly - there's no NFC! LTE up to 300Mbps (all bands), NFC, Wi-Fi b/g/n/ac, integral wifi tethering, Bluetooth 4.2, same Continuum connectivity just as with the IDOL 4 Pro
Processor, performance Snapdragon 820 chipset, 4GB RAM (of which 3.5GB are used directly), the fastest Windows phone I've tested so far. Snapdragon 810 chipset, 3GB RAM.
Capacity 64GB, expandable via microSD 32GB internal storage, expandable via microSD
Imaging (stills)

21MP f/2.2 1/2.4" BSI sensor, dual LED flash, HDR shots, PDAF, very decent shots in most light conditions, but falls down in really low light, as you'd expect (with no OIS). See my review part 2.

8MP front camera

20MP PureView f/1.9 1/2.4" BSI sensor, Phase Detection auto-focus, dedicated camera shutter button and launch key, genuine 2x lossless digital zoom (in 8MP oversampled mode), OIS. 'Rich Capture' produces customisable HDR shots and 'dynamic flash', with triple LED illumination. Outstanding shots in most light conditions, with just focussing issues in low light as an Achilles heel.

5MP front camera

Imaging (video) 4K, optionally digitally stabilised, with 'Best photo' 8MP grabbing built-in, plus high amplitude stereo audio recording (though left and right channels are switched in current firmware). See my review part 3. 4K, optically (and optionally digitally) stabilised, with 'Best photo' 8MP grabbing built-in, plus Rich Recording and quad HAAC microphones for high quality stereo capture.
Music and Multimedia Terrific front-facing 3.6W stereo speakers, the best in the current smartphone world - in any ecosystem. 3.5mm headphone jack, A2DP Decent mono speaker, loud but lacking in bass and depth, though you can trade volume for fidelity in a simple tweak. 3.5mm headphone jack, A2DP+APT-X, so superior headphone audio, but it can't make up for the far weedier speaker overall.
Navigation  Windows 10 Maps is comprehensive, has a degree of live traffic awareness (see the latest workaround), Includes full offline maps with automatic updates. 

Ditto. I use it regularly with few issues now.

Cortana/Voice Cortana is now mature and well integrated, and with a surprising degree of 'assistance'. Ditto, Cortana is up with the best of the AI assistants in the tech world.
Battery, life  Sealed 3000mAh battery, plus USB Type C fast charging (up to 2A) and compatibility with Qualcomm's Quickcharge 3.0. Removable 3300mAh battery, easily gets through a day (on latest firmware), plus USB Type C (up to 3A) and Qi wireless charging built-in. 
Cloud aids Windows Photos syncs across all signed-in devices, subject to your OneDrive tariff, should you have thousands of images in the system. Plus Windows 10 backs all your media, application data and settings to a separate backup folder system, tariff-free on OneDrive. Ditto, Windows 10 Photos works really well, helped by a decent chipset on these devices to plough through hundreds of thousands of thumbnails!
Biometrics  The fingerprint sensor is effectively instant, though in practice the 'Hello' animation takes a second, plus there's the powering on of the display if this is all from a screen-off state. Still, it's a lot faster than PIN entry or iris recognition. Reliant on just the iris scanner - it works but is hardly the quickest or most convenient way to authenticate.
Applications and ecosystem  Windows 10 Mobile now has just about every mainstream app covered, aside from Snapchat and Tinder. And anything to do with Google services! Most things can be done via Edge, though 'not quite' as slickly as with dedicated applications. Ditto, of course. The remnants of Nokia's influence on the Lumia line linger on in terms of Glance screen, an audio equaliser, Lumia Motion data, display colour settings, and more. All certifiable extras that don't seem to have made it out into the wider Windows phone world.
Upgrades and future

Windows 10 Mobile will be updated through 2017 and 2018, of course, as part of the global Windows 10 ecosystem and the regular patching and fixing process. Production devices can expect updates every month, Insiders every few weeks.

At time of writing though, this is all theory for the IDOL 4 Pro - Microsoft still hasn't got WDRT recovery images in place or indeed officially enabled the Creators Update for the device. My review material has all been with the Fast ring Insiders builds.

Ditto, the next major update is in Autumn 2017 and is dubbed the 'Fall Creators Update'. It's still not known exactly what form this will take for existing mobiles like the Lumia 950 XL.

However, being a Microsoft product, the safeguards, recovery images and version enabling are all in place, giving more confidence for future updates, even if the phone itself is significantly older.

IDOL 4 Pro and Lumia 950 XL


Adding up the green 'wins' gives a notable 7-4 victory to the much older Lumia 950 XL, which is curious in the extreme. How can a new smartphone almost two years newer be 'worse'? A lot depends on your definitions of 'worse', of course, and on the specific features and attributes above that you prize more than others.

Annoyingly, the two uppermost in my mind are great imaging and great speakers and it seems that the only way I can have both in 2017 is to buy an iPhone! And then I lose the headphone jack, which is a showstopper. And I'd have to use iOS, which is an even bigger showstopper, for me personally.

Compromises, compromises. How can the new Alcatel IDOL 4 Pro claw back the points? Well, Microsoft sorting out the support and recovery images, for a start. A few config files and binaries later and I'd have to withdraw my caveats about the IDOL 4 Pro having to be cajoled into 2017 via an unsupported status in the Insiders Programme. 

There's no chance for Glance screen though, as that has a hardware element. Ditto NFC, which is almost certainly missing an antenna here - it's an inexplicable omission in 2017 for a flagship, in my opinion.

Leaving the Lumia 950 XL the standout winner across the board - and the only fly in the ointment is that it's tough to buy it anymore - you have to go via third parties who still have stock, though you might well end up only paying clearance prices.

Comments welcome. Am I being too unfair to the newcomer and too generous to the classic Lumia?