Google is leading the mobile VR race with its Daydream platform and headset, but Microsoft is getting ready to join in too. Alcatel has made a $470 Windows 10-powered version of its Idol 4S phone, and it's the first mobile device running this OS to have virtual-reality capabilities. Like its Android brother, the new Idol also comes with its own headset. I played around with it to see if this first stab at VR on Windows 10 Mobile is any good. Unfortunately, it isn't.
First off, the Idol 4S Windows 10 doesn't simply have a different operating system than its Android sibling, which I reviewed earlier this year. It also packs a more powerful Snapdragon processor, sharper camera, more RAM and storage, but uses weaker speakers and a lower-res full-HD display.
That lower resolution was evident when I hunted down the walking dead in Zombie VR, where things like poles and seats in an abandoned subway car were clearly pixelated. The Android Idol didn't have supersmooth graphics, either, but artifacts are more obvious on the Windows version.
The virtual-reality experience was developed in-house by Alcatel, but Microsoft collaborated with the Chinese firm on testing for quality and compatibility. Microsoft didn't seem to really play a part in implementing the VR here. When asked what the company's plans were for supporting such mobile-VR platforms, a Microsoft spokesperson said it looks forward to sharing more in the future. Meanwhile, what you have is a VR content store that Alcatel created, as well as an app called Tube 360, for discovering media.
The VR app store is incredibly basic. It has two categories: Games and 360-degree Media. The former contains just seven titles, while the latter offers two immersive pictures and one video. That's it. These are pulled from the Windows app store, and Alcatel said it will add content as it is created for the OS. Tube 360 is a preloaded third-party app that aggregates 360-degree content from YouTube and offers dozens more clips than the store does.
You can launch all these games and files directly from the Windows 10 All Apps menu, or start your VR adventure with the included launcher. It's nearly identical to the one Alcatel made for the Android version, with the same seven icons floating in a horizontal row over a starry backdrop. The only difference I spotted was in the games: Instead of using the on-goggles buttons to trigger actions, you'll have to hold your cursor (by tilting your head) over special items or symbols until a ring fills up. It's very Kinect-like, which will be intuitive for those who use that system, but is slower than tapping the physical keys on the headset.
In the game, I could only move my head around to aim my crosshair at attacking zombies. My in-game gun fired automatically whenever I lined up my target, and I had no say over when to shoot. If I could at least use the two buttons available on Alcatel's goggles, I could actually pull the trigger myself, and use the other key to reload or navigate.
Another problem: Sounds and music in the VR apps, including the games, will play only through the phone's speakers. I tried plugging in three different types of headphones, and the audio still streamed out of the phone. This affected only VR content; media from other sources, such as YouTube or Spotify, flowed through the headphones. Alcatel said it's aware of this issue, and that it's working on an over-the-air app update as soon as possible. My Idol 4S Windows 10 was a preproduction unit, too, so here's hoping that consumer-ready versions will ship with the fix in place.
Ultimately, it feels like Microsoft could have worked better with Alcatel on this attempt to make Windows 10 mobile-VR-ready. Even though the Android version was not crafted in partnership with Google, and Alcatel will likely need to adopt Daydream's launcher at some point, it's still a better-implemented experience.
For a phone that targets "professionals, gamers and general tech enthusiasts alike," according to the Windows blog announcing this device, the Idol 4S with Windows needs a more cohesive virtual-reality launcher and content library. It will likely get better over time with more software updates, but as it stands, the VR part of this phone is not going to win over users.