The Alcatel A5 LED is a budget phone with a flashing LED back plate that’s designed to attract bargain seekers with a love of disco lighting.
So far, it’s available in Europe and Australia and will cost you £169/AU$299 (around $220). On paper, the Alcatel A5 LED is just about exactly what you’d expect for that kind of money.
The pricing means that it’s going head-to-head with the budget crowd, taking on phones like the Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus and our current budget pick, the Moto G5. It’s going to take more than some LEDs to beat that kind of stiff competition.
Chinese manufacturer TCL Communications, also maker of the BlackBerry KeyOne, has been churning out budget and mid-range phones under the Alcatel brand for years now, so you might expect them to be getting good at it.
Unfortunately, the A5 LED is a mixed bag with some serious problems. The cynical among you might discount the light show as a gimmicky distraction to the weaknesses of this phone. Let’s find out if you’re right to do so.
Alcatel A5 LED price and release date
- Starts at £169/AU$299
- Cheaper as PAYG
- Not available in US yet
The official price of the Alcatel A5 LED in the UK is £169, but you can already get it a bit cheaper at Argos, where it’s currently listed at £140, or you can snap it up on pay-as-you-go at Vodafone or Giffgaff for just £99 and a £10 service bundle.
If you’re in Australia, you’ll need to pay AU$299 to get an unlocked Alcatel A5 LED.
The phone is set to be released in the US at some point, where we imagine it will cost somewhere around $220 based on the UK price, though we wouldn’t be surprised if it came in under the $200 mark.
LED Lightshow like a Lego disco dancefloor
- LED back lights up in time to music
- Light Show app offers various lighting routines
If this was just the Alcatel A5, minus the LED back, then there would be little reason to consider it. But slap an array of colored lights on the back and it becomes the Alcatel A5 LED – the ideal phone for party people who’ve blown their budget on partying.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that the decision to slap an alternative LED back into the box came late on when the manufacturer realized how truly boring this phone is, because when you first unpackage it, there’s a slim, black plastic back on there with a subtle brushed metal pattern.
Dig deeper and you’ll find the chunky LED back plate. Snap it into place, fire up the special Light Show app, and feel your cynicism wash away as it bathes you in a rainbow of glorious flashing glare and dazzle. Put it face down and it looks just like a disco dance floor for Lego people.
There’s a surprising array of options in the comprehensive Light Show app. You can have the LEDs light up for incoming calls and notifications, of course, but you can also sync the light show to your games or music, choose from ten pre-made light shows, or make your own.
There’s also a ColorCatcher app that allows you to snap a photo of something and generate a theme based on the colors. These themes extend to the LED back, though we can’t see many people wanting the LEDs to light up constantly when they’re using their phone.
It’s fun, but ultimately it’s a silly gimmick, albeit a silly gimmick that the makers have really committed to. If you ever longed for an LED array on the back of your phone, the Alcatel A5 LED is going to delight you. The question is – has anyone ever longed for an LED array on the back of their phone?
Design and display
- Chunky plastic design
- 5.2-inch IPS LCD is only 720p
- No fingerprint sensor
The Alcatel A5 LED is a chunky, sturdy-feeling, plastic phone. The front is all-glass with a speaker for calls at the top, flanked by the front-facing camera and flash, and the standard Android capacitive touch buttons at the bottom.
There’s a permanently visible round symbol for the home button, with the back and multitasking buttons just lighting up when used.
On the right spine, there’s a lightly textured power button with a volume rocker above it. Up top we have a standard 3.5mm headphone port, and the bottom edge hosts the main speaker, microphone, and micro USB port.
Flip over to the back and you’ll see the camera and flash in the top left corner. The Alcatel A5 LED comes with a slim, dark plastic back with a brushed metal effect, or you can switch in the thicker, grille-patterned, partially translucent cover that houses an array of 4 x 9 multi-colored LEDs.
Switching covers, or indeed fitting the SIM or microSD card requires you to prise off the back, which extends around the frame. There’s a small slot to stick your nail into, but the covers are quite tough to remove.
The LED cover looks quite good at rest, but it’s sure to grab the attention of your friends, colleagues, and random passers-by the minute it lights up. The general reaction was a bemused smile, but my kids (who are 8 and 5 years old) really loved it.
Unfortunately, the LED cover renders NFC useless, so you’ll need to switch to the slim back if you want to use that.
Ultimately, it’s a dull, but inoffensive design and the only omission that rankled is the complete lack of a fingerprint scanner, meaning you’ll need to rely on an old-fashioned PIN or pattern to protect your phone from prying eyes.
Disappointing when you consider that the Moto G5 has a nice indented fingerprint sensor on the front.
Your phone’s display is one of the most important features, because you’ll probably be staring at it for hours and hours every day. The Alcatel A5 LED has a 5.2-inch IPS LCD. It’s a decent enough size, and you can crank the brightness up fairly high, but if you aren’t dead-on when viewing it, then it goes dull quickly.
Colors are quite good and there’s a MiraVision calibration tool in the settings, so you can fine tune it to fit your preferences.
We’re disappointed by the 720 x 1280 resolution, considering the Moto G5 has a smaller screen, but manages to be 1080p. The screen isn’t the worst thing about the Alcatel A5 LED, but we would have preferred a 1080p resolution in a screen this size.
Interface and reliability
- Runs Android 6.0 Marshmallow
- Patchy Alcatel interface adds little
- Huge choice of themes
It’s a shame that the Alcatel A5 LED doesn’t ship with the latest flavor of Android and there’s no telling when, or even if, it will get updated.
What you do get out of the box is Android 6.0 Marshmallow with an Alcatel interface over the top. Parts of the interface, like the home screens, notification shade, and the settings menus, feel like stock, but there are a few extra options.
You can choose from a wide variety of different themes for your Alcatel A5 LED and change the icons to match your preferred color scheme. The ColorCatcher app even enables you to snap a photo and create a theme based on the colors in it, though every time we tried it the results could only be described as garish.
We’re glad to find all the usual Google apps are on board, but there is a bit of bloat here that you’re unlikely to use.
The worst thing about Alcatel’s interface is that it seems to slow the phone down. Switching between apps is laggy and stuttering is frequently a problem. Several times we loaded an app and it just sat stubbornly on a blank screen until we quit out, closed the app, and relaunched it.
We can’t be sure, but we’re assuming that the interface is to blame, because, as you’ll see in the next couple of sections, the A5 LED is capable of performing well. Hopefully this is something that can be fixed with a software update.
Movies, music and gaming
- Single speaker is quite loud
- Games run smoothly
- Screen isn’t sharp enough
Sound comes via the single speaker on the bottom edge of the Alcatel A5 LED, which is annoyingly easy to cover, especially when gaming. This is a problem with a lot of phones, so we can’t judge the Alcatel A5 LED too harshly, and there is a 3.5mm jack for headphones.
You have the usual assortment of Google Play apps for movies and music and there’s also an Alcatel Onetouch Music app that will show up any MP3s you load onto your phone. The speaker goes quite loud, but gets tinny. If you’re into music you’ll be using headphones.
If you like to watch movies on your phone, then the Alcatel A5 LED isn’t for you. The screen is quite big, but it’s just not sharp enough and it’s not easy on the eyes if you spend a long time staring at it.
There’s no night mode or blue light filter here, which isn’t too surprising for a budget phone, but we did find the screen hurt our eyes when reading in bed at night. The usually reliable Chrome web browser is also incredibly slow to load and refresh on this phone.
After the stuttering performance on the home screens and jumping between apps, we were surprised to find that the Alcatel A5 LED is perfectly capable of running demanding games.
We fired up Asphalt 8, and though it took a while to load, once it did it ran smoothly, even with the graphics and effects maxed out. We also played Sonic Dash 2 and encountered no problems.
One big problem, particularly if you intend on installing a lot of games or like to carry a big MP3 collection, is the lack of storage. There was just 6.53GB free out of the box, out of the 16GB total, which is not enough.
Luckily, you can install a microSD card, but we would have preferred to see at least 32GB of on board storage space.
Benchmarks and performance
- Sluggish navigation and slow loading
- Impressive benchmark scores
The Alcatel A5 LED is something of a mystery in the performance department. Running Geekbench 4 three times, we got an average single core score of 622 and an average multi-core score of 2,622. That’s good for a budget phone.
Why then does the Alcatel A5 LED stutter and lag? Why do apps freeze up? And why is the browser so agonizingly slow?
Something has obviously gone a bit wrong here. Sure, the 2GB of RAM is a bit stingy, but the octa-core MediaTek MT6753 chipset is clocked at 1.3GHz and paired with a Mali-T720MP3 GPU that can clearly handle games.
- Daily charging is a necessity
- Charging is slow
The Alcatel A5 LED is equipped with a 2,800mAh battery, which sounds reasonable in theory, considering the display is only 720p. In practice, probably partly because of the LED back, the battery life tends towards the lower end of average.
Our 90-minute HD video test sapped 28% of the Alcatel A5 LED’s battery. The same test claimed 22% of the Moto G5’s battery life.
Unsurprisingly, gaming chews through the power fast. Playing Asphalt 8 for just 10 minutes saw remaining power drop by 5%. With light use, we got through the day with change, but if you’re taking a lot of photos and gaming, then expect to have to plug in before night falls.
The Alcatel A5 LED also lacks any fast charging capability, unlike the Moto G5, which charges up a useful amount in just 20 minutes. Going from 32% on the Alcatel A5 LED up to 100% took more than 2 hours, so charging overnight might be your best bet.
- Low light performance is very poor
- Camera app is slow to load and sluggish to use
You’ll find an 8MP main camera on the Alcatel A5 LED, with a dual-LED flash and autofocus. The camera app is very straightforward – there’s no pro mode here, but it’s also very slow to load. It lags so much when taking a photo that you’ll find yourself accidentally taking double shots frequently.
Because of the small f/2.0 aperture, the low light performance of this camera is very poor. If you snap a shot indoors or at night, be prepared for noise and a rapid loss of detail. The flash is very bright, so it will illuminate scenes, but you’ll inevitably get a whiteout effect on light colors and flesh tones.
There is an HDR option, but you’ll need steady hands or a tripod, because it takes a long time to capture and process. It’s possible to get decent results, outdoors in good light, but off-the-cuff you’re going to end up with a lot of blurry shots.
You can tap on subjects to focus, but your chosen area will also dictate the brightness of your photo, as there’s no separate brightness control. If your scene isn’t uniformly lit, then tapping in the wrong place can cause serious exposure problems.
The 5MP front-facing camera has its own flash and performs about as well as you’d expect, which is to say not very well. Once again, the noise is overwhelming in low light conditions.
We might have given the camera a pass because of the budget price tag on the Alcatel A5 LED, but it’s such an important aspect of your phone and the Moto G range has really raised the bar on what you can expect nowadays. This camera is significantly worse than the cameras in the Moto G5, Moto G4, and even the Moto G (2015).
The Alcatel A5 LED is a straightforward Android phone with a reasonable set of specs at a fairly low price.
But the only differentiating feature is the LED back cover. Take that away and you have a below average budget Android phone.
Who’s this for?
If you’re on a tight budget and you want something a little bit different, then the eye-catching LEDs might just reel you in. Alcatel seems to be courting the youth with a focus on flashy aesthetics, but the style fails to mask a serious lack of substance – the lights are on, but nobody is home.
Should you buy it?
No, we can’t recommend that you buy the Alcatel A5 LED, because there are superior alternatives. Even if Alcatel sorts out the dodgy performance with a software update, this phone is mediocre all the way through. You would have to be deeply in love with the LED back to make this phone worth considering.
The following three options can all be had for a similar price, but for a top budget phone you needn’t look beyond the Moto G5.
At £170/AU$299 (around $220), exactly the same starting price as the Alcatel A5 LED, the Moto G5 beats it on every front. It has a sharper screen, a metal body, a slick fingerprint sensor, better battery life, a far superior camera, and the list goes on.
The Moto G5 sports a newer version of Android that’s cleaner and nearer Google’s vision of the platform. Despite the Alcatel A5 LED scoring better in benchmarks, the Moto G5 is much smoother in everyday use. LED back aside, this is a walkover for the Moto G5.
- Read our full Moto G5 review
Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus
The Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus was slightly more expensive on release, but it can now be had for £170 (around $220/AU$280) at Amazon. It’s quite similar to the Alcatel A5 LED in some respects. There’s also a 5-inch 720p display and a 2,700mAh battery.
But there are things that elevate the Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus. It boasts 3GB of RAM, 32GB of storage, and most importantly has a much better main camera than the Alcatel A5 LED. You’ll find a 16MP main shooter backed up by an 8MP selfie cam on the Wileyfox. It has a decent fingerprint scanner, too.
- Read our full Wileyfox Swift 2 Plus review
Moto G4 Play
At around $150/£130/AU$250, the Moto G4 Play is something to look at if your budget is seriously constrained. It’s the closest of our competitors to the Alcatel A5 LED, if you’re just looking at the spec sheets. It has a 5.0-inch 720p screen, runs Android 6.0, and has 2GB RAM and 16GB of storage.
The cameras are 8MP and 5MP, just like the A5 LED, and the battery is also rated at 2,800mAh. The one big difference is the low-end Snapdragon 410 quad-core chipset in the Moto G4 Play which scored so woefully in our benchmark test.
- Read our full Moto G4 Play review
First reviewed: August 2017