Alcatel could've made a decent mid-tier phone, instead we got an LED back

Have you ever wished you could see what notification just came into your phone, but it was face down on the table? First off, shame on you for putting your phone face down. But also, maybe, just maybe, the LED back option for the Alcatel A5 is for you. But probably not.

Let's start with the phone itself. The A5 is Alcatel's new mid-range phone, replacing the previous-generation Pop series of smartphones. It's running Android 6.0 Marshmallow, which isn't much of a surprise, even if it's still a disappointment. The 5.2-inch 1280x720 IPS screen is powered by an unnamed octa-core processor clocked at 1.5GHz backed up by 2GB of RAM and 16GB internal storage. All-in-all, it's a typical low-to-mid-range phone. There's also a neat little theming feature in the Color Catcher 2.0 — simply take a photo and it will pick out a highlight color to build a new theme off of it with complementary colors, including a wallpaper and icon pack coloring.

What's special about the Alcatel A5 is actually something it shares in common with the much more expensive Moto Z phones: swappable backs. Though in this case it's the whole back cover that comes off, not just a "mod" that snaps onto the back. So unlike the Motorola phones, you won't be wanting to use the A5 with the back off, even though technically if you really wanted to, you could.

The default back is a standard plastic cover with cutouts for the ports and camera through its faux brushed-metal finish. There's also a battery expansion back that adds a few hours of use, which will come in handy to augment the built-in non-removable 2800 mAh cell. And you'll have the option for a speaker back, which is expectedly bulky and comes with a pop-out metal kickstand. Frankly, it's too thick and unattractive to permit its poor audio quality — you'll get better sound out of almost any flagship smartphone, including Alcatel's own Idol 4.

The most interesting one is the LED back. This adds a small amount of bulk to the A5, but in the process makes for a unique take on notifications and, uh, lights. The back can light up when a notification comes in, and the grid of LEDs can even display basic blocky pixel characters, like a blue "F" for Facebook or a yellow "S" for Snapchat. Or it can pulse to the music that's playing or display a "light show" of super basic twinkling stars or fire or fireworks. It's a superfluous solution in search of a problem. The only real nice use for it would be as a soft light for the camera instead of the harsh light of a single-LED flash, but it's nowhere near bright enough to be useful for that.

While Alcatel didn't announce any additional backs or partners for making such backs (the speaker back was solely Alcatel-branded), the connector itself is potentially capable enough to support a wide-range of accessories. It sports 16 pins in a 4x4 arrangement, the same number as the Moto Mods connector (which is in an 8x2 arrangement), and Moto's backs include a pico projector.

Derek Kessler

Derek Kessler is Special Projects Manager for Mobile Nations. He's been writing about tech since 2009, has far more phones than is considered humane, still carries a torch for Palm (the old one), and got a Tesla because it was the biggest gadget he could find. You can follow him on Twitter at @derekakessler.