TCL's 10 series is the company's first real first-party entry into the smartphone market. So, when the company sent over its TCL 10 Pro for review, I wasn't expecting much. That was, in short, a mistake. Not only is it exceptionally difficult to sift through all of the features packed into this device. It turns out to be a challenge to explain why this phone costs less than $450.
On the hardware front, TCL has delivered all of the quality and thoughtfulness that should be expected from a company better known for affordable but value-driven televisions. The display follows through there too, for reasons that we'll discuss later on. On software, connectivity, battery or firmware optimizations, and overall familiarity and comfort, TCL also excels.
That likely stems from years spent building smartphones for some big names such as BlackBerry.
Where things fall apart, such as on Night Mode in the camera, lower audio registers, or on fast charging, that's not unexpected. But it also isn't quite as bad as some competing devices. Of course, those looking for a close-to-stock experience may want to look elsewhere. That's despite that TCL comes pretty close on most fronts.
But, taken collectively with consideration for the cost, the TCL 10 Pro turns out to be one of the best devices in the mid-range bracket. There's very little to criticize objectively but quite a lot to love. So let's take a closer look at why that is.
TCL Pro hardware is sleek and well-thought-out
On the design and hardware quality fronts, TCL has knocked it out of the park for the 10 Pro. The entire build, capped with a texture-coated glass at the back and 3D glass on both back and front, fits neatly in-hand. In fact, it may well be among the most comfortable phones I've yet to hold, in-case or not.
That's undoubtedly made better by the fact that the only protrusions are short in terms of how much they protrude. But the back glass is also completely smooth aside from a light texturing from the gradient-gray-patterned OPVD film and the LEDs. Those camera LEDs are very rounded, which offers better coverage in snapshots. But it also means they don't offer much resistance in-hand or going into the pocket. The cameras are under that glass.
The overall aesthetic is equally sleek. The Ember Gray color here is much more matte brushed metal than shiny. And the result of the shape and color is a device that looks understated and professional rather than like it's trying too hard.
There's very little, if any, flex in the frame too. That, coupled with a solid metal frame, smooth ports and buttons, and a great "click" to both buttons and ports, makes the device feel exquisitely well-made. It just doesn't feel like an affordable smartphone or look like one.
The chief drawback here, of course, is that TCL hasn't said whether this is dust or waterproof, let alone splash-proof. Presumably, it will survive a light drizzle or some sweat, if for no other reason than it feels so tightly put together. But users should be aware that it isn't explicitly designed to be used under conditions where damages of those types is going to occur.
The praise about aesthetics continues with the included clear protective case. That not only neatly protects each component, port, and edge from damage in reasonable drops. It's etched and colored with the words "Display Greatness."
The square at the center of the two words wraps neatly around the TCL logo. That little bit of finesse in the branding with the case not only made me feel less annoyed about using the case. It made showing off the device while in the case feel at once both a bit too brand-loyal and happy to tout the somewhat obscure — in terms of smartphones — brand. It was, summarily, an interesting design decision and not at all a bad one.
Now, the fingerprint reader here is absolutely not the fastest around. It's not the slowest either but it does take right around a second to register a fingerprint after setup.
For some reason, the fingerprint scanner also seems a bit finicky under certain circumstances. It's an optical scanner, so it doesn't have the same issues as some other under-display readers. But when the battery is low, particularly on the always-on display, it doesn't always read. Instead, it flashes as though it's going to start reading and then doesn't.
That's a problem that will undoubtedly be fixed with a software update. It does, after all, appear to be software related since it only happens at a low charge. However, it's worth knowing about for those who plan to use that method for unlocking their device. Everything else seems to work as normal.
Face Key unlocking is included too, so this smartphone can be unlocked a bit more quickly with facial recognition AI. And that seems to work well under nearly all lighting conditions.
The final noteworthy inclusion on the hardware front is the IR blaster. That added bit of convenience when it comes to controlling everything remote-controlled is just icing on an already great cake.
TCL's 10 Pro display is, without hesitation, best in its bracket
Now, I've already performed a review on the more affordability-focused counterpart of the TCL 10 Pro, the 10L. So I already knew what to expect from the screen going into this. TCL packed its 10-series handsets with a Pixelworks solution that not only upscales to HDR from SDR. It also delivers visual enhancements based on environmental lighting, content, and more.
Those settings were left on throughout this review of the TCL 10 Pro. The automatic AI-driven saturation, sharpness, and contrast settings do an amazing job of keeping this panel looking its best in any lighting.
TCL also packs in a Reading mode and Sunlight mode. Those boost things further, as their branding implies, for the respective use cases. And that's setting aside Android 10's Dark Mode being available out-of-the-box, among other visual enhancements.
TCL started that package out with a great screen, to begin with. It built the TCL 10 Pro around a 6.47-inch FHD+ curved AMOLED display. That's dual-sided 3D glass, as noted above, but on the screen side its a 19.5:9 ratio display at 1080 x 2340 pixels, 398PPI, and a brightness of 986 nits. There was never a need to worry about use in direct sunlight with this phone, even without the Sunlight mode — although that definitely improves matters.
With the contrast in excess of a 2,000,000:1 ratio, and 93-percent of the front panel consisting of the screen, this phone just looks like a flagship.
Now, that's hardly surprising from a company that makes reasonably priced, well-performing TVs. But TCL has gone above and beyond with its 10 Pro. And, in at least some cases, the screen even looks better than many flagships. It puts the overwhelming majority of mid-rangers, as such, to shame.
Each of the settings here can be found under the NXTVISION app, which houses all of the above-mentioned NXTVISION features.
On top of looking great, the TCL 10 Pro screen performs well too. There's no input lag to speak of. Animations — including the animated system-level icons — are buttery smooth. The sole drawback to this panel seems to be its waterdrop-style notch, which will undoubtedly bother a not-insignificant number of users. But that's going to mostly be subjective here.
Performance on the TCL 10 Pro is superb for the price
One area that the TCL 10 Pro fell short of flagships in this review is on the performance front. But, thanks to OEM using the same Snapdragon 675 octa-core chipset found in Samsung's Galaxy A70, that's not necessarily where users would expect it. The camera, system apps, and most games and third-party apps work as flawlessly and as smoothly as would be predicted for any smartphone.
Where that falls apart is in photo editing other content editing tasks. With two cores at 2GHz and six more at 1.7GHz, those kinds of processing just take a bit longer. So did startups for more heavy apps and games. Thankfully, TCL includes an automatically assigned and launching Game Mode too. So that difference isn't too big. And there are no interruptions in games either unless the user wants them since every game is individually tunable with that tool.
The speed of launches when switching apps is great too and there's plenty of storage to play with. That's because users have 103GB of storage out-of-the-box — of the 128GB installed. There's more with Facebook uninstalled or with up to a 256GB card installed. But that's already a good amount of space for files and apps. The 6GB of memory isn't brilliant. But at its price range, it's hard to ask for more from the 10 Pro.
Summarily, I didn't notice any apps dropping in framerate or performance throughout my test. Game Mode is automatic, so that likely helped since every game I played showed the booster running via a small notification at the start. But that's not a reason to fault the company here.
Game Mode only meant that things were kept as effortless as possible while performance was bolstered to well-above what I might have expected for under $600. Network performance is enhanced there too, which is going to make a difference in online gaming.
Users are going to be hard-pressed to find another smartphone in the price range with these advanced features. And that's leaving aside the overall performance in day-to-day activities. Even with dozens of apps open, I didn't notice any slow-down in day-to-day use.
The TCL 10 Pro charging speed is the one caveat to the battery
In terms of battery life, the TCL 10 Pro was put through a fairly subjective test for this review. But that's because all battery tests are ultimately subjective. Even standardized tests don't give users any indication as to what they might accomplish before the capacity is drained.
I began by charging this handset since it was dead at the start of the test. And my results were, to say the least, unimpressive. It took just 8-minutes shy of a full 2-hours to charge this handset up. The bulk of the charging time, at 52-minutes, was to fill up the final 20-percent. TCL is likely concerned with the longevity of the battery itself, resulting in that extended period.
At 15-minutes, the battery charged up to 21-percent, while it took a half-hour to reach 42-percent. At an hour, the battery charged up to 80-percent. That wasn't any longer, in terms of charging time, than I expected. It did, however, fail to impress me. This simply isn't the phone to buy for fast charging. And that's just one aspect the company could improve on in future gadgets.
For battery life testing, I kept the brightness turned all the way up. I also activated all of the display features and ensured that Game Mode was on while I was gaming. The purpose of that, of course, is to set a baseline. Real-world use by consumers is almost undoubtedly going to be better.
With battery saving features turned on by default or automatically as the battery drains, battery life will be better. The same can be said if Game Mode is turned off and brightness automatically adjusting to the surrounding environment. Turning off extra features discussed in the display segment of this review should extend things a lot further too.
In total, the device spent 18-hours and 7-minutes of this test on standby. The phone's battery dropped a single percent after 7.5-hours, replicating leaving the phone alone overnight. For the screen-on time, I saw 7-hours and 45-minutes of use.
Now, 2-hours and 16-minutes of that test involved text messaging, calls, other messaging services, browsing, and day-to-day activities. I used the TCL 10 Pro for video and music streaming with the screen on for 1-hour and 42-minutes. I turned on the camera for use for 15-minutes. The flashlight remained turned on for double that amount of time. Finally, I used this phone for gaming for 2-minutes longer than 3-hours.
TCL 10 Pro audio is not great, not horrible
Now, of course, this is a smartphone. So the speakers are, as is almost universal, going to be a bit on the bass-free side of things. But the TCL 10 Pro, under review, actually performed admirably at its price. In fact, where tones are represented, they shine through with clarity and not much by way of tinny distortion.
Where the speakers do fail, however, is on the bass side of things. A healthy human ear can generally hear down to 20Hz — ignoring exceptions. So headphones generally go to that frequency too. The main speaker on this phone is a single, bottom-firing unit. And it doesn't do well below 120Hz. That's a fairly big gap that doesn't really seem to impact listening except where bass overtones are present. There, they just aren't well represented, if at all.
That's to say nothing about the experience on offer via Bluetooth 5.0 or the included 3.5mm audio jack. Most companies have started leaving that port behind but it's included here and absolutely solves the above-mentioned problem. As does Bluetooth.
That's not to say the speaker is bad either. It just can't pump out the punchy low tones that most other smartphones are also averse too. And it can't keep up with the speakers found on some flagships. Other than the caveat listed here, the speaker is loud and clear. There's no distortion to mention and the quality stays consistent at all volumes. TCL actually did a great job, without allowing better audio components to get in the way on the price.
In fact, audio improvements are one of the few improvements I believe are needed. With that in place and a few other adjustments or component swaps, this device could easily sidle its way into the premium smartphone bracket.
TCL's software here is organized and smooth
The Android 10 overlay used by TCL is, at first glance, a strange combination of stock Android and what might be expected from a television-style UI. That holds true for the TCL 10 Pro too and, under review, that proves to be very intuitive and easy to use.
The biggest change, setting aside the Settings menu itself and the animated system-level icons noted elsewhere in this review, is in the app drawer. But, starting with the Settings app, that's laid out not unlike it would be in stock Android. But everything from the fonts chosen to the color and separation of categories is immediately reminiscent of a television UI. The aesthetic is, or at least it was for me, immediately unique and endearing.
The Settings also hold access for button customization, since the TCL 10 Pro features a dedicated extra hardware key on the left-hand side of the frame. The power and volume keys work exactly how you'd expect them to. That third-hardware key can be customized across three actions. A single press, double press, or long-press.
Those customizations allow for system-level actions such as turning on the flashlight or launching the camera — or specific camera modes. But they can also be individually assigned to launch specific apps and more. It's a very versatile button compared to similar implementations on other devices.
In terms of the OS navigation, users have an assortment of options available there too. For instance, old-school home, recent apps, and back buttons can be used. Those are turned on by default since that's the most familiar option for most users. But full-blown gesture navigation can be turned on too in Settings.
Of course, this handset also runs Android 10. So Dark Mode, Digital Wellbeing, parental controls, and other system management tools are present and accounted for. Driving Mode, Smart Key management, One-handed mode, App Cloning, Gestures, and other advanced features are present too. Those all work as expected.
The sole 'extra' app, Facebook, can be uninstalled. Everything else is as close to stock as possible aside from a few TCL-specific tools. For the most part, those are wholly unique to TCL too, rather than being duplicates of apps made by Google as some other manufacturers sometimes include.
Now, for the app drawer, that's customizable well beyond what most OEMs are allowing. To start, TCL organizes the app drawer not by names alphabetically but by category. For example, TCL calls out 'COMMUNICATION' and 'MEDIA' apps, as well as 'UTILITIES' and 'SYSTEM' apps.
Those are laid out with customizable headings and easy tap-and-drag sorting. That's aided further by the fact that each segment has its own plus icon for adding or adjusting apps, and an edit button. The apps can also be sorted by label, usage, installation, or icon color. It's very intuitive and works to suit users' day-to-day use and preferences. New categories can be created too.
TCL 10 Pro cameras performed well above expectations
TCL obviously put quite a lot of effort into the 10 Pro and it shows in this review. But it is also quite obviously not a camera company. The cameras in this device represent, simultaneously, one of the best and worst aspects of the gadget. Under good lighting or even slightly sub-optimal lighting, this camera performs exceedingly well. Especially in the price bracket.
Color accuracy is high, details are captured well without incident, and the AI is great at optimizing shots. HDR and flash come on at appropriate times, with the shutter speed, autofocus, and balancing all playing well to the sensors' strengths.
That holds true as much for the forward-facing 24-megapixel snapper as it does for the quad-camera array at the back. The latter of which is comprised of a 64-megapixel high-res lens, coupled with a 16-megapixel, 5-megapixel, and 2-megapixel lens. Those are for super-wide, macro, and low-light shots.
But that stops at the fact that the 64-megapixel mode is astonishingly good, macro shots pull all kinds of extra detail at very close ranges, and even the dual-flash module seem to work brilliantly for a device costing less than half of a flagship.
Without a dedicated telephoto lens, for starters, zoomed shots quickly become pixelated and lose detail. There's even a well-performing light-trace mode for capturing moving water or tracing out beams of light from headlights on a highway to a sparkler around fireworks time.
Also as shown in our sample gallery via Flickr, low light shots, except where a standard camera would normally perform okay, are abysmal. TCL may as well have left that mode out completely.
On the video front, users will gain a super slo-mo mode at up to 960 frames-per-second down to 240-frames or 120-frames for longer snaps. Well, designed color filters are present and accounted for too, although there aren't any AR filters to play with here.
But Night Mode and zoom present glaring problems for this phone. And those are features a user is going to probably respect in the mid-range, especially with consideration for how great the rest of this phone performs. TCL could feasibly fix that with a software update. But it remains to be seen whether or not it will.
Connections aren't the latest gen but are super solid with the TCL 10 Pro
Connectivity isn't generally a major review point since most phones are going to make and receive calls, download apps, and more in nearly identical fashion but that's not the case with the TCL 10 Pro. Or at least it isn't when it comes to Bluetooth. TCL loaded the 10 Pro with Bluetooth 5.0 for solid connections across the board. But this isn't the standard Bluetooth experience here.
To begin with, Bluetooth 5.0 is already a better version of the technology than is found in most other mid-range and budget handsets. But TCL devices also provide an experience-sharing feature called Super Bluetooth. That allows users to tap into the technology and, you guessed it, share the experience. Super Bluetooth can output media to up to four gadgets simultaneously. And that works brilliantly here too.
Support is included for aptX, aptX HD, LDAC, AAC, and TWS.
Setting that aside, CDMA carriers aren't compatible with the TCL 10 Pro, with the exception of Verizon. That's only going to work with 4G LTE and will only work in some cases with special provisions. But, since T-Mobile and Sprint recently started merging, it may not present too big an issue. Moreover, those connections are going to be solid, in the US and elsewhere. Or at least it does where the bands included are supported.
I didn't notice any difference between the flagships I have tested and this device in terms of real-world use.
Now, TCL didn't utilize Wi-Fi 6 either but instead focused its efforts on a great experience for widespread existing technology. Dual-band support is there, out-of-the-box.
The company also included what could be considered other top-tier connectivity technology. For example, it built Wi-Fi Direct, Wi-Fi Display, 4G Mobile Hotspot, GPS with A-GPS, VoLTE, VoWifi, and NFC into the package. And, of course, USB-C here supports OTG transfers. OTG reverse charging at up to 7.5W works here too.
On the SIM side, a single SIM is supported only, which could be a drawback for some users. But that also supports a SIM and a Micro SD card for those users who may need more space than what's allotted out-of-the-box.
Each of those features, as they are, worked flawlessly under review. Call audio came through clearly on both ends and in speaker mode. There are just no real drawbacks to speak of aside from the lack of 5G, Wi-Fi 6, and dual SIM support.
TCL has prepared for this moment and it really shows
Now, TCL has been making smartphones for quite some time. It hasn't released any of those really under its own branding. Instead, it's been pumping out smartphones for third-parties such as BlackBerry, Alcatel, and a few other brands. Making those phones has obviously prepared the company for designing and developing its own devices from the ground up.
The TCL 10 Pro is, on its face, a midrange phone at best but under review, it proves to provide a near-flagship experience. That's an accomplishment for any company, let alone one that has never taken a smartphone from conception through release.
That is, of course, setting aside relatively minor caveats such as an ill-performing Night Mode that most users won't ever touch anyway. And it ignores the fact that this battery takes almost two hours to fill up — as well as a few other drawbacks. But that's saying quite a lot anyway at under $450.
The TCL 10 Pro offers performance in droves with a unique take on Android that's at once both familiar and fresh. Theming and customization go a long way for a more personalized experience but everything we'd expect from Android 10 is available. The device screen delivers a best-in-class experience that rivals many top-billed flagships and puts other mid-rangers on notice.
Aside from Night Mode, the cameras perform better than most too, carrying over to video recording. Sticking to that front, audio recording and output aren't the best but are among the best as far as smartphones go. A headphone jack is included to make the listening experience, at the very least, much better. That's without specialty audio tuning.
Summarily, this device inspires a level of confidence that not many brands do when they first launch. It's innovative and feature-forward with a great UI overlay and doesn't disappoint in games or more intensive apps. And it does that at a cost that's well below the competition. What's more, TCL's design is comfort first, with the cameras and sensors all tucked neatly under glass for a seamless look and feel.
Taken in combination, it's safe to say that anybody looking at a new smartphone for under $800 should seriously consider the TCL 10 Pro. At under $450, this phone is an absolute steal.