TCL 10L Review – Affordable But Not Cheap, With A Best-In-Class Display

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TCL 10L offers a decidedly budget-minded experience but not without highlights

TCL 10L
$249.99
Rating
star star star star_empty star_empty
Pros
  • Over 7-hours of screen-on time
  • Loud, balanced audio via speakers, 3.5mm jack, or Bluetooth 5.0
  • Super Bluetooth connects up to 4 speakers or headphones simultaneously
  • Solid, curvy design language
  • Unique but familiar and powerful OS overlay
  • Premium aesthetic and in-hand feel
  • Advanced, flagship display quality and special features
Cons
  • 2.5-hours to charge
  • App drawer customizing will require a shallow learning curve
  • Camera issues abound outside of 48MP mode
  • Performance drops may or may not be software fixable

The TCL 10L is a budget-friendly phone that really deserves a deeper review. That's because it represents TCL's first smartphone built under its own branding. Now, TCL is a well-known company in the smartphone world, even if it isn't immediately recognizable as a first-party smartphone maker. The company has been building phones for companies such as Blackberry for years.

It's also well-known in the television and display markets, where it resides as a respectable competitor to LG, Samsung, and others. But this is its first foray into taking a phone from conception to design and through to the final build. That means that not only is it using components of its own but also that it's taking advantage of screen technology from the above-mentioned display division.

That's really the main selling point here. And, as we'll discover momentarily, TCL lives up to that reputation.

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The TCL 10L does, under review, fall apart in some areas. And in at least one or two areas, it falls well short of the mark. On audio, certain aspects of the cameras, and similarly for aspects of the battery, potential buyers will really want to take a closer look before purchasing.

None of that means this phone is less worthy of consideration at just $249.99. As a first, first-party effort, this phone is an achievement. It's not only going to be a perfect smartphone for some users at its price. It's also a hint, with any luck, of things to come for this company. With refinement and maybe a software update or two, the TCL 10L could be a brilliant budget phone, worthy of any top 10 list.

Setting all of that aside, for the time being, let's take a deeper dive into this affordability-focused smartphone.

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TCL 10L hardware feels well-thought-out, premium

Despite being built primarily of plastic, the TCL 10L shines as a well-designed phone for less than $300

TCL's design decisions for the TCL 10L really shined, placed under review. Especially where aesthetics and build quality are concerned. There is, of course, no IP rating for this glass and plastic sandwich. That means there's no certified water or dust protection. And there's no wireless charging either. But the plastics used here feel great in-hand, relative to other plastic phones.

This phone looks great too.

TCL sent its review unit in Mariana Blue, and the name makes sense given the depth of that color — at the right angle and under the right lighting. The blue can also be exceptionally light and even gives off a rainbow-like reflection under the right conditions. Or it can shift to an almost-black coloration. Especially with the included clear case installed, which also happens to be emblazoned with the "Display Greatness" motto.

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Conversely, the ports are snug-fitting with no jostle and the buttons click through satisfactorily. There aren't any sharp edges to speak of. And even the raised camera hump, thanks to its symmetrical, low-rise design, doesn't take away from how premium this device tends to feel.

The back panel is also accented with a square fingerprint scanner. That performs quickly, but not quite at the same level as top-tier mid-rangers or flagship devices. Fortunately, TCL chose to offset that with Face Key facial recognition. As a secondary unlock method, that feature feels quick and responsive, even in low light. It's impossible to tell how accurate or secure that is, of course. TCL isn't using flagship sensors alongside its 16-megapixel selfie camera.

Smart Lock is also an option here, letting users keep the phone unlocked as long as it's kept on them and has been unlocked at least once.

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Finally, TCL includes a dedicated textured "Smart Key" opposite the Power key and volume rockers. As might be expected, that works to allow extra functions and activity at a click. But it's much more customizable than is often seen with secondary dedicated physical buttons.

To begin with, the Smart Key can be launched in three different ways, including a press, a double-press, and a long press. Any of those can launch any installed app or a give list of actions. For instance, it can turn on or off NXTVISION display enhancements. Or it can launch different activities from Google Assistant from the AI itself to scanning codes.

Conversely, users can launch the camera in any of 9 different modes, including a burst shot — if assigned to a long press. Then there are gallery actions, smart device manager modes, and associated features. Or any number of other options such as the flashlight, split-screen, note-taking, and much more. That makes this a versatile handset on the hardware front, offering plenty of customizations that just don't exist in other phones with dedicated physical buttons.

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The TCL 10L display is, without question, severely misaligned with its budget aspirations

03 Display TCL 10L AH 2020
TCL is offering what is easily one of the best budget displays around

The TCL 10L features Android 10. So, of course, Dark Mode is built-in out of the box. It's also built on a dedicated OS overlay. So there are advanced theming and lock screen alteration features baked into the Settings app. Customization with this phone steps above and beyond what most devices in the budget segment can offer. But that's not the title feature for this smartphone.

The big feature with the TCL 10L is its display and my review of the device proves beyond a doubt that this is the phone to buy at below $300 if that's the most important aspect. In fact, this could easily be the best smartphone display for under double that cost.

Not only did TCL start with a 6.53-inch 24-bit color panel at a screen-to-body-ratio of 84.63-percent and 395 pixels per inch. That's a 1080 x 2340 resolution panel with an NXTVISION feature designed by Pixelworks, in collaboration with TCL.

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NXTVISION has a dedicated application that packs in visual enhancements, for starters. That adjusts contrast, sharpness, colors, brightness, and depth — in Vivid screen mode. The adjustments are made in real-time based on environmental factors such as environmental lighting. Summarily, it allows colors to pop more without losing their natural look.

Above and beyond that, NXTVISION has a feature that takes SDR content to HDR at the flick of a toggle.

Tacked on top of that is a dedicated Reading Mode that adjusts the screen for reading. That's individually assignable to apps or settable so that it's always on. And, for viewing under direct sunlight, Sunlight display mode improves readability when environmental lighting is too high.

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As might be expected from all of that, this display is, for all intents and purposes, a real performer. In fact, it performs like a flagship phone or better. And not just any flagship phone. But some of the best devices on the market. This is the screen you've been looking for if you care about the quality of the display in a budget phone of any stripe.

Performance drops were infrequent but mildly bothersome when they did occur with the TCL 10L

Performance in most apps was great but optimizations are still needed

Now, the TCL 10L does come with a dedicated Game Mode and, under review, that seemed to ensure that there wasn't any lag or other problems. The mode bolsters performance at the expense of battery. It also optimizes networking, brightness, notifications, and background apps. The mode adjusts gestures and navigation to block accidental interruptions as well. And any app can be added there.

That does, to an extent, further reduce any issues that occur. But, again, that's at the cost of battery life.

Setting that aside, the TCL 10L is also loaded with at least some bloatware such as Facebook and Netflix. That's in addition to built-in tools and features, some of which are expected in a modern smartphone. But for the most part, the apps are Google-made or helpful.

So it isn't immediately clear why this phone sometimes hangs up. In fact, on more than one occasion, the entire OS seemed to freeze up without any error messages. And it remained that way for at least a second or two before correcting.

Typically, that occurred while aftermarket apps and games were running. But that's not the only time it occurred. It also happened with the camera app on at least one occasion. The underlying problem appears to be in the optimizations for the OS, though.

That's based on the fact that it didn't seem to matter how many apps were running at the time or what the intensity of the app in question was. For instance, the problem was noted while running a fairly minimally-impactful tower defense game.

None of that is to say that performance was bad. But Game Mode may be required more here for some users than other devices in the same price bracket. And this is an issue that could undoubtedly be addressed with a firmware update. Other phones running the Qualcomm-built Snapdragon 665 and with 6GB of RAM, coupled with either 64GB or 128GB storage, don't seem to have the same issues.

Since TCL has promised at least one Android OS update and at least two years of security fixes, it seems likely the problem will be addressed in the future.

TCL 10L is not a phone for those who want the fastest charging

05 Battery TCL 10L AH 2020
TCL 10L, while not the fastest charging, does have a very unique charging animation

As shown in the image above, TCL cares deeply about presentation and that really showed in this review of the TCL 10L. The charging screen, for instance, is a unique light show — with droplets filling up a tube of energy that seems to sway more vigorously with movement. That's purely a gimmick. But it's a nice touch, even if the rest of this segment about battery life is going to be a bit less promising.

Now, it bears mentioning that advanced display features were kept on for this review, as they are set out-of-the-box. And the display is one of the biggest battery drains on a smartphone. In fact, it's arguably the biggest for the overwhelming majority of phones. I also ensured that, at least for the battery test, I kept the display brightness at 100-percent to really test the limits of battery life.

Having said that, the total screen-on time I witnessed for this device was 7 hours and 5 minutes. That was split somewhat sporadically based on day-to-day use for the test. Just five minutes shy of three hours was spent on video and music streaming. I played mobile games, including some intensive ones for around 1-hour and 42-minutes. I spent a minute longer than that in a chat, messaging, social media, and browsing.

Finally, I dedicated around 30-minutes to calls while I used the camera for approximately 10-minutes in my test.

That isn't, by any stretch, bad. Especially from a 4,000mAh capacity battery. But I expected more from this phone as I've seen better on-screen time from competitors — despite the advanced video and screen features discussed above.

For charging, this review of the TCL 10L showed an abysmal 2-hours and 27-minutes to full via USB-C. It also took about an hour to get this phone to 54-percent. And 15-minutes charged this phone just 14-percent.

Now, that's not something that's going to be solved with a software update. It, instead, exposed a serious caveat for the TCL 10L. Battery charging is simply not going to be as quick as some competitors. TCL did a great job building this smartphone overall. But this isn't going to be the phone to buy if fast charging is a requirement.

TCL 10L audio isn't bad but isn't breaking any boundaries either

08 Audio TCL 10L AH 2020
TCL teamed a 3.5mm audio jack with a single, bottom-firing speaker and an edge-mounted earpiece for the 10L

In terms of audio playback, the TCL 10L has two big features going in its favor. Neither is the single, bottom-firing speaker. Serving as the default audio output for ringtones, notifications, and alarms, that speaker isn't necessarily underwhelming. Smartphone speakers are, almost without exception, not built in a way that offers a great audio experience. Here, they push out audio that's balanced and plenty loud. That's without sacrificing quality.

On the other side of that, it also lacks punch. Especially on bass tones.

Now, TCL can be forgiven for including two speaker grilles along the bottom edge. Aesthetically, it's a good decision. It also hides one of the primary microphones for when users are talking on the phone. So it's not totally functionless. But, even if that seems like a negative point for some users, the company has not dropped the ball elsewhere.

As noted above, Bluetooth 5.0 is part of this audio package. That means that while audio isn't quite as good as wired through a dedicated DAC, it is almost lossless and has plenty of range. Super Bluetooth is part of that too, but we'll discuss that later on.

Secondary to that, for the audiophiles, TCL has included a 3.5mm audio jack in the top edge. So there's really no need to compromise. The company hasn't detailed any specialty hardware on that front. And there doesn't seem to be any added equalizers or advanced features either. With that said, audio performs better than would be expected with those missing features. Not only is it clear. There's also plenty of punch and balance is on point.

All of that means that, while this sub-$300 phone obviously can't offer the best experience, it's going to offer one of the best experiences in the price bracket.

TCL's software is a blend of a Linux-based TV OS and Android

TCL 10L's app drawer resembles something users might expect from a mobile Linux OS or TV menu

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the OS overlay used by TCL for the 10L is not quite like other Android devices. Instead of showing a standard, alphabetized app drawer, for instance, TCL sorts apps by function. Those are categorized and organized in a fairly straightforward structure, by default. For instance, TCL calls out 'COMMUNICATION' and 'MEDIA' apps, as well as 'UTILITIES' and 'SYSTEM' apps.

And the categories are customizable — just like an aftermarket launcher. Namely, users can rename each, add a new category, or change the apps within a given category. Each segment has its own heading, a plus icon for adding or adjusting apps, and an edit button.

Now, the app drawer itself is sortable. So users can choose to return to the alphabetical sorting. Or they can sort by label, usage, installation, or even icon color. It's a very easy-to-use and intuitive interface, even if it does feel a bit techie and old-school. A similar aesthetic — but not functionality — is found in the Settings app. Everything that would be expected is there. So it's easy to use. But they are separated in a distinctly TV-like style, blended with Android's stock feel.

Interacting with the OS also showed a couple of other quirks. For instance, opening system-level apps and then navigating back to the home menu shows the associated icons are animated. That adds a bit of extra flair to show off the smooth, advanced display of this device.

Beyond that, the UI is designed as a kind of blend of old and new — speaking strictly about Android versions. The default navigation is icon-bar based. That's adjustable with regard to the recent apps and back icons. Gesture Navigation is also available in Settings. The app drawer, in either case, requires a swipe up from the bottom.

Of course, since this is Android 10, the 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 more are present and work as expected. But here, we're diving deeper into the extra features in their respective sections for this review of the TCL 10L.

TCL dropped the ball on the 10L cameras but it's not the worst experience

06 Camera TCL 10L AH 2020
The TCL 10L camera is great for bright-lit daylight shots, except where it isn't

For cameras, TCL didn't shirk on the 10L and it showed in this review. But that doesn't at all mean the camera isn't imperfect. While most of the issues discovered under closer examination are likely those that can be fixed with a software update, they were exceptionally annoying during my test.

To begin with, there's no night mode with this camera. Instead, TCL appears to have optimized for collecting as much light as possible with the standard camera mode. Even in shots that were relatively low-lit, as shown in our Flickr sample gallery, those shots turned out much better than expected.

Secondary to that, TCL did a great job with the dual-LED flash on this camera — lining either side of the horizontal quad-camera array. That pre-flashes to gauge the proper level of flash before shooting and to utilize autofocus. And it performs very well compared to other OEMs flashes — likely because of those OEMs' focus on Night Mode.

Special features such as Light Trace, Stop Motion, Slo-Mo, and Pano aside, this phone doesn't do a great job with moving subjects either. Not only does the resulting blur cause issues, even at lower speeds. But pixelation is higher there too. And HDR mode seems to make matters worse on that front.

Pixelation and missing pixel artifacts are present in standard shots as well. Those artifacts don't appear until the photos are zoomed in on but that does mean that displaying the photos to an external display proves problematic. Heavy backlighting causes those to be pronounced too. The result is lost details. That loss of detail applies to background blurring and bokeh as well. The shifts just aren't as smooth as they feel like they should be either.

Color accuracy here is not great either, especially in close-up shots with varying light. The colors are altered wildly with different lighting, misrepresenting what the eye sees.

Now, edge blurring problems, missing pixels, and backlighting issues didn't appear or weren't as pronounced in 48-megapixel mode. That seems to point to either the sensors or underlying software but I lean toward the latter, given the color issues with the TCL 10L cameras.

Otherwise, the cameras perform well. Super Macro mode, for instance, captures stunning detail and doesn't cause the same kinds of problems noted above. All of the features one would expect, aside from AI filters, are present and accounted for. And those work as expected.

Connections here were solid and, of course, US support is intact

09 Connections TCL 10L AH 2020
TCL 10L isn't a 5G phone but LTE connections remained solid throughout my review, using Google Fi

Of course, TCL has plenty of experience building phones that work in the US. So it should come as no surprise that this phone does work in the region. I tested this 4G LTE handset via Google Fi — using T-Mobile, Sprint, and/or US Cellular towers. It stayed connected and kept speeds up throughout my review. Or at least as well as any other phone I've had the pleasure of testing.

Now, Bluetooth here really needs some extra attention. This smartphone does, of course, come with NFC support for tap-to-pay, hotspot and tethering support, and the usual DNS and VPN settings from Android 10. Casting, Printing, and USB OTG features are present and accounted for. Those work exactly as you'd expect them too. And there weren't any major issues in phone calls, speakerphone or otherwise, to note.

But Bluetooth is the headlining feature for the TCL 10L. That's because of a feature dubbed "Super Bluetooth."

Super Bluetooth takes the built-in Bluetooth 5.0 and extends it to provide audio output to multiple devices at once. In fact, TCL designed the feature to work with up to four Bluetooth headsets or speakers simultaneously. So, as long as users aren't bothered by Bluetooth audio, TCL has made it easy to share the audio experience with others or to create a surround sound-like experience.

The tools for calibrating the speakers and managing connected devices were as straightforward as working with a single output device too. It only takes a few clicks within the Bluetooth settings menu to easily get started. Not many devices offer this kind of feature, so it's worth taking a closer look at the TCL 10L (or the TCL 10 Pro) if that sounds appealing.

Is this a phone worth buying?

The TCL 10L is a lot of phone for the money, with imperfections that software will almost certainly fix

All of those caveats listed above point to issues that could easily be fixed with issues. That holds true for the camera software as well as for the performance drops and hangs in some games and apps. Given that this is TCL's first self-branded effort, it seems likely that they will, in fact, be fixed sooner rather than later.

Bearing that in mind, the issues, as of this review of the TCL 10L, are not fixed. They drag down the experience quite a bit, too, and that's unfortunate for a couple of reasons.

First, the camera performs brilliantly in Super Macro and 48-megapixel modes. Color accuracy in those modes is great, as is speed and detail capture. But beyond that, this phone has one of the best displays I've ever used at below $600. Audio quality is above expectations for this price bracket as well.

So this TCL device could easily be one of the best budget smartphones on the market. In terms of display quality, it already is. Yet the TCL 10L only costs around $250.

If acceptable performance, camera experience, and battery life or charging are good enough. And if you happen to be looking for the best display around without flagship pricing, the TCL 10L will not disappoint. It's barely even a competition. Otherwise, it may be a good idea to wait for the first couple of updates to arrive.