TCL is a company that’s known more for its TVs, but the company has been working on establishing itself as a smartphone maker as well. The company recently launched its budget-friendly stylus-equipped phone called the TCL Stylus, and the company sent over a unit for us to review.
Much like Samsung’s, LG’s, and Motorola’s stylus devices, the TCL Stylus comes with the dedicated stylus silo where the pen lies. Samsung’s Note devices (with the Galaxy S22 Ultra) are the defacto pen Android phones, but could this phone be a worthy alternative? Let’s find out in this review.
The build quality is amazing
Several aspects of this phone betray its $258 price tag, and the build quality is one of them. The sub-$300 phone category has, ostensibly, been reserved for cheaply built phones. However, picking up the TCL Stylus, I would never have guessed it cost below $500, let alone under $300.
The phone has a plastic build, but it’s made from really solid and sturdy materials. It’s significant in the hand, and you can feel the quality of the materials every time you pick it up.
The frame is really sturdy, and it has a rugged texture. The back of the phone looks like it would have a rough feel based on the texture. However, when you feel it, it’s perfectly smooth. TCL put a lot of thought and attention into the build quality of this phone.
The design is really nice
As for the aesthetics, it seems that TCL was following the philosophy of “Less is more”. The aesthetic of the phone is rather subdued, but it’s to a great effect. The back of the phone has a unique texture that almost makes it appear glittery. It sparkles in the right light.
The camera island sits vertically on the top left of the back panel, and it juts from the phone a little bit. The island is rather small compared to some other phones, and it adds a simplicity to the phone aesthetic. The TCL Stylus is a solidly built and beautiful phone.
My only gripe is that the texture of the frame can make it a bit uncomfortable to handle. It can be a bit annoying when my fingers slide against the grain of the texture.
This display does NOT belong on a phone this inexpensive
Hands-down, my favorite part of this is the display. Now, TCL is a TV company, so it should come as no surprise that the display is nice. It just surprised me HOW good it is. The display is a large 6.81-inch LCD display with a 1080 X 2460 resolution.
Now, when you hear about an LCD display on a sub-$300 phone, you’d expect it to be sub-par. On the contrary, it’s pretty amazing. The TCL Stylus has an absolutely beautiful display, and it does not belong on a phone this inexpensive.
The colors are bright and really punchy. They’re far beyond what you’d see on a typical LCD display, and they’re just a step or two behind what you’d see on an OLED display. Honestly, I was able to use this phone extensively along with using my Pixel 6 and LG Velvet (both have amazing OLED panels) and I didn’t feel like there was a drop in quality.
It might remind you of the LCD panels from flagship HTC and LG phones. This is definitely a flagship-grade LCD display in a $258 phone.
NXTVISION only makes the experience better
TCL has a technology called NXTVISION that really helps the whole video-watching experience. Basically, it takes video in Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) and “upscales” it into HDR.
Because of this, normal videos you’ll watch on this phone will look even better with boosted colors and contrast. And, it really works. Watching videos on the TCL Stylus is really a treat for the eyes.
However, the speakers are pretty mediocre
While the display and build quality make the phone feel more expensive than it is, the speakers don’t. They’re really nothing to write home about. The TCL Stylus has a pair of speakers on the front, and the quality is like something you’d find on a $258 phone.
They have a muffled quality to them and they lack immersion. They’re loud, however, and they do get the job done. If you want a good movie-watching experience with this phone, you might want to connect a pair of headphones (either via Bluetooth or the 3.5MM headphone jack).
The camera is pretty good
Plenty of phones, even premium ones, have great features and build quality, but they wind up with sub-par cameras. The TCL stylus has a camera that punches just above its price tag.
The shots coming out of the main camera are good with a good amount of saturation. They’re punchy without being too oversaturated. You really lose saturation when the phone has to dial back the exposure to rein in the highlights. In one image, I took a picture of the sky and the ground. In that image, the ground was exposed pretty well, but the sky was pretty much grayed out.
Now, the main camera is a 50MP camera, but the camera automatically bins it down to 12MP. However, there’s a mode where you can use the full 50-megapixels. After using this feature, honestly, you’ll be better sticking to the binned 12MP images.
For starters, the 50MP mode doesn’t pull any more information from the environment. I would take pictures of signs in the distance and with both the 12MP and 50MP mode, and I wouldn’t see any difference in detail.
Not only that, but the 50MP mode would give the picture this weird watercolor painting effect. You’ll see these odd swirls in the details when you zoom in. This is something that you don’t see with the 12MP picture.
When you’re looking at the pictures without zooming in, there’s no discernable difference in quality, so you won’t need to bother with the 50MP camera. Those pictures will only take up more storage.
The TCL Stylus uses a 5MP ultra/macro combination camera, and the results from both aren’t the best. They’re usable to get the shot, but you won’t really see good quality.
The ultrawide camera has a 114.9° field of view, and it lets you capture more of the scene. It has a much lower resolution than the main camera, so you’ll see a drop in quality. Also, the dynamic range isn’t as good as the main camera’s.
It’s pretty much the same story for the macro photography. You can get decently close to the subject, but the final photo is pretty low-quality.
When the lights go down, the TCL is a respectable low-light photographer. As the lights get lower, the camera does a good job at brightening up the scene. I was able to get some good shots in a dimly-lit room.
When you’re in a really dark environment, the camera will activate a night mode. This kicks on automatically and it takes longer exposure shots. When you use this mode, however, you’ll see a drop in quality. It’s not as good at stabilizing the shot while taking the photo as something like a Google Pixel (but, that’s to be expected).
Overall, the TCL Stylus is a handy camera if you use the main camera in most lighting conditions. It’s only when you start pushing it to its limits that you’ll see a drop in quality.
The battery life on the TCL Stylus is definitely on the lower end. I’m able to get through the day with light usage, but I always had to be frugal with it. If you’re planning on doing any serious gaming or video-watching, you’ll want to have the charger nearby.
I started with 100% and watched videos for two hours straight, and it dropped 30%. Then, I gamed for another two hours, and the phone dropped an additional 58%. After that, it took about 47 more minutes to completely drain the battery.
If you’re planning on doing the basics with this phone like social media, browsing the web, light video-watching, and light gaming, then it should get you through the day. However, if you’re planning on heavy usage, just know that you’ll need to reach for a charger halfway through the day.
There’s usually a negative buzz that surrounds MediaTek chips. The TCL Stylus uses the MediaTek Dimensity 700. It’s a mid-range chip, but the performance of this phone would lead you to believe otherwise.
This phone navigates the software with ease. It’s hard really getting this phone to slow down. Maybe the phone will load an app about a half of a second slower than a flagship phone, and you’ll get the occasional stutter, but those instances are few and far apart.
Gaming isn’t all that bad
Gaming is an area where most budget phones fall short. With the TCL Stylus, you can pretty much play any game with 2D graphics perfectly smoothly. Games like PostKnight and Dragonball Z Dokkan Battle won’t slow this phone down at all.
Diving into the 3D game realm, you’ll start to see the phone chug, but not a lot. DragonBall Legends plays perfectly well on this phone. On the higher end of the spectrum, the visual masterpiece that is Sky: Children of the Light also plays really smoothly. There were a few instances of stutter here and there, but the gameplay is ultimately smooth.
But let’s take things to the next level. I installed Genshin Impact, which is one of the most graphically intensive games on the market. I wouldn’t say it’s smooth in any capacity, but it’s actually playable.
Basically, this phone should handle most of the games you throw at it with relative ease.
Software and pen features
At the time of this review, the phone is on TCL UI version 4 running on top of Android 12. This is a really heavy skin, as it’s completely different from stock Android.
It has its own unique aesthetic that’s pleasant to look at. You won’t find much Material You influence with this software. UI elements that would have been super rounded are more rectangular on the TCL Stylus. The folders, quick settings, widgets, etc. are all more rectangular than what you’d find on stock Android.
This does come at the cost of one interesting Android 12 feature. The TCL Stylus does not employ Dynamic Color. Regardless of the wallpaper you use, the theme will still be blue.
Now, the pen
As with pretty much all stylus phones, the TCL Stylus comes with a suite of 13 pre-installed tools that revolve around the pen. Several of them are interesting like the ability to screen record a certain area of the screen, start a full-screen recording session, compress the current app into a floating window, magnify the screen, and enter split-screen mode.
You have the classic tools like a handwriting notes app, a typed notes app, and a GIF maker. You have a tool for just about everything you’ll need. Along with the tools, you can also write on the screen without having to unlock the phone. The only issue is that the phone plays this little animation that takes a few seconds.
Should you buy this phone?
This phone does not look, feel, nor perform like a $258 phone. The display is gorgeous, the design is really great, the camera is pretty good, and the performance is more than good enough.
The only downsides of this phone would have to be the battery life and the speakers.
Other than those aspects, this is a great phone, and I highly recommend that you pick up this phone. It’s more than just a cheap Galaxy Note clone. It’s an excellent companion for note-takers and video watchers alike.