In the U.S., TCL is mostly known for its wide range of both affordable and high-end TVs (and for being the manufacturing partner behind BlackBerry's phones of the last few years). But in 2020, the company is looking to establish itself as a direct contender in the mobile space as well, with three fresh new phones on the way.
Perhaps the most intriguing of the bunch is the TCL 10 5G, which aims to bring 5G connectivity to a more accessible price point — but that phone won't be released until later this year. In the meantime, I've had a week with both the budget-friendly TCL 10L and the higher-end TCL 10 Pro, and while they aren't perfect, they're an excellent starting point for TCL's mobile brand identity.
On the cusp
Bottom line: The TCL 10 Pro combines a terrific design with clean software and snappy performance for a great overall experience. It's missing a few things like water resistance and wireless charging, and the cameras are underwhelming, but it's a good value for less than half the price of most flagships.
- Sleek, attractive design
- Clean software and snappy performance
- NXTVISION display tech with SDR-to-HDR conversion
- All-day battery life
- Customizable Smart Key
- Middling cameras
- No water resistance or wireless charging
- Unreliable fingerprint sensor
Bottom line: The TCL 10L offers great bang-for-your-buck with a huge, adjustable display and clean TCL UI software. Its cameras are passable at best, but its hardware is solid and the inclusion of NFC for mobile payments is rare in the phone's price range.
- Clean software
- Features NFC
- NXTVISION display tech
- Rear fingerprint sensor allows for convenient gestures
- Customizable Smart Key
- Occasional stutter/lag
- Poor camera performance
- Boring, generic design
TCL 10 Pro and 10L Hardware
First impressions matter, and the TCL 10 Pro is off to a great start from the moment you take it out of the box. It certainly doesn't feel like a sub-$500 phone; the 10 Pro has the same curved glass and metal frame you'd expect to see on any high-end phone from Samsung, OnePlus, or LG, and the rear glass panel has a matte frosted finish that feels fantastic against your fingers and resists most smudges and fingerprints.
The TCL 10 Pro has a refreshing design that looks and feels terrific, and lacks any sort of annoying camera bump.
That frosted glass comes in a gray gradient that looks sleek and eye-catching without being overly flashy, interrupted only by a narrow glossy strip housing the 10 Pro's cameras and LED flashes — yes, that's flashes, plural. Best of all, there's no camera hump whatsoever; each lens is completely flush with the body, which is a breath of fresh air these days amongst all of the massive camera housings on most recent phones.
The metal rail separating the front and rear glass panels comes in a matte finish as well, with totally flat edges along the top and bottom of the phone. Along the top edge, you get two rare finds these days: a 3.5mm headphone jack and an IR blaster that can be used to control nearby TVs in lieu of a remote control.
The TCL 10L isn't nearly as exciting in its design — in fact, it's about as plain as a phone gets — but for $200 less, it gets the job done. The 10L swaps the 10 Pro's curved display with a flat screen, and trades the matte glass backing for a glossy, smudge-prone plastic one. You lose the IR blaster but retain the headphone jack, and thankfully both phones charge via USB-C.
Unexciting isn't inherently bad, though. The 10L still feels solid in the hand, and rainbow refractions occasionally shine through the deep blue finish in proper lighting to spice up the otherwise drab look. The 10L is also a bit larger than the 10 Pro, and feels considerably wider with its flat display, roughly matching the footprint of my OnePlus 8.
|Category||TCL 10 Pro|
|Category||TCL 10 Pro|
|Operating System||Android 10|
|Display||6.47-inch (19.5:9) AMOLED, 2340x1080|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 675|
|Expandable Storage||Up to 256GB|
|Rear Camera||64MP, ƒ/1.8 (high-res)
16MP, ƒ/2.4 (ultra-wide)
5MP, ƒ/2.2 (macro)
2MP, ƒ/1.8 (super low light)
|Front Camera||24MP, ƒ/2.0|
|Security||In-display fingerprint sensor|
|Dimensions||158.5 x 72.4 x 9.2 mm|
One design trait I actually prefer about the 10L versus the 10 Pro is the former's rear-mounted fingerprint sensor. I've written before on how in-display sensors like the one found on the TCL 10 Pro eliminate the tactility and gesture controls I came to love in rear fingerprint sensors, and that still hasn't changed.
Unfortunately, neither fingerprint sensor is particularly great. The in-display sensor on the 10 Pro is located frustratingly low down the display, making it hard to reach with your thumb, and both sensors are slow.
In fact, the 10 Pro probably has the slowest in-display fingerprint sensor I've used — and to make matters worse, I constantly run into failed readings on both phones. Your mileage may vary, but I've taken to entering my lockscreen pattern most of the time on either phone.
On a more positive note, both phones have impressive displays tuned with TCL's NXTVISION technology. The 10 Pro's AMOLED display is far punchier and, of course, has deeper blacks than the LCD panel on the 10L, but both get reasonably bright outdoors and borrow some tricks from TCL's TV prowess.
Each phone also takes a different approach to the placement of the front-facing camera, as well. You get reasonably small bezels on each, and the TCL 10L tucks the camera into a hole punch in the upper-left corner of the display. Oddly enough, the otherwise more modern-feeling 10 Pro opts for a more traditional notch placement in the center of the screen. Of course, there's no right or wrong solution here; it's all a matter of personal preference.
Both TCL phones feature identical button layouts, with the volume and power buttons lining the right edge and an additional Smart Key on the left edge that can be customized to launch various apps (we'll get into that a bit more later). You'll also get NFC with either phone — a particularly uncommon perk in the 10L's price range — though unsurprisingly, neither offers luxury features like water resistance or wireless charging.
You also get fairly large batteries on both phones; 4500mAh on the 10 Pro and 4000mAh on the 10L. It's difficult to get a feel for real world endurance while we're all quarantined at home, but during my week of testing, the 10 Pro (with which I spent the majority of my time) fared well, ending most days with around 30% battery remaining under a typical workload of mostly Slack, Gmail, Spotify, and various social media.
TCL 10 Pro and 10L Software
The 10 Pro and 10L share a roughly identical software experience comprised of Android 10 and TCL's custom interface, simply called TCL UI. For the most part, it's not too different from the typical Android experience you'd find on Google's own Pixel phones. Pre-installed apps are kept to a minimum, and you get the various perks of Android 10, including a system-wide dark mode and optional gesture navigation.
|Operating System||Android 10|
|Display||6.53-inch (19.5:9) LCD Dotch, 2340x1080|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 665|
|Expandable Storage||Up to 256GB|
|Rear Camera||48MP, ƒ/1.8 (wide)
8MP, ƒ/2.2 (ultra-wide)
2MP, ƒ/2.4 (macro)
2MP, ƒ/2.4 (depth)
|Front Camera||16MP, ƒ/2.2|
|Security||Rear fingerprint sensor|
|Dimensions||162.2 x 75.6 x 8.4 mm|
TCL UI is delightfully clean, and at least on the 10 Pro, everything feels snappy and responsive. Neither phone has a high refresh rate display, but the 10L is noticeably laggier, especially when you have several apps running in the background — at which point performance tends to become a bit choppy.
TCL's aforementioned NXTVISION display tech is seemingly omnipresent in the software. You're regularly prompted to enable it, and it handles everything from SDR-to-HDR conversion to automatically adjusting settings like contrast and saturation, and enabling a monochromatic Reading Mode that's easy on your eyes and the phone's battery.
I'm generally a fan of muted colors, so I've been leaving NXTVISION off most of the time, but it makes a hugely noticeable difference.
Something I've been using much more frequently on the 10 Series is the Smart Key on the left side of each phone. You can customize single, double, and long presses of the Smart Key to launch different actions configurable in the system settings; on my 10 Pro, I have a single press set to activate Google Assistant, a double press set to toggle the flashlight, and a long press set to open the camera.
There are dozens of preset actions to choose from, interfacing with various system apps, or you can set Smart Key presses to launch an app of your choosing instead. We've seen similar customizable buttons on other phones before, including BlackBerry's Convenience key, and well, it's just as convenient here.
On the TCL 10 Pro, there's also a persistent floating gesture zone called Edge Bar on the right side of the display that takes advantage of the curved glass to give you easy access to app shortcuts and other features. You can add up to 12 app shortcuts, swipe over to access quick contacts, and swipe once more to access a handy ruler, which measures up to 4.5 inches or 12 centimeters.
As mentioned before, the 10L has some unique features of its own, as well. The rear fingerprint sensor isn't just a way to quickly authenticate yourself; it doubles as a gesture pad that lets you swipe to quickly access your notification shade. You can also long press to clear your notifications, or swipe through your photo gallery.
TCL 10 Pro and 10L Cameras
Here's where things get a bit dicey. Both phones feature different quad-camera layouts, each with a high-res primary sensor, an ultra-wide, a macro lens, and one specialized lens: a super low light lens on the 10 Pro and a depth sensor on the 10L.
The primary camera on each phone is passable, but in today's age of phones like the Pixel 3a and iPhone SE taking stunning photos for less money than the TCL 10 Pro ... well, that camera gets less of a pass. Colors are cartoon-y, there's a ton of oversharpening in post, and even shooting on an overcast evening was enough to completely blow out the sky in plenty of my shots — this phone doesn't handle different exposure levels well at all.
Things take a sharp turn for the worse once you switch to the ultra-wide lens. Color science is completely different from that of the main sensor, and the already-lacking detail becomes a blur of soft, muddy images. There's also an insane amount of color fringing in many of my ultra-wide samples; it's almost like shooting with an entirely different, far lower-end phone.
On a positive note, the macro lens on the 10 Pro works decently well as advertised. The 5MP sensor provides much more resolution than the utterly useless 2MP sensors found in even higher-end phones like the OnePlus 8, and while color science is again totally different from that of the main sensor, you can maintain focus far closer to your subject — as close as 2 centimeters.
Funny enough, the dedicated depth sensor on the TCL 10L doesn't seem to do much good. Edge separation when shooting in portrait mode is an absolute mess, far worse than portrait mode on the 10 Pro. Both phones also annoying add a TCL watermark to the bottom-left corner of every photo you take by default — though you can, of course, turn this off in the camera settings, and TCL says it's working to remove this default behavior before the phones are officially released.
TCL 10 Pro and 10L Final thoughts
You definitely aren't buying the TCL 10 Series phones for their cameras. If photography is your main priority (or really any priority) and you're looking to spend as little as possible, the Pixel 3a will take you far further for your money — and of course, we're also expecting its sequel, the Pixel 4a, to be announced some time soon. But the TCL 10 Pro has a far more premium design than Google's budget range, with matte glass that feels just as great as it looks, and the Smart Key is a genuinely useful and convenient feature.
I wish that TCL would have added a few quality-of-life features like water resistance or wireless charging to the 10 Pro, which would have set it apart from the OnePlus 7T that's currently just $50 more at $500. The 7T has significantly better cameras, equally clean software, a higher resolution display, and its own hardware perk in the form of an audio profile switch. The 10 Pro is a great phone, but it's just hard to recommend over the 7T at its current price.
On the other hand, the TCL 10L is fairly competitive in its price bracket, rivaling phones like the Moto G Power. Both phones have a lot in common, and TCL's NXTVISION tech is compelling if you want to watch HDR content on the go.
These two phones are a great starting point for TCL's first foray into the mobile space under its own brand, but I think the real attention grabber will be the TCL 10 5G once it's released later this year. 5G is typically reserved for ultra-high end phones and priced accordingly; if TCL can bring 5G to a more accessible price point, it could be a huge win for the brand and eager consumers alike.
The TCL 10 Pro combines a terrific design with clean software and snappy performance for a great overall experience. It's missing a few things like water resistance and wireless charging, and the cameras are underwhelming, but it's a good value for less than half the price of most flagships.
The TCL 10L offers great bang-for-your-buck with a huge, adjustable display and clean TCL UI software. Its cameras are passable at best, but its hardware is solid and the inclusion of NFC for mobile payments is rare in the phone's price range.
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