OS: Android 10 with TCL UI
Display: 6.53-inch LCD (2340 x 1080)
CPU: Snapdragon 665
Storage: 64GB, expandable via microSD
Rear cameras: 48MP (f/1.8) main, 8MP (f/2.2) ultra wide, 2MP (f.2.4) macro, 2MP (f/2.4) depth sensor
Front camera: 16MP
Battery: 4,000 mAh
Size: 6.4 x 3 x 0.33 inches
Weight: 6.3 ounces
After years of making phones on behalf of other companies, TCL is building out its own smartphone lineup, and the TCL 10L is proof that budget shoppers aren't going to get lost in the shuffle. The TCL 10 Pro may have some flashier features, but the 10L sacrifices some of those in favor of a lower overall price tag.
Where TCL hasn't cut corners is with the display on this budget phone. The TCL 10L features a vibrant LCD panel that rivals what you might find on more expensive phones. But is a great display enough to overcome some other areas where the TCL 10L doesn't hide its budget phone roots?
Our TCL 10L review finds a solid phone for a good price that looks great but falls short in other areas where the best cheap phones have thrived.
TCL 10L review: Price and availability
The TCL 10L is definitely the most affordable model in the TCL 10 lineup. It costs $249, which is a $200 discount off the TCL 10 Pro. That puts the L model in the same class of budget phones as the $249 Moto G Power and $299 Moto G Stylus.
When the phone goes on sale May 19, you'll be able to buy the TCL 10L unlocked at Amazon, Best Buy and Walmart. The TCL 10L works with any GSM-based carrier (in other words, AT&T, T-Mobile and any discount carrier that uses their networks), but lacks support for CDMA bands.
TCL 10L review: Design
It may be a budget phone, but the TCL 10L looks pretty stylish from afar. Up close and in your hand, you'll realize this isn't a premium phone, thanks to its plastic build, but at least the back of the phone is pleasantly curvy and pleasingly glossy.
Credit TCL's choice in colors, at least for the Mariana Blue model that served as my review unit. It's a deep blue with hints of purple that shimmers in the light thanks to the TCL 10L's glossy coating. (You can also get the phone in Arctic White if that's more to your liking.) That glossy back does pick up a lot of fingerprints, but that's a trade-off I'm willing to make for an inexpensive phone that still manages to make an effort to look good.
Up front, you'll be staring at a 6.53-inch display that dominates the TCL 10 L's look. The phone boasts a 91% screen-to-body ratio thanks to minimal bezels on the top and bottom of the display and a cut-out for the front camera in the upper left corner. That also helps the TCL 10L squeeze its screen into a relatively slender 6.4 x 3 x 0.33-inch frame. That's a shade taller than the Moto G Power and Moto G Stylus, though not nearly as thick as those two phones.
I think the thing I appreciate the most about the TCL 10L's design is just how light it is. At 6.3 ounces, it's lighter than the Moto G Stylus (6.8 ounces) and it makes the 7-ounce Moto G Power feel like a real chunker. The TCL 10L was certainly easy to tote around, even if the iPhone SE 2020 is more than an ounce lighter. But the TCL 10L can point to a 3.5mm headphone jack, something missing from Apple's recent phones.
TCL 10L review: Display and audio
It's safe to call the TCL 10L's 6.53-inch LCD panel the centerpiece of this device. TCL is drawing on its experience as the second largest maker of TVs to bring an eye-catching display even to budget phones. Helping the TCL 10L's screen stand out is the company's Nxtvsion technology, which delivers features like SDR-to-HDR up conversion for providing brighter highlights, increased contrast and bolder colors in real time.
TCL's display can adjust display brightness and color temperature so that everything's better suited to the environment around you. A Reading Mode that you can toggle on or set for specific apps delivers a paper-like display to make reading easier on the eyes. (You'll want to use this feature sparingly, as it gives everything a yellowish cast.) And TCL says its Eye Comfort Mode removes 66 percent of blue light to reduce eye strain.
All of this translates to an enjoyable viewing experience, especially on a budget phone. Watching the Wonder Woman 1984 trailer, Gal Gadot's red and blue body armor sparked on the TCL 10L's screen, which faithfully recreated the 1980s neon look of that movie. I was also impressed with the bright colors in Hail Caesar's show-stopping musical number when I watched that movie on Netflix.
Our lab testing confirms that the TCL 10L uses a pretty colorful LCD panel. We found that the display on TCL's budget phone captures 122.1% of the sRGB color spectrum when the TCL 10L is set to its default Vivid mode. That's a much higher percentage than the LCD panel on the Moto G Power, which only captured 97% of the sRGB spectrum. Colors are accurate on the TCL 10L, too — we measured a Delta-E rating of 0.22, compared to 0.33 for the Moto G Power and 0.32 for the Moto G Stylus. (Numbers closer to zero are better.)
If I have a gripe about the TCL 10L's display, it's that the screen is not very bright. We measured a peak brightness of 422 nits with a light meter, which is a bit on the dim side. The Moto G Power hit 500 nits, while the Google Pixel 3a trailed at 401 nits. I did have to max out the TCL 10L's display brightness while taking photos on a sunny day just to see the on-screen camera controls.
There's just one speaker on the TCL 10L, and it's located on the bottom of the phone. It does an adequate job, although I noticed a little bit of a hiss on the drums for The Beatles' Come Together. The bigger issue is that when you're holding the phone in landscape mode, your hand is going to cover that speaker, muffling the sound. It's something I definitely noticed when playing PUBG Mobile on the TCL 10L, which made it hard to hear approaching enemies.
TCL 10L review: Cameras
Even though more budget phones are sporting multiple rear cameras these days, it's still surprising when a sub-$300 phone features many cameras, especially when the iPhone SE and Pixel 3a continue to make do with one lens. It's downright shocking when you see that the TCL 10L has a four camera array fanned out in a horizontal line across its back.
Besides a 48-megapixel main camera, TCL includes an 8MP ultra wide angle lens for times that you want to pull back to include more surrounding details. TCL skips a telephoto lens on the 10L — a concession found in a lot of budget phones — turning to a 2MP macro camera and 2MP depth image sensor to complete its rear camera array. The former helps you get nice and close to objects without a blurry photo being the end result while the latter helps with the TCL 10L's portrait mode.
The TCL 10L's camera setup is a lot like the triple lenses you get from the Moto G Power, save for that depth image sensor which is the odd camera out on Motorola's phone. So it seemed like a fair competition to pit these $250 phones against one another to find out how the TCL phone's output measured up.
The TCL 10L may pack more megapixels into its main sensor than the 16MP camera on the Moto G Power, but TCL's puts too much of a dark cast over colorful front yard decorations that a neighbor of mine put up. Yes, I shot these on a dreary, rainy day, but the Moto G Power reproduced the vibrant rainbow of colors in brighter tones. That said, the pinwheel attached to the fence is pretty blurry in the Moto's shot, while the TCL 10L did a good job of contending with the breeze to produce a steady shot.
Moving inside, the TCL 10L continues to skew dark in this photo of a breakfast shot in a darkened corner of my kitchen. Here, the colors are more realistic, though, and the 10 L's shot strikes a good balance between the food on the plate and the tiki mugs in the background. The Moto G Power, trying to compensate for the lack of lighting, has given this picture a yellow cast, which overwhelms some of the details carved into the tiki mugs. You can see the pattern in the countertop of the TCL photo, but that's lost in the overly bright sheen of the Moto G Power image.
I went to the shores of the San Leandro Channel to test out the ultra wide angle lens on the TCL 10L. This reference photo, shot with the main camera on both phones, again illustrates the different approaches to color. The TCL 10L's shot is much darker, so the wooden dock and boats on the lefthand side of the shot look muted. Even the Coast Guard ship in the background isn't as white as it appears in the Moto G Power shot. At least the TCL 10L's fondness for the dark side manages to capture the foreboding sky over Oakland.
Busting out the wide-angle lens merely intensifies the problems with the TCL 10L's shot. Everything's still too dark, only now there's more to darken — the green plants in the foreground, as well as the additional boats docked off to the left. Even the sky, which was so striking in the standard shot, is now over-exposed. The Moto G Power's wide-angle lens took a better shot, even with my index finger dipping into the upper left corner of the shot.
Neither phone has an optical zoom, but I thought I'd focus in on a bird at 3x just to see how well the digital zoom looks on the TCL 10L. And it's not bad — the seagull remains in much sharper focus in the TCL shot. This is another instance where the Moto G Power's fondness for brighter colors gets it into trouble, as the TCL 10L has the more balanced photo.
I continue to be baffled as to why companies include macro lenses on their phones. It's not really a feature people have been calling out for, so far as I know, and the results routinely disappoint. Indeed, to get a usable comparison for the TCL 10L's macro lens, I had to take several shots of this rose until I found one that wasn't a hopeless blur. Even then, the macro shot taken by the Moto G Power is better focused and more richly colored. The pink rose in the TCL 10L's shot came out as more sickly orange.
Up until now, it's been hard-sledding for the TCL 10L's camera array, but the depth sensor on the phone really helps out with portrait shots. The background blur in this portrait of my daughter is more comprehensive in the TCL 10L's photo, though a wisp of her hair did get caught up in the effect, a problem the Moto G Power didn't have. I also think the TCL phone did a better job separating my daughter from the background, though more expensive phones with better sensors and more powerful neural engines would make her pop even more. More importantly, the TCL 10L gets her skin tone correct, while she's too shiny and pale in the Moto shot.
Maybe the TCL 10L is just better at handling skin. I much prefer the selfie TCL's 16MP front camera shot, as it accurately picked up some of the ruddiness of my face. The Moto G Power's shot is almost as good in terms of skin tone, but it did blur my eyebrow.
You won't see this in any of the photos I took, but my TCL 10L review unit added a TCL watermark to the corner of every shot. For some reason, TCL has that watermark enabled by default, forcing you to dig into the camera settings to turn it off. TCL tells me that a future software update will turn the watermark off by default. All the same, that would be the first setting I'd double-check if I got my hands on a TCL 10L.
TCL 10L review: Performance
If you're expecting powerful performance from a sub-$300 phone, you're shopping in the wrong part of town. That said, the TCL 10L comes equipped with a Snapdragon 665 system-on-chip supported by 6GB of RAM. Forget about keeping pace with the iPhone SE 2020 and its class-leading A13 Bionic processor, but the TCL 10L will deliver solid performance that can handle most tasks a typical smartphone user can throw at it.
Apps launch at about the same speed on the TCL 10L as they do on the Moto G Power and Moto G Stylus, which also use the Snapdragon 665. I noticed the occasional hiccup playing games like PUBG Mobile and Asphalt 9, but those are very demanding games for a mobile device, and about the outer limit of what you'd expect to run on the TCL 10L.
In terms of benchmarks, the TCL 10L turned in the kind of results we'd expect from a phone with its processor and memory. In the Geekbench 5 test of general performance, the TCL 10L's multicore score of 1,354 was just behind the Moto G Power (1,387) and Moto G Stylus (1,406). All of those phones posted better numbers than the more expensive Pixel 3a, which has a Geekbench 5 score of 1,336.
The TCL 10L actually outperforms Motorola's latest phones in some graphics tests. On 3DMark's Sling Shot Extreme OpenGL test, the TCL 10L posted a score of 1,782, just ahead of the 1,756 result for the Moto G Stylus and well in front of the Moto G Power and its 1,704 tally. None of those phones match the Pixel 3a's 2,543 result.
Don't expect a lot of storage from the TCL 10L, which ships with 64GB of capacity. A microSD slot lets you add another 256GB to the phone. The Moto G Stylus doubles the on-board storage of TCL's phone, though.
TCL 10L review: Battery and charging
The TCL 10L isn't the longest-lasting phone in TCL's new lineup, but it's not far off the pace set by the TCL 10 Pro. That phone, powered by a larger 4,500 mAh battery averaged 10 hours and 47 minutes on our custom battery test, in which we have phones surf the web over LTE until they run out of power. The TCL 10L, which has a 4,000 mAH battery, finished 48 minutes behind its counterpart, with a result of 9 hours, 59 minutes.
That's about an average result for a smartphone on our test, though the TCL 10L's performance was far behind comparably priced phones from Motorola. The Moto G Power currently offers the best phone battery life we've seen from recent handsets, lasting more than 16 hours on our test. While that phone is optimized to last a very long time, even the Moto G Stylus, which has the same sized battery as the TCL 10L, outperformed TCL's phone by more than 2 hours on our battery test.
TCL didn't include a fast charging feature with the lower-cost TCL 10L, and our test results reflect that. After charging a drained TCL 10L for half-an-hour, the battery indicator was only up to 27%. Contrast that with the TCL 10 Pro, which TCL says can get up to 50% charged after 35 minutes thanks to its Quick Charge 3.0 support.
TCL 10L review: Software and special features
For a phone that's not tied to any carrier, there sure are a lot of unnecessary apps on the TCL 10L, with apps like Gallery, Video and Music duplicating the efforts of their preinstalled Google counterparts. Nxtvision gets its own app, too, which is fair enough since that lets you fine tune the marquee feature on this phone. But that same app is also accessible through the Settings app, which features redundant.
You'll also find a separate Smart Key app, which lets you customize one of the more useful features included with the TCL 10L. In Smart Key, you can program the button on the left side of the phone to perform specific actions with single and double presses. (A long press of the button appears to be reserved for Google Assistant; you can only toggle that feature on and off.) I reprogrammed the smart key on my TCL 10L to launch the camera with one press and turn the phone's flashlight on with two presses. It's a pretty convenient way to do some basic tasks without having to unlock the phone.
Speaking of unlocking the phone, TCL included a fingerprint sensor on the back of the TCL 10L, just below the phone's camera array and just above the company's logo. The sensor looks a little smaller than similar rear fingerprint readers on Moto's G series phones, but I found it pretty easy to reach around and unlock the TCL 10L without brushing my finger against the camera array.
The TCL 10L runs Android 10, and TCL has committed to at least one major OS update after that — presumably Android 11, after it arrives later this year. Beyond 2021, though, it's unclear if you'll be able to get newer versions of Android, though TCL also promises consistent security updates.
TCL 10L review: Verdict
Do you value a smartphone for its great display, or do other features like camera, battery and performance carry more weight with you? How you answer that question will go a long way to determining how you feel about the TCL 10L.
After all our testing for this TCL 10L review, it's clear this budget phone has an outstanding screen, especially for a device that only costs $250. If you mainly use your phone to consume videos, play games and while away the hours on Instagram, the TCL 10L would be a great phone to pick up.
Other aspects of TCL's budget phone just don't impress, though. It's not that the TCL's battery life or camera performance is poor — though the great work with color the TCL 10L does with its display is not in evidence with its rear cameras — but that other similarly priced phones do those things better. Both the Moto G Power and Moto G Stylus last longer on a charge. The G Power takes better pictures while the G Stylus includes a stylus for jotting down notes.
As good as the TCL 10L's screen is — and it's very, very good — it's hard to recommend this device over some of the other best cheap phones that shine more in other areas.