It's not often we get a new name in the Android ecosystem, but following its freshman Plex, TCL is putting its best foot forward with three new phones this year. So far as I'm concerned, it's the budget-oriented TCL 10L that's the star of the lineup. With flagship prices skyrocketing to well over a thousand dollars, this $250 phone better serves a bigger audience. But software is a question — in more ways than one.

Specs

SoC Snapdragon 665
Screen 6.53" "Dotch" 1080x2340, 395PPI LCD
RAM 6GB
Storage 64GB eMMC (only option in USA) or 128GB UFS, (microSD expandable)
Rear cameras 48MP f/1.8 primary, 8MP f/2.2 wide-angle, 2MP f/2.4 macro, 2MP depth sensor
Front camera 16MP F/2.2
Headphone jack Yes
Software "TCL UI" based on Android 10
Battery 4,000mAh
Connectivity Dual-band (a/b/g/n/ac) Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.0, NFC (no 5G)
Colors Arctic White, Mariana Blue
Misc Adaptive Tone, USB Type-C, FM radio, programmable Smart Key
Dimensions 162.2 x 75.6 x 8.4mm, 180g
Price $250

The Good

Performance It might not have a flagship SoC, but it's perfectly adequate.
Screen It's big, and it looks good.
Cameras They aren't amazing by any means, but it's possible to get decent photos out of the primary camera, which is more than I expected for the price.
Programmable hardware key Great for customization or quickly accessing Google Assistant.
Updates Promised every two months for two years, and you'll get Android 11.
Extras MicroSD expandable so you won't run out of space long-term. 3.5mm jack ensures wide headphone compatibility. NFC for contactless payments, which some phones at this price don't have. Adaptive Tone
Type-C port Micro USB is dying in the budget segment, thank god.
Price Just on paper, you get a lot for $250.

The Not So Good

Screen, again I wish it got a little brighter, automatic brightness feels jumpy, and NXTVISION features are meh.
Macro camera Soft, super noisy in any but the brightest possible light. There was no reason to include it.
Software TCL has a lighter touch than some companies, but I'm not a fan of the changes to Android here, especially the annoying background app permission dialog it forces on each app's first launch.
No stereo speakers I'd have liked to see proper stereo support via the earpiece.
Slow charging 5V 2A is the upper limit, no Power Delivery or high wattage.

Design, hardware, what's in the box

You're not going to confuse the TCL 10L with a flagship. In looks and feel, this is a $250 phone, with a glossy (but solid) plastic midframe and a big plastic panel on the back. The camera bump and front, as you'd probably expect, are glass.

Down bottom, you've got a USB Type-C port for charging, plus the phone's sole mono speaker — there's no stereo sound in tandem with the earpiece. Up top is the 3.5mm headphone jack. To the right are the power and volume keys, and on the left, you've got the programmable Smart Key and SIM/microSD card slot.

It's not as substantial or solid-feeling as a metal-framed flagship, but it does feel generally durable, though it will make noises if you flex it hard.

The display is the slightest bit darker around the hole-punch cutout, but you usually won't notice it — it's hard to even photograph.

The star of the TCL 10L show is the "Dotch" LCD screen, which sports a taller 1080p resolution, a very modern-looking hole-punch camera design, and relatively small bezels. As with most hole-punch LCD screens, there is a difference in brightness around the camera, but it isn't noticeable most of the time.

TCL knows its displays, the company makes some of the best-selling least-expensive TVs out there, and the screen here is better than I expected for the price. It's more than sharp enough and definitely big enough, with decent color, viewing angles, and okay brightness, though I wish it was brighter outdoors — 450 nits isn't quite enough. Automatic brightness also isn't always smooth, it can be weirdly jumpy and staccato sometimes. But the TCL 10L has one great feature that I'm stunned to see at this price point: Adaptive Tone.

It's a True Tone/Ambient EQ-style feature that tweaks display color temperature to suit your current lighting, and I'm excited to see it trickling down into cheaper phones. However, I'm not sure I ever actually noticed it make a visible difference, as I can on other phones. TCL has a bunch of software enhancements that ostensibly further augment display performance, which I'll discuss more later.

On the back, you've got a capacitive fingerprint sensor, and I found it to be generally reliable. 95% of the time, it worked as you'd expect, though it did have a few spats of random (but repeated) rejection. Once in a while, the phone wouldn't wake to unlock with it without tapping the power button first. (It also supports less secure camera-based unlock system, if you prefer that — though it's not as fast.)

TCL also includes NFC for contactless payments with the 10L. That's a feature that some other lower-end smartphone manufacturers don't seem to care about (cough, Motorola). 

In-box, you've got a clear TPU case, a bent wire SIM ejector, a 5V 2A USB Type-A power brick, a Type-A to Type-C cable, and all the other paperwork you'll inevitably ignore. Unfortunately, the case is pretty mediocre, with a lose fit and imprecise cutouts, and I'm not sure the 10L will get a very good selection of third-party accessories.

Software, performance, and battery

TCL's Android skin is not a very light touch. Although the company went with Google's stock apps, the system itself is more heavily modified than I had expected to see. If you're not nitpicky about software, I think it's mostly fine, but there are a couple of outright bothersome details that make "TCL UI" frustrating to use.

Left: Eeew. Right: No option to blanket disable the feature.

First, in an apparent attempt to unnecessarily improve battery life, the phone offers an extra "Auto-start" permission prompt before you launch literally every app for the first time, asking if you'd like to allow it to run in the background and wake on its own — a feature a whole hell of a lot of apps depend on for proper functionality. Unless you feel like breaking all your push notifications, you'll want to tap "cancel". But the prompt itself is also pretty poorly designed, and the 10L's battery life is so good it's entirely unnecessary anyway. There is also a section in Settings for this feature, but apparently no way to blanket disable it. I'm frankly confused by TCL's motivations here.

Piles of dependencies in NXTVISION settings, many of these are better left off.

Second, although TCL's screen is good, many of the software NXTVISION-branded tweaks the company added on top to artificially enhance contrast and ostensibly improve depth and detail ultimately make the screen worse, resulting in pretty weird behavior when just scrolling through apps with varied content — like, say, literally any website in Chrome. As soon as the phone thinks content has changed, the display's color and brightness will abruptly change to accommodate, and you'll get some down-right strange gradients and halos around stuff in dark themes in the name of dynamic contrast. Unless you're the sort of monster that keeps motion interpolation and dynamic contrast enabled on your TV, you'll want most of the NXTVISION features turned off.

Left: Nice to see stock Google apps. Right: The launcher's default settings are eh.

I'm glad TCL went with several "stock" apps like Google's Dialer and Messages, but not all of the apps are quite perfect. TCL's stock launcher might have Google Discover conveniently integrated, but by default, it forces your app drawer to use a categorized system that's pretty poorly arranged. The Kindle app, for example, is listed under "education," though you can disable the categories and switch to a much more rational alphabetical listing. Even once you've made that change, though, the "swipe up to show all apps" animation on the launcher's home screen gets grating after a while.

TCL also changed things that it really didn't need to in Android 10, like breaking the proper gesture navigation implementation: TCL's gestures lose the nav bar entirely. A swipe along the bottom still sort of works to quickly switch between apps, but the "home" gesture almost always swipe-types a handful of keys when using it with the keyboard open, and it's just a little less intuitive to use without the tiny navigation bar.

Great feature — more phones need it. 

The programmable Smart Key, which lets you assign the button to launch any app or perform a handful of tasks, can be a little laggy. Pulling up the Assistant with it, for example, takes 3+ seconds, longer than it takes to trigger with the home button. But it's actually very useful, and I wish more Android manufacturers would implement something like this. Even if I would usually forget it's there, that's more my fault than anything else — it's a good idea.

Following publication of our review, TCL has committed to a more firm update schedule. A spokesperson from the company has told us “We can confirm both the TCL 10 Pro and TCL 10L will, at minimum, receive one major OS update as well as SMR updates every two months for 2 years.”

With a firm timeline defined as a minimum commitment, we feel a whole lot better about the software update situation, and it compares favorably with other phones at a similar price.

Left: Smart Manager, dumb look. Right: Media controls in the volume panel.

In my last few software notes here: With the hole-punch, notification icons are limited to 5 before they start to be truncated. Dark mode also randomly turned itself back on a couple times after I had turned it off (I think the scheduling check occasionally kicks in after it's supposed to), and some features like the battery statistics menu have been hidden inside a "Smart Manager" section in Settings that looks like some spammy low-quality memory cleaner or device health app from the Play Store. It's a bad look. I do really enjoy TCL's screenshot interface, though — which, sadly, can't be screenshot itself. I also love the media controls, metadata, and album art you get together with volume controls. But the broken English that appears in some parts of TCL UI's settings menu is concerning.

I am very into this screenshot interface.

I nitpick, but TCL's version of Android is probably fine for most people. I just had higher hopes. But when it comes to performance using TCL's software, I'm pretty pleased.

While there's no mistaking the 10L for a Snapdragon 865-powered speed demon, the 665 was perfectly adequate, and never once did I feel restricted by it. Sure, you'll see a lot of dropped frames in games or apps known to be particularly demanding, but it never felt slow. If I was stuck with this level of oomph for a year or two, it wouldn't interfere with my productivity or my ability to communicate at all. $250 phones have come a long way.

As I alluded to earlier, battery life was great. I could easily stretch the phone out over two or three days on a single charge, reaching 5-6 hours of screen-on time. And if you plug it in every day, I'm sure you could break 7 or 8 hours. (Note that this was with "Auto-start" allowed on every app. If you drink TCL's kool-aid and break all your apps for more power savings, you can probably do even better — though I'm not sure why you'd need to.)

Charging performance, on the other hand, is more mediocre. The very fastest the phone can top-up at is 5V 2A, and it doesn't support USB Power Delivery. That means it charges relatively slowly. At $250, that's probably acceptable, but the phone also down-right refused to charge using certain power supplies, which is more concerning, and attempting to measure rates would also convince it not to charge — this phone is far pickier than it has any right to be.

Cameras

The 10L's cameras are frustrating, but not in the way you expect. See, it can take some really great photos sometimes, surprising me even on a crop. But in general, it's just okay. Exposure, scene selection, and just general processing can go nuts sometimes. Still, I think it's a pretty decent camera for the price. Just don't crop, don't expect great dynamic range, don't expect good low-light performance, and don't be too picky.

Most of the usual phone camera complaints apply: Sometimes results are oversaturated, sometimes white balance is weird, and processing can oversharpen or get muddy on a crop. But in general, I'm pretty impressed with the primary camera, which bins down from 48MP to 12MP by default. It won't be upsetting Google's Pixels any time soon, but I got some very decent photos considering the $250 asking price. Some of my low-light photos even came out pretty okay, with more detail than I expected to see.

I'd place camera performance ahead of last year's G7, and in the same vein as the G Power — though Moto seemed to handle low-light a bit better.

The wide-angle performance is worse, it's a bit hazy sometimes, with strong distortion at the edges, mediocre dynamic range, and noticeable chromatic aberration (colored fringing around objects). Still, it's serviceable, and I feel like it's just a bonus getting one on such a cheap phone, period. The macro camera, on the other hand, is straight noisy garbage and there was no reason to include it at all. I'd have rather TCL cut the part and improved something else with the savings.

TCL's portrait mode isn't the best out there, and I'm not sure it really merited including a second hardware sensor for it, given software-only solutions I've seen lately are just as good.

TCL's camera app is clearly iOS "inspired," and pretty easy to navigate around, though I still think it's awkward when manufacturers place certain cameras/lenses in buttons on the main/auto photo mode and hide others in other sections. There's always some arbitrary distinction in logic there that I don't understand, and TCL did that here with the macro camera.

The front-facing camera performed adequately in video calls. 

The app has a "Pro" mode with configurable ISO, shutter, exposure compensation, etc. It's there if you want it, and there are corner cases where it's useful. By default, TCL's camera app also has an annoying watermark enabled. You'll want to turn it off. I should also point out: A handful of times during my review, the camera app didn't save photos I'd taken, which is worrisome.

Should you buy it?

TCL 10L
7.5/10

Yes. With one caveat, I can recommend the TCL 10L. The only real question left is software — but we're not worried about updates.

Pitted against Lenovorola's consistent ball-dropping and Nokia's history of breaking stuff with updates, we're cautiously optimistic that TCL's every-two-months update commitment for the next two years will pan out for the best, and it's guaranteed to get Android 11. Of course, plans aren't practice, and TCL is new with basically no history behind the brand yet, but we're optimistic.

All that really remains for you to consider are TCL's software oddities, like the overly-aggressive background app management and its heavier-than-necessary tweaks to stock Android. I didn't find them to be deal-breakers, but they are a little annoying, and plenty of people are pickier than me about software.

Still, we're willing to forgive a lot for $250, and this wasn't an unpleasant phone to use over the last few weeks. Someone on a strict budget that needs an emergency device can do more than just get by with this phone.

It won't compete with flagships, and there's no telling how updates will pan out, but the 10L seems like a very good deal to us.

Buy it if:

  • You're on a strict budget.
  • You want a good screen and good battery life.
  • A decent camera is a requirement.
  • You're willing to take a small gamble on updates.

Don't buy it if:

  • You can spend more money.
  • Android skins bother you — this one is a little heavier.
  • Firm security update schedules are a requirement.

Where to buy:

The TCL 10L is available now at Amazon, and will later be sold through Best Buy and Walmart.