Aug 15th, 2020

As the cost of flagship devices continues to rise every other month (not literally), there’s a new focus for other OEM’s in the budget and mid-range markets. Motorola has largely dominated the low-end budget tier with devices like the Moto G and Moto E. But now others are jumping in the fray, including Google with the Pixel 3a last year and the Pixel 4a this year. TCL is also joining the fun with the TCL 10 Pro and 10L.

In our review of the TCL 10 Pro, we found that the device is a great buy for $450, considering the spec-sheet and overall design. With a rating of 4.1, you would think that this was a home run, but there were some issues such as battery life and just a mediocre camera system. Nonetheless, it made me excited to test out the TCL 10L, as I’m intrigued by these devices that are priced at less than $400, which brings us to the TCL 10L.

TCL 10L Specifications

  • 6.53-inch 2340 x 1080 LCD display
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 665
  • 6GB of RAM
  • 64GB of storage & microSD card slot
  • Quad cameras: 48MP (main), 8MP (ultrawide), 2MP (macro), 2MP (depth)
  • Selfie camera: 16MP
  • 4,000 mAh battery
  • Extras: Smart Key, 3.5mm Headphone Jack, Rear-mounted fingerprint scanner

Design

When you take the 10L out of the box for the first time, you may be surprised by how absolutely stunning the overall design is. It’s comfortable in the hand with its rounded corners, the power and volume rocker are in the perfect position on the right-hand frame, and then you flip it over to the back.

The Mariana Blue color just glimmers and shines every time the light hits it, creating a rainbow effect that left me taking many more pictures of the device than normal. Sticking to the back, you’ll find the TCL logo planted right in the middle, the quad-camera bump is placed closer to the top, and the fingerprint scanner is placed right in between. There’s really good symmetry here, another reason why I took too many pictures.

As for the rest of the device, you’ll be surprised and happy to know that TCL opted to include a 3.5mm headphone jack in the 10L, which can be found on the top. The left frame is where you’ll find the SIM card tray, along with the “Smart Key”. Finally, moving to the bottom, we have the USB-C charger flanked by a speaker and microphone array.

For a device priced at $250, it was so comfortable to hold, that my excitement continued to grow. Sure, it’s a fingerprint magnet, so you’ll need to keep a microfiber cloth with you, or you could just use the useful TPU case that is included in the box and has “Display Greatness” embossed across the back.

Display

The 10L and 10 Pro are not first ventures into the smartphone market for TCL, which is better known for its televisions. TCL has had partnerships with Alcatel and BlackBerry and was notably the company behind the purchase of Palm back in 2014. The Palm Phone marked the first device created by a TCL-owned entity, but it’s clear that the company wants to branch out a bit more than just providing a “secondary device” to your main smartphone.

We bring this up because it’s important to understand that TCL has some idea of what a smartphone should look like, and one key feature for many is the display. Since the company already has success in the television market, it would only make sense for a TCL smartphone to have a focus on its display.

The display on the TCL 10L measures in at 6.53-inches, with a Full HD+ (2,340 x 1080) resolution along with a hole-punch camera in the top left-hand corner. This brings us to our first disappointment, as LCD panels are not always the greatest, and are largely a frustration when using a device. But at $250, it’s hard to belabor the point too much.

Since the 10L has an LCD panel and a 1080p resolution, TCL decided to try and “game the system” by adding some software features to improve the display. That’s where the NXTVision comes into play, which is a dedicated profile to increase sharpness and contrast. Plus, this aims to enhance the dark scenes in videos, but it’s just not something that I was really interested in. The display looks better with it enabled, but it had too much “pop” for my taste.

Software

Out of the box, TCL is shipping Android 10, along with a slew of additional software features to try and enhance the experience. There’s a custom launcher pre-installed, which alphabetizes your App Drawer by default, along with a few pre-installed apps. These include regular culprits, such as Facebook and Netflix, but there are some useful add-ons that you’ll find once you’ve finished the initial setup process.

Some of the shortcuts you’ll find include a button to lock the screen, quick access to “Smart Key” (more on that momentarily), and a few of TCL’s own apps. You’ll also find some apps that will make you roll your eyes, such as “Optimize” and “Smart Manager”, which claim to improve the software, but it just feels like pre-installed anti-malware.

As you start getting your phone set up and notifications start rolling through, you’ll notice the edges of your phone light up. If you’ve used a Samsung device, this may look familiar, although it’s a bit different. It really is a nice touch, but it’s more useful when your screen is turned off.

Opening the Settings app, you’ll find a slew of different options and toggles to go through and mess around with. Especially if you dive into “Advanced features”, where you can adjust the system navigation, switching between gestures or the old-school three on-screen buttons at the bottom. This is separate from the “Gestures” settings panel, which houses a few system gestures including enabling the ability to activate split-screen mode with three fingers, or swiping down with three fingers to take a screenshot.

 

The final major feature I would like to bring up is the Smart Key that is found on the left frame of the phone and can be customized to your liking. There are three different options when opening the Smart Key settings; single press, double press, or long press. But the absolute best part about this is the fact that each of these is customizable. Here are some of my favorites:

  • Assign an app to a “press”
  • Single press to activate Google Assistant
  • Double press to Launch the camera
  • Long-press to take a Screenshot (I take a lot of screenshots)

Being able to set a specific app to open with one of those gestures is just amazing. The best part is that any app that you download can be used, so the options are endless. We really wish more OEMs would include a smart button that is user-customizable, but I doubt any flagship devices will launch with one anytime soon.

Daily Usage

So far, so good for the TCL 10L, right? That’s how I felt too until it was gone. My apps were installed, I played a few games, and then I realized that the app that I had opened 30 minutes ago, and had only opened two other apps, had to be reloaded. The 6GB of RAM was not enough to keep that app running, which is fine and dandy, but somewhat of a frustration.

Nonetheless, I kept trucking along with the 10L and then noticed something else. There was a noticeable stutter while doing just about anything with the phone. It’s almost like the 10L couldn’t keep up with how fast my finger was gesturing to swipe the screen up to read my Twitter feed. I went into the settings, tried adjusting the NXTVision and Display settings, but came up short.

This problem has continued sporadically throughout my usage and is a major sore-point for an otherwise solid device. There’s just enough lag in usage for it to be noticeable and waiting for the screen to catch up with the swipe is never fun. Maybe my device is a lemon, but I’ve seen and heard about this same problem cropping up for others who have used the 10L for more than just a day or two.

Maybe with its next device, TCL can go back to the drawing board for the software and take a Motorola approach. There’s no need to pre-load a bunch of stuff, just give us a near-stock experience and this is an easy-pick for everyone.

Cameras

By no means am I a great photographer, but I like to take pictures, and was intrigued by the quad-camera array found on the 10L. TCL included a 48MP primary camera, along with an 8MP Ultra Wide sensor, 2MP macro lens, and 2MP depth sensor. On paper, this looked to be a pretty great system, even while lowering expectations because we’re not going to get Pixel-level photos out of a TCL product.

Overall, the pictures were pretty solid, but there was some struggling with the macro lens and auto-focusing. There were a couple of times where I just had to hold the phone because of whatever processing was being done for a basic picture of a flower. And there was an obvious struggle when trying to take pictures at night, but again, we weren’t expecting the world.

So did TCL deliver with a solid camera system? Sure? It’s not going to blow anything else out of the water, but “more is better” and while the sensors themselves are just meh, being able to switch between standard, ultrawide, and having a macro lens is always nice. You can check out our photo samples and let us know what you think.

Battery

With the 4,000mAh battery paired up with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 665, battery life is pretty solid, as I was able to push it to about a day and a half. Granted, that’s not traveling very far or using much GPS, but a day and half of usage is more than adequate and was refreshing, compared to using flagships that need some juice in less than a day.

The disappointing aspect of the 10L and its battery was in the charging speeds. Unlike the 10 Pro, the 10L does not have Qualcomm’s QC 3.0 onboard, meaning that you’re stuck with normal charging speeds. This device is great if you need to practice some patience, but is frustrating if you don’t care and just want fast charging.

Should you get one?

If devices like the Moto G Power and Pixel 4a weren’t available, I would still probably recommend the TCL 10L, despite its shortcomings. But unless you really want a design that stands out from the rest, along with great battery life and an array of cameras, those aforementioned devices are the way to go. That’s not to say the 10L is a bad phone, the software issues just outweigh everything else.

Buy the TCL 10L

 

TCL 10L Rating: star_fullstar_fullstar_fullstar_emptystar_empty (3 / 5)

The Good

  • Gorgeous design
  • The display is pretty good
  • The more cameras, the better

The Bad

  • Consistent lag while in use
  • Struggles with auto-focus and night photography
  • Too much “extra stuff” in the software

The Bottom Line

If TCL can fix the software stuttering, then the 10L would be a fantastic value, coming in at just $250. But for now, you’re better off picking up the Pixel 4a.

 

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