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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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 sometime 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.