TCL 10L Review: It's All About the Display
At a time where the North American mobile device market is dominated by two manufacturers, it’s quite a challenge for any new player to carve out their piece of market share. Yet TCL, the purveyor of well received value-oriented televisions is trying their hand at smartphones, starting with the 10 Pro and the subject of this review, the 10L.
Despite these being their first TCL-branded smartphones marketed in the US, they’re no stranger to manufacturing them as they’ve sold devices here under their sub-brand, Alcatel, and as a licensee of the Blackberry brand with the KEY1 and KEY2. With the limited sales success of those now defunct Blackberry handsets and with Alcatel devices typically limited to being the free device offered to you when signing up for service with a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) like Straight Talk, it’s easy to wonder why TCL would believe now is the time to market devices under their own brand. Smart move? That’s not for me to decide. It is my job, however, to find out if their first entry into the ultra-competitive low-to-midrange level of smartphones is worth consideration.
What's in it for Me?
The TCL 10L is TCL’s entry into the value-first tier of the mobile device market and expectations should be tempered accordingly. That said, the 10L offers a lot for the expected price at launch of $249. With a large 6.53-inch LCD display with FHD+ resolution, punch-hole front-facing camera (named the Dotch by TCL. No TCL, no), quad-camera setup at the back, a 3.5mm headphone jack at the top, a single speaker at the base, a fingerprint reader at the rear, 64GB of storage expandable up to 256GB via microSD, a rather large 4000mAh battery, a healthy 6GB of RAM, and a Qualcomm Snapdragon 665, the 10L has specifications competitive with the best in its class.
Included with the 10L are the obligatory SIM tool and manuals, charging adapter, USB-A to USB-C charging cable, and a surprisingly nice TPU protective case.
Hardware Design and Build
Like most phones at this price point, the 10L is constructed mostly of plastic. The device has a decent heft to it - avoiding the silicon-in-an-egg feeling of others I’ve used. The midplate is solid enough to feel like metal, while the backplate has a holographic treatment that makes it look like some recent flagship devices, as light plays with the surface in a delightful way on my “Mariana Blue” review unit.
The power button and volume rocker are comfortably located on the right side, with each generating a satisfying click and none of the rattle some competing devices are cursed with. More interestingly, the TCL has added an accessory button they call the Smart Key on the left side that can be assigned distinct functions depending on the interaction. By default, a long press launches Google Assistant. This is quite a nice feature normally now only found on the flagships from LG or the Convenience Button on the BlackBerry KEY2. I wish more manufacturers would embrace what TCL has done here.
In all, the 10L is well constructed phone that offers no real surprises in its design outside of the beautiful sheen of the back cover and the small brilliance that is the Smart Key.
There’s not much more telling about the intention and personality of a company than the choices it makes its software. TCL treats Android 10 with a mostly light hand with its stock-feeling launcher named, stoically, TCL UI. Included are Google’s dialer, contacts, calendar, keyboard and messaging apps, the Chrome browser as well as access to the Google Feed with a swipe to the right. They are, in my eyes, welcome as I find these particular Google apps better than most.
TCL seems to have a whimsical side, as the icons for their video player, photo gallery and music player have a short animation when selected. As they do not seem to detract from performance, I think they're a fun and unassuming touch. In an interesting tweak, when browsing applications in a folder - you’re offered the option to swipe right or left to access the contents of other folders. I love this addition, and hope other manufacturers including Google add something like it to their own software.
When first powered on, the 10L defaults to the back/home/multi-task buttons that have been an Android mainstay for many generations. In a first for me, when onboarding TCL offers a configuration for right or left-handed use – swapping the multi-task and back buttons depending on the selection. That’s thoughtful. Once configured, it’s apparent TCL has taken some inspiration from Samsung’s flavors of Android. There’s an option for the standard love handle and home gestures that ship with Android 10, but in addition it also includes the choice of gestures exactly like those that Samsung included in the first version of One UI – with swipes from the bottom up replacing the normal buttons for back, home and multitasking. I don’t believe offering choice is a bad thing. It’s just interesting that the Samsung-style gestures were one of them.
Much of what TCL has added to their software has to do with the tuning the display. Oh – and that display? There’s a lot to talk about there.
Oh, That Display
If potential buyers of the 10L have heard of TCL, it’s because of their televisions. Their offerings are devouring large swaths of the sales of the low to mid categories of TVs, and they’re now making a push towards the higher end of the spectrum. They’ve done it with panel quality that punches way up while offering them at extremely competitive prices, not coincidentally in part because they are one of the few companies that also make their own panels.
Now TCL is bringing this vertical integration to the smartphone realm. The only other manufacturers I know that make their own displays are Samsung, LG and Sony. One advantage of this is the ability to offer a better display at different price points then most of their competition. It’s one of the reasons I am excited to review this device.
I’m usually reserved when it comes to reviews, rarely gushing. However – the 10L has a display that is 6.53 inches of beautiful. Print it.
It’s a screen that would not be out of place on a $500 device. Its viewing angles are broad and there is no significant color shift. It’s certainly a good thing that the 10L ships with a display of this quality, as it is 91% of the front of the phone. Part of the excellent experience the display delivers is due to the software tuning TCL calls NXTVISION which adjusts the contrast, saturation and color temperature to provide what most would consider a more pleasing look. I naturally gravitate towards natural color tuning, and whatever TCL is doing on the software side never appeared to me to be obviously oversaturated or blown out. The NXTVISION application, technically just an options panel, offers the option to disable it. I left it on for most of my time with the device.
NXTVISION also brings SDR to HDR upscaling, and a reading mode that shifts the color to be easier on the eyes. I didn’t notice much of a difference with the HDR upscaling turned on or off, but I can say that video always looked great when bingeing the new Upload series from Amazon Prime Video.
Four Cameras, Technically
The 10L’s camera system consists of a 48MP main shooter with an ISOCELL Samsung sensor (pixel-binned to 12MP image output), a 2MP depth sensor (mostly for that portrait bokeh effect), a 2MP macro camera, and an 8MP 118-degree ultrawide camera. I was a bit disappointed to find that the 48MP sensor was not the IMX 586 from Sony that’s received praise in many of the better-reviewed phones shipped over the past year. However, including that would have raised the price beyond being competitive.
I think calling this a true four-camera system is mostly for marketing, as the 2MP depth sensor is not something the end-user accesses directly in the camera software. Speaking of the camera software, the user interface and functionality reminds again of Samsung software. It’s not a terrible thing to be inspired if the result is flattering. In this case I’d say that’s mostly true.
The camera takes pictures that range from OK to great in settings with adequate lighting. This can be said for any of the cameras, including the 16MP front facing camera. Unfortunately, the results were a bit inconsistent. Perhaps the consistency can be improved with future software updates. Results get a bit rough when the light gets darker, where the cameras tend to wander in focus and a well exposed and composed shot is much harder to take. Selfies on the front facing camera are quite nice, with a portrait mode that produces pleasant shots easily used on social media. It’s unusual for any smartphone to include a dedicated macro-focus camera, and this one is quite fun to use even if the megapixel count is low. The results tend to be noisy, but it adds flexibility and fun in everyday use.
Video is a mixed bag with the 10L. If I were to have used this phone with a gimbal the results would be quite good as the fundamentals are sound. I own a gimbal, but at the time of writing, it was stuck at work which I could not access thanks to the magic of COVID-19. It shoots 4K video at a decent framerate. Unfortunately, software stabilization is usually not great, and such was the case with the 10L. That said, it's fine for casual use. Just know, it's not something that should be used for anything beyond the occasional Tik Tok.
TCL imbued the 10L with internals more than up to the challenge of providing laudable speed and battery life for a device of its tier. The Snapdragon 665 and 6GB are a happy marriage when paired with a software build that feels light on its feet. Despite occasional stuttering, TCL UI never feels bogged down, where the generous amount of RAM shows its benefit.
Battery life is an all-day affair and then some, with 40 percent often remaining for me when it was time to put it down for the night. I’m not one to subscribe to screen-on-time as a metric and won’t be showing results like that here. Suffice it to say, most of those who are heavier in their use than me should be able to last the day with the 10L.
In my experience with the included charging solution, the 10L took a little over two hours to charge to 100 percent. The Snapdragon 665 does support Qualcomm QuickCharge 3, and I was able to get to a full charge about a third of the time faster using a charger that supports the standard.
As a new entrant into the North American market with smartphones, TCL doesn’t have a software update track record to draw conclusions from. They have promised an upgrade to Android 11 for both the 10L and 10 Pro. I’ve had access the 10L for 3 weeks on an MVNO using AT&T’s network. Call quality and data performance were simply fine, and the device automatically used VoLTE as its default option where available. The chipset technically supports much of Verizon’s LTE bands, and I was able to get data and calls to work with no issues. However, like some other devices I have used that are not VZW certified, I could not get SMS to go through, even when using the VZW Messaging app.
The single downward firing speaker is not good. However, as mentioned earlier this does has a headphone jack so, I consider it a wash. The haptics (meaning the motor that provides tactile feedback when interacting with a device) are just not very good. But I have never experienced good haptics on a device priced this way, so it's not fair to ding the 10L when doing better also would affect the end price to the consumer. (Note: TCL was kind enough to also provide me with a sample of the 10 Pro which has great haptics. They do know how to do it right, in case there was a question).
The TCL 10L is an excellent first entry into the North American market, with a good build, interesting design, useful camera set, excellent software performance and a fantastic display that sets it apart from competitors. If you’re considering a device like the G series from Motorola or the A series from Samsung, the 10L needs to be on your short list if you consider the display to be a top priority.