Chinese manufacturer TCL is a big name in the world of TVs, and has been establishing an increasing presence in the west over the last few years. And though its strengths are in the arena of the television, it has had a sideline in smartphones for some time now.
Those with an eye for phone history might remember the company as the brief champion of the Blackberry brand during its recent bright (and short-lived) renaissance, constructing both the KeyOne and BlackBerry Key2 handsets. It also regularly releases bargain bin offerings under the Alcatel moniker. Now the firm is releasing devices with its own name in tow, hoping to make an impression where it hasn’t before.
The TCL 10 5G is key to this foray, with the intent behind its design being clear - this is the handset that most are expected to covet and pick up. A little fancier than the entry range offering, and a little less intimidating from a price perspective than the flagship TCL 10 Pro, it is meant to hit the sweet spot between quality and compromise.
But the mid-range segment has never been stronger. Bolstered by strong competition from almost all players, a war is raging and TCL will need something special to truly stand out, especially as a brand with little general name recognition.
Standing out is certainly a challenge for the TCL 10 5G, a phone lacking almost any discernible features. It has a camera visor (à la Geordi La Forge) on the rear, but that's its only real design flourish.
Weighing in at 210g it is certainly hefty, and coupled with the vast screen it means that one-handed use is out of the question. Nonetheless, it comes with a shopping list of relatively attractive specifications for the price point, but it will not stand out on the shelf. This fact isn’t helped by the fact it is only available in black (Mercury Grey), unlike the OnePlus Nord and its seductive, distinctive blue hues.
The specs include a 4,500mAh battery which is adequate to make it through a heavy day of use (if not more), a 3.5mm headphone jack, and expandable storage via microSD.
As for the screen, as a TV manufacturer TCL attaches some bold claims to its display tech titled ‘NXTVISION’. Being screamed in CAPS, it certainly announces its presence in the settings menu where it has a section all to itself. It promises to upscale SDR content to HDR, and to automagically make images in general better.
This does mean making them more colorful and applying a hint of sharpening and contrast, and so is pleasing enough in certain use cases, if not quite enough to warrant a place as a headline feature. The screen itself, beyond this extra, is lacking compared to rivals at the price, many of which have made the jump to OLED and high refresh rates, where here we make do with 1080 x 2340 (across 6.53 inches) and IPS LCD.
The TCL 10 5G also comes running its own launcher, which is a surprising highlight. Although the general lack of ostentation may feel a little restricting from a hardware perspective, in the software this restraint makes using the device a pleasant experience.
There is little cruft or bloat, navigation is fuss-free, and there is no attempt to sell new gestures or anything of the like. The ethos of “don’t fix what ain’t broken” works very well in this case, where if improvements over the base Android experience are necessary, they are offered.
Performance is generally a strong suit of the TCL 10 5G. It flies through most tasks with ease, with only the most taxing of games giving it pause. For most people, this is more power than they will need. Power users, or those with the most demanding use cases, will of course need to look elsewhere - for a similar price point the iPhone SE (2020) offers a screamer of a processor.
The TCL 10 5G's chipset also offers 5G capabilities though, which we were unable to test due to the ongoing Covid-19 predicament.
Its camera situation is an interesting one. Following the trend for ‘quad’ to precede any use of the word ‘camera’ in smartphone marketing, the device does indeed sport four snappers on its rear. The primary sensor has 64MP to call its own, with an aperture of f/1.9, and it produces images with nice detail and color when the lighting is right - as is possible with most devices these days.
When conditions become a little more challenging it still manages to hold its own, though we found the HDR had a tendency to flatten the shadows too much, sometimes creating oddly desaturated images.
Low light performance is bolstered by the presence of a ‘Super Night’ mode, which reduces noise significantly, but which processes a little too enthusiastically and produces images with colors worthy of a cartoon. The other sensors, a 5MP macro camera, an 8MP ultra-wide, and a 2MP depth sensor, do very little to justify their existence, offering performance worthy only of much cheaper handsets.
Costing around £400 (roughly $540 / AU$730), the TCL 10 5G sits among strong competition from Realme, Samsung, Huawei, Oppo, Xiaomi, Apple, OnePlus, Google and more. Big names have begun to sit up and recognize the potential of this price point, and so the sea of entrants grows wider.
With a utilitarian aesthetic and some questionable design quirks, the TCL 10 5G is decidedly middle of the road. While it offers strong battery life and good performance, along with a competent main camera, it lacks the killer feature needed to really raise its profile above the rest. It suffers from being a jack of most trades, and master of none.
As such, though this is a solidly executed smartphone, it will likely be another small step, not a giant leap, forward in the long road toward TCL making a name for itself in the smartphone world.
TCL 10 5G price and release date
- Out now in the UK
- Costs £399 (around $540 / AU$730)
- No word on US or Australian availability
The TCL 10 5G is currently available from Three in the UK and costs from £399 (roughly $540 / AU$730) SIM-free. At the time of writing there is no word on availability of the device beyond Europe, with other models being released in the US and beyond with a similar price point.
- Heavy at 210g
- Slightly bland design
- Small bezels
If one were to look in the dictionary for a definition of ‘boring’, the TCL 10 5G could feature as an accompanying picture. A lot has been said for years now about the increasingly bland nature of smartphone design - that the glass rectangle form factor is very ‘been there, done that’, and this device does nothing to buck that trend.
Available solely in black (Mercury Grey), it has a glass rear, Gorilla Glass on the front and a plastic frame. Both the frame and back are solid enough, but feel decidedly low-rent.
The front hosts a 6.53-inch LCD panel with a 1080 x 2340 resolution, a punch-hole camera, and a 91% screen to body ratio. This is indeed nice, with bezels mostly kept in check aside from a slightly hefty chin underneath the screen.
The left side of the TCL 10 5G sports a Google Assistant button, the utility of which is questionable given that it isn’t set to work when the screen is off by default. On the rear of the device can be found a lovely, nippy fingerprint scanner, and the camera ‘visor’, which is flanked by two flash units.
At 210g, the TCL 10 5G is hefty, no doubt a result of the large battery pack inside, though what this means in general use is difficult one-handed operation. Those who use their device on the go (i.e. while walking) may wish to look elsewhere as a result.
The presence of a 3.5mm headphone jack is very welcome, however we were less impressed with the mono speaker. Though the speaker does produce reasonably loud, rich sound, that no stereo option is offered, as with competing handsets at the same price, is a shame.
Build quality - cheaper feeling materials aside - is solid. The handset doesn’t flex overly when subjected to light pressure, however it feels inescapably like something half the asking price, which is also fittingly how it looks.
- 6.53-inch 1080 x 2340 screen
- Bright and supports HDR10, but only has a 60Hz refresh rate
- IPS LCD rather than OLED
Having primarily made its name in the TV game, TCL is keen to bring its imaging branding to the 10 5G. As such, ‘NXTVISION’ tech enters the scene, promising to automatically make all visual content better by improving contrast and sharpness, among other things.
With or without this feature, the panel on the TCL 10 5G is perfectly pleasant to use, if lacking a few of the features which are becoming standard at the price.
With a 1080p resolution, it has enough pixels per inch to please all but the most ardent of peepers, and it offers decent color rendition also, tending towards the warm and vibrant side. The HDR10 standard is supported, meaning that content from the right services will look just that little bit better. Brightness too is a strong point; we were comfortably able to use the device in the glare of the summer sun.
The lack of a higher refresh rate for the screen is unfortunate, however. As 90Hz panels are becoming far more commonplace, even among cheaper handsets, the omission here is a detriment to the device overall. While it can be argued that these are primarily a cosmetic feature, those looking for a smoother viewing experience will need to look elsewhere.
Another point which takes a while to get used to is the punch-hole selfie cam. Though the cut-out isn’t the largest, it is definitely noticeable, and an unfortunate side effect is unsightly light bleed. It is particularly distracting in dark environments.
That the display isn’t OLED is also unfortunate - this tech allows for superior blacks and contrast over LCD screens, and can be seen on many rivals, even those which are cheaper.
In all, this is a display that most will be able to live with easily, as it is perfectly adequate in most ways which matter. But the lack of features is apparent when looking at the competition, in particular the OnePlus Nord, which is both cheaper and better in this regard, offering both an OLED screen and a high refresh rate. Here the TCL does the job well enough but suffers from an overall lack of ambition.
- Quad-lens camera
- Main snapper is decent, others not so much
- 16MP selfie camera
The camera ‘visor’ housing all of the various rear snappers of the TCL 10 5G is a sign of intent. It draws attention to them, inviting the viewer to imagine the device as an imaging powerhouse.
And though it isn’t quite that, the handset is a very competent customer in the camera department. The main sensor has 64MP to call its own, though its images default to outputting at 16MP. Flanking the main sensor there is a 2MP depth sensor, a 5MP macro lens, and an 8MP ultra-wide unit.
These secondary snappers aren’t up to much unfortunately. The ultra-wide produced images which have decent color but lack detail, while the macro produces grainy images usable only at very small sizes - these are to be avoided.
Images from the main sensor are thankfully different. In good light these are bursting with detail, have good color rendition, and decent dynamic range. When conditions begin to become a little more difficult, it still holds its own, even if not quite as well as a Google Pixel 4a might.
The HDR algorithm here stacks images to produce a superior composite result, something which it is mostly successful in doing. Sometimes it shows an odd tendency, with the likes of a bright sunset, to produce flat, low-contrast images, but for the most part it works well to raise details in shadows and improve clarity.
Less successful is the ‘Super Night’ mode, which puts the HDR algorithm on overdrive to cope with the most difficult, poorly lit situations. And although it does coax a lot of brightness out of scenes, it does so at the expense of reality. Captured images show a little more detail, along with crazy neon colors - as such use of this mode is best kept only for emergencies.
Operation of the camera is simple, as might be expected of a modern smartphone - all of the design cues for the app are taken straight from Apple. Thankfully, taking photos is a quick affair too, which is not always guaranteed. A number of different modes are offered, as is a 64MP ‘toggle’ which produces files with a little more detail and a much larger storage footprint.
Video produced is colorful and detailed, however the audio records only in mono, and selfies from the 16MP front-facing camera are detailed enough for social media if nothing more.
So, though the TCL 10 5G may not impress in other areas, its camera chops are certainly nothing to sniff at. This is a camera which, while not quite ready to go toe-to-toe with the big players, is a very solid first attempt from the manufacturer.
Specs and performance
- Snapdragon 765G chipset and 6GB of RAM
- Strong general performance
- Android 10 is paired with a pleasant custom launcher
Chipset performance in the Android world over the past few years has been a game of diminishing returns. With increasingly well-optimized software experiences across the board, manufacturers are being forced to try harder and harder to show the merits of having the latest and most powerful processors in new handsets.
The name of the game at the moment in doing this is 5G, a technology which is becoming increasingly widespread but which is still in its relative infancy, at least in the UK (which has limited 5G availability beyond several major cities).
TCL is betting big with the 10 5G that the capability to reach 5G speeds alone will be enough to sell handsets, indeed, a clue to this confidence is in the name of the handset. Fittingly, with no 5G coverage in our area, or access to a capable SIM, we were unable to test performance in this area. Coverage on 4G networks was suitably strong, however.
Beyond bandwidth capabilities, the TCL 10 5G comes kitted out with what is an increasingly common mid-range setup, a Snapdragon 765G chipset and 6GB of RAM paired with 128GB of storage.
This combo, plus the well-optimized TCL launcher, means that the handset flies in daily operation, rarely skipping a beat. Only the heaviest of games are enough to give it pause, so if gaming performance is a particular priority it may be best to look elsewhere.
In synthetic benchmarks, the handset scores well - in Geekbench 5 it achieves a single-core score of 615 and a multi-core score of 1,908. These compare very favorably to handsets running the Snapdragon 845 (the top Android chip of 2018), and suggest that the TCL 10 5G should perform similarly over time, which is to say well.
The 6GB of RAM ensures that apps stay in memory for a long time without issue, while the 128GB of storage means there is plenty of space to install a large collection of apps. Whether performance will hold up in the long term depends largely on the software support that will be offered. No definite statement on the matter exists from TCL.
Currently the handset runs on Android 10, and TCL uses a custom launcher on top of that. This is stripped back, pleasant to use, and generally a positive for the handset - we were pleasantly surprised in this regard.
- 4,500mAh battery
- Comfortably lasts a day in most cases
- Supports 18W fast charging but no wireless charging
With large screens come big battery packs almost as a necessity, and the TCL 10 5G is no exception. The unit comes packing a 4,500mAh battery, which is on the large side for a modern handset, and as such we had high expectations.
These mostly proved to be well-founded in practice, as the TCL 10 5G will make it through all but the heaviest of days.
Taking it off a charge at 6am, with 100% in the tank, by 11pm around 20% was left in reserve. This was after a day of messaging, around an hour of sat-nav driving, watching videos, and listening to music. Though some handsets - such as the Moto G8 Power - might be able to eke more and even a second day out of their battery packs, the TCL 10 5G compares well to most phones in this regard.
An 18W fast charger is included in the box with the TCL 10 5G. This isn’t as fast as the offerings provided by the likes of Oppo or Realme, but in light of Apple sticking with a 5W solution for the iPhone 11 it feels like a generous move nonetheless. No wireless charging is offered, but this is to be expected for the price.
Should I buy the TCL 10 5G?
Buy it if...
You need a solid budget option
Though the TCL 10 5G isn’t exciting, it has no significant failings. From its camera, to its screen and battery life, while it doesn't exceed the sum of its parts, each component is good.
You need 5G on a budget
If you need 5G, this handset has it. If you live in a supported area, and want the fastest download speeds, this is one of the cheapest phones available with 5G support.
You want a decent camera
For the price the TCL 10 5G has a decent snapper. It works well in a variety of environments and the extra lenses add a dash of versatility to the mix.
Don't buy it if...
You want something exciting
The TCL 10 5G isn’t designed to get the blood pumping. Other handsets have more exciting designs, better features and more for the price - leaving the TCL looking a little thin-blooded.
You want the best screen for the price
The screen on the TCL 10 5G is good, not great. The LCD panel is colorful, but it doesn’t match the appeal of an OLED unit.
You want a premium handset
The build quality is uninspiring, and rivals like the iPhone SE (2020) feel more robust. The iPhone SE in particular offers waterproofing, which can prove to be a lifesaver.
First reviewed: September 2020