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No smartphone is perfect, and with a mid-range smartphone, you expect trade-offs. The $ 399 iPhone SE doesn’t have Face ID and can’t handle Portrait mode when taking photos of your puppy. The $ 399 Galaxy A51 turned out to be a mixed bag with performance. And TCL’s $ 449 10 Pro weren’t great with photography, but had a solid display.
And with the $ 250 TCL 10L, you’ll want to temper expectations as well.
Mid-range smartphones aim to hit the sweet spot in terms of value and functionality. Yes, they have to handle communications, texts, web browsing, streaming, and taking decent photos. But what is the special sauce TCL uses to make the 10L stand out among mid-range smartphones?
We’ve spent over a week with it, and while it’s not perfect, it’s not the worst. Let’s get into the details.
The TCL 10L feels substantial in the hand despite weighing less than a pound. It is a mostly plastic construction and the back has a smooth finish.
The camera bump, which houses four cameras and two LED flashes, sticks out only a hair’s breadth. We liked that the 10 Pro was mostly flat, but there isn’t a lot of wobble here as it covers most of the back. We like that TCL focuses on ergonomics. The left and right sides at the back curl slightly upwards, making it easy to grip. It is also tall, with a 19: 5: 9 ratio.
Although the back is smooth and shiny, it doesn’t come off so much in your hand that it might fall off. The back side also contains a physical fingerprint sensor that takes us back to older LG smartphones and Google’s Pixel series. It might be high for people with smaller hands, but it was pretty easy to find and contact us. In terms of ports, there’s a USB Type-C at the bottom and a headphone jack. The right side has a volume rocker and a power button. The left side has a combined microSIM and microSD card slot, as well as a customizable key.
The front features a pinhole screen that houses a 16-megapixel camera in the upper left corner. There are thin bezels at the top and on the left and right sides. The bottom, however, has a thicker bezel, which gives you a place to hold the device.
The screen of the 10L impresses. The 6.53-inch LCD panel isn’t the sharpest or brightest we’ve used, but it offers great value for the money. It’s still Full HD + and TCL’s proprietary NXTVISION is on board, which aims to improve the display quality.
The result? Well, it increases the saturation and the brightness of whatever you watch. If you appreciate the extra touch of vibrancy, the colors will be quite vivid in any case. But it takes away the realism with content. We didn’t notice it as much on the 10 Pro, which has an AMOLED display, but this panel is of better quality and handles contrast much better.
The 10L’s display does a good job with color reproduction, but we found that the brightness can be low and it struggles in direct sunlight.
When “Frozen II” aired, the contrast was less than we expected, especially in the scene with Elsa over the sea in a storm, where there was less separation between the lighter tones and darker. The brightness was strong here though, and we noticed this as a theme throughout the 10L. It was still immersive, but not as immersive or enjoyable to watch as it was on the 10 Pro, iPhone SE, or even the Galaxy S20. NXTVISION also didn’t have a huge effect on contrast.
At $ 249.99, you might be surprised to hear that there are four cameras on the back. As we have stated, these are in a horizontal format at the top. The main lens, a super wide, macro and depth sensor are held in place with LED flashes on either side. Essentially, the proverbial mouthpieces.
The primary lens is a 48-megapixel sensor that by default takes photos as 12-megapixels. It’s the same pixel binning technique we’ve seen on several phones this year (most notably the TCL 10 Pro and Galaxy S20 series). It aims to provide a photo with vividness and clarity in smaller file sizes.
The main lens is standard size and you can adjust the resolution in the settings. Then there’s an 8-megapixel super wide, which is great for capturing more in a photo. TCL opted for a 2-megapixel macro lens instead of a telephoto lens. With the macro lens, you can get details up close, but you need to be pretty close to the subject. Finally, you get a 2-megapixel depth sensor that facilitates Portrait mode.
Before we dive into the image quality, we have a similar note to what we wrote in the TCL 10 Pro review: a watermark is applied to all photos by default, but you can turn it off in the settings of the camera.
Most shots with the 12-megapixel primary lens resulted in images that weren’t oversaturated (a break from the TCL 10 Pro’s processing techniques) and presented a fairly realistic view. Without cropping and zooming, the photos are quite detailed. It did a good job capturing the deep reddish purple hues of the leaves of a Japanese maple, as well as the green grass and the sky with clouds. But zooming in reveals some artifacts (unintentional blur) with some leaves. The full 48-megapixel version of this photo is a bit darker and offers the same amount of detail when you crop.
With macro camera mode, you have to get close to the shot to get it focused, but even then it may not be. The device suggests a distance of 4 centimeters. Our close-up of an evergreen tree provided a sharp angle, but the lens failed to focus on a bright flower in three separate trials.
One final note: while the ability to take a photo took less than a second with the primary lens, it wasn’t as fast with the other modes. It took approximately two seconds to process the macro shooting and portrait mode functions.
The TCL 10L is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 processor with 6 GB of RAM. That’s a sufficient amount of RAM for the 10L, and overall it’s an efficient setup but not blazingly fast. But echoing the thoughts behind a mid-range device, it’s not meant to go hand in hand with a flagship device (although the iPhone SE is an outlier with the speedy A13 Bionic).
It was a mixed experience with the TCL 10L for over a week. It easily manages social apps like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter. Games like Real Racing, Idle Tycoons, and Call of Duty Mobile have shown long load times. Fortnite was playable, but with a noticeable lag that made matches even more difficult.
Sometimes browsing settings and selecting files caused slowdowns. But seconds later or even the next day, he was quick to handle these tasks. There were a number of factors that could cause these slowdowns (background tasks and even open apps), but it was frustrating.
As we do with any Underscored exam, we performed performance testing to set a standard for comparing quantitative testing of multiple devices with our daily use, testing, and perceptions. We used GeekBench 5, a benchmarking app that tests devices by running intense processes that mimic real use cases. With GeekBench 5’s CPU test, the TCL 10L scored 310 on single-core and 1368 on multi-core. These are low and in line with what we expected. The 10 Pro got 489 in singles and 1550 in multi. Samsung’s Galaxy A51 got a 345 single and 1301 in multi.
For the most part, without these speed bumps, the TCL 10L offered a similar experience to other mid-range smartphones. It’s pretty good, especially considering the price. And on the battery side, the non-removable lithium-ion battery got us through a full day. In some cases it was even two days.
TCL’s user interface on Android 10 might feel heavy but doesn’t overwhelm efficiency. There is no wireless charging on the 10L, so you will need to plug it in to charge.
Similar to our benchmarking tests, we ran the TCL 10L using our standard battery test. We turned off connectivity on the device and charged the battery to 100%. We then play a looping video in the VLC app until the battery runs out. We had high hopes for the TCL 10L and it lasted 11 hours and 53 minutes.
TCL’s 10L is all about value with its price tag of $ 249.99. It certainly brings something to the table, including a solid display. The battery life is really long and the UX doesn’t get in your way. You should be able to perform daily tasks. And the camera is ok, so it’s possible to get a really nice shot, but it’s not as easy as pressing the shutter button like on an iPhone.
At $ 249.99, you’d be hard pressed to find a phone that performs well, given all of the above. Still, we recommend spending more and opting for a 10 Pro, Galaxy A51, or even the iPhone SE. The latter still remains at the top of the mid-range list for us.
Note: The prices above reflect the price quoted by the retailer at the time of posting.