TCL 10L Review: An Impressive, If Imperfect First Attempt

TCL is a brand that not many may have heard of, and that’s fine until recently, you couldn’t really buy anything TCL branded in the UK, but now we can get their TVs, soundbars and, yes, phones. This is the review of their entry-level phone, the TCL 10L, and we’ll check it out to see if you should give it any attention (spoiler, you should.)

TCL 10L
+ FOR
  • Beautiful screen
  • Impressive performance
  • Great battery life
  • Nice design
- AGAINST
  • Cameras other than main, are bad
  • Charging is slower than others
  • Software updates are up in the air

Buy on Amazon UK – £199

Disclaimer

TCL provided me (Dom) with the 10L unit for the purposes of review. TCL and their PR team will not get to see this before it goes live and they have had no input on the final result. No money has changed hands between either entity. The TCL 10L was used in the southeast of the UK on the Three UK Network, it received no system OTAs in this time.

TCL 10L Review

Specifications

  • 6.53” IPS LCD
    • 2340×1080
    • HDR10
    • 60Hz refresh rate
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 665
    • 4x Kryo 260 Gold (Cortex A73) 2Ghz
    • 4x Kryo 260 Silver (Cortex A53) 1.8Ghz
    • Adreno 610 GPU
    • Samsung 11nm manufacturing
  • 6GB LPDDR4 RAM
    • 64GB eMMC 5.1 OR
    • 128GB UFS 2.1
    • MicroSD slot up to 256gb
  • 48MP main camera (Samsung GM1)
    • F1.8
    • 26mm effective focal distance
  • 8MP Ultrawide Camera
    • F2.2
    • 13mm effective focal distance
  • 2MP Depth Camera
    • F2.4
  • 2MP Macro Camera
    • F2.4
  • 16MP Front Camera
    • F2.2
    • 28mm effective focal distance
  • Rear-mounted fingerprint scanner
  • 3.5mm audio jack
  • USB-C

For a more in-depth spec sheet head on over to GSMArena

Hardware

The 10L in the arctic white colour I have here is really quite nice, it’s all plastic, but it doesn’t bother me all that much. It’s a very attractive phone, and if the tradeoff to make it look and feel like this is swapping the metal frame for plastic, I’m glad they did. I won’t lie and say that it feels substantial or that I adore the in-hand feel of the glossy plastic rails, but I do think that this is one of the better designs and builds in a phone of this price that I’ve seen in a while.

TCL 10L Review

Let’s start with a devices tour, up-front we have the 6.53” 1080p IPS screen and this thing is gorgeous. It’s not an OLED (you need to step up to the 10 Pro for that) but the colours are vibrant, the black levels are remarkably dark and contrast is high, and this is without the NXTVISION enhancement on. NXTVISION is, in TCLs words 

NXTVISION visual technology optimizes six axes of color, 2D edges, and targeted contrast in real time to create truly vibrant images with beautiful, real-world color.”

What does that mean? Well, it is a content-aware “vibrant” mode that doesn’t look like crap. I actually kept it on for the most part of the review, which is surprising as usually one of the first things I do when testing a phone is setting the display to a natural mode. One other thing I do is turning the display size down to make the content feel a bit denser on the screen, however, in the TCL version of Android 10, this has been removed. You can still change the text size, but not the display size. In the end, I ended up enabling developer settings and manually changing the DPI from 360 to 408.

TCL 10L Review

Around the screen is the bezels, and whilst the chin is a bit larger than I expected, I did get used to it pretty quickly, whilst the display is flat the edges of the glass are subtly curved and in turn has a bit of an optical illusion to make the bezels seem smaller than they are. In the top left we have the “Dotch”, yup, that is really what it is called, that is actually a trademark that TCL Hold, the Dot Notch, or Dotch, isn’t all that intrusive, but much like other LCD panels with hole punch cutouts, the black area around the camera is larger due to the active backlight which isn’t an issue on OLED panels.

TCL 10L Review

On the right-hand side of the phone we have the Power button and volume rocker. These are nicely sized and have just the right amount of force to depress them without feeling too stiff, they also experience no rattle or wobble in my unit. Flipping round to the left-hand side we have the SIM and MicroSD tray, as well as the multifunction button. This is a fully remappable button for up to three things a single press, a double press and a long press. For me, a single press turns on and off NXTVISION for side by side comparisons, a double press activates Google Assistant, and a long press takes a screenshot, but this is all remappable in software, take note Samsung.

TCL 10L Review

Up top, we have the 3.5mm audio jack for those of you who still cling to 3.5mm headphones, as well as the secondary microphone for use in phone calls for the noise cancelling. Down below, we have the USB-C port in the centre which is sadly just USB 2.0, but at least it is USB-C. Either side of the USB-C Port is a set of three slits, only the right-hand bank of slits hides a speaker, the other side is the main microphone.

TCL 10L Review

On the back we have this holographic type coasting under the rear plastic panel, it looks almost pearlescent in the colour shifts and is mesmerizing, sadly it is also an absolute fingerprint and smudge magnet, If I wasn’t already consciously cleaning all my gadgets and tech at the moment anyway, this would remind me to. Up top is the Camera array, it does have a camera bump, but as it is centred in the phone it doesn’t rock. We have an LED either side of the bump, with the 4 cameras in the middle, a 48MP main camera, 8MP Ultrawide, 2MP Macro camera and a 2MP Depth camera, I’ll make my opinions on those known in the camera section. Below this is the capacitive fingerprint scanner and I’m a bit taken aback by the fact it’s square. It’s been a while since I’ve seen a square fingerprint reader on a device, I think the Huawei P9 was the last one.

TCL 10L Review

Overall I’m pretty happy with the TCL 10L for hardware, when I initially saw it in Barcelona I was pretty meh, much more excited about the 10 Pro, but I should have paid this more attention, now if I could only get a skin to stop the smudge magnet rear.

Software

This is the area I’m not looking forward to writing because this is a lot more negative than I was hoping it would be. I’ll upload some screenshots at the bottom of this segment, but this is one of the most overbearing UI’s I’ve used in a long time, warning reminiscent of old school EMUI when an app runs for the first time or when you want to change the default.

TCL 10L Review

The good thing I want to say first though, thankfully those startup warning etc can all be disabled. Sadly, I shouldn’t have to disable them, this is one of the most jarring thing of using this device is that once I changed those few settings, it was a mostly enjoyable process. I still have a few issues with software things, like them removing the option for display scaling or the fact that this build of android is based on one of the original releases before December, and this is known because I cannot use system gestures whilst using a third-party launcher, something that was rectified in the December update.

TCL 10L Review

Once I turned off the obnoxious warnings, this UI is pretty good actually, to the point where with just a few apps you can make it look somewhat stock. The notification shade is remarkably stock like, and even the settings app, which whilst different, is less modified than I was expecting. There are still some duplicate apps here like its own Browser, a separate calculator, a clock, File manager and others, once again this amount of duplicate apps and pre-loaded apps like Booking.com, paired with the app warnings are pretty typical for a software team seemingly based somewhere in China. Other companies learnt that it is annoying and customers don’t like it, and I hope TCL learns it quickly.

On the more positive note, the system stability is very welcome, I haven’t had a single app crash, system lock-up or random bug, which is a pleasant surprise as that has not been my experience with other Android 10, and especially Android 10 on Snapdragon 665 devices. Maybe the price we pay for stability is an older version of Android, who knows, but I hope they send out system updates and security patches soon, as the security patch my TCL 10L is on January 1st, ouch. 6 months old, and whilst I want to give them the benefit of the doubt for their first own-brand products, launching a device with a 5 month-old security patch isn’t a great start.

Camera

One of the more annoying trends of smartphones recently is the mindset that “more cameras are better” this mindset is wrong. The TCL 10L has 4 cameras, 2 of which are practically useless and can be eradicated if the other 2 where used properly. The 4 cameras on this phone are a 48MP Main camera, a Samsung GM1, the ultrawide secondary camera is an 8MP sensor by Galaxycore. The other 2 are a 2MP Depth sensing camera, and a 2MP Macro camera.

TCL 10L Review

The 2MP Depth camera is useless, because this same function can and is done on other phones without depth sensors, it uses the main and secondary lenses to infer depth data, and the Macro camera is useless because A) it’s only 2MP, and up-close that doesn’t look great, and B) Macro photography can be done with a wide-angle camera as has been shown on Huawei devices. So TCL could have saved the money and space from those sensors, and put in a better Ultrawide lens and matched it better with the main camera. Instead we have a decent main camera, a passable ultrawide, a disappointing Macro and a useless depth camera.

TCL 10L Review

The main camera, the 48MP Samsung GM1, is actually a pretty good sensor and I’ve seen some great shots come out of it. Even if it is not directly comparable to the Sony IMX586, another 48MP sensor with hardware-level pixel binning, I theorised with Myriam Joire on her Podcast a few weeks ago that this is because the software and firmware that Sony gives to companies that use its sensors is just more developed and finely tuned than what Samsung provide, but it doesn’t stop the TCL 10L and other GM1/GW1 equipped devices taking great shots. Like some of the ones I managed to take during my time with the 10L.

TCL 10L Review

Less impressive and almost upsetting is the Ultrawide camera here which is just so unbelievably soft, I genuinely had to check there was nothing on the lens or that i didn’t have some weird setting checked in the camera app, nope, it is just how it processes images, or it might just be that this Galaxycore GC8034 is a bad, and very cheap sensor and this is the result you get. I could get over the colours being mismatched from the main sensor, as even phones costing triple this still have issues with that, but at least for the most part the images still have fine detail in them, which is just disappointing.

TCL 10L Review

Next is the Macro camera, which, in excessively bright light was able to take a somewhat detailed shot, but even in amazing lighting, the physics of it being a minute 1/ 5.0” sensor can’t be helped (another Galaxycore product, the GC2385), and the other problem is, is that it wasn’t even that macro, around 4cm, so the distance is only a bit closer than what you can get on the much better quality main sensor, It’s disappointing that companies continue to put these extra lenses on phones to keep up with the jones’ as it were, instead of just buying fewer but better components and using the rest of the camera budget on software tuning the cameras. It’s been a while since I have been mad about a Camera sensor that I had to go look up who makes it, but here we are.

TCL 10L Review
the “not so macro” Macro camera in almost blinding light

Video performance is better than I expected given the mid-tier Snapdragon 665, both 4K and 1080p where limited to 30fps, which honestly Isn’t too much of a downer for me, as real life in 60fps or higher just looks strange. Though this does have a few focus and exposure issues, this is likely due to the Image Signal Processor in the SD665 and is something I’ve seen on other devices.

Performance

This was something I was quite happy with. The Snapdragon 665 is not a new chip, nor is it a high-end chip, but it would have been considered so only 3 or so years ago. The quartet of Cortex A73 cores and the second quartet of Cortex A53s show it is age, with more of these cores being superseded, and in the Cortex A73’s case, we have just seen the announcement of the Cortex A78, the A53’s, on the other hand, have been refreshed once with the superior Cortex A55.

TCL 10L Review

The performance here has been snappy for the most part, only slowing down when I was first setting the phone up and signing in to all my apps, it was also the only time in my use of the device that I managed to make it feel overly warm in the upper portion where the cameras are, but outside of this scenario, the rest of my time with this device was smooth sailing, which, once again is nice as I’ve got a few other Snapdragon 665 devices that I wish were this fast. I’m sure part of this is also due to the generous 6GB of RAM. Surprisingly, even my eMMC version was nice and snappy even when doing data-intensive apps like video editing in Power Director, it still sailed along like nothing was happening.

And for the 4 of you who moan when I don’t post benchmarks, here are some benchmarks.

Battery

This is another positive section for the 10L, the 4000mAh battery in this is stellar, in this current quarantine climate I was getting 2 days out of this pretty easy, which is great because the only downside I have is charging speed.  The brick in the box is rated at just 10w, and I didn’t feel like it charged any faster when attached to my 30w USB-PD charger, which is a real shame, as 4000mAh is beyond the point where you should include 10w charging. The SD665 supports Qualcomm’s proprietary QuickCharge 3.0, or a theoretical max of 36w (12v 3a) and if they didn’t want to pay Qualcomm’s licensing fee for QuickCharge there is also the USB Power Delivery Standard which more OEMs are deciding to use for lower costs and open chargers.

Thankfully as I said, I was able to get 2 days of use for the most part so I only had to charge at night, but the few days that I forgot to charge or my usage was higher, it was a shock, especially coming from a slew of Realme phones, who range from 30-65w of charging, it is a big difference.

After not being happy with the Geekbench Battery benchmark for a little while I’m retiring it from my setup and am in the process of working out some newer and more representative benchmarks for testing battery life.

Miscellaneous

For those of you new here, this is the section of my reviews wherein I post about things that need to be spoken about but don’t necessarily get their own section, and for this review, that comes down to the Screen, and NFC. I’ll start with NFC as it is the shorter piece, this phone actually has NFC, which is something I shouldn’t have to praise, but in sub £200 phones, NFC isn’t always a given (I’m looking at you Motorola) so I praise TCL for keeping it here.

TCL 10L Review
That last line is the important one, HDR makes a big difference

Secondly, the screen, I mentioned a little bit about how nice it is in the hardware section, but I want to call out the fact that this display is also HDR10 certified, so in apps that can support it, namely Netflix and YouTube as well as others, you can get some absolutely gorgeous video watching out of this, and is something I’d easily take over a 90Hz refresh at the moment.

Conclusion

So, should you buy it? If you don’t rely on the secondary cameras all that much, I’d say yeah. It performs very well, has an absolutely gorgeous screen, the battery life is bonkers and once you turn off some of the software nags, it’s a nice UI to use. But I also think that TCL really needs to pull their finger out on security patches and platform updates and soon.

TCL 10L Review

The Camera situation is sad, and I hope that in future software updates they can improve them further, but as it currently stands I’ll use this phone and pretend it only has the main lens because it is the one that works the most consistently.

About Domenico Lamberti

Technology has been a big part of my life for years, whether it be ripping the family computer apart to see how it worked, playing with the new phones that Dad brought home from work. Senior Reviewer for MTT.

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