Review

TCL 10L review: Buy the Plex, if you can

Last year, TCL experimented with bringing its own-branded smartphones to western markets with the TCL Plex, which left a very positive impression on me when I reviewed it. For 2020, the company broadened its horizons even more, and the TCL 10 series came to Europe and the United States, bringing TCL-branded smartphones to the U.S. for the first time.

The TCL 10 Pro, the higher-end model in the family, proved its worth in my review, despite not being as great of a deal as the Plex. The TCL 10L, however, is a much cheaper offering, costing just $249 in the U.S. and €279 in Portugal, cheaper than both the TCL 10 Pro and the launch price of last year's Plex.

But with that lower price tag come a few sacrifices. The TCL 10L is a step down from the 10 Pro in just about every way, inside and out. Even compared to the Plex, there are a few things you'll be giving up, and ultimately, it's hard to justify getting the 10L if you can get last year's model. Just like I did with the TCL 10 Pro, I'll be making some callbacks to the Plex because I found that phone to be an amazing deal.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 665, four Kryo 260 Gold 2.0GHz, four Kryo 260 Silver 1.8GHz
GPU Adreno 610
Body 162.2 X 75.6 X 8.4 mm (6.39x2.98x0.33in), 180g (6.35oz)
Display 6.53 inches, 1080x2340, 19.5:9, 395ppi, LCD LTPS
Camera 48MP with quad pixel technology, 8MP wide-angle, 2MP macro camera, 2MP depth camera; Front - 16MP with quad pixel
Video 4K - 30fps, 240fps Slow Motion; Front - 1080p - 30fps
Aperture Main: f/1.8, Wide-angle: f/2.2, Macro: f/2.4, Depth: f/2.4; Front - f/2.2
Storage 64GB
RAM 6GB
Battery 4,000mAh, 10W charging
Material Plastic
Price €279/$249

Day one

Design

The lower cost of the TCL 10L immediately becomes apparent as soon as you pick it up. Instead of the premium glass and metal construction of the 10 Pro, it opts for a plastic build, and you feel it right away when you hold it. It's lighter, sure, but it just doesn't feel that great. The TCL Plex used glass too, and felt a lot better in the hand.

Just like the TCL 10 Pro, there are four cameras on the back of this phone, but where the 10 Pro went with a completely flat design, housing the cameras in the main body, the TCL 10L has a very significant camera bump. To TCL's credit, it's symmetrical and I probably prefer this horizontal bar over a vertical one, but nothing really compares to having a completely flat camera setup. Below that, there's the fingerprint sensor, which I'm fine with.

The frame of the phone feels equally plasticky, and along the right edge, there's the usual volume rocker and power button, which are fine.

The left edge has the smart key, and to TCL's credit, at least it's still useful on this one. As I mentioned on the 10 Pro's review, the button was turned into a basic Google Assistant button with a software update, but that hasn't happened on the 10L, so you can still assign all kinds of shortcuts to it, which is pretty great. Also on this side, there's the SIM card slot.

Along the bottom edge, there's a USB Type-C port for charging and two grills, one hiding the speaker and another hiding a microphone. Having the two grills is clearly meant to create a symmetrical look, which I appreciate, but you'd be mistaken to think there are two speakers here.

Finally, the top edge has another microphone and a 3.5mm headphone jack. Unlike the TCL 10 Pro, there's no IR blaster here, so you can't control your home appliances that way.

Display and sound

On paper, the TCL 10L has an almost identical display to that of the TCL Plex, with a 6.53-inch LCD panel in Full HD+ resolution and the same 19.5:9 aspect ratio. TCL's landmark feature, NXTVISION, is also available here, promising visual enhancements and SDR to HDR conversion, and features like a reading mode are still here. The display also has the same punch-hole cutout for the front-facing camera, so it almost feels like a carbon copy.

While I thought the TCL Plex's display was pretty great at the time, I'm not particularly impressed by the screen on the 10L. It's fine and serviceable, but maybe because I'm more used to OLED displays by now, I just don't really love it. Colors don't feel quite as vibrant as they do on some other phones, and of course you don't get the deep blacks you can get from an OLED.

As for sound, the TCL 10L didn't exactly blow me away either. I'm not too bothered by single-speaker setups, especially at this price point, but it's not a fantastic speaker. This isn't something I usually complain about, but the speaker on this phone sounds a little tinny to me, and it just doesn't feel all that immersive because of that. Just like other TCL phones, though, this one supports Super Bluetooth, so you can still connect to up to four Bluetooth speakers or headsets at once and play music on all of them at the same time. I don't really have a use for this personally, but it can be a way to share music with a group of people without disturbing those around you, for example.

Camera

Like the TCL 10 Pro, the TCL 10L has four cameras on the back, but that really doesn't mean as much here. Coming from the Plex, the extra camera is a 2MP macro lens, which I will continue to insist is not necessary. Not only that, one of the most unique features of TCL's phones, the low-light video camera, is replaced with depth camera for portrait shots, which makes even less sense to me than a macro camera. On top of that, the ultra-wide camera here is 8MP instead of 16MP, and we're looking at a 48MP primary sensor instead of the 64MP camera of the 10 Pro.

When it comes to actual results, the TCL 10L isn't terrible, at least. The 48MP camera may be a lower resolution, but in daylight, it didn't seem as prone to oversaturation as the main camera of the 10 Pro, and pictures look fine overall. However, this is the first phone I've used in a long time that doesn't offer any kind of night mode, and so, when it gets dark, the quality takes a big hit. The phone does try to brighten up the scene, but it doesn't work quite as well without the additional processing night mode usually requires.

With the much lower resolution, that ultra-wide camera also tends to feel like it loses a lot of sharpness, so I wasn't really impressed by it. As for the macro camera, as much as I would like it to be built into the ultra-wide lens, it does still take some decent shots and is quite fun to use. Ultimately, my major problems with this camera setup come from the complete disregard for nighttime use, without even as much as a night mode for photos. The removal of the dedicated low-light video is especially painful for me, because it truly made TCL's phones stand out from just about everything else, and the depth camera that replaces it just feels like the worst possible consolation prize.

At 16MP, the front-facing camera is also using a lower-resolution sensor compared to the TCL 10 Pro or even the Plex, both of which had a 24MP selfie camera. The quality seems fine, though, and I don't have much in the way of complaints here.

Performance and battery life

Day-to-day performance on the TCL 10L is pretty acceptable. Having 6GB of RAM at this price point is pretty good, and it makes switching between recent apps a pretty frictionless experience. However, using eMMC 5.1 for storage instead of UFS 2.1 does have an impact on loading times, and that's most noticeable when booting up the phone.

The Snapdragon 665 chipset is a solid mid-ranger, but it's clearly a step down from the Snapdragon 675 in the TCL Plex, and that starts to become apparent in games. Pokémon GO doesn't run quite as smoothly here, and on the default settings, the phone can't maintain a stable frame rate in Asphalt 9: Legends. Meanwhile, PUBG Mobile runs fine, but it doesn't let me crank up the graphics settings as much as the 10 Pro.

In benchmarks, as you'd expect, the TCL 10L is noticeably slower than the other TCL phones. The AnTuTu benchmark shows that almost every aspect of the experience is downgraded compared to the TCL Plex. On the other hand, though, it's not too far off from the Samsung Galaxy A51, even beating it in the CPU test. That's impressive considering the Galaxy A51 is a much more expensive phone.

GeekBench 5 tests the CPU, and interestingly enough, the story is reversed here, with Samsung's phone pulling a convincing victory.

Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU, and it's in line with what you'd expect, with the Adreno 610 only slightly trailing the Adreno 612 in the Snapdragon 675.

With a 4,000mAh battery, the TCL 10L has been a pretty solid smartphone in terms of battery life. I've been able to get two days of battery life from it more than once, which isn't something I can say about a lot of phones. As I've mentioned before, my usage mostly consists of YouTube, Telegram, and browsing Twitter, so you can make of that what you will.

There's not a lot to say about the software here that I didn't say about the TCL 10 Pro. The software experience is exactly the same, with the only exception being that the smart key is actually useful and can be customized, something that TCL disabled on the 10 Pro. You still get the same tool to transfer files to a PC, along with the new launcher that replaces TCL's old Smart Assistant with Google's feed, and the other improvements I mentioned in that review. It also has the same failings, such as the lack of display scaling options.

Conclusion

In many ways, I feel thoroughly disappointed with the TCL 10L. It's not an unusable phone by any means, the performance is solid, the camera is fairly versatile and the quality isn't terrible, and the battery life is pretty good.

For me, it's TCL's own fault that the 10L feels so underwhelming. It costs €279 in Portugal, which is €50 below what the TCL Plex's launch price of €329. That's a significant difference, but those €50 get you a better chipset, faster storage (and double the amount of storage), a much more premium design, and better cameras. Specifically, it gets you that unique low-light video camera that TCL removed from the 10L, and a night mode for photos that's inexplicably missing here.

And because the TCL Plex is a few months old, you can get it for even less than the price of the 10L. As of the time of writing, Portuguese retailer Worten is selling the Plex for €219,99 and the 10L for €259,99 - and that's not the first time nor the first retailer where I see the Plex at that price. You do get a newer version of Android on the 10L, and maybe a slightly longer support period for future updates, but it seems impossible to justify it compared to the Plex.

With that being said, though, the Plex was exclusive to Europe. In the U.S., the TCL 10L costs $249, and that's the same as Motorola's moto g power. In comparison, the TCL 10L has significantly more RAM (6GB instead of 4GB), and a seemingly better camera setup, with a 48MP main camera compared to the g power's 16MP. On the flip side, the moto g power has a massive 5,000mAh, so it should last longer. If you live in the U.S., the 10L becomes a more compelling option in its price range.

 

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