You’ve probably already heard of TCL thanks to their surprisingly good Roku-powered TVs, but you’re much less likely to think of them as a phone manufacturer. That’s because while TCL has certainly made its fair share of phones over the years, it’s tended to put other brands’ names on them, like the BlackBerry Key2.
That makes the $449 TCL 10 Pro a little bit special because this is a big attempt from the company to make a name for itself in the world of smartphones. TCL’s logo is right there on the back of the device and, thankfully for TCL, it makes a great first impression thanks to a big screen, minimal bezels, and a sleek camera array.
In the world of TVs, TCL’s logo has become a signifier of affordable quality, and it seems to be going for the same result in smartphones. But its modest $449 price tag means the TCL 10 Pro is launching into an increasingly crowded segment that includes the likes of the Samsung Galaxy A51 and Apple’s new iPhone SE. Good first impressions aren’t enough if this phone wants to be competitive when it launches on May 19th in the US.
The TCL 10 Pro features a handset design that wouldn’t have looked out of place on a flagship phone just a couple of years ago, and I mean that in a good way. It’s got reasonably small bezels, a display that curves around its sides, and a small, centrally positioned display notch. It all means that despite its big, 6.47-inch display, the phone doesn’t feel too bulky to hold.
I also really like how TCL has managed to sidestep the industry’s recent trend toward massive camera bumps with an almost entirely flat back. There are still four cameras here, but TCL has successfully recessed them into the rear of the phone. The flash modules protrude ever so slightly, but I think it’s a big improvement over other much more expensive devices that invariably wobble when you put them down on a flat surface. It’s mainly an aesthetic point, but I think it contributes to a much sleeker and more premium-feeling phone.
There’s a USB-C port on the bottom which can charge at up to 18W, but you won’t be able to charge this phone wirelessly. At this price point that’s not an immediate deal-breaker, but it’s a feature that’s slowly appearing on cheaper phones like the recent iPhone SE. The 10 Pro has an IP52 water resistance rating, which means that it can deal with light sprays of water, but it won’t survive being completely immersed. Again, at this price that’s not unusual.
It’s a little hard to evaluate a phone’s battery life given everyone’s home-based lifestyles at the moment, but I had no problems with the 10 Pro’s battery life. I was averaging anywhere between four and six hours of screentime between charges, which is okay, but a little low considering this phone’s relatively big 4,500mAh battery. Regardless, it should be enough to get you through a day of use without any difficulty.
There’s a headphone jack on the top of the device, and opposite its side-mounted volume rocker and power buttons, there’s a dedicated Google Assistant button. TCL originally said it was going to let you remap this button, but confirmed to me that this feature hasn’t made it into the final phone. Whether you can remap it or not is a little besides the point, however, because I found it was far too easy to accidentally press. I was constantly activating Google Assistant when putting the phone into my pocket, for example. Eventually, I disabled it entirely in the phone’s accessibility settings menu.
The 10 Pro is equipped with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 675 processor, 6GB of RAM, and 128GB of expandable storage, which in 2020 terms translates to solid midrange Android specs. In day-to-day use it more or less did everything I needed it to, but I experienced occasional stuttering while switching between apps, and gaming performance was middling. Normally, I’d say that these specs are to be expected at this price point were it not for the fact that you can get Apple’s most powerful processor in the similarly priced iPhone SE (2020). Apple’s budget phone is definitely the exception rather than the rule, however, and the 10 Pro compares more favorably to its Android competitors.
In terms of software, TCL has made some sensible tweaks to Android, and in other cases where it misses the mark, you can easily undo its choices.
For example, I grew to rely a lot on the Edge Bar, which gives you an easy shortcut to access your frequently used apps. It’s not unique to TCL’s take on Android and you’ll find a similar feature on Samsung’s recent phones or the Motorola Edge, but its implementation is solid and I found it useful for quickly accessing my password manager and authentication apps.
On the other hand, I quickly turned off TCL’s SDR to HDR conversion feature, which deepens blacks and makes highlights brighter in standard dynamic range content to make it look like HDR content. It’s not the worst thing I’ve ever seen, but I think it makes images look a little processed and unnatural.
Aside from the misjudged SDR to HDR conversion feature, I generally liked the way the TCL 10 Pro’s 1080p OLED display looked. It’s bright, it’s colorful, and when you’re watching actual HDR content it looks great. My biggest issue with the display is that its colors can be a little oversaturated, but switching the display to its “gentle” color profile goes a long way toward solving the issue, even if it still ends up looking a little too vibrant for my liking.
The TCL 10 Pro features an optical in-display fingerprint sensor, which I found was about as reliable as any other in-display sensor I’ve used. It failed on me at most once a day during my time with the phone, which isn’t bad.
Unfortunately, once you’ve unlocked the phone its display can also be a pain to use because its curved sides are far too prone to accidental touches. I’d grab the phone to turn it into landscape mode when watching YouTube, for example, and accidentally open an ad in the process. This isn’t a problem that’s unique to the curved screen on the 10 Pro, but it felt less manageable here.
I also had problems with the small size of the lower bezel, since TCL hasn’t done a great job at optimizing this phone when you’ve got Android 10’s new gesture controls turned on. With the navigation buttons gone, the 10 Pro’s keyboard is way too far down the screen. Some people hate the fact that other manufacturers like OnePlus insert a blank space underneath their keyboards, but when I used the TCL 10 Pro side by side with the OnePlus 8 Pro, it was much easier to type on a keyboard further up the screen.
TCL has succeeded in making a high-end looking phone with small bezels. But what it hasn’t done is optimized this phone’s software with these small bezels in mind. It’s a flashy design, but that style comes at the expense of usability.
It’s a similar story when it comes to the TCL 10 Pro’s cameras. They look great on the outside, but their actual performance leaves a lot to be desired.
The 10 Pro has four rear cameras, a main 64-megapixel sensor, a 16-megapixel ultrawide, a 5-megapixel macro camera, and a 2-megapixel depth-sensing camera. There’s a 24-megapixel camera on the front.
These specs sound like you might get a half-decent photography experience, but the 10 Pro’s photos end up looking overly processed, unnatural, and at times completely fluorescent. It’s all summed up fairly nicely by the trees on the top left of the following image. Not only are they completely oversaturated, they’re so sharpened that they look almost cut out against the sky. The same shot taken on a Pixel 3 shows how the trees are supposed to look and provides an idea of what sort of camera performance you could get out of the similarly priced Pixel 3A.
When it comes to faces, the 10 Pro makes them look a little soft and brightened, and low-light performance is really unimpressive. This one shot of a bookcase came out looking like it had an Instagram filter applied to it thanks to the way its cameras messed up the white balance and contrast.
Likewise, the quality of video recording is nothing special. The 10 Pro can go up to 4K at 30fps and does slow-motion video up to 960fps at 720p. Although the image stabilization is generally fine, the same issues with oversaturation were also present when recording video, and I also observed some flicker and shakiness during playback. These may have been acceptable compromises even a couple of months ago, but the iPhone SE 2 has just significantly raised the bar for video recording performance at this price level.
There is a lot to like about the TCL 10 Pro, but there are also some frustrating first-gen kinks that need to be ironed out. Yes, there’s a nice big colorful display with minimal bezels, but the phone constantly thinks you’re touching the sides of the screen. There’s a nice range of rear cameras, but TCL’s aggressive image processing can spoil the photos they take. There’s a headphone jack, but also a Google Assistant button that’s a little too easy to accidentally press.
TCL has built a lot of its recent reputation off the back of its solid midrange TVs. It just might take a little longer for its logo to stand out in the world of smartphones.