TV maker TCL’s $250 smartphone is actually a great phone for the price

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TCL is the world’s second-largest TV maker – you probably know them for their Roku TVs. Now, the company is introducing its first lineup of smartphones called the TCL 10 Series. I tested out the budget-friendly $250 TCL 10L and I’m surprised at what a great value it is.

The entire lineup bucks the trend we saw over the past few years where smartphones just continued to get more expensive.

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TCL 10L smartphone, image courtesy TCL

TCL actually has two phones in it’s starting lineup – the TCL 10L for $250 and the TCL 10Pro for $450. I’m focusing on the $250 phone because I would probably recommend a Pixel 3a (or forthcoming 4a) for $399 because of its combination of incredible camera and Google software.

But, for $250 (and I have a sneaking suspicion you’ll be able to nab this for $199 if retailers run limited-time deals) the 10L is a great little phone. Let’s take a look at why.

For starters, you get a nice big 6.53-inch display and it looks great. After all, this is a company that makes TVs, so you sort of have to expect that.

On the back of the phone, there are four cameras (more on them in a bit) and a physical fingerprint reader. These days, many fingerprint sensors have been eliminated or embedded in the screen, but I’m fine with this placement.

Next, a surprise: an actual headphone jack on the top of the phone! Yes, you can plug in a good old fashioned pair of wired headphones (not included in the box, BTW). No need for expensive Bluetooth headphones or some silly adapter.

It gets even better: TCL includes an FM radio app on the phone that lets you tune in real FM radio stations over the air. The headset cable acts as an antenna, so you have to have a pair of headphones plugged in for this to work. End result: free music without using your data plan!

Now to the left side of the phone – another nice touch. A “Smart Key” you can program to perform quick tasks. You can program a single press, double press and long press. For instance, a single press to activate Google Assistant, double press a selfie, long press to optimize the memory. It’s quite refreshing, especially at a time when many other manufacturers lock you into just their voice assistant or limited functionality.

Standard storage on the TCL 10L is 64 gigabytes, along with 6 gigabytes of RAM. There’s also a memory card slot so you can expand storage. Charging is done via USB-C which is also nice since many “budget” Android phones stick you with the older Micro-USB. However, there is no quick charge functionality or wireless charging.

When it comes to the processor, it’s not the latest or greatest. However, it’s just fine for everyday tasks. If you are a social media star or run a business off of your phone, you probably want to look elsewhere. But if you just want to answer texts, listen to music, surf the web, check emails, make calls and hang out on social media, this phone will be just fine.

In fact, the software is refreshingly devoid of bloat and pre-installed nonsense apps like games you’ll never play. The only pre-installed apps, besides TCL’s own roster of helpful tools, are Facebook and Netflix. I can deal with that.

It’s also pretty amazing how many useful features TCL built into this phone. For example, there’s a Bluetooth feature that lets you send the music you’re playing to up to four different speakers at one time. Apple has a similar feature called Share Audio, but it only works with their pricey Bluetooth headsets. This works with any Bluetooth device.

There’s also an AirDrop-esque feature built into the phone called File Share which allows you to simply and quickly transfer files (including photos and videos) back and forth between a computer fast. It’s so easy I’m now wondering why all Android manufacturers don’t have a similar functionality built-in.

The camera is very good for the price. There are four lenses: a 48-megapixel high-resolution camera, a depth camera to help with bokeh shots, a macro camera, and a 118-degree wide-angle shooter. The selfie camera is 16 megapixels. The camera focuses fast and doesn’t hesitate when snapping photos. The pictures look good a majority of the time, especially in bright light.

macro shot
portrait mode
light trail mode
portrait mode on the back camera
macro mode

Again, if you’re trying to become an Instagram influencer this is not the camera for you. But if you’re just taking everyday shots, they will be perfectly fine most of the time. For certain trickier shots, it might take a snap or two to get it right.

I’m also very impressed with how many fun little modes they built into the camera including super macro, pro, slo-mo, stop motion, and light trace.

Another cool feature: you can aim the camera at a food and it will tell you how many calories are in it. It’s not always right, but again, it just shows you the kind of forward-thinking built into this device.

Overall,  the TCL 10L is impressive for the price. Nothing here is the best, but at $250, it feels like you’re getting a smart phone for the price. They even toss in a free case in the box!

The TCL 10L is sold unlocked, which means it will work out of the box with a wide variety of carriers with no long term contracts. The TCL 10L will be on sale on Amazon on May 19 for $250, coming to Best Buy and Walmart later this month.

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