It’s been a breakout year for TCL, which used to devote its smartphone efforts to building devices under other companies’ brand names, but has spent 2020 making phones for itself. And the TCL 10 5G UW may be the phone maker’s crowning achievement.
The TCL 10 5G UW takes the finer points of other phones TCL has introduced this year — an excellent display, attractive design and serviceable cameras — and adds 5G connectivity. At the same time, it delivers all of that in a handset that costs $399 — a fraction of what you’ll pay for many of the best 5G phones.
There are more complete smartphones than the TCL 10 5G UW out there. But few other phones deliver such sought-after capabilities for this low a price. In this TCL 10 5G UW review, we’ll look at whether this affordable 5G phone is the right choice for you.
TCL 10 5G UW review: Price and availability
The TCL 10 5G is a Verizon-exclusive, sold through the carrier for $399. Buy the phone in monthly installments, and you’ll pay $16.66 a month for 24 months.
This is one of the least expensive 5G-capable devices you can buy. The OnePlus Nord N10 5G is coming to the U.S., though OnePlus hasn’t set a price yet. The fact that the phone costs ´£329 in the U.K. suggests it will be about as much as the TCL 10 5G when it does land here. Otherwise, if you want a 5G phone, you’re looking at the Google Pixel 4a 5G or the Samsung Galaxy A51 5G, both of which cost $499. (These days, sales on the Galaxy A51 bring the cost of the 5G version down to the TCL 10 5G’s level.)
TCL 10 5G UW review: Design
The greatest compliment you can pay to the TCL 10 5G UW is to note that it doesn’t look like a sub-$400 phone at first glance. Pick up the handset and tap the plastic back, and the secret’s out of the bag, but TCL excels at designing phones that hide their budget origins well.
To house the phone’s 6.53-inch display, you get a 6.4 x 3 x 0.37-inch device that’s pretty easy to fit in one hand. That’s taller, wider and thicker than Google’s Pixel 4a 5G phone, as well as the Samsung Galaxy A51 5G, both of which accommodate smaller screens (although not that much smaller, in the case of the 6.5-inch A51). The TCL 10 5G also packs on more weight at 7.4 ounces than the 5.9-ounce Pixel 4a 5G and 6.6-ounce A51.
You’ll appreciate the fact that the TCL 10 5G UW still includes a headphone jack on the top of the phone — a vanishing sight on many smartphones these days. Verizon offers only a Diamond Gray model, and the back of the phone really picks up fingerprints, especially around the fingerprint sensor on the back.
TCL 10 5G UW review: Display
In its short time making smartphones under its own brand name, TCL has stood out for its displays, employing many of the features that help make it a leading TV supplier. Indeed, when I reviewed the TCL 10L earlier this year, I thought the LCD screen on that budget phone was one of its top features — something you usually don’t say about phones that cost $400 or less.
You can make the same argument for the 6.53-inch LCD panel on the TCL 10 5G UW. No, this isn’t an OLED screen — to get that, you’d have to opt for the more expensive TCL 10 Pro — but the colorful pictures it provides are more than enough to outshine other budget handsets.
Credit the Nxtvision technologies TCL has built into the phone to augment the TCL 10 5G’s display. From the Nxtvision tab in Settings, you can turn on SDR-to-HDR upconversion to get brighter highlights, better contrast and bolder colors as you watch videos. You can also set the phone to automatically adjust the screen’s color temperature based on the ambient light around you, while features like a Reading Mode can give the screen an e-reader-like cast when you have a long book or article to scroll through.
That said, other phones capture more of the sRGB color spectrum, based on the 105.1% reading we got when we tested the TCL 10 5G UW in our lab. The Pixel 4a 5G reproduced 128.3% of those colors, while the OnePlus Nord N10 5G tallied 124.8%. The TCL 10 5G’s colors are fairly accurate, according to its Delta-E rating of 0.28, edging ahead of the Pixel 4a 5G’s 0.3 but trailing the Nord’s 0.22 score. (Numbers closer to zero are better.)
I didn’t notice any of that, though, when I fired up Disney Plus on the TCL 10 5G UW and watched the classic Three Caballeros. Disney’s colorful South American-inspired animations popped on the screen and the blues, reds, yellows and greens on Donald Duck and his two feathered friends looked as accurate as they do when I watch the same movie on my TV.
Switching over to The Last Jedi, I enjoyed the bright red colors of Leader Snoke’s throne room and the flash of lightsabers as Rey and Kylo Ren went to town on the Praetorian Guard. Some scenes in Jedi were a little bit dark, but cranking up the brightness on the phone took care of that.
And that’s my one complaint about the TCL 10 5G’s screen, echoing something I’ve noticed with other TCL phones: It’s way too dim. We measured a peak brightness of 385 nits with a light meter, and that’s well behind the perfectly bright screens of the Pixel 4a 5G (638 nits) and iPhone SE (653 nits). Even the OnePlus Nord N10 5G, which I found distressingly dim, outperformed the TCL 10 5G with a 406-nit reading.
TCL 10 5G UW review: Camera
The cameras on the TCL-branded phones we’ve reviewed to date haven’t really blown us away, delivering solid pictures, but struggling with overall consistency. That trend continues with the TCL 10 5G UW, which doesn’t really challenge the best camera phones we’ve seen but will produce generally pleasing photos for a device that costs you less than $400.
Three rear cameras handle the picture-taking duties on the TCL 10 5G, with a 48MP main lens doing the heavy lifting. To that, TCL has added an 8MP ultrawide camera and a 5MP macro lens.
I’ve had issues with some of the color in TCL-produced photos, but that’s not in evidence here in this picture of a lamb burger. The burger itself is nice and pink, and the TCL 10 5G also accurately captures the purple onion and green pickle I’ve placed under the top bun. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that the burger in TCL’s shot looks tastier than the muted colors that the Pixel 4a 5G produced.
However, the tiki mugs in the background are a little out of focus — particularly the C-3PO and Jawa mugs. The Pixel 4a 5G doesn’t have that problem, putting everything in sharp focus for a better-composed shot overall.
The color wasn’t as consistent when I tried out the TCL 10 5G’s ultrawide lens. There’s a streak of washed-out leaves on the trees on the left side of the photo that’s not present in the Pixel 4a 5G shot. Instead, Google’s phone does a better job teasing out those colors on the tree leaves as they’re hit by a beam of sunlight. You can also make out some of the detailed wear-and-tear on the dome over the far left of the house in the Pixel 4a shot.
That’s not to say the TCL 10 5G stumbled here. If you zoom in on the house, you can still make out details in the woodwork that lesser camera phones would have failed to capture. I also think the colors of the house are accurate, even though the brick color of the driveway and trim feels a bit richer on the Pixel’s version.
I’m very impressed by how the TCL 10 5G handled a low-light photo with its Super Night mode, even though this phone lacks the dedicated 2MP sensor the TCL 10 Pro features to help with dark shots. In fact, the TCL 10 5G even holds its own against the Pixel 4a 5G, which features some of the best low-light photos I’ve seen in a mid-range camera phone.
I think the Pixel has the better overall shot, capturing more of the green in the Oakland A’s hat and highlighting the brown wicker footrest that gets a little over-exposed in the TCL photo. However, the TCL 10 5G does a good job contending with the shadows, and it really doesn’t wash anything out the way other inexpensive phones sometimes do when trying to compensate for low light.
I continue to be baffled by why phone makers insist on putting dedicated macro lenses on their handsets. But if we have to get phones with superfluous macro features, at least let them perform as well as the TCL 10 5G’s macro lens did. It kept most of the petals of this pink rose in focus, and you can even spot some flecks of dirt on the leaves of the flower. The Pixel 4a 5G, which has no macro lens, struggled to keep the rose in focus when I got up close to the flower.
The TCL 10 5G UW can’t quite keep up with the Pixel 4a 5G when it comes to portrait shots, but that’s largely because Google chooses to crop in closer on the subjects of your portrait. At least TCL’s computation software seems to figure out where my daughter ends and the background begins, as even stray strands of hair are kept in focus. The background blur is a bit more stylish in the Pixel’s version, though.
For selfies, the TCL 10 5G UW relies on a 16MP camera that promises brighter shots thanks to 4-in-1 big pixel technology. The shot TCL’s phone took of me is certainly bright, to the point where the lemon tree behind me is horribly overexposed. You also can’t tell what color shirt I’m wearing, as the TCL 10 5G has made it almost look blue. It’s supposed to be purple, as you can tell from the Pixel 4a 5G photo, which also cuts in closer and doesn’t turn the lemon tree behind me into an indistinct smear.
TCL 10 5G UW review: Performance
One of the ways TCL is saving costs on its 5G phone is by foregoing the Snapdragon 8 series chipsets that power the most expensive models, in favor of a less powerful system-on-chip that still delivers 5G connectivity. The TCL 10 5G UW runs on a Snapdragon 765G — a pretty good processor for a $399 phone, considering you’ll find it in devices that cost $300 more than TCL’s handset.
As a result, the TCL 10 5G fares well when its benchmark results are compared to other midrange 5G phones. On Geekbench 5, the TCL phone produced a multi-core score of 1,932. That’s well ahead of the Pixel 4a 5G’s 1,617 result, and even tops more expensive Snapdragon 765G-powered devices like the $699 LG Velvet (1,927). It probably helps that TCL included the same 6GB of RAM found in those two phones.
On the graphics front, the TCL 10 5G’s performance was on par with the LG Velvet in the 3DMark Wild Life Unlimited test, posting a score of 1,670 (10 frames per second) to the LG phone’s 1,680 (10 FPS) score. The TCL 10 5G outperformed both the Pixel 4a 5G (1,199 or 7 FPS) and the OnePlus Nord N10 5G (809 or just under 5 FPS) by some measure.
In terms of real-world use, that means the TCL 10 5G UW is going to be able to handle most of the apps and tasks you throw at it, especially if you primarily use your phone to surf, stream and upload things to various social networks. Even graphically demanding games perform all right on the TCL 10 5G. Running PUBG Mobile, I noticed a few stutters when driving a jeep across a battlefield, but I never ran into the kind of pauses or glitches that would mar gameplay on less capable phones.
The UW at the end of the TCL 10 5G’s name stands for Ultra Wideband, which is the name Verizon gives its high-speed 5G network. That should give you some idea of what kind of 5G connectivity you can expect from this phone, though Verizon’s Ultra Wideband installations are limited to parts of 51 cities, and they’re primarily outdoors.
Most of your Verizon 5G connectivity will come from the carrier’s lower-spectrum nationwide network, which covers some 1,800 cities and towns across the U.S. You may experience slightly faster speeds than you’d get from LTE, but nothing along the lines of the 1 Gbps speeds that Ultra Wideband can deliver when conditions are right. That figure should improve as Verizon’s network expands, but don’t expect game-changing 5G if you opt for this phone.
TCL 10 5G UW review: Battery and charging
The 4,500 mAh battery in the TCL 10 5G UW is more than capable of getting you through the day on a charge. In our battery test, which involves having the phone surf the web over cellular until it runs out of power, the phone lasted an average of 11 hours and 7 minutes. That’s well ahead of the average for smartphones and places the TCL 10 5G UW on our best phone battery life list.
We run our battery test a few times to get that average result, and it’s worth noting that the TCL 10 5G produced a wide range of results — topping 12 hours on one occasion, dropping down below 10 hours on another. We’ll chalk that up to the vagaries of Verizon’s recently launched nationwide 5G network, but in everyday use, I found that I could get from sun up to sun down without having to plug in TCL’s phone for a power boost.
TCL says its support for fast charging can get a drained phone back up to 37% after 30 minutes. Using the included charger, we were able to verify that claim, as our phone hit the 40% mark after half-an-hour. That’s not as much as the Pixel 4a 5G or the OnePlus Nord N10 5G, which hit 46% and 68%, respectively, but it’s much faster than the iPhone SE’s 5W charger, which only reached the 29% mark after 30 minutes.
TCL 10 5G UW review: Software
The TCL 10 5G UW ships with Android 10, though an Android 11 update is on its way. Unfortunately, that’s likely the only Android update you’ll be getting with this phone, as TCL has committed to just one new version of Android for its 10 series of phones, along with two years of security updates.
Because this is a Verizon-tied phone, you’ll find a lot of preinstalled apps waiting for you when you first fire up the TCL 10 5G. Some — like the My Verizon app for logging into your account, or the Disney Plus app — are quite useful. (Verizon’s unlimited data plans, which you’ll need for 5G service, include either a Disney Plus trial or a complimentary subscription.) Others, like Yahoo Mail or Verizon’s cloud storage app, merely take up space.
The TCL 10 5G UW features both a rear fingerprint sensor and face unlocking among its security features. The latter is a pretty quick way to unlock the device, especially since TCL’s fingerprint reader, located on the back of the phone, can be a little tricky to locate. Tapping the sensor with a recognized finger will wake up and unlock your phone in one fell swoop, though.
TCL 10 5G UW review: Verdict
I remain convinced that the Pixel 4a 5G is still the best option for people who want a 5G-capable phone, but don’t want to pay top dollar for the privilege. But after all the testing for this TCL 10 5G UW review, I’m convinced that TCL’s 5G phone is a great alternative for people who want a 5G phone that costs less than $500.
The Verizon tie-in will be a put-off to people who want more flexibility when it comes to picking a wireless provider, and the Pixel 4a 5G’s cameras certainly outperform what the TCL 10 5G provides. But TCL’s phone is capable of taking good pictures, and you’ll get an excellent display, a long-lasting battery and performance that matches more expensive phones as part of the bargain.
Lots of phones promise 5G compatibility. But few deliver it at as low a cost as what the TCL 10 5G UW can boast.