TCL 10 Pro Review

Remember when the new kid on the block, OnePlus was all about making the best possible Android smartphone and selling it for the best possible price? In 2020 OnePlus’s “Best Bang for Your Buck” title has been challenged a bit. First of all, their OnePlus 8 series is getting kind of expensive at $700+. Secondly, we now have the TCL 10 Pro for $449, which has some excellent high-end features that can certainly be compared to other phones that cost twice the price!  Read on to see if the TCL 10 Pro has everything you could ever want in a $449 smartphone.

Specs

The TCL 10 Pro starts off with a Qualcomm®Snapdragon™675 Kyro™ 460 octa-core processor (2 x Gold 2.0 GHz, 6 x Silver 1.7 GHz). We’ve got 128GB of storage space (103Gb available) and 6Gb of RAM, and there’s a MicroSD card slot that accepts up to 256Gb of extra storage. For a display, we’ve got a 6.47″ AMOLED screen with FHD+ 2340 x 1080 pixel resolution and a 19.5:9 aspect ratio. There’s even a fingerprint scanner inside the screen. This is not a 5G phone, but it has a wide range of network radio support for GSM,UMTS, and LTE bands along with VoLTE. There’s WiFi that supports everything up to 802.11ac on 5Ghz with WiFi Direct and WiFi Display support. Bluetooth 5.0 is there along with a USB 2.0 type C data/charging port. The batter has a 4500 mAh capacity that can fully charge in 2hrs and should provide about 18 hours of talk time. There are four cameras on the back with two LED flashes, and one camera on the front. The back cameras are 64Mp normal focal length, 16Mp super wide angle, 5Mp macro, and 2Mp super low light, while the front camera has 24Mp and uses the LCD for a flash.

In the box, you get the TCL 10 Pro, charger, USB-C to USB-A cable, and a nice clear case.

Hardware and Design

The TCL 10 Pro hardware looks really good. While Apple and Samsung and Huawei are all making big blocky squircle cutouts on the backs of their phones for the camera arrays, TCL’s 4-camera array is nicely flush with the back of the phone and the cameras are arranged in a thin band that goes from edge to edge. It’s a breath of fresh air seeing a camera arrangement like this.

This review unit comes in “Ember Grey” which also looks excellent. It’s got a blend of dark grey and light grey that changes shades depending on the light.

Of course there’s the TCL logo on the back as well, and we’ve got some tiny type describing the cameras. You’ll also notice two LED flash lights on either side of the camera array band. Again, I really like this layout.

Starting from left to right, we’ve got a 64Mp high res normal 79 degree field of view lens, then a 16Mp ultra wide angle lens with a 123 degree field of view, then a 5Mp macro lens camera, and finally a 2Mp ultra low-light camera with extra large pixel sensors.

On the top edge, we’ve thankfully got a 3.5mm headset jack! Headphones are not included though, but if you do find some, the wired headphones can act as an antenna for the FM radio. There’s also a consumer grade infrared transmitter here so that you can control home devices such as a TV, air conditioner, stereo system, etc.

The bottom edge shows the speaker grill, the USB-C data transfer and charging port, as well as a microphone hole and the SIM card tray which also includes a MicroSD storage expansion card tray.

Having a storage expansion option that uses standard MicroSD cards is a very welcome feature that we hope will remain standard on all smartphones moving forward.

The right edge is where you’ll find the power button and volume up/down rocker. Double pressing the power button while the device is in sleep mode will launch the default camera software, and the volume down button will take a picture.

The left edge of the phone has another special button called the “Smart Key” that happens to be very customizable. You can program this button to have a single press function, double press function, and a press & hold function. The functions available include a wide variety of system functions as well as the ability to launch any installed app of your choosing. We’ll get to that a bit more in the software section below, but the highly customizable button is a welcome return to the old days of smartphones that often had up to 4 programmable tactile hardware buttons for eyes-free functionality. 

The AMOLED screen looks very high-end and even includes a fingerprint scanner built into the screen towards the bottom.

There’s a tear drop shaped notch on the top of the screen for the 24Mp camera and handset speaker.

The included clear case has some extra “Display Greatness” branding on the back, and it looks really nice.

The FHD+ AMOLED screen looks great. It even includes an outdoor visibility mode, but turning that on didn’t seem to have an obvious change. It’s certainly usable outdoors and that’s what matters. The screen also supports HDR in Netflix which is included on the device (and not removable.)

One of my favorite features from the days of old Nokia phones was the glance mode low-power always-on screen that shows some useful information without powering on the whole screen. This feature is nicely part of the TCL Pro 10 as well and even has some nice customization options.

Software

The TCL 10 Pro includes Android 10 and a customized TCL user interface along with a good number of pre-installed applications. I know a lot of people hate on phone manufacturers making customized Android UI’s and launchers and apps, while preferring the Google stock “Android One” UI, but personally… I don’t like Google’s stock UI at all. It’s not very customizable, it relies on hidden gestures that require memorization and more cognitive energy than the more-intuitive point-and-touch UI. In that respect, I like the TCL UI a lot. It is much more customizable than many of the other Android UI options out there and that’s a good thing.

There are a good number of apps included by default. From TCL, you get: Calculator, Camera, Clock, Compass, File Share, Gallery, Music, Notes, Radio, Settings, Smart Manager, and Video apps. From Google, you get: Google Assistant, Calendar, Chrome, Dialer, Contacts, Gmail, Google, Google One, Google Pay, Keep Notes, Messages, and Podcasts apps. Also included are Facebook and Netflix. Netflix is oddly not removable, but Facebook thankfully is.

When it comes to Settings, we’ve got a lot of good stuff in the TCL UI! There are many options to dig through that will let you customize the phone to your liking. You can change the launcher to not have an app drawer, remove the recent apps from the app drawer, change the icon shapes, etc. But there are also two launchers included! You can switch your home screen launcher to the included “Simple” version, which is much more lightweight with larger icons & text to make everything a bit easier to use and easier to see.

For bottom bar navigation, you can choose a gesture-based interface, or the more-traditional back/home/tasks button layout. You can even swap the layout to be more like Samsung’s backwards arrangement. You can also enable an “Edge Bar” that’s accessible from a right-edge swipe which you can add any application to along with contacts and a measurement ruler panel.

Even the “Always on Display” is customizable. You can choose from a good number of graphic layouts and you can even draw your own with your finger. If only it supported showing the weather forecast like the old Nokia Lumia Glance Screens used to do.

One-Handed mode is customizable too. You can set this to be activate-able via the top-edge action center and/or via a bottom bar left-right & right-left slide gesture. But wait, you can also customize how big or small the one-handed mode gets when activated. You can choose from some existing presets like 3.5″ or 4.0″… or you can choose the “Custom” option and use your finger to make the shrunken screen size any size you want. You can tailor it to exactly what’s comfortable for your hand position and finger length!

There are many options for programming the functions of the “Smart Key” on the left edge, too. Unlike Samsung, who might hard-code a button like this to something like Bixby, TCL’s button can do whatever you want it to. You can set different functions for a single press, double press, and long press.

There’s also a super Bluetooth option where you can pair multiple audio speakers and stream simultaneously to them arranged around a room.

Software wise, I’m very happy with the included options in the TCL 10 Pro. I know there are some usability studies that show that too many customization options is as good as having none with many users. That’s probably true for beginners, but if you’re a power user or you become a power user, the ability to decide for yourself what would make your tools work better for your particular usage scenarios and thus the ability to modify your tools for increased efficiency is extremely valuable. The only thing I miss would be a more Huawei-like bottom navigation bar that has 5 buttons instead of 3. I need one for the notifications/action center so I can see that with one tap without having to reach to the top edge with a second hand or switch to the home screen and swipe down in an empty area.

Cameras

The best camera is the one that you have with you, and the TCL 10 Pro has 5 of them. As a photographer, I’m very interested in having an increased range of photography capabilities that I can carry around in my pocket. With smartphones, the easiest way to do that is to add multiple cameras with different lenses or sensors that are useful in different scenarios. Some manufacturers add camera/sensor/lens combinations that really are not useful, like the ones that are only used for those terrible background blur filters. With the TCL 10 Pro, each camera does actually have some very useful capabilities.

On the back of the phone, we’ve got 4 cameras with completely different specs:

Resolution: 64MP + 16MP + 5MP + 2MP
Lens: 6P + 5P + 3P + 5P
Contrast detection auto focus (CDAF), laser detection auto focus (LDAF),
phase-detection auto focus (PDAF)
Aperture: F1.79 + F2.4 + F2.2 + F1.8
Image sensor: GW1 + 3P9 + GC5035 + OV02K10
Sensor size: 1/1.7” + 1/3” + 1/5” + 1/2.8”,
Pixel size: 0.8μm + 1.0μm + 1.12 μm + 2.9μm
Lens field of view: 79 °+ 123° + 83° + 77°

Let’s see what each one is capable of…

64Mp Rear camera

The 64 megapixel sensor is another one of those pixel binning sensors that automatically converts every 4 pixel sensors into 1 color pixel within the image. So that means really we only get a 16 megapixel image… but, due to the binning/downsampling, we get a much cleaner 16Mp image than if we were to use a normal tiny 16Mp sensor. There is also a “High Pixel” mode though and that produces a 64Mp processed JPG image.

Above is a comparison between the Nokia 9, Huawei Mate 20 Pro, and TCL 10 Pro. All 3 are in JPG mode, while the TCL 10 Pro on the right is in High Pixel mode. The High Pixel mode has a great deal of resolution and looks pretty great. When you look more closely though, you’ll see a lot of sharpening and processing was applied. Still, it’s pretty good.


Once you get some RAW DNG files out of the 64Mp sensor, things change quite a bit. In the above you can see a DNG file from Open Camera on the left, and a 16Mp JPG from TCL’s normal camera software on the right. When you look closely, the DNG file is practically professional quality. It’s extremely clean, natural, and sharp for its 16Mp resolution save for a little bit of purple fringing. Adjusting the color balance, exposure, noise, sharpness, etc. in Adobe Camera Raw makes it even better. The 16Mp JPG on the right, doesn’t look so great upon closer inspection. You can see halos on edges from the sharpening filter, and there is some other kind of smudgy noise reduction filter that makes the details look like a painting instead of a natural photo. The detail and image quality in the RAW DNG output from the sensor is just so so much better than what TCL’s camera software creates as a JPG. This tells me that the hardware and lens are pretty good (very slight purple fringing aside), but the default camera software’s post-processing filters and its lack of RAW output are degrading it a bit. There’s room for some great improvements with a software update, TCL!

The “fake background blur” portrait mode on the TCL 10 Pro actually works pretty well and part of that is because the 64Mp sensor downsamples the image to 6Mp. So you’re losing a lot of resolution, but this is a good thing because it makes the depth mapping and subject selection defects much less obvious. It still has obvious defects… for example, the background is still sharp in the glasses lens refraction in the image above, but defects in the masking of the hair are much less obvious when the image is shrunk down from such a high resolution to such a low resolution. This is currently the only way to make fake-background blur photos look good, and the TCL 10 Pro does it pretty well. The Photos app supports changing the amount of blur after the fact as well!

The 64Mp sensor also has a “Super Night” mode as seen in the above left image. The right image is regular auto mode with the same lens/sensor combo. Super night is certainly an improvement, but it’s not even close to what you can get if you switch to the 2Mp ultra-low-light video camera sensor as you’ll see further down in the review.

The 10x “hybrid” zoom is really just digital zoom with some software upsampling and it looks very bad, which is to be expected. The one thing I miss on this phone is another camera/lens combo that has a more telephoto focal length. Something equivalent to a 70mm or 120mm focal length would have been really nice to have.

Below is a gallery of software-processed JPG samples from the 64Mp rear camera.

16Mp Rear wide angle camera

Having ultra-wide angle lens cameras on smartphones is so awesome. I love being able to get a nice wide distorted view of the world once in a while, and the TCL 10 Pro doesn’t disappoint. This is a 16Mp sensor and it’s only accessible in “Auto” mode in the camera software. I don’t know why it’s not available in Pro mode, and there aren’t any photo resolution options at all when the super wide angle camera is selected. This sensor does not do any in-hardware pixel binning, so you do get a full 16Mp JPG with every shot.

5Mp Macro camera

The 64Mp camera can only really focus on subjects when it’s about 10 cm away from them. What if you want to take pictures of something closer? That’s where the macro lens/camera combination comes in!

With the macro lens/camera, you can slam your phone right up against things to take extreme close up photos. Okay, actually you need to be about 1-2 cm away, but still, that’s really close. The image quality from this 5Mp sensor isn’t as spectacular as the RAW images from the 64Mp sensor, but we’re still getting some nice close-up detail here. Unforunately, we can only get processed JPGs out of this sensor and the noise reduction filter doesn’t look so nice once you look closely.

The dual LED flashes that are so far apart on this phone really help a lot with these extreme close up macro photos though. Instead of getting harsh straight-on light, they provide light from two sides of the image. Rotate the phone to change the lighting angle for something more interesting. These lights are also very useful since usually bringing your phone so close to a subject will block the natural light anyway.

Here are some macro extreme close up photo samples:

2Mp low-light video camera

The 4th camera can’t be used for still photos for some reason (I wish it could). This camera only kicks in when you’re using video mode and you have low-light mode turned on. It turns the video resolution down to 1080p as well since this camera doesn’t work with 4K video. That being said, the light sensitivity due to this sensor’s size and its larger pixel sensors is much much better than the other cameras.

Above is a still frame from a video recording using the ultra-low light 2Mp camera sensor on the TCL 10 Pro.

Above is a still frame from a similar video shot with the Nokia 9, a more expensive smartphone with a 5 camera array. This was exactly the same barely-lit scene as the video still shot with the TCL 10 Pro. The TCL 10 Pro is definitely absorbing more light more quickly with this 2Mp sensor!

24Mp Front facing camera

While the front facing camera still has the 4 to 1 pixel binning issue that really generates only a 6Mp photo, the pixel binning ensures that it’s a pretty good 6Mp photo.

You can see a few front facing camera samples below.

Battery

The 4500 mAh battery works quite well for keeping the phone running for about 2 days. The 9V2A QC 3.0 fast charging support gets the battery back up pretty quickly as well, and OTG reverse charging is in there in case you want to charge an accessory with a USB-C cable.

Pricing & Availability

The 10 Pro will launch on Amazon on May 19, 2020, and will be available on Best Buy and Walmart later this month and it will only cost $449 unlocked.

Pros & Cons

Pros

  • 4 rear cameras for distinct photography/video functions
  • 64Mp main camera is excellent in good light
  • 16Mp wide angle camera
  • Big pixel low-light video camera
  • Fingerprint scanner in screen
  • Programmable edge button
  • Beautiful AMOLED screen
  • Highly customizable software
  • $450 price

Cons

  • No wireless charging
  • Camera software doesn’t support RAW output, and Camera API 2 can only access RAW data from the 64Mp camera as 16Mp
  • No water resistance

Conclusion

As you may have surmised by the length of this review, the TCL 10 Pro gives you quite a lot of features and capabilities for quite an affordable $450 price tag. It feels, looks, and performs like something that could cost twice the price. In a world where some smartphones can cost $2000, it’s great to see premium features coming to smartphones at below $500 price points.

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