The smartphone industry has undergone a shift over the past year, as major device makers have moved away from focusing primarily on high-end, premium devices by launching more affordable phones with similar features.
Apple, Samsung, and Google have all released budget phones this year and last year that borrow some of the capabilities of their pricier counterparts.
The move comes as industry analysis has suggested there's been a growing demand for cheaper smartphones. In its figures from April, for example, The International Data Corporation cited Samsung's less expensive Galaxy A series as a key reason it was able to claim the top spot in terms of worldwide market share.
And TCL, best known for its line of televisions, is challenging mobile industry leaders with its own entrant: the TCL 10 Pro.
The $450 TCL 10 Pro, which launched in the US in May, comes with a range of features that even Apple's $1,100 iPhone 11 Pro Max lacks. Such capabilities include an in-screen fingerprint sensor, a curved AMOLED screen, a quadruple camera setup, and a headphone jack.
While the TCL 10 Pro has several features I appreciate — like its always-on display and programmable side button for launching shortcuts — there are a few ways in which it falls behind the iPhone and other pricier phones. Although it has a fingerprint sensor, it doesn't seem to be all that accurate most of the time, for example.
After spending a couple of days with the phone, here's what stood out to me the most. Our full review, which is to come, will have more detail about these features as well as critical areas like the camera and battery life.
The TCL 10 Pro has a large screen with an always-on display, making it easy to see the time and other information at a glance.
The TCL 10 Pro has a 6.47-inch screen that's capable of showing some information like the time even when the display is turned off. It's a feature that's become common across Android smartphones like those made by Samsung, but it's still a welcome addition that's noticeable when switching from the iPhone.
The always-on display on TCL's 10 Pro is optional and can be turned on by navigating to Settings, tapping the "Display" option, and pressing the "Always On Display" button.
When this feature is switched on, the phone will show the time, battery level, date, and app icons representing unchecked notifications even when the screen is asleep.
It may not seem like a deal-breaker, considering it only takes a few seconds to pick up your phone and unlock it. But if you're anything like me, you enjoy using your phone as a bedside clock — and being able to just turn over and see the time without reaching for my phone definitely makes doing so much easier.
There's also a programmable side button that you can customize to perform specific tasks.
It's not uncommon for Android phones to offer more customization and flexibility compared to the iPhone. OnePlus, for example, allows users to customize the navigation bar and offers many different accent and theme colors. Samsung makes it possible to program the side key to either launch an app, open the camera, or trigger its Bixby virtual assistant.
But the TCL 10 Pro offers more customization options for its side key than I've ever personally experienced on other Android phones. The options are so granular that you can program the side button to launch the camera into a specific mode (like Portrait mode or the selfie camera), or start a timer, take a note, turn the flashlight on and off, and a range of other choices.
I have the side button on my review unit set to launch split screen mode, which in my experience makes it faster and easier to run two apps at once on screen.
The TCL 10 Pro is also one of the few smartphones that still comes with a headphone jack.
If you have a pair of wired headphones you're not willing to part with, I have some good news: the TCL 10 Pro comes with a headphone jack.
Although truly wireless Bluetooth headphones like Apple's AirPods, Google's Pixel Buds, and Samsung's Galaxy Buds have become increasingly popular in recent years, I appreciate that I don't have to scramble to find a pair of USB-C headphones to use when my wireless headphones run out of battery.
The TCL 10 Pro joins some older phones like the Google Pixel 3a and Samsung Galaxy S10 in being one of the few devices on the market with a headphone jack.
Its performance is also decent for the price.
The TCL 10 Pro runs on Qualcomm's Snapdragon 675 processor from 2018, a chipset developed for less expensive smartphones. That chip offers enough performance to handle many of the tasks you probably use your smartphone for on a daily basis, like checking email, playing games, and taking photos.
During my brief time with the TCL 10 Pro, the device was able to handle powerful games like "Shadowgun Legends" and "Asphalt 9" with ease. It's not quite as snappy as the $400 iPhone SE, which runs on the same powerful chip in Apple's iPhone 11 lineup, but I haven't noticed any major shortcomings yet when it comes to performance.
But the fingerprint sensor can be unreliable.
The TCL 10 Pro's in-screen fingerprint sensor has been inconsistent during my time with the phone so far. It would often take two or three attempts to unlock the phone using my fingerprint, which can be an annoyance.
I had to erase my fingerprint data and re-enroll it to address the issue, which has noticeably improved the fingerprint sensor's performance, although it still feels glitchy sometimes.
The screen can also sometimes feel too sensitive, making it prone to accidental taps.
On occasion when I lift the TCL 10 Pro or slip it into a pocket or purse, I'll notice that I've accidentally launched a menu or tapped into an app. You can imagine how jarring that can feel if you get a lot of work-related notifications throughout the day, and suddenly Slack is open on your screen when you're just trying to unwind in the evening.
The TCL 10 Pro has plenty of screen customization options that allow you to do things like optimize the display's performance in bright sunlight or make it more comfortable for reading. But there aren't any settings for toggling the display sensitivity.
The TCL 10 Pro is also missing some of the features that have become standard on smartphones, like water resistance and wireless charging.
It's expected that smartphones priced at hundreds of dollars less than top-of-the-line phones from Samsung, Apple, and even OnePlus will have some compromises. For the TCL 10 Pro, those trade-offs include a lack of water resistance and no wireless charging.
That latter point, from my perspective, is less important. Unless you've already invested in a wireless charger for your last phone that you were hoping to keep for years to come, the omission of wireless charging probably isn't a deal breaker.
Water resistance, however, gives the more peace of mind of knowing your phone won't be destroyed if you accidentally drop it in the pool.
All told, the TCL 10 Pro seems like a promising alternative for those on a budget. But it's facing more competition than ever.
If the TCL 10 Pro had entered the marketed about a year and a half ago, it would would be hard to believe that a phone this cheap exists. But now that major phone makers like Apple, Google, and Samsung are broadening their budget offerings, the some of which have comparable features or more powerful performance — TCL will have to work harder to stand out.