Thursday, 30 July 2020

TCL 10 Pro

TCL are certainly more well known for producing TV sets than mobile phones, but since their relationship with BlackBerry went to the wall they decided to branch out on their own, using their own brand. They have produced a few handsets in various configurations - from the budget 10 SE, through the Plex, 10 L, 10 Plus, this 10 Pro and to the 5G-powered 10 5G. If you don't need 5G anytime yet, this 10 Pro is probably the best place to start looking - a mid-ranger trying so very hard to be a flagship.

This is a crowded place in the market with Xiaomi, Motorola and Oppo pitching great value options at even half the price of this one, but also OnePlus amongst others also challenging this £350-400 price-point. So when people are looking for features against price, even when getting a free handset on contract, there's loads of choice. Each device has to have something different to make it stand out. Let's see what TCL brings in terms of USP. (By the way, on release in May 2020 in the UK, they were bundling a 'free' 32" TV with each purchase, but that's expired now!) Before I go on, many thanks go to Gaz Morris for the loan of this phone for PSC to review it.

First Impressions
In the hand, the device feels gorgeous. It's fairly big and compares very much in terms of size and weight with the Motorola One Zoom. (In fact, that's probably not a bad place to start in terms of a comparison with both devices around the same price.) The front and back glass panels curve around the left and right to meet the aluminium frame around the edge reminding me very much of the Nokia 8 Sirocco in design - a near 'sharp' edge resulting. The slim edge opens out to cover the wider base and top. In a stylish strip across the back, near the top, there's a row of six cameras, sensors and flash, with another little window below. There's a TCL logo not too big in the middle of the back, slightly higher than central. The phone feels classy and premium, already seeming to defy the cost.

Tour
On the bottom we have a USB-C socket, speaker and Dual SIM Card/microSD Card tray and on the left, a dedicated Google Assistant button. Press it at any time and start talking to The Big G! On the right, a volume rocker above a power button in the usual array and up top, a 3.5mm audio-out socket and Infrared Blaster window. The buttons all feel sturdy and firm.

In the Box
Thank you TCL for supplying a TPU in the box! Always a lift. You listenin' Sony? The phone, of course, pokey-hole tool for SIM Card Tray, USB-A to USB-C cable and 18W UK Charging plug. All the essentials then, sensible lack of earphones and no need for audio-dongle as this phone has a 3.5mm audio-Out socket. More of that later.

Screen
The 10 Pro is trying so very hard to look and feel like a flagship. As I said, the glass curves around much like a Samsung would (and others) though actually, this, much like the Sirocco, becomes a bit of a problem over time. Not because the content is falling down the waterfall, but the finger-touches with virtually no bezel. I have been making all sorts of mistakes and unintentional touches, made worse by the Android 10 swipe-up gestures having no 'chin' to swipe from. Maybe a different case needed. Apart from that, the AMOLED 6.47" 1080p 19.5:9 screen returning 398ppi looks very classy. Each time I see an AMOLED I am personally reminded of how much richer an experience it is over even the best LCD - at least to look at - with those bright, dense colours and black blacks popping out. At brightest setting it is very bright, even approaching the Nokia 9 PureView's standard. Against the One Zoom's Super AMOLED, I'd say it was a draw - but the Zoom has a flat screen of course, so easier navigation and much fewer mistakes. There's a Selfie-Notch up-front and centre, much like the One Zoom, but this can, on an App by App basis, be switched to include or exclude those top lines of pixels.

NXTVISION
This is a built-in visual enhancement tool which is probably going to be left set to ON by most people, especially as it is the default setting! It's an AI tool which decides for the user how to display contrast, sharpness, saturation and so on depending what's being shown on the screen. You can turn this off and then delve into some basic settings to change how the screen looks, Vivid, Gentle and Standard along with a warm-cold slider. The latter doesn't really seem to do much, so it's probably best left to make the decisions for you as it also ekes out HDR from any video - even if it is SDR. Just leave it on auto! It looks absolutely fine and you get the feeling that nobody would have noticed if NXTVISION had just been added and nothing said!

Always On Display
Where the 10 Pro wins against most devices in this segment is with a 'proper' Always On Display with 9 options for clock/date/battery/notifications arrangements. One of them even gives the user a free-form jotter to just draw what you like - a bit like LG's 'signature' but truly free-form. The One Zoom has Moto's Peek/Approach which also works very well, much reported by me, but there's nothing quite like a true AoD.

Under-Screen Fingerprint Scanner and Face Unlock
The scanner at first seemed dreadful and I wondered what I was doing wrong! Then it became clear why the clearance was taking longer than it should - TCL have embedded Fingerprint Scanner Actions. So long-press on the scanner and up pops four placeholders for pretty much any App you want to launch - or 'Actions' - like launching the camera, calling a specific Contact, Launch Google Assistant, turn on the Torch, and loads more. Against the One Zoom's FPS, they are probably about the same once you get the knack of it for each device. Learning how long to leave your finger there - and with a half-day of real-world use you do learn and it works fine. On both devices there is a slight delay - neither are the speed of a capacitive option.
Face Unlock can be used in tandem, of course, with the trade for a little less security. It's very quick to set up. It recognises reliably and works by lifting the phone up and double-tapping the screen to wake it up. It's quicker than the FPS, but using both, I'm very happy.

Google Assistant
Great to see the Google Assistant Cards off the left of the Home Screen, though not so good that this is not an option for those who do not want them. But it suits me! There's also that button on the left, much like LG and Nokia have done - straight to the Assistant, even when the screen is off, as I said earlier. This is an excellent feature, though I have to admit that because handling is difficult at times with the curved screen, I have pressed it a couple of times by accident. It can be turned off, but not re-assigned to anything else and is controlled for functionality within Accessibility Settings.

TCL UI
In the same way as OnePlus, TCL have thrown many parts of the kitchen sink at this! It seems to be the way with many device manufacturers these days, to make their offering different and to overlay Android with loads of bells and whistles. The trick, which OnePlus got right, is making it still feel like it is close enough to a Vanilla experience by using screen elements, layout and Settings passively and not aggressively and over-the-top like Oppo or Samsung. The latter often with attempts to copy iOS design (such as, here, the option to remove the App Drawer), delivering a UX which is very different - often with even more bells and whistles, to be fair. TCL have not done this quite as well as OnePlus, but it's not far off.

More UI
System Navigation follows the required Android 10 Gestures which works really well, as always, but for those wanting legacy or other alternatives there is 3-Buttons and Samsung-style 3-Swipes from the bottom of the screen - even going so far as emulating the Hints! And while we're here, they also have Edge Bar which, again, emulates others, enabling a sliver of a touch-pad on the edge of the screen which can be pulled in (from adjustable positions) to reveal a bunch of shortcuts to Apps (but not Settings) - much like Samsung's again - or latterly Sony's. It all works very well, though I'm not sure of the need really. The size of the Grid for the Home Screen can be adjusted between 4x5, 4x6, 5x5 and 5x6, Notification Badges can be set to be on/off on the Apps' icons and a long-press on the Home Screen gives an iOS-Style tick box on each App, enabling multiple selection for group/folder actions.

Bloat
In the same way as many others these day, presumably to keep cost down and get partners to chip in, there is much unnecessary software added which some will use, some will want and most won't know how to remove nor probably care! The ones which can be uninstalled are FaceBook, Office Suite, Microsoft News, booking.com and Moon+ Reader. Then the apps doubling-up Google's Apps - Gallery, Calculator, Clock and Weather. Then the added-value apps/services such as Smart Manager, File Manager, Private Space, File Share, Notes, Switch Phone, Sound Recorder, Screen recorder, Game Mode, Driving Mode, Support Centre, TCL+, Music, Video, Optimise and Compass. Phone and Contacts are left to Google as is Chrome for browsing the net. Themes is available too, which seems to allow only one choice - either 'Round' or 'Classic' - I can't see much difference really, and not a patch on the huge array available for, say Samsung phones. There's an App Cloner, for multiple instances of the same app to run. Much of this feels very Samsung, even down to the ever-present Nag in Settings to open a TCL Account. One positive carry-over from Samsung is the Edge Lighting where the phone can be set to 'glow' around the screen's perimeter when a Notification comes in, which I really like - however, there are no settings for style, colour and size for this like Samsung gives - it is what it is, blue, like it or lump it!

Gestures
Reminding me much of Motorola, there's also a bunch of Gestures available such as Flip to Mute, 3-Finger Screenshot, Split-Screen, Power Button twice for Camera, One-Handed Shrink-Screen Mode and double-tap to wake the screen. They're all copying each others' features of course, though you could think of it as taking the best of all systems and sharing them around!

Engine Room
128GB of storage is becoming more the norm these days and that's great. I've been bangin' on about the leap from 64GB for some years now and 128GB is trickling down now into the mid-range and in some cases, low-end budget. So yes, 128GB UFS 2.1 and microSD Card Slot which takes the second space which could be another SIM Card here in this model, as it is Dual SIM. I have tested my 512GB microSD Card in there and it reads and writes well - not as fast as some devices I've tested, but certainly not the slowest. The 2TB Extreme SSD works fine in the USB-C port as well. Sadly, HDMI-Out was clearly a step too far - the act of purest optimism to even test it! Connectivity seems good and strong with WiFi, Cellular (for voice and data) - and GPS gets a good lock quickly in Google Maps, following me accurately. I was unable to test Google Pay, but other reviewers report it working with no problem. The NFC certainly is working, though annoyingly, the NFC icon can't be removed from the Status Bar except by turning NFC off. The phone is powered by a SnapDragon 675, the same as the One Zoom, and it appears to whizz about the UI without any problem, much like the Moto. I have played a racing game and I see no stalling or juddering, even outside of Gaming Mode. The 675 serves the One Zoom well, too, so I'm not surprised. The drive towards the latest chipset is often not based around ordinary everyday performance I find - and often wonder if it's more about ticking boxes. It's got 6GB RAM over the 4GB of the One Zoom, but to be honest, I can't tell the difference. Multitasking and keeping Apps open really isn't a problem for either. It seems absurd that flagship gaming phones are now hosting 16GB of RAM, double the amount that's in my computer! All this of course, working along under Android 10, the software version that the phone was released with. May 2020 Google Security is present, so we'll see how good TCL are at updating their existing models. They didn't have much of a challenge against the One Zoom here, which looks like getting Android 10 a full year after Google released it, if then!

Power
The 10 Pro is powered by a 4,500mAh battery and the 18W brick in the box is capable of Quick Charge 3.0 which in real terms means that you can charge the phone from flat to 50% in about half an hour. There's no Qi (wireless) charging present here, so it's plug-in to charge (or use a Qi Receiver) but with that size of battery I was expecting not to have to even consider having to do that during the day. So how did it get on with my 10% Reading Test and Average Use (for me) Test which I apply to all my review phones, keeping a level playing field as much as possible.
The result on the 10% test is that I have got about 1 hour 40 minutes from the battery and on the Average Use for me, well into Day 2, but not to the end of it. Performance compares in these respects with, say, the Pixel 2 XL. A long way from the worst, but nowhere near challenging some of the big Motorola models. Nevertheless, more than acceptable and a fair reflection of the size of the battery. There are all sorts of power optimisation controls, as mentioned earlier, which can be employed if a person gets stuck. One annoyance is that there's no way to get a proper battery percentage readout on the Status Bar - only a tiny, weeny figure inside the battery graphic or off.

Sound
Now to my favourite topic - how it sounds. Speakers and headphones. As I often say, if sound is good, the lack of stereo on a pocket computer really isn't a big deal, at least for me. Much more important is the quality and volume of the output.
The unit does indeed have a single mono speaker and I'm going to compare it here with what I consider to be the very good output of the similarly-equipped Motorola One Zoom and not the Asus ROG Phone II or Razer Phone! The result for me is that the One Zoom just has it, by a nose. It's slightly louder and slightly better quality tested across various music types and files. There is no system-wide equaliser on either phone, so users need to seek out an App with the facility if they want to adjust the sound.
I always like to see a Music App included, but in this case, it's really basic and again, no equalisation available.
Sound from a pair of reference headphones plugged into either phone's 3.5mm audio-out socket produces output which is really rather similar. Quality is OK, but even on top volume, really pretty low-end. Some sort of fancy enhanced DAC dongle thingie needed if music-through-headphones for either of these is going to be taken seriously. Bluetooth transforms the experience with both phones. The 10 Pro pairs up quickly and resulting sound is loud and excellent quality. Still no adjustments available of course, unless they are available via the bluetooth gear or its software. But no complaints here.
The supplied Video App works well enough, much like VLC with sliders for brightness and volume, though again, without any equalisation options. Resizing is executed via a button on-screen rather than pinch-to-zoom, but it's nice to have.
Much like my conclusion with the One Zoom, the sound is really very good. It doesn't come close to the market-leaders but it's also a long way from many budget-end phones' sound. It's more than good enough for most people for casual listening, both via speakers or headphones.
Apparently, in some regions you get an FM Radio, but not present here - though interestingly it is present on the One Zoom.

Photography
This is the point at which I usually hand over to Steve Litchfield but as he's trying to have a summer break, I'll plough on this time alone! The phone is supplied with the (becoming) usual Quad Bayer 64MP (down to 16MP) f/1.8 (with a normal viewpoint), a 16MP f/2.4 wide-angle lens, a 5MP f/2.2 macro shooter and a 2MP f/2.4 for depth data. The Selfie is a 24MP f2 unit and there's no sign of any OIS anywhere at all, so it's EIS all the way. The camera app layout is neat and clean, emulating others out there largely, with a button to change the zoom from 1x (presumably suggesting to users that any kind of digital zoom is worth having) to 2x and then a 10x slider. As expected, results from that are pretty shoddy but sticking to 1x or at a push 2x, they will be acceptable for most uses for most people. There's another button to engage the wide-angle lens and a third to give you a screen divided into three, showing the normal view, wide-angle view and low-light video! Not sure what that's about, but OK, you can see which one you might want to use then tap it to engage it.
All sorts of AI features are available via settings, all of which can thankfully be turned off and a Pro Mode within which most aspects of exposure setting can be adjusted. There's a Super Night mode, which ekes out as much light as it can find in the dark, at the expense, of course, of fuzzy noise. The Portrait mode does a reasonable job of blurring the background with an 'aperture slider' thrown in to decide on degrees thereof. The most impressive and fun aspect for me is the Super Macro which enables focus with the 5MP lens at unfeasibly close quarters. The photos won't stand up to pixel-peeping of course, but for most people, again, it's perfectly good enough for sharing and great fun.
The main camera seems to produce perfectly good photos in good light, as we've come to expect in 2020 from anything but the cheapest budget phone. We don't have the benefit of pixel-peeping here this time, but I go back to my old position - these photos are all very well good enough for social media or sharing with family and so forth. The colours look a little muted by default, but some would argue in which case, more natural. I would suggest that the AI I mentioned above is turned off and you go it alone as I found that the camera app sometimes confused itself as to what it was looking at or supposed to be doing. So much for automation!
Comparing the One Zoom to this, we do have proper OIS throughout the Moto's cameras, we also have an optical 3x Zoom lens, which works really well, there's no macro lens but there is a wide-angle to match as well. The Moto seems better equipped to me on several points and I do like the One Zoom's camera's software and layout in preference. But each to their own.
There are plenty of YouTube and written reviews online about the camera's performance, so please do go and seek that out if you're interested enough. People buying this phone won't be, I'd wager. What they will be interested in is the cost, which I'll come to, and that it takes photos good enough for sharing and looking at on phone screens. And this phone does. No doubt.

Verdict
So, the question is, is it worth it against others in this price bracket. So far, I've stuck with Motorola in comparison and Android, but consideration really does have to be given to the iPhone SE (2020) if people want to use iOS or are prepared to consider swapping. It ticks so many boxes, and pretty much in the same price bracket, needs consideration. Alright, so the 128GB version is £70 more, but the 64GB one is the same price as this TCL 10 Pro. Wireless charging, stereo speakers, environment proofing, super-fast chipset, OIS in the camera and capacitive fingerprint scanner are added to the mix. On the other hand, an LCD display, no microSD, no 3.5mm audio-out, no Always On Display and a significantly smaller battery.
But let's assume that iOS is out. Compared with the Motorola One Zoom, I think it's a close match. I like the Moto's flat screen over the curved, I like the TCL's 'proper' Always On Display, I like the fact that the TCL has actually got Android 10 (come on Moto!), but there's no doubt that the Moto's camera arrangement is more flexible.
Then we need to add into the mix the forthcoming (alleged) Pixel 4a, which reliable leaks suggest will be pitched again around the same price-point. We know how clean the Pixel software will be, instant Security Updates as they roll out, no waiting around for the next OS update, excellent camera - and even access to the Beta Programme for those of us who can't wait! There are numerous options coming out of China from Xiaomi and Oppo amongst others, all bringing slight differences, some better, some with missing features, some even cheaper than this £350-400 place of the mid-range, often nearer budget territory.
All of this makes for a very difficult decision facing people. So many phones, lots of good features. At his point I don't know which I would jump at - but what I can say is that it's getting harder and harder to make a duff decision, whatever you choose.

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