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TCL Stylus 5G Review: A budget phone with a stylus that gets you exactly what you pay for

So let’s be clear here. This is not a Samsung Galaxy Note. This is not the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra. The TCL Stylus 5G has a garaged stylus built into the body of the phone and that is exactly where the similarities end. But the most important way that these phones differentiate is the TCL Stylus 5G costs almost one-fifth of the others. That is what we need to focus on here.

The TCL Stylus 5G is not a great phone; it’s certainly not on par with the other phones you can buy with a garaged stylus. But it’s also not a bad phone. It’s exactly a $258 phone with a great screen, nice software, and a stylus and that is what I really like about it.

Even when you compare it to the Moto G Stylus 5G, you’ll note that Moto’s offering is almost double the price. So when you put together all that the TCL Stylus 5G is, and add in the things it’s not (because of course it’s not), you get a pretty compelling offering. But you have to know what you’re buying. So let’s find out what you’re buying. I’ve spent 10 days with the TCL Stylus 5G running on T-Mobile’s network and this is what I’ve found.

    TCL Stylus 5G

    The TCL Stylus 5G is a budget smartphone with a garaged stylus. It also has a nice screen, great software, and a decent camera. It is exactly $258 of smartphone.

      Features:



      Pros:



      Cons:



TCL Stylus 5G: Specifications

Specification TCL Stylus 5G
Dimensions & Weight
  • 8.98mm
  • 213g
Display
  • 6.81-inch LCD
  • FHD+ (1080 x 2460)
  • 500 nits max brightness
SoC
  • MediaTek Dimensity 700 5G
    • 2x ARM Cortex-A76 @ 2.2GHz
    • 6x ARM Cortex-A55 @ 2GHz
  • ARM Mali-G57 MC2
RAM & Storage
  • 4GB RAM
  • 128GB
  • microSD up to 2TB
Battery & Charging
  • 4,000mAh
  • 18W wired charger in the box
Fingerprint sensor Side-mounted
Rear Camera(s)
  • Primary: 50MP
  • Ultra-wide: 5MP, 115° FoV
  • Macro: 2MP
  • Depth: 2MP
Sensor Pixel Size
  • 0.64μm(50MP)/1.28μm(4in1, 12.5MP)
  • 1.12μm(5MP)
  • 1.75μm(2MP)
  • 1.75μm(2MP)
Front Camera(s) 13MP
Max video capture (All cameras) 1080p @ 30 fps
Port(s) USB Type-C
Software Android 12, one-year OS upgrade
Color Lunar Black

About this review: TCL sent us the TCL Stylus 5G for review. The company had no input into the contents of this review.


TCL Stylus 5G: The Stylus

  • Comes bundled with companion apps
  • Passive stylus doesn’t need to be charged
  • No Bluetooth functionality

The headlining feature of this phone is obviously the stylus. It’s simply a great way to interact with your phone. Plus, TCL did it “the right way” by building the stylus into the device, rather than making it an accessory. As great a stylus is, people simply won’t use it if it’s an extra item in their pocket. TCL also made a somewhat controversial decision to go with a passive stylus; there’s no battery, nor is there Bluetooth functionality.

While I understand this shatters your dreams of remote camera shutter capability, I can assure you that it’s ok. The stylus works well with minimal latency when writing and taking notes. The TCL Stylus 5G does the Samsung Galaxy trick, allowing you to start a quick note without first unlocking the phone.

TCL Stylus 5G on a table.

Adding to that, TCL is bundling in the apps Nebo for TCL and MyScript Calculator 2. Nebo is a handwriting recognition tool that can transcribe your notes into copyable text. This is most handy for jotting down notes or phone numbers. MyScript Calculator 2 is an app that takes your handwritten calculations and computes them on the fly. Write 16 + 43 and MyScript will fill in 59. You can then drag that number to the next line and continue with another calculation.

TCL is bundling in the apps Nebo for TCL and MyScript Calculator 2.

Anecdotally speaking, these two functions probably encompass the bulk of actions that people will use a stylus for. I carry a Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra regularly, and that’s the bulk of the functionality that I use. Samsung has built-in a few neat features like converting handwriting to text on the fly in the Notes app, which is nice, but not necessary on a $258 phone.

What’s not here are the aforementioned Bluetooth functionality and any kind of useable palm rejection. The TCL Stylus 5G has a toggle you can turn on for palm rejection, but it doesn’t work very well. But again, this is a sub-$300 phone with a stylus in it. It’s very nice to have when you need it and not surprisingly, it’s not as good as Samsung’s. I don’t think that’s exactly breaking news.


TCL Stylus 5G: Display

  • Not very bright LCD panel
  • Looks great with Nxtvision enhancements

Disney Plus's Kenobi plays on a TCL Stylus 5G.

The other top-notch specification you’ll find on this phone is in the 6.81-inch “Dotch” display. As in previous generations, TCL has optimized the display with its Nxtvision technology with optimizes the colors and clarity of the display. It’s an LCD panel, so you don’t get the darkest blacks that you’ll see on AMOLED panels, nor do you get an always-on display. Finally, the screen maxes out at 500 nits which in certain situations makes it hard to read the display in full sunlight.

There’s no shortage of enhancements you can turn on including video, image, and game enhancement.

But TCL is certainly no slouch when it comes to displays; its main business is TVs after all. You get that here. The Nxtvision optimization can be turned off (though I don’t recommend that) or tuned to your liking. There’s no shortage of enhancements you can turn on including video, image, and game enhancement. There’s also a reading mode, blue light filter, and darker display mode for something like reading a night.

Finally, you can adjust the temperature of the screen to make it vivid, natural, or you can use a color wheel to fine-tune the display so it’s exactly how you want it. I left it on vivid, but the versatility is nice to have.


Hardware, Performance, and Battery

  • Can’t run Call of Duty: Mobile
  • Puzzle games run fine.
  • The battery will get you through a day and that’s it

TCL Stylus 5G on a table with a Lego figure.

The TCL Stylus 5G is powered by a Mediatek Dimensity 700 SoC and 4GB of RAM. It has 128GB of internal storage and a 4,000mAh battery. In terms of performance, the phone is just ok. On Geekbench, its 548/1727 scores align with flagships from years past. I normally use Call of Duty: Mobile as a benchmark for performance, but this phone could not open it without the game crashing right away. This is a pretty serious issue and we reached out to TCL about it. According to TCL, it was “aware that the TCL STYLUS 5G smartphone…is affected by a software bug that limited the use of memory-heavy mobile applications. TCL engineers have identified the issue and will be pushing out a forthcoming software update. In the meantime, a factory reset of the device will fix the problem.” I factory reset my device, and sure enough, the game loaded properly. But please, TCL, hurry up on that update. I don’t want to have to create my folders…again.

In terms of everyday tasks like launching apps, and moving between them, there is some lag as well. Put simply, the Dimensity 700 from 2020 is not a powerful chip. That being said, other games like Sudoku, Knotwords, and Flow Free work pretty well. If you’re a puzzle gamer, this phone is just fine. If you’re more of an Asphalt 9 kind of person, you’ll have trouble for sure.

CPU Test on the TCL Stylus 5G.
Geekbench scores on the TCL Stylus 5G.

The battery life for this phone is in the ok-but-not great category. My work-from-home lifestyle means that phones will always last a day or more. However, that same lifestyle generally allows me to leave the phone off the charger for a night and get through a respectable portion of the following day. That was not the case here.

On the most stressful day, I drove to and from a theme park listening to a podcast (60 minutes in each direction), spent around five hours at the park, listening to a downloaded podcast or reading while in line, and made a few phone calls. That evening, my battery crossed the 10:00 p.m. finish line at about 10%. It did last the day, but only just barely.

If you work from home, this phone will definitely get you through a day and a little into the next one. But if you commute for work, or spend the day away from Wi-Fi, your mileage will certainly vary.


TCL Stylus 5G: Software

  • TCL has fun software with neat little tricks
  • Only comes with one OS upgrade (Android 13)
  • Folder creation is not so much fun

TCL Stylus 5G on a table next to Pixel 6.

In all honesty, I’ve always liked TCL software. But let’s start with two downsides in the software department. The TCL Stylus ships with Android 12 with one year of OS upgrades and two years of security updates promised. That’s not awesome. The other issue is a relatively minor one, but creating folders on the TCL Stylus 5G is a chore.

My organizational structure on a phone boils down to folders – Communications, Entertainment, Control, Money, and a few others. Each of those folders contains at least a dozen (in some cases almost two dozen) apps. It’s great because I don’t have more than one home page and I always know where everything is. But every now and then I’ll run into a phone like this one that simply makes folder creation and population laborious.

Screenshot of Nxtvision settings.
Screenshot of the settings menu on the TCL Stylus 5G.
Screenshot of the full screen notification shade on the TCL Stylus 5G.
Screenshot of the notification shade on the TCL Stylus 5G.
Screenshot of the appl launcher.

On the TCL Stylus, I found the easiest way to do it was to create folders inside the app launcher, dragging apps in one-by-one until they were all where I needed them to be. Then, I could drag the folder onto my home screen. The downside is that by creating folders that way, all the apps in the app launcher are also in those same folders and no longer alphabetical or in a huge list. That seems redundant.

To add insult to injury after I set up the phone initially, I woke up the next morning and found all my folders gone and everything back to the way it was. That was not awesome. That has not happened again, I’m relieved to say.

One neat thing about TCL folders is the ability to scroll in between them. Apps are laid out in vertical columns in a folder, but you can also scroll side to side to move between folders. This comes in handy if you accidentally open the wrong folder and I’m here for it.

I also like the quick toggles in the notification shade…they exude a cool tech vibe

I also like the quick toggles in the notification shade. It’s hard to describe why I like them, except that they exude a cool tech vibe. The best way I’ve thought to describe it is it’s a little like a modern Tron interface. It’s definitely Android 12, but with a little more squared circle execution. At the same time, the brightness and media quick toggles are sliders that can be adjusted. I just like the aesthetic.

One last little perk that TCL offers is called Smart App Recommend. When you connect headphones to the phone, a little box pops up recommending your music or podcast player. That’s all it does, and I really dig it. That feature has worked more reliably in the past on devices like the TCL 20 Pro, but it’s here too and worked 75% of the time.


TCL Stylus 5G: Camera

  • Decent camera that’s good for Instagram
  • Surprisingly good low-light performance

The camera module on the TCL Stylus 5G.

The TCL Stylus 5G is a $258 phone and it comes with a $258 camera setup. There are four sensors in the back and one in the front. On the back, you get a 50MP PDAF sensor, 5MP wide-angle sensor (at 114.9 degrees), 2MP macro sensor, and 2MP depth sensor. To put it bluntly, the main sensor is really the only one worth writing about. While the macro lens can produce some decent stills, the ultra-wide sensor is generally bad and really shouldn’t be used.

The main camera sensor is capable of capturing some good stills in good lighting, which is about average these days. When you blow them up to full resolution, they’re not bad, though dark areas get pixelated very quickly. On the whole, the camera is good enough for social media, but that’s really the extent to which I would have confidence.

You can get surprisingly decent photos taken in burst mode. I grabbed a few shots of a roller coaster whizzing by. I would not under any circumstances blow any of these photos up to poster size and print them out, but for posting on Instagram, they’re pretty decent.

TCL Stylus 5G

At night, the results are surprisingly the same. That’s a good thing because, at this price level, cameras are usually pretty terrible. In the case of the TCL Stylus, as long as your subject is stationary, you can achieve some decent results. Highlights are not blown out, darks are a bit grainy, and focus is soft across the board, but overall, considering the price, I can’t complain too much. The video performance at night is fairly terrible though.

During the day, video capture is pretty decent, and the selfie camera is capable of surprisingly smooth walking shots. When it comes to the rear camera, walk-and-talk videos are pretty good, and the transition from bright areas into dark is smooth and quick. What’s a bummer here is that the camera tops out at 1080p/30fps.

Overall, I have little to complain about in the camera setup, considering the price tag. We have gotten to a point where just about every phone has a camera that can perform well in broad daylight, but finding a camera that performs decently at night at this price point is rare, so kudos to TCL for that one.


Should you buy the TCL Stylus 5G?

This is one of my favorite budget phones on the market right now. It’s not powerful, so for someone like me who likes the occasional game of Call of Duty: Mobile, this phone simply will not work. This phone is mostly for a specific subset of people who:

  • want a stylus
  • are on a tight budget
  • are on T-Mobile or Metro by T-Mobile

That’s a pretty specific set of people, especially the T-Mobile part because this phone was launched exclusively on T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile. That being said, if you do fall into that category, this is a great value. It can’t be said enough that this is a $258 phone if you buy it at full retail. At the time of this writing, you can have the phone for free if you stay with T-Mobile for two years. If that’s too much of a commitment, drop a couple of Benjamins, and you’ve got yourself a new phone.

Plus, the phone comes with a stylus, which is making a comeback. It’s an awesome way to control and write on your smartphone. With smartphones taking up more and more of the computing power you need these days, a stylus is a great addition for taking notes and signing documents. When school is in session, I use my stylus daily to help my daughter with math problems. The closest competition you can get is the Moto G Stylus 5G which costs almost double the price. When you put all that together, this is a pretty great deal.

    TCL Stylus 5G

    The TCL Stylus 5G is a budget smartphone with a garaged stylus. It also has a nice screen, great software, and a decent camera. It is exactly $258 of smartphone.

The TCL Stylus 5G is available from T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile for $258 or free with a 2-year agreement.

The post TCL Stylus 5G Review: A budget phone with a stylus that gets you exactly what you pay for appeared first on XDA.

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