If you’re a fan of Samsung’s Galaxy Note line or smartphones with a stylus in general, your options are limited these days. Samsung’s Note line has been discontinued in favor of putting the S-Pen in the Galaxy S22 Ultra, and LG has totally stepped out of the game. On the budget side of things Motorola offers a couple phones, but otherwise your choices are slim.
But TCL thinks that’s a market that’s perfect to step into. The TCL Stylus 5G attempts to fill the void with an included stylus, custom software, and an attractive price point. But these budget-friendly stylus phones can be a little hit or miss; how did TCL do for their first try? Let’s find out.
You don’t usually see bold design choices on budget phones, and that’s okay. TCL didn’t go crazy with the Stylus 5G, but the design works for the phone. It’s simple, unoffensive, and checks all the boxes. It’s a little square, but the plastic the phone is made from feels decent enough. It resists fingerprints, and it’s fairly light.
The back of the phone houses the phone’s four cameras, which is always impressive at this price point. Otherwise there’s a plain TCL logo along the bottom right side, and that’s it. Pretty sleek.
The right side of the phone is where you’ll find the volume buttons and the dual power button/fingerprint scanner combo, with the SIM tray on the left side of the phone. That tray also has a microSD card slot, which is a welcome surprise in 2022. What’s even more surprising is the 3.5mm headphone jack along the bottom of the phone next to the USB-C charging port and stylus slot. It may have a relatively simple design philosophy, but the TCL Stylus 5G does offer some things that you don’t get on $1000 flagships anymore.
Decent display, software issues
The TCL Stylus 5G has a large 6.81-inch full HD display, which is pretty good. It gets very bright, colors pop and have some extra TCL software to make things pop and look more vibrant, and you’ve got plenty of space for split-screen apps and games. There’s some smearing with some particularly difficult gradients and darker scenes, but overall it is a very decent display.
There are some painful limitations on this otherwise solid display, however, with the biggest being the lack of Netflix certification for HD playback. Yep, despite having a 1080p resolution, you’ll only be watching in that resolution on some apps, not all. YouTube is mostly fine, something like Netflix is not. Yikes.
The issue here is that the TCL Stylus 5G has Widevine L3 DRM; most popular services like Netflix, HBO Max, Disney+, and many others require Widevine L1 to stream in full HD or 4K and HDR.
The lack of 4K and HDR isn’t really an issue, especially at this price point, but it’s hard to enjoy a phone that can’t consistently get 1080p streams because of the lack of DRM certification.
Good performance (sometimes)
With TCL using a Dimensity 700 CPU (complete with 5G modem) you’re getting a processor that you typically don’t see at this price point. This means the Stylus 5G will generally punch above its weight class, whether you’re playing games, browsing the web, or trying to be productive.
I’ve been back into The Elder Scrolls: Blades lately, and the Stylus 5G handled it without much issue. Graphics are decent, frame drops aren’t too common, and the phone doesn’t get too hot while playing, which is a big perk. You won’t be pushing 120hz or hitting ultra settings in Diablo Immortal, but that’s perfectly fine for what this device is.
However, it’s a little quirky with memory management. The phone comes standard with 4GB of RAM, which admittedly isn’t a large amount by 2022 standards, but it’s still a little overly aggressive with how it kills backgrounds apps and handles multiple processes. This is especially noticeable if you start to split-screen apps while the phone quickly kills off anything in the background that you might have been using. TCL is aware of the issue, at least, and they’re working on a software update that should correct some of the app reloading issues. It’s hard to gauge how much of it is due to the software and how much is the physical RAM limitations and whatever TCL’s Android skin is doing.
TCL software needs work
TCL’s software for the Stylus 5G is probably more customized than what you’re used to on some of these phones. It brings in a lot of support for the included stylus, obviously, and there’s a lot of app theming here.
The stylus is somewhat active, so you’ll be able to trigger some actions when you remove it from the phone. TCL has included apps that handle handwriting and script conversion, note-taking, and more, and the phone supports things like writing memos on the screen even while the display is off. But some of the apps and features tied to the stylus aren’t necessarily things that need the stylus (like split-screen or a GIF maker shortcut) which makes it feel like those things are padded out to make the stylus seem more useful. The stylus itself works great, so I don’t think that was a necessary design choice, but at least you can still access all of those features even without the stylus.
Using and writing with the stylus is a mostly pleasant experience, although the palm recognition is either bad or non-existent, which makes long-form writing tricky. TCL has also made some very weird software choices, including making changes to simple things like adding apps to the home screen from the app drawer; instead of quickly tapping and dragging the app to bring up the home screen, you actually have to sit and hold it for about a second. Otherwise you’ll only move it around the app drawer, which is almost never what I wanted.
You’ll get some customization options, but nothing extensive. There isn’t any support for icon packs, and TCL only includes two themes for your icons (either round icons or iOS-like squares) and you won’t find any exclusive widgets or design decisions.
It’s all functional, but it feels like the software team needed another couple of months to really flesh out and polish the UX on everything. TCL is a newer entry into the smartphone market, but you can’t overlook some very stiff competition from other brands.
Battery and charging
With a 4000mAh battery, TCL isn’t at the top of the numbers game, but they’ve managed to pull off some pretty decent battery life with their Stylus 5G. You can pretty easily push the phone for an entire day thanks to its standard FHD screen and lack of HDR, but the Dimensity 700 is more efficient than you might think at first. Two days isn’t happening, but the phone supports relatively fast charging speeds if you need to top up.
It’s picky about the charger you use, however. My standard high-speed USB adapter and cable that I use for charging laptops and tablets wouldn’t fast charge the Stylus 5G, which might be due to the Dimensity 700 not being able to handle those speeds or the USB 2.0 port on the phone limiting things. Regardless, it’s not slow charging, and the included charger is perfectly fine for most use cases.
Most phones these days can take decent photos in proper lighting conditions. If you know what you’re doing, the Stylus 5G is no exception.
It’s not going to blow you away and win smartphone camera competitions, but it handles most situations reasonably well. Low light is going to cause some struggle, but otherwise the camera is quick to snap photos, and you’ll find enough features to cover most of your shooting situations.
TCL did a lot of things right with the Stylus 5G, but there’s an equal amount of things here that I think would benefit from waiting for a second generation model.
The phone is well-designed, the stylus works great, and performance is generally very good at this price point. It doesn’t have very many direct competitors, but if you think you’d benefit from the stylus, the phone is absolutely worth checking out.
But on the flip side of that, if you’re not enthusiastic about needing a stylus, I don’t think it’s going to outweigh the half-baked software. Without the stylus this is a decent but unremarkable phone that might end up causing a few headaches.
With that being said, there’s nothing here that couldn’t be fixed with a big software update to address some of the UX concerns and memory management problems, although the DRM issues are certainly a little trickier.
At $249 or less depending on carrier promos, TCL checked a lot of boxes that’ll work for a lot of people. You’re still getting a quad-camera setup, 12GB of internal storage plus a microSD card and a headphone jack, and a very large screen. But it’s not a phone for everyone, so definitely think about what you need out of it before you make that decision.