Sunday, June 23, 2024

How good can a $160 Android phone really be? I used one to find out

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TCL 50 XL 5G in a bush.

TCL 50 XL 5G

MSRP $160.00

Score Details

“The TCL 50 XL 5G has decent performance and a unique design, but otherwise it’s not super impressive.”

Pros

  • Unique textured back adds grip
  • Large and crisp display
  • Expandable storage
  • 3.5mm headphone jack
  • Very affordable

Cons

  • Unimpressive camera hardware
  • Not great battery life
  • Mediocre performance
  • Carrier locked

I typically prefer flagship smartphones for my personal use, largely because I tend to take a lot of photos and want the best possible camera at all times. But I know that I’m not the average user, and for some people, they simply want a phone that delivers the basics without costing too much.

Contents

  • TCL 50 XL 5G: design
  • TCL 50 XL 5G: display
  • TCL 50 XL 5G: software and performance
  • TCL 50 XL 5G: cameras
  • TCL 50 XL 5G: battery life and charging
  • TCL 50 XL 5G: price and availability
  • TCL 50 XL 5G: verdictShow 2 more items

There are plenty of budget-friendly phones on the market from brands like Motorola and TCL. In fact, TCL showed off some upcoming new phones at CES 2024 earlier this year, and a few of them have recently become available — including the TCL 50 XL 5G.

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  • One of 2023’s most interesting Android phones just dropped

The TCL 50 XL 5G costs just $160 and is only available in the U.S. through Metro by T-Mobile. If you’re in the market for a super-affordable phone, is this one worth picking up? Let’s find out.

TCL 50 XL 5G: design

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

The TCL 50 XL 5G has a relatively boring design, at least on the front. There’s a plastic frame that surrounds the front display. While the front is pretty standard for a phone in this price range, the back is a bit more interesting.

The rear of the TCL 50 XL 5G is covered in a textured material that feels similar to leather grain, which I haven’t really seen on a phone before. This material even has a sort of metallic sheen to it, affecting how it looks depending on the angle at which light is hitting it. Aside from having a supercool shine to it, the textured material also adds a bit of grip to the phone, which is nice.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Unfortunately, the TCL 50 XL 5G has no IP rating, so it’s not a phone you want to have near any sort of dirt or water. This is not unusual for a phone in this price range.

The back of the phone has a unique textured material with a metallic sheen that I’ve not really seen on phones before.

Like most phones these days, the TCL 50 XL 5G has a flat edge frame design with the volume and power button/fingerprint sensor on the right edge. The bottom has a 3.5mm headphone jack (gasp!), USB-C charging port, and speakers. On the top-left edge is where you’ll find the combination SIM card and microSD card slot, which can take cards up to 2TB.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

On the back of the TCL 50 XL 5G is a large, circular camera module with an LED flash. Though it looks like a triple lens camera system, it’s a bit deceiving. Two of the lenses are a 2-megapixel depth sensor and a 5MP ultrawide camera, alongside the 50MP main camera. I’m not sure why the camera module has to be so big, considering the non-flagship hardware specs. It also appears a little off-center, and honestly gets in the way when holding the phone in landscape orientation.

There’s only one color for the TCL 50 XL 5G: Slate Gray. Given that most budget phones don’t give you a lot of color options, this also isn’t surprising, but is still a bit disappointing.

TCL 50 XL 5G: display

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

For a phone that just costs $160, the TCL 50 XL 5G actually has a pretty decent display, thanks to TCL’s NXTVISION technology.

The TCL 50 XL 5G has a 6.78-inch LCD panel with a 2460 x 1080 pixel resolution and about 396 pixels per inch (ppi) density. TCL also bumped this one up to a 120Hz refresh rate (its predecessor only had 90Hz). As far as brightness, the maximum it reaches is 500 nits, which means it’s fine indoors, but you’ll have some issues in bright sunlight. At the top of the display is a hole-punch cutout for the selfie camera.

In my time with the TCL 50 XL 5G, the display looked pretty good, all things considered.

There are bezels on this phone due to the low price, and they are noticeable. The TCL 50 XL 5G has uniform bezels along the top and sides, but the bottom features a slightly thicker bezel to form the “chin.” While it may be annoying at first, you eventually get used to it.

In my time with the TCL 50 XL 5G, I found the display to look fairly good, all things considered. Colors are nice and vibrant, especially when the NXTVISION enhancements are turned on in the settings. Text appears crisp and sharp.

I always appreciate having a phone with a 120Hz refresh rate. Though it may not be as noticeable for everyone, I do appreciate the smoother scrolling and animations when switching between apps. It leads to a better overall experience while using the phone, so to have 120Hz on a $160 phone is quite nice.

The only big issue I have with the size of the display is that it leads to the phone being quite tall. This makes it difficult to reach the top of the phone’s screen with a single hand, so unless you have really large hands, then this is definitely a two-handed phone.

TCL 50 XL 5G: software and performance

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Inside the TCL 50 XL 5G is the MediaTek Dimensity 6100+ chip, which is an octa-core chipset. It’s paired with 6GB RAM and 6GB virtual RAM expansion. Though it only has one storage capacity, 128GB, you could use up to a 2TB microSD card to expand the storage.

The TCL 50 XL 5G comes with Android 14 and TCL UI 7 out of the box. Unfortunately, it will only receive one major Android OS update to Android 15, so there’s not much longevity here. As for security updates, you’ll only get two years’ worth.

TCL UI 7 is the company’s own fork of Android with some unique customizations. For one, app icons are rounded squares, and the quick settings panels are rounded rectangles. It’s slightly different from other Android phones like the Google Pixel 8a, but still noticeable.

Since TCL uses NXTVISION for the TCL 50 XL 5G, you get a standalone NXTVISION app. From here, you can toggle enhancements for photos and video, as well as games. These settings provide better contrast, sharpness, depth, details, and graphics.

Performance is decent enough for a phone at this price point.

There is also a Reading mode that you can toggle systemwide or on a per-app basis, which gives the screen a book-like appearance that’s easier on the eyes. Other modes like Eye Comfort, a darker display mode, and even a sunlight display mode will adjust the screen to better improve usability in certain conditions.

Another TCL-exclusive app is the Smart Manager, which gives you a fast way to free up RAM and do other optimizations to the device to make it run smoother. TCL also has its own unique multitasking mode with a floating app window in addition to standard split-screen.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

And for old-school radio listeners, there is a standalone radio application, but you must use a pair of wired headphones for it to actually work. Why? Because the wired headphones serve as an antenna.

For the most part, the TCL 50 XL 5G runs fine — it’s not the fastest performance, but it’s not the worst either. Performance is decent enough and actually better than the Moto G (2024) that I reviewed a few months ago, though that wasn’t a very high bar. The TCL 50 XL 5G handles my basic daily tasks, which include checking email and social media, taking photos, and video streaming.

I do notice a tiny bit of stutter sometimes when going back to the home screen, switching between apps, or just navigating through the phone. It’s very minor compared to the stutter and lag I got on the Moto G (2024), though, so it’s definitely not as bad. For a phone that doesn’t even cost $200, it could be a lot worse.

TCL 50 XL 5G: cameras

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

I’m not expecting much from a $160 phone in terms of camera quality. After all, to make a phone that cheap, you have to make compromises somewhere, and that’s typically with the cameras.

But I was shocked at how, well, unimpressive the photos I took were, despite having a 50MP main camera. I thought it would at least do OK when there’s a lot of light, but even then, the photos just don’t turn out great.


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Bug on leaf taken in macro mode on TCL 50 XL 5G.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Toddler at park taken with TCL 50 XL 5G.

Christine Romero-Chan. / Digital Trends

Flower taken with TCL 50 XL 5G.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Flower taken with TCL 50 XL 5G.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Selfie taken with TCL 50 XL 5G.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Selfie taken with TCL 50 XL 5G.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

Ultrawide shot of tree taken with TCL 50 XL 5G.

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

I could hardly get any good photos in my testing with the TCL 50 XL 5G. Colors would be too vivid, to the point where they appear blown out. Some aspects get washed out and look pale, while others would appear splotchy or have soft details, etc.

Compromises need to be made for phones at this price, and it was clearly the camera quality that took a hit here.

And even though the phone has a “super macro” mode when you really want to get up close to something, those images turn out pretty bad, too. Selfies look OK for an 8MP lens, but again, the colors in everything but the skin tone are a bit off.

Compromises need to be made for phones at this price, and it was clearly the camera quality that took a hit here.

TCL 50 XL 5G: battery life and charging

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

The TCL 50 XL 5G has a 5,010mAh battery inside. Though that is a pretty large capacity, the phone doesn’t do particularly well when it comes to power efficiency.

With relatively light usage, I noticed the battery draining pretty quickly, even though I wasn’t doing anything particularly resource intensive. Just the basics, such as reading the news, checking email and messages, social networks, and taking some photos. I did not play any games or stream a lot of video, and the battery level fell about 1% every few minutes. For a phone with this much capacity, it’s disappointing that it’s not going to last more than a day with heavy use.

Despite having a large battery, the power efficiency isn’t great.

Charging the TCL 50 XL 5G is also a bit of a pain point. It only supports up to 18-watt fast charging, which by today’s standards is pretty slow. But at least TCL provides a power adapter in the box.

And for wireless charging? Forget about it. The TCL 50 XL 5G does not support wireless charging at all. That’s not at all expected from a $160 phone, but it’s worth mentioning.

TCL 50 XL 5G: price and availability

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

The biggest drawback for the TCL 50 XL 5G is its limited market. It’s currently only available in the U.S. and it is also carrier locked. The only provider that sells it is Metro by T-Mobile. The TCL 50 XL 5G only comes in Slate Gray with one storage configuration option for $160.

Even at this price point, there are other options that are better than the TCL 50 XL 5G. For one, there is the Samsung Galaxy A15 5G, which has a retail price of $200, though you can easily find it for less with trade-in deals and other specials. The Galaxy A15 has a better AMOLED display, though the refresh rate is only 90Hz. It is a bit more manageable thanks to its 6.5-inch size and takes better photos. Plus, Samsung will support it for more than one year, which already makes it a better overall value.

TCL 50 XL 5G: verdict

Christine Romero-Chan / Digital Trends

For the price, the TCL 50 XL 5G is not a terrible phone (that honor goes to the Moto G 2024), but it’s also not amazing.

It definitely has a unique design with the textured material on the rear and a distinctive sheen that I don’t typically see on smartphones, let alone one at this price. The display isn’t too shabby for an LCD, as colors are bright and vivid, with text being sharp and crisp. NXTVISION’s visual enhancements are also a nice bonus. The 120Hz refresh rate does provide smooth scrolling, but the midrange chipset does have a little bit of stutter every now and then.

It’s also nice to see a phone that still has a 3.5mm headphone jack and expandable storage. These features continue to be a rare sight, so if those are important to you, this phone is an option.

But that’s about where the good stuff ends. The performance is mediocre and the power efficiency just isn’t really there. The phone will handle basic tasks fine, but if you do anything that requires a bit more power, then you’ll definitely notice the shortcomings of the chipset. And for such a large battery, it’s disappointing to see it drain so fast. It’s relatively slow to charge compared to other options.

For me, though, the camera is the most disappointing aspect. I wasn’t expecting incredible photos, but even in sunny conditions, the colors and details in my photos were mostly a letdown. I expect something a little bit better for a 50MP main camera, even on a $160 phone. The limited availability for the TCL 50 XL 5G is another drawback. Unless you’re already using Metro, you’re almost certainly better off with a phone that works with your existing carrier.

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