It has become increasingly clear that 2022 is the year budget Android phones got good again. TCL is once again leading the pack with the TCL Stylus 5G, a new phone concept from the fledgling brand that will appeal to Galaxy Note lovers on a tight budget. As the namesake implies, it’s got a stylus built right into the body, which is designed to make handwritten notes a simple task.
At just $258, the TCL Stylus 5G is among the very best budget phone (opens in new tab) options available. At the moment, only the OnePlus Nord N20 5G (opens in new tab) gives it a run for its money, especially since both phones are only available at T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile as of the publishing of this review.
To top it off, TCL has finally launched its Android 12 update along with the TCL Stylus 5G, including its new TCL UI 4.0. This UI is a completely refreshed experience that looks a bit like a mash-up of the Google Pixel UI, iOS’s Control Center, and the Google Home app. It’s a great collection of ideas that, together, create a superb experience and one very much worth your time and money. It’s just a shame the stylus included with the phone isn’t an active stylus, as it makes that component of the experience very difficult to recommend.
Price and Availability
The TCL Stylus 5G made its retail debut at T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile stores on June 2, 2022 for $258. The phone will make an appearance on other US carriers later this year.
TCL sells one model of the TCL Stylus 5G, which includes 128GB of storage and support for microSD cards up to 2Tb in size. The TCL Stylus 5G ships in a rather business-like Lunar Black colorway with no additional color options.
The TCL Stylus 5G is the first TCL phone to ship with Android 12 out of the box. This includes the newly redesigned TCL UI 4.0 experience.
What I loved
On the surface, the TCL Stylus 5G doesn’t seem particularly special. Its polycarbonate unibody frame’s most unique identifier is the ribbing that runs around all sides of the phone — a motif that’s carried on to the stylus itself — and reminds me of the Galaxy Note 3 in a lot of ways.
While a stylus at this price point is not unheard of, this design and build quality of the one in the TCL Stylus 5G is above and beyond what I expected. There’s even a nice magnetic click that happens as you press the stylus back into the body, making the phone feel well-thought-out.
Along the right side is a power button that doubles as a fingerprint sensor. Side-mounted fingerprint sensors remain my favorite type of fingerprint sensor and are incredibly convenient to use no matter how you hold the phone. I would also like to point out that the power button actually functions as a power button and not some irritating way to call up a virtual assistant as it does on far too many phones.
TCL even kept the Android 11 power button UI which, in my opinion, is the best thing Google did with Android’s UI before Material You came along. Having instant access to all your smart home controls, Google Pay, and a handful of other widgets is easy, brilliant, and powerful.
|Category||TCL Stylus 5G|
|operating system||Android 12, TCL UI 4.0|
|Display||6.81-inch 60Hz LCD|
|1080 x 2460 (20.5:9)|
|chipset||MediaTek Dimension 700 5G|
|ARM Mali-G57 MC2|
|rear camera 1||50MP, 0.64μm, 1080p @ 30 FPS|
|rear camera 2||5MP, 1.12μm, 114-degree ultra-wide-angle|
|rear camera 3||2MP, 1.75μm, macro camera|
|rear camera 4||2MP, 1.75μm, depth camera|
|connectivity||5G sub-6, Wi-Fi 5, Bluetooth 5.1|
|audio||Stereo speakers, dual-mic noise cancellation|
|charging||18W (9v/2a), charger included|
|ports||USB Type-C, 3.5mm jack|
|Security||Fingerprint sensor (side-mounted)|
|dimensions||169.6 x 76.5 x 8.98mm|
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But, beyond the little hardware niceties, it’s TCL’s software that helps make this phone feel like a far more unique device than it might otherwise be. The company’s first Android 12 phone looks and feels superb in every way, from the bold and colorful notification shade to the bevy of features throughout.
While the TCL UI 4.0 doesn’t feature Material You theming — that means you won’t get the customized colors in apps and in the overall UI — TCL’s thoughtful design makes up for the lack of customization.
I particularly loved the way the quick toggles felt like TCL was able to pick and choose the best designs and features from Google’s Pixel UI, iOS’s Control Center, and even the Google Home app to create something I enjoyed using daily. Adjusting brightness or volume right from the quick toggles without having to tap and enter a separate window was a marvel.
TCL also packed in several apps with the phone that normally cost extra money, the best of which is Nebo. Nebo is an incredibly powerful notes and PDF annotations app that every Galaxy Note user should try, and it’s included for free with every TCL Stylus 5G.
Among the swath of features is the best handwriting recognition in the business,. The fact that it’s able to actually translate my chicken scratch handwriting is a miracle in and of itself.
Despite hovering around the $250 mark, the TCL Stylus 5G performed admirably in every test I threw at it. Everything from apps to modern games performed well, and I even played Diablo Immortal (opens in new tab) on that lovely, giant 6.81-inch screen without any noticeable performance issues at all.
It’s even got a surprisingly good camera that does well enough in most lighting conditions. Lower light is a struggle, but I wouldn’t expect a phone in this price range to sport groundbreaking low light performance, anyway. If anything, the phone’s ability to stabilize video even while walking through uneven grass was worth noting and was better than many other phones I’ve used in this price category.
What could be better
If we’re judging a phone purely on how accurate its marketing is, the TCL Stylus 5G falls horribly flat. That’s because the stylus included in the body of the phone is a passive stylus, not an active one. In a nutshell, that means the phone cannot tell the difference between your finger, hand, or the stylus. They’re all seen as an input device and that makes it nearly impossible to actually write quality notes on the phone.
The TCL Notes app does include a faux “stylus-only input” option but it doesn’t work very well. More often than not with this option enabled, I would find that entire letters would be deleted while I was writing with the stylus. That’s partly because my chicken scratch handwriting is terrible and the software thinks it’s a mistake rather than a letter. It’s also partly because the side of my hand rubs up against the screen while writing.
Samsung’s Galaxy Note series doesn’t have this issue because it features an active stylus, which means the stylus holds an electrical charge and a special layer of the display only responds to that charge. Without this special layer, the idea of easily writing notes on a phone just isn’t a reality. Sure, you could muck through the process or hold the stylus really awkwardly in an attempt to not touch the screen but, for me, that just wasn’t a reasonable (or comfortable) request.
The other main issue I came across had to do with app compatibility. I had trouble getting signed into my work Slack account and playing games like Call of Duty Mobile or Apex Legends mobile when I first got the device. Reinstalling Slack and manually signing in fixed my issue with that app, but the other two flat-out games won’t run at all. Other titles like Fortnite at least say they aren’t compatible with the phone and won’t even let me install them.
This isn’t some performance-related issue, though. I’ve been in touch with TCL to help solve the problem and I hope they are able to fix these issues with an update. Most likely, it’s just a bug in the company’s Android 12 update and will be fixed in the future.
It’s certainly worth noting that the phone’s macro camera is pretty useless in its current state. TCL chose a 2MP sensor for this camera so that it could keep the pixel size large — that means it can take in a lot of light, which is especially important for taking pictures of objects up close — but the incredibly low resolution of the sensor means pictures never actually look good.
The closest competition — especially for T-Mobile customers — is the OnePlus Nord N20 5G (opens in new tab). For just $30 more, the OnePlus Nord N20 5G delivers a much faster processor, a better-quality screen — although it isn’t as bright — and the best cameras in its class. The downside is that the Nord N20 will never see an Android 13 update, while TCL promises the Stylus 5G will get it. I also had no issues with accessories like the Razer Kishi V2 (opens in new tab)while these types of accessories don’t work well with the OnePlus Nord N20’s USB port.
Outside of that, few options remain at a comparable price point. The Motorola One 5G Ace is the best alternative on Verizon (seeing as how the TCL Stylus 5G is not available on Verizon right now) and, while it doesn’t have a stylus, it has a much faster processor and better battery life.
Otherwise, you’ll be paying quite a bit more for a phone from Samsung or Google that delivers a better experience.
Should you buy it?
You should buy this if…
- You need a great phone at a great price
- You like the look of TCL’s UI and its plethora of features
- You occasionally jot down notes or like stylus input for its accuracy
You shouldn’t buy this if…
- You were looking for a current Galaxy Note competitor
- You need two-day battery life
- You want to play games like Call of Duty or Apex Legends
If you’re looking for a $250 phone that doesn’t feel like it compromises in any key areas, the TCL Stylus 5G is truly a great choice. The display is bright enough for sunlight use, the battery lasts all day, TCL’s software is friendly to look at and easy to use (while still being feature-rich), and the phone’s performance is truly great at this price.
The problem is that TCL markets the phone as a cheap Galaxy Note competitor. While it ships with a stylus and some remarkable note-taking software, the fact that the stylus isn’t active means actually writing on the screen is nothing but frustrating. If you were looking for a true Galaxy Note-style phone for less money, this isn’t the phone for you.
But if you just like to have a stylus for more pinpoint-accurate input than a finger can provide (and want an overall well-designed device), the TCL Stylus 5G is an excellent choice. It’s just hard to ignore that OnePlus offers a better display, processor, and camera for only $30 more when the stylus on this phone isn’t really worth mentioning.