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TCL Stylus 5G review: not quite writing

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TCL’s entry-level Stylus 5G makes sense for someone on a strict budget who absolutely must have 5G and a built-in stylus. That’s quite a specific demographic, and I’m not sure a lot of people fit all of those criteria.

The TCL Stylus 5G is available for $258 from T-Mobile or $269 from Metro by T-Mobile — they’re the exact same model — and for now, these are the only ways to buy it in the US. The Stylus 5G is also the third notable budget stylus phone to hit US store shelves this year, alongside the 2022 versions of Motorola’s Moto G Stylus and Moto G Stylus 5G. Have you listed all those product names? All right, there’s a quiz later.

TCL’s stylus phone is the cheapest of the three, and the specs reflect that. It doesn’t offer as much RAM as the Motorola options or the $282 non-stylus OnePlus Nord N20, the 4,000 mAh battery is on the small side for the class, and the 6.81-inch LCD neither offers a faster refresh rate. nor the richness of an OLED – options its comparably priced competitors offer.

All this leaves the TCL Stylus in tricky terrain. It’s cheap, to be sure, but also thoroughly unobtrusive. Even under $300, a phone can offer something that stands out, and the TCL’s combination of low price, 5G, and a stylus isn’t a worthwhile proposition.

The phone’s performance is acceptable, although there’s a noticeable stutter and hesitation here and there as I jump between apps, type emails, and scroll through timelines. The Stylus’ MediaTek Dimensity 700 chipset and 4GB of RAM are enough to run everyday tasks, but I wouldn’t expect much more from it. The battery endurance isn’t best in class, but it lasts a day with moderate use.

The Stylus’ 6.8-inch screen is one area where it seems like TCL could have done better, given the primary business of making TVs. It’s a 1080p LCD, so the resolution is adequate and the screen gets bright enough to use in direct sunlight. But instead of offering a faster refresh rate, TCL continues to lean on its NXTVISION technology as its standout feature, and it just isn’t impressive.

In theory, this feature enhances the images on the screen to enhance color and contrast. In reality, it’s hard to tell the difference with the feature on or off, and colors generally look oversaturated even in “natural” mode (it’s set to vivid by default). There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this display, and considering the sub-$300 price tag, it’s okay for the price. It’s just that TCL could do a little more in this department, and probably should, given his pedigree.

A version of the Nebo Notes app is pre-downloaded.

The phone’s headline feature works as it should: remove the stylus from its silo and you’ll see a customizable screen with shortcuts to stylus-friendly apps. In addition to a stock notes app, TCL has partnered with Nebo to offer a version of: the existing notes app that is built around handwriting recognition. It doesn’t quite have all the robust features of the paid version of the app, but it does include some features not available in the typical notes app. For example, you can underline a handwritten sentence to convert it to bold text or add spaces by drawing lines by hand. It is also more conducive to mixing handwritten and typed text.

Individual notes are formatted as lined pages for text or as grid-lined free-form pages better suited for doodling. As a result, the separations between notes are tighter than Motorola’s tabbed interface. You can add a freeform section to a text-based page, but you can’t easily add text or convert handwriting to a freeform page. There’s also not much you can do to style your notes page with different background colors – for that, you’ll have to go to TCL’s default notes app.

There is also a handwriting friendly calculator app called MyScript 2, also made by the same company as Nebo. It uses written equations, converts them to text, solves them, and stores the results in the app’s history for later use. It’s a nice addition that isn’t included on Motorola’s stylus phones — but it’s also a $3 app that anyone can download, so it shouldn’t be a deal maker or breaker. Outside of those two apps, there are a few other useful items in the stylus shortcut menu, such as a screen magnifier and GIF maker — nothing revolutionary or even requiring a stylus, but mimicking some of the pen options Samsung offers on his premium S22 Ultra stylus phone.

There are three cameras – plus a depth sensor – on the back panel of the TCL Stylus 5G.

The Stylus 5G comes with Android 12, as it should be, as Android 13 is near. TCL’s marketing director, Stefan Streit, says the phone shall Getting Android 13, but that will be the only OS upgrade it sees. It is only scheduled to receive two years of security updates, which is not much. Both Motorola and OnePlus offer three-year security updates for phones at similar prices, so TCL’s two-year policy is on the low side, even on budget handsets.

The Stylus 5G packs three cameras on the back – there are four lenses, but one of them has a 2-megapixel depth sensor that you can ignore. There is a 50 megapixel main camera, a 5 megapixel ultrawide and a 2 megapixel macro. On the front is a 13-megapixel selfie camera.

It is a very similar configuration to the TCL 30V 5G, and the performance is comparable. The camera does a lot more facial softening than I’d like, and it’s prone to an odd lens flare – subtle but noticeable. Otherwise, photos in good and even moderate low light look pleasing, with vibrant (if a tad cool) colors. In low light, the combination of face softening and slow shutter speeds results in a lot of blurry photos of people. Video recording peaks at 1080p and clips look quite shaky even with the system’s electronic image stabilization enabled.

The Stylus 5G is a suitable budget option for stylus fans, but is otherwise unobtrusive.

The TCL Stylus 5G is largely unremarkable, and even given its very reasonable price, it’s hard to recommend. The stylus works well and the pre-downloaded handwriting apps do a little more than Motorola’s standard options. But as a total package, it falls far short of Motorola’s 5G and non-5G stylus phones with a mediocre display, mediocre performance and a year less software support.

If a stylus is a must-have and there is some flexibility in your budget, the 2022 Moto G Stylus 5G is well worth the extra money. The version T-Mobile sells has 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, which is less than the 8GB/256GB unlocked version we reviewed, but costs $300 instead of $500. At $40 more, it’s a a lot more expensive than the TCL Stylus 5G, but it’s a much better device with an extra year of security updates promised.

If a stylus isn’t a must-have, the OnePlus N20 is an excellent option for those with T-Mobile. It offers one of the best-looking screens in its class and fast wired charging – and at $282 it’s within a short distance of the $260(ish) Stylus 5G.

Realistically, TCL is probably trying to pick up some of the budget stylus phone market that LG left behind when it took its Stylo phones and left the smartphone business. Fittingly, the last Stylo phone (well, also the first) I reviewed had good stylus features, but was ultimately too slow to recommend. TCL seems to be wearing LG’s shoes a little too comfortably here.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge

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