TCL Stylus 5G review: Not quite written

TCL’s entry-level Stylus 5G makes sense for someone on a tight budget who absolutely must have 5G and a built-in stylus. It’s a fairly specific demographic, and I’m not sure that many people meet all of those criteria.

The TCL Stylus 5G is available from T-Mobile for $258 or Metro by T-Mobile for $269—they’re the exact same model—and for now, it’s the only way to buy it in the US. With the 2022 editions of Motorola’s Moto G Stylus and Moto G Stylus 5G, the Stylus 5G is the third notable budget stylus phone to hit store shelves in the US this year. Got all those product names straight? Okay, there’s a quiz later.

TCL’s Stylus phone is the least expensive of the three, and so do its specifications. It doesn’t offer as much RAM as Motorola options or the $282 non-stylus OnePlus Nord N20, its 4,000mAh battery is on the small side for the class, and its 6.81-inch LCD doesn’t offer a fast refresh rate and Nor does OLED’s richness-options offer its similarly priced competitors.

All of this leaves the TCL Stylus in weird territory. It’s cheap to be sure, but it’s also completely unremarkable. Even at under $300, a phone can offer something that stands out, and TCL’s low price, combining 5G and a stylus doesn’t add up to a valuable 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 the timeline. The Stylus’ MediaTek Dimensity 700 chipset and 4GB of RAM are enough to handle daily tasks, but I can’t expect much from them. The battery stamina isn’t the best in the category, but it will last for a day of moderate usage.

The stylus’ 6.8-inch screen is one area where it looks like TCL could have done better, given its primary business-making TVs. It’s a 1080p LCD, so the resolution is adequate, and the screen gets bright enough to be used 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’s not impressive.

In theory, this feature magnifies images on the screen to boost color and contrast. In fact, it’s hard to spot the difference with the feature turned on or off, and colors typically look oversaturated even in “Natural” mode (it’s set to Vivid by default). There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this screen, and considering the sub-$300 price tag, it’s fine for the price. It’s just that Tcl can do something else in this department, and probably should, given its pedigree.

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

The phone’s Headline feature works as it should: Take the stylus out of its silo, and you’ll see a customizable screen of shortcuts to stylus-friendly apps. In addition to the stock Notes app, TCL has partnered with Nebo to offer a version of its existing Notes app that is built around handwriting recognition. It doesn’t have all the strong features of the paid version of the app, but it does include some features that aren’t available on the normal Notes app. For example, you can underline to turn a handwritten phrase into bold text or add spacing by drawing lines through handwriting. It’s also more suited to mixing handwriting and keyboard-typed text.

Individual notes formatted as either ruled pages for text or freeform pages with grid-lined ones better suited for doodling. As a result, the divisions between notes are more rigid than in Motorola’s tabbed interface. You can add a freeform section to a text-based page, but you can’t easily add text or change the handwriting on a freeform page. You can’t do much to style your Notes page with different background colors, either — for that, you’ll need to head over to Tcl’s standard Notes app.

There’s also a handwriting-friendly calculator app called MyScript 2, made by the same company as Nebo. It takes written equations, turns them into text, solves them, and saves the results to the app’s history for later reference. It’s a nice addition that isn’t included in Motorola’s stylus phone—but it’s also a $3 app that anyone can download, so it shouldn’t be a deal maker or breaker. Of those two apps, there are a few other useful items on the stylus shortcut menu, like Screen Magnifier and GIF Maker—nothing revolutionary or even necessarily requiring a stylus, but by Samsung on its premium S. Mimic some of the pen options provided on the 22 Ultra. Stylus phone.

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

The Stylus 5G comes with Android 12, as it should, as Android 13 is near. TCL’s marketing director Stephen Strait says the phone Will Get Android 13, but that will be the only OS upgrade it sees. It’s scheduled to receive only two years of security updates, which is no more. Motorola and OnePlus both offer three years of security updates for similarly priced phones, so TCL’s two-year policy is on the low end, even among budget devices.

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

It is the same configuration as the TCL 30 V 5G and the performance is the same. The camera does a lot more face-smoothing than I’d like, and it’s prone to some weird lens flare – subtle but noticeable. Otherwise, photos in good and even moderate low light look pleasant with vibrant (if a bit cool) colors. In low light, the combination of face smoothing and a low shutter speed means you’ll get lots of blurry photos of people. Video recording tops out at 1080p, and clips look shaky even when the system’s electronic image stabilization is enabled.

The Stylus 5G is a substantial budget option for stylus fans, but otherwise it’s not doable.

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

If a stylus is a must and you have some flexibility in your budget, the 2022 Moto G Stylus 5G is well worth the extra money. The version sold by T-Mobile 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. For $40 more, it’s a little nicer than the TCL Stylus 5G, but it’s a better device with the promised extra year of security updates.

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

Realistically, TCL is probably trying to scavenge some of the budget stylus phone market that LG left behind when it took its Stylo phones and exited the smartphone business. Well, the last Stylo phone (okay, the first, too) I reviewed included good stylus features but was ultimately too slow to recommend. Looks like TCL wears LG shoes a little too comfortably here.

Photography by Alison Johnson / The Verge

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