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TCL Stylus 5G review: A solid sub-$300 stylus phone

It's a good option for those who want a stylus but don't want to spend over $1,000 for a Galaxy flagship.
matt-miller-headshot.jpg
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributor on
Pros
  • Capable stylus experience
  • Affordable price
  • High quality, vibrant display
  • Attractive, well-built design
  • Good sounding stereo speakers
Cons
  • Acceptable camera results
  • Limited RAM
  • Passive stylus, no palm rejection

When LG was still in the smartphone market, buyers could pick up a Stylo model at reasonable prices. Motorola offers a Moto G Stylus device, and now we have the new TCL Stylus 5G to fill the gap left by LG. The Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra is the new Galaxy Note with a starting price of $1,075, but you may not want to pay more than four times the cost of a TCL Stylus 5G for that ultimate experience.

TCL has a few good affordable options in the sub-$450 sector and has demonstrated good success in the US market with its own branded smartphones. The TCL Stylus 5G is currently available from Metro by T-Mobile for $269.99 and from T-Mobile for $258. Unlike phones in the past at this price point, the TCL Stylus 5G is a solid option with good support from TCL.

At this low price point, there are obviously some trade-offs in the specifications and performance. TCL is offering a fairly stock Android experience with a well-integrated stylus that helps you capture notes, navigate around the phone, and convert the handwritten script into text.

Specifications

Processor MediaTek Dimensity 700 5G
Display 6.81-inch, 2460 x 1080 pixels resolution LCD (395 ppi)
Operating system Android 12
RAM 4GB
Storage 128GB internal storage with microSD card
Cameras 50MP main, 5MP super wide with 114.9 field-of-view, 2MP macro, and 2MP depth sensor. 13MP front-facing camera.
Connectivity 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5.2, GPS, NFC, FM radio
Sensors Accelerometer, Side Fingerprint Sensor, Electronic Compass, Proximity Sensor, Ambient Light Sensor, Gyro Barometer
Battery 4000 mAh non-removable with 18W fast charge
LTE bands 2, 4, 5, 12, 25, 26, 41, 66, 71
5G bands N66, N25, N41, N77 Sub6
Dimensions 169.6 x 76.7 x 8.98 mm and 213g
Color Lunar Black
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The TCL Stylus 5G vs Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

Hardware

  • Big display, solid speakers
  • Capable stylus
  • Four rear cameras

TCL is known for its display technology and continues incorporating NXTVISION technology into its smartphones. The TCL Stylus 5G has a large 6.81-inch display with a 90.2% screen-to-body ratio. A central hole punch front-facing camera is present, with a viewable display appearing around the opening. There is no opening in the front panel for the camera, so a full surface is available for interactions. The display is an LCD panel, but it looks great, and I have enjoyed a few movies playing on the large panel.

Speaking of movies, there are two speakers so that you can enjoy movies in landscape orientation with a bottom-firing speaker and the headset speaker playing the audio. I could watch movies comfortably without headphones, but there is also a standard 3.5mm audio port on the bottom of the phone.

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The stylus secures in the silo with magnets

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

A USB-C port, microphone, and bottom speaker are also located along the bottom edge. The stylus silo is also positioned in the bottom right corner of the phone. A microphone is found at the top of the phone. The SIM card/microSD card tray is located on the upper left side, with the power and volume buttons on the right side. The power button also serves as the fingerprint sensor, so it is quick and easy to unlock the phone with your thumb when held in your right hand. I personally prefer side fingerprint sensors over the ones found under the display.

Also: The 5 best cheap phones: Flagship features for under $450

The stylus is well designed with good length, heft, and feel in the hand. However, it works best when you do not have any other part of your hand or fingers touching the display. Nothing will appear under the stylus when your hand is resting on the display. You can use your finger in the same manner as the stylus, so it is really more of a finger that has a finer tip on the end. The majority of the time, my hand was not touching the display, so I enjoyed the stylus experience. However, I have larger hands and longer fingers than many people, and when I use a stylus on a phone, I rarely touch the phone with any other part of my hand.

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The four cameras support a decent capture experience

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

The edges of the phone all have a textured surface to help you grip the phone. The back has a matte black finish too. The four cameras are found in a vertical line along the left upper portion of the back with a LED flash near the bottom camera lens. The cameras help you capture decent photos that are good for sharing on social media or with friends, but they won't beat out flagship phone cameras that are priced four times as much. 

Also: Best camera phones

That said, you can shoot photos, videos, portrait shots, panoramics, slow-motion videos, light trace, super macro, high pixel, and manual mode photos so your results are highly dependent on lighting conditions and your ability to capture good photos. There is no night mode present, so low light shots are clearly a challenge.

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The buttons are well designed with stylish textured edges

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

The phone has a 4,000 mAh battery that has proven to last me a full day of standard usage. As a productivity-focused phone, I was expecting 4,500 mAh or more, given what we see in other TCL smartphones. The TCL Stylus 5G also has 4GB of RAM, which has been adequate for most standard tasks, but the phone may struggle a bit when gaming or pushing the limits with several applications open and in use.

Software

  • Android 12 out of the box
  • Few custom TCL utilities
  • Stylus software

The TCL Stylus 5G is one of the first TCL phones to launch with Android 12 and TCL UI version 4.x. The March 5 2022 Android security update is present on the review device. TCL stated that this phone will be upgraded to Android 13 and receive two years of security updates.

TCL's UI offers a fairly stock Android experience with most of the TCL customization found in the app launcher, pull-down shade, and settings focused on TCL's display technologies. The app launcher supports sorting by name, usage, installation, and icon color (that's a new one). The drop-down shade can be customized with your favorite controls while also having an assortment of small and large tiles to choose from. Within the settings, we find specific options for the NXTVISION display technology, stylus options, and more.

There are just a couple of apps installed on the phone, such as the Gallery, FM radio, Nebo for TCL, MyScript Calculator 2, Messaging, and NXTVISION utility, that facilitate using features found on the phone. The two stylus-focused apps are powerful, and the handwriting recognition in Nebo is rather stunning. My poor handwriting was quickly recognized with a high percentage of accuracy.

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When you remove the stylus, these options appear

Matthew Miller/ZDNet

When you remove the stylus from the silo, an overlay display appears with options for Nebo for TCL, MyScript Calculator 2, write a note, screenshot doodle, e-signature, magnifying window, GIF maker, and split-screen. These are all pretty self-explanatory functions, and there is no way to customize or reorder the appearance of these utilities. I enjoy sending custom GIF messages to my wife, having a window to view text, so I don't need my reading glasses, and writing notes.

If you remove the stylus with the display off, then a notes app appears so that you can write notes without turning on the phone.

The Google Feed is available as a far-left home screen panel. All the other expected Google Android functions are present on the phone too.

Also: The best Android phones

Daily usage experiences

  • Stylus note-taking is good
  • Locked to T-Mobile
  • Inexpensive phone, decent performance

I've been a Galaxy Note user since the Note 3 and enjoy using a stylus for quick notes and for navigating around the phone, so I do not have to use my finger to scroll or type. The TCL Stylus 5G surprised me with its ability to support note-taking with the display turned off. Simply slide out the stylus and start scratching your latest thoughts easily. By the way, the magnet inside the silo is quite strong, and as you move the stylus into the silo, the magnet sucks it up to secure it in the phone.

The Nebo for TCL software is more powerful than I expected, with excellent handwritten-to-text conversion technology. It's nice to see cloud backup options, but I would prefer to see support for existing note-taking apps like OneNote, Evernote, or others. The MyScript Calculator 2 app is also pretty slick, but it does have a fairly limited number of supported operators, so it is not going to help me solve differential equations or engineering calculations that are too advanced.

The TCL Stylus 5G is currently locked to T-Mobile, but it does support Sub6 5G networks and has proven to do well with connecting to the local 5G towers. Phone calls sounded good and wireless performance has been solid. It's not clear if the phone will be launched with other wireless carriers or as an unlocked model in the future.

TCL stated that the Stylus 5G will get upgraded to Android 13 and also receive two years of Android security updates. This is a good level of support for a phone that costs less than $300. The side fingerprint sensor has worked reliably, and you can also use face unlock for less secure processes.

Bottom line

Overall, the TCL Stylus 5G is a phone worthy of consideration if you are looking for an affordable phone with stylus support as long as you can operate it without resting your hand on the display. It wasn't a real issue for me as I tend to use the stylus on all of my phones without resting my hand on the display. The TCL Stylus 5G offers a solid experience at a fairly low price.

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