The 10 Pro has excellent performance with the Snapdragon 675 chip inside, and its 6.5-inch OLED screen is sharp and bright, even in broad daylight. The 4,500-mAh battery keeps it running for a full day, and the four-camera system does well in a variety of lighting conditions, though it’s still not as good as the Pixel 3A. It feels more premium because it’s a glass sandwich, but that also makes it fragile.
The plastic-backed 10L is more durable and has similarly good performance, even if it uses the slower Snapdragon 665 processor—for $200 less. Its battery can go past a full day, and while it can take some nice photos during daylight hours, the lack of a night mode on this model means your low-light shots are going to look quite poor. Its screen is also a little too dim to see in the sunny outdoors.
TCL’s biggest drawback is that, like Motorola, it’s only promising one Android version update for these phones for now. That’s disappointing, and it doesn’t bode well for the longevity of these phones.
Works on all three major US carriers
Should You Buy Now?
Yes. Now is as good a time as any to snag a new phone. We’ll likely start seeing new budget phones launching in March or April 2021—potentially even later due to the disruption the pandemic caused to production. You have a lot of good options right now.
Check Network Compatibility
If you buy an unlocked phone on this list and try to take it to one of your wireless carrier’s retail stores, they may tell you it isn’t compatible with the network. It likely is. Just use a paper clip or SIM ejection tool to pop the SIM card out of your current phone, then slide that SIM into your new phone. If it doesn’t work at first, reboot the phone or wait a couple of hours.
If you need a new SIM, try ordering one online from your carrier, or try to get them to give you a SIM when you activate a line in the store (if you’re starting coverage). Tell them you have a phone. Many times, reps will want to sell you a phone; that’s one potential reason they might hassle you into buying a different device in the store.
Having said that, please make sure whatever phone you buy will work on your wireless network. Listings on retailers like Amazon should state clearly which networks it will be compatible with. Also, make sure the listing says that the phone is being sold “unlocked.”
Warning for Verizon users: There’s a higher chance an unlocked phone will not work on your network. Make sure it is labeled to work on Verizon, or that it says the phone is CDMA-capable. If something strange is going on, like you get no texts, you may also need to contact customer service and ask them to enable CDMA-Less roaming. AT&T and T-Mobile are GSM carriers, which is the standard for most of the world; most unlocked phones are compatible with them.
If you’re nervous, look up the specifications of the exact model you’re considering. Make sure it has the LTE bands it needs to run on your carrier. Speaking of networks, none of the phones in this guide support 5G, which is perfectly fine. 5G phones are pricey, and the networks are still only available in a handful of places around the country, so you’re not missing much.
Avoid These Phones!
If a phone isn’t listed here, or if it’s refurbished, be careful. It’s easy to waste money or time when you’re shopping for affordable phones. It’s hard to get a sense of how a cheaper phone will act in the long term when you use it in a store for five minutes, and retail employees may not be much help. Make sure you read reviews online.