This Is the Best $350 Phone

Photo: Sam Rutherford
Photo: Sam Rutherford

Just a few years ago, a $US250 ($358) phone didn’t offer much. If you were lucky, you might get a front-mounted fingerprint reader that took up a bunch of space, stuttering performance, and a single rear camera that probably performed decently during the day, but turned into a potato at night.

However, as tech from more expensive flagship phones trickles down, affordable phones have stopped feeling quite so basic, picking up bonuses like additional rear cameras, much larger screens (with smaller bezels), and significantly faster internal components. And unlike a lot of high-end smartphones, budget phones still haven’t lost their headphone jacks. *At least not yet.)

Recently, TCL — which owns a number of phone brands, including Alcatel and Palm — and rival Motorola released two pretty enticing budget handsets in the TCL 10L and Moto G Power. Starting at $US250 ($358), the phones will cost you the same, and with both running Android 10 powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 chip, they have the same basic platform too. But from there, things start to differ, so here’s a breakdown of the pros and cons each phone offers so you get a better idea of which one is right for you.

Design and Display

Like a lot of budget phones, the Moto G Power and TCL 10 sport plastic backs with a few metal accents, like on their power buttons. But right away, the G Power feels noticeably heavier and thicker thanks to its larger 5,000 mAh battery (versus 4,000 for the TCL 10L), which isn’t a big deal, though it does mean the G Power can get a bit chunky if you wrap it in a case.

Photo: Sam Rutherford

Both phones have similarly sized screens, with the TCL 10L barely edging out the G Power with a 6.53-inch, 2340 x 1080 LCD display, compared to the Moto’s 6.4-inch, 2300 x 1080 LCD panel. On the flip side, while overall display quality is similar, the G Power does boast slightly better peak brightness at 493 nits versus 429 nits for the TCL 10L. In normal viewing conditions, this gap doesn’t really make a difference, but if you’re outside in bright light, the G Power’s screen is just a touch easier to see. Not by a ton, but it’s something.

The one major physical difference between the two phones is that while both the TCL 10L and Moto G Power have traditional lock buttons and volume rockers, the 10L comes with a bonus programmable Smart Key that can be customised to launch practically any app on the phone, or do things like summon the Google Assistant with a long press.

Overall, while it’s really close, the combination of the TCL 10L’s slightly bigger screen, its Smart Key, and little touches like its ever-so-slightly smaller bezels make the 10L feel like a more premium phone than the Moto. And with TCL opting for midnight blue as the 10L’s only colour option, it’s also a bit more visually appealing than the G Power (which only comes in grey).

Winner: TCL 10L

Specs and Features

While the TCL 10 has the overall better screen, when it comes to audio, the G Power is the clear winner. That’s because while the dual grilles on the bottom of the 10L might suggest the presence of stereo speakers, you actually only get a single mono speaker. It’s serviceable, but not worthy of much praise. On the other hand, Moto combines the G Power’s earpiece with its bottom speaker to deliver significantly richer stereo sound, so if you’re the kind of person who watches a lot of movies or TV shows on your phone without using headphones, the G Power is the phone for you.

Photo: Sam Rutherford

Around back, both the G Power and 10L have rear fingerprint readers that are fast and accurate. Both phones also sport expandable storage thanks to hidden microSD card slots and old-school headphone jacks for wired audio. And with both offering 64GB of base storage, it’s mostly a wash there, too. The 10L and G Power also feature a relatively clean take on Android, though Moto does include its usual assortment of Moto actions, so you can do things like turn on the flash light or launch the camera app with a simple gesture. But for this category, it comes down to audio quality, and the G Power has it.

Winner: Moto G Power

Performance

Both the 10L and G Power run on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 665 processor, so there isn’t a huge difference in performance between the two. The biggest win is that, compared to budget phones from just a few years ago, it’s encouraging to see how smooth both phones are during everyday use. Aside from when the phones first start up, or if you’re playing a game while installing an Android update, neither phone suffers from lag or stuttering. Sure, you’re not going to get a perfectly smooth experience in games like Fortnite, but it’s playable.

Photo: Sam Rutherford

That said, with 6GB of RAM for the 10L versus just 4GB for the G Power, the TCL does have a small advantage when it comes to gaming and multitasking. The extra memory gives you a little more freedom to keep more apps running in the background, and helps prevent slow down when switching between multiple apps.

Winner: TCL 10L

Camera Quality

Aside from performance, camera quality on budget phones is one of the most difficult things to nail, and if you look at the back of both phones, you might think the TCL 10L has an advantage over the G Power. Technically, it does. But because the 10L’s fourth camera is a depth camera strictly meant to help out with things like portrait shots, it doesn’t actually do anything on its own. That means both phones are relatively evenly matched: The Moto G Power sports a 16-MP main cam, a 8-MP ultra-wide cam, and a 2-MP macro cam, and the TCL 10L offers a 48-MP main cam, a 8-MP ultra-wide cam, and a 2-MP macro cam.

Photo: Sam Rutherford

In bright light, both phones are adequate shooters, though the 10L has a slight edge as it tends to nail exposure more often and with better focus. In daylight conditions, the Moto G Power’s biggest shortcoming is slightly overexposing photos, which causes colours to look somewhat faded and washed out. That’s clear in the comparison photo of the American flag below.

The bigger challenge is at night, especially for the Moto G Power, where it consistently shot darker and grainier photos than the TCL 10L. By using its larger 48-MP sensor and combining that with pixel binning that merges four pixels into one larger pixel, the TCL 10L was able to consistently outshoot anything captured by the Moto. Admittedly, neither are perfect, and if you’re a more adept smartphone photographer, one of the biggest reasons to upgrade to a more expensive phone is the ability to take better pictures. But when it comes these budget phones, the 10L’s main camera is flat out better.

When shooting ultra-wide images, both phones do a decent job of capturing wide open landscapes, though the results are close enough that neither earns a clear win. Same goes for macro, because while you can produce serviceable shots, both phones are rather finnicky when it comes to focusing on the macro subject. With mediocre image quality, the macro modes feels somewhat gimmicky.

Winner: TCL 10L

Battery Life

If you value longevity, here’s where the Moto G Power really distinguishes itself from the TCL 10L. With its 5,000 mAh battery, the G Power turned in one of the longest battery lives we’ve seen from a phone, budget or otherwise. With a time of 15:44, the G Power crushed the TCL 10’s time of 11:52, which is respectable, but sort of average when it comes to modern smartphones. This one is a clear win for Moto.

Winner: Moto G Power

Winner

Photo: Sam Rutherford

Look, if you were hoping that one phone would dunk on the other, that just wasn’t going to happen. With both phones priced at $US250 ($358) and running on the same general platform, the competition was bound to be neck-and-neck. Picking the right budget phone for you depends on your priorities. If you value having a sleeker device or if you like to shoot a lot of photos, the TCL 10L is probably the better option — I think it looks better, too. But if you’re looking for a new daily driver, the Moto G Power is the one you want, thanks to its fantastic battery life and much better speakers.

The good thing is that, because these phones are so close, you can’t really go wrong regardless of which one you pick.

Editor’s Note: Stay tuned for an Australian release date and pricing for both phones.