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You might not be able to avoid TCL's smartphones in 2020

At last, the company is getting serious about more than just TVs.
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Whether you knew it or not, TCL -- perhaps best known for its impressively cheap TVs -- has been making phones for years. Just about every Alcatel gadget you've ever seen? Forged in a factory by TCL. They've been around, in other words. What they haven't really gotten around to doing is develop TCL into a full-fledged, respectable smartphone brand all on its own. Granted, the company laid the groundwork late last year when it released the very first TCL-branded phone in a handful of markets around the world, but it didn't seem to move the needle much.

After seeing what the company has been working on at CES, though, that may well change. This year, the company plans to release three 10-series TCL smartphones in the US and Canada, not to mention a slew of other countries. These aren't the modest, budget devices you'd expect from the people behind Alcatel's phones, either; The 10L, 10 Pro and 10 5G are big, pretty, decently powerful and brimming with cameras.

Gallery: TCL 10-series smartphone hands-on | 9 Photos

Unfortunately, TCL declined to walk us through their spec sheets -- it plans to reveal most of those details at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. We do know a few things, though. That 5G model? It uses one of Qualcomm's 700-series chipsets, most likely the Snapdragon 765. TCL wouldn't explain what processors the other phones used, though they all ran with similar levels of snappiness, so it's a safe bet the 10L and 10 Pro use 600-series chipsets like the Snapdragon 675. All three of the phones also ran only mildly tweaked versions of Android 10, so software purists might not find much to complain about. (That light touch with software probably goes a long way in explaining how snappy these things feel.)

What else? All of these devices appear to have roughly 6.5-inch screens, and they're almost certainly running in the neighborhood of 1080p. (The Pro's display, with its curved edges, is arguably the most eye-catching.) They all also rely on a bit of extra hardware -- TCL's Nxtvision engine -- to ensure that what you see on these screens is as true-to-life as the company could manage. I didn't get to spend too much time with these phones, but the quality of these displays was more impressive than I had expected. Then again, since making its own screens is sort of TCL's forte, maybe I shouldn't be that surprised.

Each phone also has four cameras around back, though the specific sensors each phone uses vary. The standard 10L seems to use a 48MP sensor as its primary, along with an ultra-wide, telephoto and macro camera. Meanwhile, the slightly upmarket 10 Pro relies on a 64MP main sensor. I wish I had more to tell you about these cameras, but TCL wouldn't budge.

Calling these 10-series phones "thrilling" would be a stretch, but they're decently impressive upper-mid-range smartphones. At the very least, there's nothing overtly objectionable about them. But how does a company like TCL plan to make a splash with its smartphones in the US -- one of the toughest mobile markets to crack, period -- with devices that might best be described as "good, but inoffensive"?

TCL 10L, 10 Pro and 10 5G hands-on

Well, there's the whole money thing, for one. All of these phones, even that 5G model, should cost $500 or less when they launch in the US this year. As with the Galaxy Note 10 Lite and S10 Lite, we can't say for sure whether these phones are good deals since so many details have been unspoken. Still, when you look at brands like Motorola clawing their way back to profitability thanks to sub-$500 smartphones, it's not hard to imagine TCL finding some measure of success with this strategy.

And let's not forget that TCL has one key advantage over would-be competitors like Motorola: It makes a ton of other things. Imagine walking into a carrier store and being told that, hey, if you buy a TCL smartphone, we'll throw in an Alcatel tablet and a TCL TV. Sure, you could still choose to splurge on a pricey, premium smartphone, but a lot of people wouldn't turn a deal like that down. I didn't just make that up as an example either; TCL's GM of marketing Stefan Streit offered it as a potential strategy to jump-start the company's mobile business in the US.

Chris Velazco/Engadget

It's also important to remember that these modestly priced mid-range phones are just the beginning. TCL is planning to release its first foldable device in 2020 and unlike the others we've seen so far, this one is supposed to retail for under $1,000. Exactly what form that foldable will take still isn't clear, though. We first caught a glimpse of a prototype tablet that bends in half at CES last year, and the updated version the company showed off this time felt more polished. (Literally: It was clad in a blue, gem-like finish.) TCL is also actively working on a Razr-style foldable phone that shrinks into a pocketable square, so that might be the first model to hit shelves -- it all boils down to whichever is ready first.

Between its first wave of 10-series phones and the inexpensive foldable being planned for launch later this year, TCL is about just about everything it can to get taking its mobile business seriously too. Who knows: Maybe the "good-enough-for-the-money" approach will make just as much sense for the company's smartphones as it does for their televisions. We'll just have to wait until MWC to find out for sure.

Follow all the latest news from CES 2020 here!

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