If you come face to face with the TCL 30V 5G, chances are you’re in a Verizon store or on Verizon’s website considering its prospects as a “free” phone. Free is good! But free may even be too steep for 30V 5G.
The full retail price of the 30V 5G, which few will choose to pay up front, is $299. This gives you a nice big Full HD screen, a healthy 128GB of storage, 4GB of RAM, and a 4,500mAh battery that easily lasts more than a day. Those specs are fine – even good for a budget phone where low-res 720p displays and paltry 64GB of storage aren’t uncommon.
But I have one big gripe with the 30V 5G: sluggish performance in nearly every aspect of using this phone, from scrolling through menu screens to streaming video. On paper, the phone has the components to perform well enough, but day-to-day use tells a different story. Life doesn’t have to be like this, even when the phone is free.
One of TCL’s biggest selling points for the 30V 5G is its display and the NXTVISION image processing behind it. TCL says this AI-driven feature improves color and contrast in the media you view on your phone and can upscale standard definition content to “HDR quality”. In reality, the difference in image quality with NXTVISION on or off can be hard to spot. Diffusion Chernobyl on the HBO Max app, I was far too distracted by the frequent frame rate drops to care whether what I was seeing was SDR or HDR.
The screen itself is fine; it’s a 6.6-inch 1080p LCD screen that gets bright enough to be used comfortably in sunny conditions. It’s a big screen with enough resolution to keep things crisp, which is great in a $300 phone. But even at that price, other manufacturers are adding features like higher refresh rates or contrast-rich OLEDs rather than LCD panels. They’re not necessarily must-haves, but they’re more compelling than NXTVISION.
The Snapdragon 480 5G used by the 30 V 5G is paired with 4 GB of RAM. It’s certainly not the worst CPU/memory combination in the budget class, but for some reason it makes the performance of this device noticeably sluggish. Apps close often enough in the background to annoy me, and there’s a noticeable stutter when scrolling through app screens, lowering the notification shade, and even playing videos.
Battery life is a bright spot on the TCL 30V 5G’s track record. I managed to last two days of light to moderate use on a single charge. With more consistent moderate or heavy use, that kind of longevity would be a challenge, but it would likely hold up to a full day of even heavy use. There’s also a wall charger included in the box, which is increasingly rare these days. There’s no wireless charging, which isn’t too common in the budget class, but not unheard of.
The TCL 30V 5G’s rear-panel fingerprint sensor is fast and reliable, and facial recognition works well too. I am less satisfied with the weak haptics. I often hear the phone buzzing without really feeling it vibrate in my pocket. There is also no option to adjust the strength of the vibrations.
On the bright side, you get all the flavors of Verizon 5G, including C-band, which is significantly faster than 4G with a wide-range signal. You also get millimeter waves (mmWave), which are very fast but rare. Verizon lumps these two faster varieties of 5G together and calls it Ultra Wideband, and you’ll want to check if your phone plan includes it — some only offer access to Nationwide 5G without C-band, which isn’t really faster than 4G. If your plan doesn’t include Ultra Wideband and you’d rather not upgrade to one that does, then you might be fine with a 4G-only phone for now.
One of my least favorite things about this phone really isn’t TCL’s fault – it’s Verizon’s. Since it’s a carrier-locked phone, Verizon took the opportunity to load it up with all sorts of proprietary cloud storage and call-screening apps, plus a bunch of games. pre-downloaded as Game of Thrones Slots Casino (Why?). Some of them, like word travel and crossword jam can be uninstalled, which means setting up the phone takes a little longer, but Verizon apps can’t be uninstalled, and it’s a real pain.
None of this is surprising or unusual on a carrier-specific device, but Verizon goes so far as to set its own Message Plus as the default SMS app. Google Messages is not even pre-loaded on the phone, but Apple Music is because Verizon wants you to sign up for a six-month free trial through your phone plan, then continue paying for the service when you forget about it later. AppleMusic! On this Android phone!
Another software note: the 30V 5G comes preloaded with Android 11. There is no update to Android 12 available at this time; TCL spokeswoman Isabelle Braun says there will be one later this year, but it’s the only OS update she’ll receive. The company promises just two years of security updates, which isn’t very long even in the budget class where Motorola and OnePlus now support similarly priced phones for three years. If you like to keep your phone as long as possible, that’s a good reason to look elsewhere.
I also noticed a strange quirk with Google Maps: when running navigation with screen off and phone locked, it loses GPS signal. Most reasonable people probably use Google Maps with the screen on and their phone in a cradle or using their car’s touchscreen. Me, I like to play fast and free – type in my destination, start navigation, lock my phone and leave it on the seat next to me with nothing but good vibes and the voice of my virtual copilot to me to guide. This is the first phone I’ve come across that won’t work like this, and that’s a bit odd. Strava Is maintaining a GPS signal with the phone locked, so this appears to be a Google Maps issue.
There are three rear cameras on the 30V 5G: a 50-megapixel f/1.9 wide-angle, a 5-megapixel f/2.2 ultra-wide, and a 2-megapixel macro. On the front, there’s a 16-megapixel selfie camera. Photos in good light from all of these cameras look good, if a bit too sharp.
The main camera is a bit squirrely (that’s the technical term) on exposure choice. Often I would move the camera slightly between shots and end up with a noticeably darker or brighter image, even though the subject hadn’t changed significantly. I generally like the choices the phone makes for exposure and color, but sometimes it takes a few shots to get the answer right.
The 30V 5G struggles in low light, but no more than any other budget phone. It’s not really cut out for photographing moving subjects in low light. Shutter speeds are often too slow, causing subjects to blur and smoothed out by noise reduction, which isn’t pretty. In very dark conditions, a night mode kicks in, and it does a good job with static subjects.
Video resolution is capped at 1080/30p, so there’s no 4K, which is becoming increasingly common in phones at all price points. Video quality is good, but the lack of any electronic image stabilization is very noticeable, and there’s a lot of distracting camera shake in my video clips.
The TCL 30V 5G is not a evil call. It does just about everything I need: make calls, run apps, take photos, and wake me up in the morning. It’s just not very good, and there are enough better options at this price point that it’s very hard to recommend it to anyone. TCL is well known for its good quality TVs at great prices. Perhaps the company is still figuring out what that price/quality equation looks like for phones.
As it stands, things don’t add up. The screen is good, but it’s hard to enjoy when hampered by jerky performance. It supports the 5G bands that matter, but your phone plan might not even include them. The interface is cluttered with pre-downloads and Verizon services, and NXTVISION is underwhelming.
So the TCL 30V 5G only really makes sense for someone who doesn’t want a Samsung phone but wants all the flavors of Verizon 5G, a good amount of built-in storage, and a big, high-resolution display. And they also don’t want to pay anything out of pocket.
Otherwise, as I write this, Verizon is also offering the Samsung Galaxy A42 5G for free, and I think that’s a better choice. And, at least right now, this offer is good for a new line on any unlimited plan, not “select” (read: more expensive) unlimited plans required to get the TCL promotion. The A42 5G’s camera performance and quality are a bit better, and its Android 12 update is already out. Buying an unlocked Galaxy A32 5G for $279 is another good option. The screen isn’t quite as nice and you’ll have to expand its 64GB of storage with a microSD card, but the camera system is better, Ultra Wideband C-band is supported and it’s currently being updated to Android 12 .
And let’s be clear, there is no freephone. There’s a ton of value in securing your business for the next 36 months – Verizon knows that. If that’s the currency you’re spending, I think you should use it on another device.
Photography by Allison Johnson/The Verge
Updated April 28, 3:00 p.m. ET: Updated with additional information on the device’s expected operating system upgrades and security support schedule.