If you come face to face with the TCL 30 V 5G, chances are you’re in a Verizon store or on the Verizon website contemplating its prospects as a “free” phone. Free is nice! But free may even be too expensive for 30V 5G.
The full retail price of 30V 5G, which few people will choose to pay up front, is $299. That 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-resolution 720p screens and a measly 64GB of storage aren’t uncommon.
But I do have one major gripe with 30V 5G: slow performance in almost 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 daily use tells a different story. Life doesn’t have to be this way, even when the phone is free.
One of TCL’s key selling points for 30V 5G is its display and the NXTVISION image processing behind it. TCL says this AI-powered feature improves color and contrast in the media you watch on your phone and can convert standard-definition content to “HDR quality.” In reality, the difference in picture quality with NXTVISION on or off can be difficult to detect. Transmission Chernobyl in the HBO Max app, I was too distracted by frequent frame rate drops to care if what I was seeing was SDR or HDR.
The screen itself is fine; it’s a 6.6-inch 1080p LCD display that gets bright enough for comfortable use in sunny conditions. It’s a big screen with enough resolution to keep things sharp, which is great for a $300 phone. But even at this price, other manufacturers are adding features like higher refresh rates or contrast-rich OLEDs instead of LCD panels. These aren’t necessarily must-haves, but they are more compelling than NXTVISION.
The Snapdragon 480 5G used by the 30V 5G is paired with 4GB of RAM. This certainly isn’t the worst processor/memory combination in the budget class, but for some reason it makes the performance of this device noticeably slow. Apps close in the background often enough to annoy me, and there’s noticeable stutter when scrolling through app screens, pulling down the notification shade, and even playing videos.
Battery life is a bright spot on the TCL 30 V 5G’s report card. 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 probably last a full day of even heavy use. There’s also a wall charger included in the box, which is increasingly rare these days. There is no wireless charging, which is not very common in the budget category, although it is not unheard of.
The TCL 30 V 5G’s rear-panel fingerprint sensor is fast and reliable, and facial recognition works well too. I am less satisfied with weak haptics. I often hear the phone buzz without actually feeling it vibrate in my pocket. There is also no option to adjust the strength of the vibrations.
On the plus 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 wave (mmWave), which is very fast but sparse. Verizon bundles 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 national 5G without band C, which is not 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 isn’t TCL’s fault, it’s Verizon. Since it’s a carrier-locked phone, Verizon took the opportunity to load it with all sorts of proprietary cloud storage and call-filtering apps, plus a bunch of pre-downloaded games like Game of Thrones Slots Casino (why?). Some of them, like word travel Y crossword jam they can be uninstalled, which means setting up the phone takes a bit longer, but Verizon apps can’t be uninstalled, and that’s a real bummer.
None of this is surprising or unusual on a carrier-specific device, but Verizon takes it as far as setting its own Message Plus as the default SMS app. Google Messages isn’t even pre-downloaded on the phone, but Apple Music it’s because Verizon wants you to sign up for a six-month free trial through your phone plan and then keep paying for service when you forget about it after that. Apple Music! On this Android phone!
Another software note: The 30V 5G is preloaded with Android 11. There is no Android 12 update available at this time, and TCL has not confirmed if it will receive one. The company has also not confirmed how long it will support this device with security updates, but two years has been the standard for the company in recent history.
I also noticed a strange quirk with Google Maps: when running navigation with the screen off and the phone locked, the GPS signal is lost. Most reasonable people probably use Google Maps with the screen on and their phone in a cradle or using the touch screen in their car. I like to play fast and loose: dial my destination, start navigation, lock my phone, and leave it on the seat next to me with nothing but good vibes and my virtual co-pilot’s voice to guide me. This is the first phone I’ve come across that doesn’t work like that, and it’s a bit strange. Strava does keeping a GPS signal with the phone locked, so it seems to be a Google Maps issue.
There are three rear cameras on the 30 V 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 is 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 tricky (that’s the technical term) about choosing the exposure. Often, I would move the camera just the slightest between shots and end up with a noticeably darker or lighter image, even though the subject hadn’t materially changed. Overall, I like the choices the phone makes for exposure and color, but sometimes it takes a few shots to get to the right answer.
The 30V 5G struggles in low light, but no more than any other budget phone. It’s really not made for shooting moving subjects in low light. Shutter speeds are often too slow, causing subjects to appear blurred Y smoothed out by noise reduction, which doesn’t look good. In low-light conditions, a night mode will kick in, and it works well with non-moving subjects.
Video resolution is capped at 1080/30p, so there’s no 4K, which is becoming more common in phones of all price points. Video quality is good, but the lack of 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 telephone. It does pretty much everything I need it to do: 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 known for its good quality TVs at great prices. Perhaps the company is still in the process of figuring out what that price/quality equation looks like for phones.
As it is now, things don’t add up. The screen is good, but it’s hard to enjoy it when hampered by choppy performance. It supports the 5G bands that matter, but your phone plan may not even include them. The interface is cluttered with previous downloads and Verizon services, and NXTVISION is underwhelming.
So the TCL 30 V 5G really only makes sense for someone who doesn’t want a Samsung phone but wants all the flavors of Verizon 5G, a good amount of onboard storage, and a large, high-res screen. Y They also don’t want to pay anything out of pocket for it.
Otherwise, at the time of this writing, Verizon is also offering the Samsung Galaxy A42 5G for free, which I think is a better option. And, at least now, that offer is good for a new line in none unlimited plan, no “select” (read: more expensive) unlimited plans are required to get the TCL promotion. The performance and camera quality of the A42 5G are slightly better, and its Android 12 update is now available. Buying an unlocked Galaxy A32 5G for $279 is another good option. The screen isn’t as nice and you’ll need to expand its 64GB of storage with a microSD card, but the camera system is better, C-band ultra-wideband is supported, and it’s currently upgrading to Android 12.
And let’s be clear, there is no such thing as a free phone. There’s a lot of value in insuring your business for the next 36 months, Verizon knows that. If that’s the coin you’re spending, I think you should use it on another device.
Photograph by Allison Johnson/The Verge