TCL’s cheap phone offers decent performance, access to T-Mobile’s good 5G network and not much else

The TCL 30 XE has a poor screen, meager storage, a lackluster camera, and a version of Android that’s nearly two years behind everyone else. It’s actually a slightly cheaper, slightly worse version of the Samsung Galaxy A13 5G that only works on T-Mobile. But it’s $200, and for that price, it’s about the best phone you can get.

For a $200 phone, the 30 XE 5G’s daily performance is faster than I expected. That’s also a low price to pay for 5G service on T-Mobile’s very good network. These things make it easier to forgive the 30 XE’s weaknesses, because it does what a good budget phone should: it just works. If you really want 5G, pay full price and keep costs low, this is the best you can get on T-Mobile. But if you qualify for one of your carrier’s “free” phone offers, there’s definitely a better option.

The TCL 30 XE uses a MediaTek Dimensity 700 processor and 4 GB of RAM, which is on the low side even for budget phone standards. Still, jumping from app to app is quick. It’s not perfect – there are rare but noticeable hesitations here and there. While I’m scrolling and typing, I generally don’t notice the 30 XE getting in my way. The phone’s 64 GB built-in storage is: Surely on the low end, so budget an extra $15-25 for a microSD card.

Battery life is another bright spot. The 30 XE’s 4,500 mAh battery is certainly not the largest, but overall the device is fairly energy-efficient. Light users who spend most of their time on Wi-Fi will get very good performance – well into a second day on a single charge. It should also withstand heavier use, but I only expect to get through one day.

Unfortunately, that healthy battery staying power is likely due to the relatively dim, low-resolution display. The 30 XE offers a 6.52-inch LCD display, which would be fine – LCDs have poor contrast compared to their more expensive OLED counterparts, but you won’t find an OLED display on a $200 phone – but it happens to be a poor LCD Display. For starters, it’s only a 720p resolution, which really isn’t enough for a screen this large. Icons and graphics look a little rough around the edges. It’s also just not very bright. By using it next to a window on a mostly cloudy day, the automatic brightness was turned down to 100 percent to keep the screen comfortably visible.

The TCL 30 XE’s 6.5-inch screen offers a smooth 90Hz refresh rate, but is dim and only 720p.

That said, the display’s 90Hz refresh rate is noticeably smoother than the standard 60Hz. It adds to the phone’s overall sense of responsiveness, so it’s nice. But personally, I’d rather have a decent-resolution screen with a standard refresh rate than a smoother, low-resolution scrolling panel.

Fortunately, for a carrier-locked device, the 30 XE comes with few pre-downloaded T-Mobile apps, most of which can be uninstalled (or skipped altogether during setup). That wasn’t the case with Verizon’s TCL 30V 5G, which I tested earlier this year. The 30 XE also supports T-Mobile’s very good mid-band Ultra Capacity 5G network, which is included in all T-Mobile’s 5G plans – neither is the case with Verizon, where you need a more expensive unlimited plan to access the best 5G bands .

The 30 XE comes with Android 11 installed, which is way behind as Android 13 is just around the corner. TCL spokesperson Isabelle Braun says the phone will get an update to Android 12, but didn’t say when. The company also promises only two years of security updates for the 30 XE. That’s not long, but unfortunately it’s not entirely unexpected for a $200 phone.

TCL claims the 30 XE 5G has a “triple rear camera system,” but that’s a bit generous. There is a 13 megapixel main camera, 2 megapixel depth camera and a 2 megapixel macro camera. The depth camera’s sole purpose is to provide more information for portrait mode (which isn’t very good), and the macro camera’s images are (predictably) low resolution and mediocre.

That leaves the main camera behind and an 8-megapixel front camera, both of which do enough to get a pass. In bright light, they produce highly saturated, almost fluorescent colors. None of the filters available in the native camera app dampen this very much, so that’s something you’ll have to prefer or make peace with. This also contributes to some weird looking results in mixed lighting.

Dim interior lighting and very little light are a challenge for the camera. Images are often blurry due to slow shutter speeds, autofocus chasing, noise reduction, or a combination of the above. You can get usable photos of static subjects, but forget about pets and children – moving subjects in low light are a challenge for even the best smartphone cameras. Video recording is available up to 1080/30p and the quality of the clips is unobtrusive.

Rear view of the TCL 30 XE 5G, with an elongated camera bump and fingerprint reader on the back.
A main camera and two low-resolution sensors don’t make a three-camera system.

The TCL 30 XE 5G does exactly what a budget phone should: for the most part, it falls out of the way. For a phone at this price, performance is snappy, which is a big plus if you just want to live your life with as little frustration as possible from your mobile device. But if you want a little more from your phone, you have some other options to consider.

The Samsung Galaxy A13 5G has very similar specs to the 30 XE 5G: the same processor and RAM, the same 64GB of storage with a microSD slot, and a similarly sized 720p display. It costs a little more, but it offers a bigger battery and a better camera. Samsung’s software is a bit further from Android stock than TCL’s, which means a bit more clutter and pre-downloads. At the time of writing, it’s also another $0/month option from T-Mobile if you buy it on contract. If my free upgrade was at stake, I’d choose the Samsung.

Speaking of free phones, if T-Mobile offers the OnePlus Nord N20 5G, then that’s an even better option. It has a better camera, an excellent OLED screen and fast charging. Although at $282 it is in fact in a different price range if you pay for it outright.

Finally, if you can take or leave 5G and buying an unlocked phone is an option, the unlocked Motorola Moto G Stylus (2022) is worth considering. You get longer battery life and an extra year of security updates. It’s still a lot more expensive with a suggested retail price of $299, but it’s almost always well below that amount; it is $250 at the time of writing.

The TCL 30 XE 5G is a budget phone that allows you to get through the day with as little hassle as possible, given the price. It’s a good no-hassle option if you pay full price upfront and want to keep costs as low as possible. But if you subsidize your purchase by signing a wireless contract, you can do better.

Photography by Allison Johnson / The Verge

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