Carve out market share with carrier partnerships, $200 tablets, and foldable gaming.
TCL maintained the status quo when it announced two budget 5G carrier phones at CES 2022 — the TCL 30 XE 5G and TCL 30 V 5G — and six budget Android tablets. Since TCL rebranded its name to the Alcatel brand in 2020, it has largely stuck to Android’s low price point when it sells in the U.S. The problem TCL faces is that, starting this year, the cheap U.S. phone and tablet market It’s only getting more crowded.
You only have to look at the plans of the more popular Android brands in the U.S. market in 2022 to see that most are ditching the flagship tiers of Samsung, Apple and (to a lesser extent) Google. So that means these same brands are all suddenly competing with each other for the same customers, and someone is bound to stand out — or be left behind.
If TCL is to succeed, it has to compete with Motorola/Lenovo, OnePlus/OPPO, Nokia/HMD Global, Amazon Fire, and any other brand that puts out as many cheap 5G phones and tablets as possible. It’s not going to be easy, but the TCL 30 lineup could be a step in the right direction.
Brands race to rock bottom
You probably wouldn’t expect to include OnePlus on this list because it’s managed to push both great flagships and near-flagship phones like the OnePlus 9 and 8T. The OnePlus 10 Pro looks promising. But the Europe-only OnePlus Nord 2, China/India-only OnePlus 9RT, and the apparently AWOL OnePlus 10 all mark the brand’s largely abandonment of the mid-to-high-end segment in the US.
OnePlus focuses on ‘ruminating entry-level OPPO phone’ in US
In his breakdown of the little-known Android brand’s plans for 2022, our Asia editor Harish Jonnalagadda describes how its parent company OPPO will use the OnePlus Nord brand to launch a “regurgitated entry-level OPPO phone”. Success in the entry-level and budget phone categories has led OnePlus to sell 10 million more phones in 2021 than its flagship phone — which is why OPPO is doubling down on affordable, reliable US phones.
You’ll also see a 2022 launch of the OnePlus tablet, the brand’s first tablet.
Like TCL, HMD Global unveiled several ultra-cheap carrier phones at CES 2022, including the $239 Nokia G400 with a 6.6-inch FHD+ display and 120Hz refresh rate, 48MP camera, 5,000mAh battery, 6GB RAM , 128GB of storage, and 5G support. It easily ranks among the best Android phones under $300.
Compared to Google itself, HMD-made Nokia phones consistently offer affordable prices, clean, near-stock Android software, and faster updates than any other OEM, with mid-range flagships such as the Nokia 9 Pureview and Nokia 8.3 5G among the best in their portfolios. Top of the lineup. But starting in 2021, HMD has pivoted to offer mostly sub-$300 phones with no true flagships aside from the rugged Nokia XR20. So far, it looks like 2022 will be more similar.
It’s not hard to guess why. HMD worked hard to update Nokia phones in 2021, when Samsung started offering three guaranteed OS upgrades and made strides with quick updates across the board. By lowering the cost of phones, it can compete with brands with poor update records such as Motorola and TCL. A “cheap, durable phone” isn’t a bad modus operandi.
Late last year, HMD also released its first tablet, the $250 Nokia T20.
Motorola was last among these other brands, and it recently took LG’s market share to become the third-largest smartphone OEM after its shutdown. Arguably, it has also been successful due to the lack of competition in the low-cost phone space.
The Moto brand’s position could be vulnerable to all this new competition. The Moto G Power (2022) is a major miss, lacking key elements like 5G connectivity, NFC and fast charging — areas where the new TCL 30 V 5G wins — and uses a very slow Helio SoC. Its upcoming Moto G Stylus (2022) will also use a much slower 4G Helio chip than the Snapdragon 480 5G.
Motorola’s shaky 2022 low-end phone could open the door for TCL.
Moto’s brand recognition is much higher than TCL’s, and Android fans are looking for an affordable phone. But it appears that its 2022 lineup could open the door for TCL and other OEMs to make some progress in the budget space. With mid-range phones like the Motorola Edge (2021) and its upcoming RAZR foldable phone, Motorola seems to have bigger ambitions to prioritize this year.
Meanwhile, Motorola’s parent company Lenovo is known for releasing some of the cheapest Android tablets around, including the recent $260 Lenovo Tab P11 Plus.
Why Android OEMs suddenly care about tablets
For years, the Android tablet market has been like a ghost town. You’ve got Samsung selling its high-end S and budget A tablets with One UI software, Amazon selling limited Android skins on Fire tablets, and Lenovo selling stock Android tablets — except for the ones that blow up on 10-inch screens Stock phone software looks terrible. Google has done little to optimize Android for the big screen, and once the Pixel Slate fails, it looks like nothing will change.
Now, we have brands like TCL releasing as many cheap tablets as they can. why? Two reasons: COVID-19 and Android 12L.
During the Nokia T20 launch, the team at HMD Global told me that tablet sales have grown 53 percent since last year, and that it plans to “meet people’s changing needs” with inexpensive Android tablets. With parents and kids stuck at home, tablets offer a better browsing experience that doesn’t need to be as portable, while also providing a distraction or educational tool for fidgety kids. No doubt other companies are seeing the same statistics and scrambling to take advantage of a larger market share.
Android 12L could be a game-changer for cheap Android tablets.
At the same time, Google started work on Android 12L, a new operating system update designed to drastically improve its software on tablets and foldable devices. It makes better use of the tablet’s screen real estate, offering multitasking tools, split screens, an app taskbar, and more. By the time the 12L launches this spring, stock Android tablets won’t be so bad.
Of course, when it comes to the best Android tablets of 2022, you’ll still be prioritizing the upcoming Galaxy Tab S8 or the current Galaxy Tab S7. And it’s unclear if the lower-quality chipset with less memory can handle multitasking as well. But for people who don’t want to spend too much on a tablet, the new budget Android tablet will provide an alternative for those who don’t like the Fire tablet’s limited app library or design.
Will people abandon Fire tablets in favor of Android tablets with slightly higher prices, better software and app selection, but less brand recognition? That’s the gamble that TCL and its competitors are taking.
The way forward for TCL in the U.S.
Samsung and Apple accounted for nearly 80% of the total U.S. smartphone market share in late 2021, up from 70% in 2020. Internationally, Apple doesn’t have much influence in the equation, so Android OEMs are more confident to throw in the ring. But you need a bold U.S. strategy to reduce the remaining fifth of sales, which is why many of them don’t bother.
So far, brands like TCL (5% market share) and Motorola (8%) have eschewed the rivalry with the two giants by selling mid-range flagships in the $500 range like the venerable TCL 20 Pro 5G. direct competition. TCL will likely continue this trend with the upgraded TCL 30 Pro later this year. It didn’t announce such a device at CES, however, it only announced the 20 Pro last April, so don’t take that as a sign that it’s ditching midrange phones entirely.
But this year, it has another problem: The 30 Pro has to compete with the $599 Pixel 6. That’s a tall order even for a more expensive phone, let alone one in the same price range. The 30 Pro might do well among fans of the TCL phone, but it’s unlikely to generate much interest outside of it.
TCL’s path forward is to undercut Google, Samsung, and Apple with cheap, high-quality phones. Unfortunately, we ran into another problem there: the last TCL budget phones we reviewed, the TCL 20S and TCL 20 SE, weren’t great! So we have to hope the company does a better job with its 30S phones this year.
Announced at CES, the carrier-exclusive TCL 30 XE 5G (T-Mobile) and TCL 30 V 5G (Verizon) will offer 5G on the cheap. 30 V with mmWave in particular looks like it could undercut the competition for those who want a fast connection without the flagship price. Meanwhile, the XE has a 90Hz refresh rate and 180Hz touch sampling rate, suggesting that even budget phones are entering a high refresh rate trend.
If all else fails, TCL has one more strategy left: releasing a clamshell foldable phone that’s less expensive than the Z Flip 3 and Motorola Razr. It canceled the foldable, codenamed Chicago, because it was too expensive for its target audience. But it still fully intends to release one at the “right time,” so it’s clear that TCL wants to be the first to launch a mid-range foldable.
For now, TCL’s strategy will follow a more fundamental one: trying to strike a delicate balance between affordability and quality. Most cheap phones don’t make it, and the OEMs nailing it could win the 2022 low-price melee.