When you see the name TCL, you likely think of TVs. There's an excellent reason for that. The company's incredibly value-laden line of 4K TVs made a massive splash in the market several years back and have only improved since then. I've got one. My dad has one. My best friend has one, and his dad has one, so on and so forth. But the smartphone market is a little more complicated, a little more competitive, and a little more difficult to crack than the TV sector was.
That's where the TCL 20 line comes in. Three very affordable phones create an excellent follow-up to TCL's big self-branded debut last year, which landed them on the list of best cheap phones time and time again. After all, TCL isn't a newbie to the smartphone market; it's been making phones under the Alcatel, Blackberry, and Palm brands for years (among others), and now TCL is leveraging its reputation for its second-generation TCL-branded phones.
The TCL 20 Pro 5G is TCL's flagship phone this year. It's got all the trappings of an excellent experience: a snappy Snapdragon 750G SoC that brings 5G connectivity with it, 256GB of storage with support for an additional 1TB via microSD cards, Super Bluetooth, a gorgeous screen, even better-looking colors on the back, and a quad-camera array that's a noticeable improvement over last year's model. At $500, this is the perfect Pixel 4a 5G competitor. Find out why in our TCL 20 Pro 5G review below.
TCL 20 Pro 5G
Bottom line: TCL's second-generation flagship is a solid entry into the mid-range section that's priced identically to the Pixel 4a 5G. While it can't match the prowess of a Pixel camera experience, everything else about this phone is a better value — so long as you only plan to keep the phone for the 2 years that updates are promised.
- TCL UI 3.0 is feature-rich
- Plenty of storage
- Super Bluetooth
- Excellent battery life
- Solid performance
- Great display
- Video recording quality leaves a lot to be desired
- Only the main rear camera is any good at all
- Gesture navigation is broken
TCL 20 Pro 5G: Price and availability
The TCL 20 Pro 5G is unlocked from Amazon for $500 at launch on June 28, 2021. TCL sells the phone in two colors: the stunning Marine Blue and the case-friendly Moondust Grey.
TCL 20 Pro 5G: Hardware and design
At $500, the TCL 20 Pro 5G hits all the marks and then some. As its most direct competitor is the Pixel 4a 5G, it's pretty easy to see just how much value TCL has crammed into this phone. While the processor is a slight step down from the Snapdragon 765G in the Pixel 4a 5G, almost everything else is a big spec upgrade. More storage, more cameras, a bigger display, water resistance, and a bigger battery help bring this one into its own in many ways.
Everything about the design seems to tell you that it's more expensive than it really is.
|Category||TCL 20 Pro 5G|
|Operating System||Android 11 (minimum 2 updates promised)|
|Display||6.67 inches, 20:9 aspect ratio, 2400x1080 (395 ppi) resolution, AMOLED|
|Processor||Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G, 8-core, 2.2GHz 2x main cores, 1.8GHz 6x secondary cores|
|Expandable Storage||Up to 1TB microSD|
|Rear Camera||48MP, ƒ/1.79-aperture, Quad Bayer 0.8μm, Sony IMX 582
16MP, ƒ/2.4-aperture, 1μm, Ultra-wide
5MP, ƒ/2.2-aperture, 1.12μm, Macro
2MP, ƒ/2.4-aperture, 1.75μm, Depth
|Front Camera||32MP, ƒ/2.5-aperture, 0.8μm|
|Security||In-display fingerprint sensor, face unlock (single camera)|
|Connectivity||Wi-Fi 5 (802.11 a/b/g/n/ac), 5G, LTE Cat22, Bluetooth 5.1|
|Ports||1x USB-C, 1x 3.5mm|
|Audio||Single bottom speaker, USB-C, and 3.5mm headphone support|
|Battery||4,500mAh, 18W QC3.0 charging, 15W Qi wireless charging|
|Dimensions||6.47 x 2.87 x 0.36 inches (164.2 x 73 x 8.8mm)|
|Weight||6.7 oz (190 mg)|
|Colors||Marine Blue, Moondust Grey|
The phone is visually stunning, especially in the Marine Blue colorway we used for the review. True to the name, the Marine Blue colorway shifts from a Caribbean tropical ocean teal to a deep, arctic purple, depending on the angle you hold the phone at. Unlike so many other phones, the TCL 20 Pro 5G doesn't have a camera hump on the back — even though it has four cameras under the frame — but does have a very slight raised rim around the flash module. Thankfully, that raised rim doesn't do much to put the phone off balance as a camera hump would.
The TCL 20 Pro 5G manages to look and feel a lot more premium than many phones in this category by utilizing a slim and sleek metal-and-glass-sandwich build with a waterfall display. However, everything about the design seems to tell you that it's more expensive than it really is, even down to the anti-fingerprint powder coating on the back. Like most phones of this design, it's slippery and would do well with a case.
Our review unit came packed with a flimsy clear TPU case, which is always a nice pack-in. It adds significant grip but makes the phone feel cheap, and I highly doubt it would survive a fall with this case, anyway. Better to pick up a case like the Axessorize case that also came with our review unit.
TCL waxes poetic on the screen, and it is definitely a marked improvement over what was offered on the TCL 10 Pro. That's a very good thing because LCD screens on phones just aren't a great look most of the time. This panel is manufactured by TCL itself and looks right on par with something you'd expect in a much more expensive phone. To note, I couldn't tell the difference between the one on the Pixel 4 XL and the TCL 20 Pro 5G in terms of overall quality — aside from the TCL having curved edges, of course.
The display is definitely a marked improvement over what was offered on the TCL 10 Pro and sits nicely alongside much more expensive phones.
As is the case with many mid-range phones, this one comes with a single bottom-firing speaker and a 3.5mm headphone jack. It's even got an IR blaster up top, making this feel like a blast from the past. TCL's smart key — found on the phone's left side — can be customized for dozens of purposes, including launching Google Assistant, the camera, specific apps, or even changing some system settings.
TCL 20 Pro 5G: Software and performance
The TCL 20 Pro 5G ships with Android 11 — the most recent version available as of launch — along with the TCL UI 3.0 skin atop. TCL mostly sticks to a Pixel-like aesthetic across the board but introduces plenty of features that manufacturers like Samsung are known for. Case in point: the sidebar. This little semi-transparent tab sits on the curved portion of the screen — either the left or right side, depending on your preference — and can be pulled out to reveal an array of shortcuts and tools at any time while using the phone.
This is one of those things I've loved about phones with curved screens for years — particularly Samsung phones — because this type of shortcut bar is just so darn handy. I found myself rarely going home to launch apps. Rather, I'd just flip open the sidebar and get to where I wanted in a second. Likewise, the customizable physical side button can quickly launch three different apps or actions by quick pressing, long pressing, or double-tapping.
The most noticeable performance difference between this and a higher-end phone is the refresh rate.
The rest of the TCL UI 3.0 experience is nothing short of phenomenal and regularly exceeded my expectations. While my first impression of the performance was less than great — the first day of use was full of stuttering and jank — the remainder of the past week has been buttery smooth. Every game I threw at the phone ran marvelously, and every app loaded quickly with no real discernable difference from a Pixel.
The most noticeable difference between this and a higher-end phone is the refresh rate. At 60Hz, the phone can appear slow if you're used to a phone that sports a 90Hz or 120Hz screen. That won't be an issue if you're coming from another 60Hz phone but, even if you're not, it's something you get used to in just a day or two.
Coming from a Pixel, the TCL UI is chock full of little quality-of-life features that I love. The ability to tweak notification sizes is rather wonderful, as the giant slide-down ones have always irritated me through the years. Game mode helps boost performance, gives an automatic Do Not Disturb toggle, and even disables the smart key, so you don't accidentally launch something while gaming. Overall, TCL's UI offers a ton of compelling features without ruining the aesthetic that a simpler stock Android phone would have.
One of my favorite features was Super Bluetooth, a way to stream audio to up to 4 Bluetooth devices in sync.
Buried among the plethora of niche features is something I was absolutely enamored with: Super Bluetooth. With Super Bluetooth, the TCL 20 Pro 5G can connect and stream audio to up to 4 separate Bluetooth devices, all with individually synced audio. For me on vacation, being able to use several pairs of wireless Bluetooth earbuds — all with a single phone — was a godsend.
TCL boasts vertical integration with other products in its catalog, including TCL TVs. The TCL 43S405 I have on my desk, for example, near-perfectly streamed the phone's display wirelessly right from the notification shade, enabling me to play games like Minecraft wirelessly on the TV. Of course, there's a slight bit of latency, so twitch games and platformers wouldn't work, but being able to cast like this without needing something like a Chromecast is very nice.
Overall, TCL's UI offers a ton of compelling features without ruining the aesthetic that a simpler stock Android phone would have.
There are plenty of little improvements in other areas, too, like the multitasking carousel, which automatically switches to the previously-used app instead of opening to the active one. I found that to be better for swapping between two apps versus the stock Android behavior. Gesture navigation needs a lot of help, though, as it just didn't work right at all. Swiping left and right on the bar would often glitch out, and I found myself using the Overview screen to switch between apps more often than I'd like.
Despite the phone sporting more features than a Pixel could ever hope for, some oddities were missing. Display size, for instance, was nowhere to be found. You can adjust the font size, but I like my display to be very dense, fitting a lot of information onto the large screens phones have. As a result, everything felt overly large compared to my Pixel, which has a physically smaller screen than the TCL 20 Pro 5G.
Since this is only TCL's second-generation phone, there's not enough history to show how the company keeps its phones updated. Last year with the TCL 10 Pro, TCL promised only one major update. This time around, TCL promises a minimum of 2 years of security updates, including 2 major OS updates. The TCL 20 Pro 5G is already part of the Android 12 beta program, which means it should take a lot less time for TCL to deliver a final version once Android 12 is finished in late Summer or early Fall.
TCL 20 Pro 5G: Battery
Just like we saw when 4G debuted, a phone with 5G in the name can often mean worse battery life than one with just 4G radios. The TCL 20 Pro 5G doesn't fall into this pit at all and, in fact, has better battery life than any flagship you could spend more money on. The 4,500mAh battery isn't just huge for a flagship. It's particularly beefy for a phone with the power-efficient Snapdragon 750G.
Over the past week, I've charged the phone a total of 3 times.
Over the past week, I've charged the phone a total of 3 times. Now that's some real feel-good battery life, especially when it doesn't feel like the phone's performance is any slower than a more expensive phone. Folks who use their phones a lot more heavily — particularly if you find yourself gaming a lot — should expect a full day's battery life without issue.
If you need to top up, Qualcomm QuickCharge 3.0 will do the job fast enough at 18W, but it's not comparable to something like OnePlus Warp Charge in speed. Charging at a lower wattage tends to keep the battery healthier for longer, though, so this one will likely outlast a phone with faster charging if you're planning on keeping it a few years.
TCL 20 Pro 5G: Cameras
Typically, when you think of a good camera experience, you probably think of a Pixel. However, Google has gotten its hooks into us (and many others) with its excellent software experience, oftentimes pulling incredible photos out of less than ideal situations. While I came into this review with the expectation that this convention wouldn't be defied, I left with a surprising outcome: the TCL 20 Pro 5G's main rear camera and front-facing camera are, in most ways, comparable to the Pixel experience.
Everything from color accuracy to fine detail, dynamic range, and even low light performance in auto mode is very good. I fully expected the Pixel to blow it out of the water, but that just wasn't the case in many of my comparisons. Even in nighttime scenarios where the only light around is a nascent streetlight or a string of bulbs that should be too bright for a camera to capture adequately, the TCL 20 Pro 5G did an amazing job in both auto and night modes.
I fully expected the Pixel to blow it out of the water, but that just wasn't the case.
The front-facing camera, too, was an excellent experience all around. My biggest complaint is that HDR isn't aggressive enough on this camera but, otherwise, it produced just as good of results as I would expect from a Pixel in every lighting condition. The biggest weakness for TCL right now is the inability to use the Super Night Mode on anything but that main 48MP rear camera — a weakness that defines the low light experience on the other two rear sensors.
While the ultra-wide angle camera is a nice addition, the fact is that it just isn't very good at all. During the day, you'll find lots of artifacts and fringing in photos, colors are very washed out or just wrong, and contrast isn't great. The camera is serviceable, at best, in low-light scenarios, and I found it to be a mixed bag depending on the situation. Capturing motion, no matter the time of day, often resulted in a blurry subject.
You can use the ultra-wide angle camera for video, but it has to be selected before recording, meaning you can't zoom back in after starting the video. Video recording overall, though, really just isn't very good. Recording from any sensor at 4K was stuttery for the first 10 seconds every time I tried it. 4K quality, too, could use some work, as the camera regularly focused on the wrong things, offered muted colors during the day, and dynamic range left a lot to be desired.
1080P video doesn't exhibit any stuttering issues as 4K — even at 60FPS — but the downgrade in quality is significant because of the bit rate change. Video recorded in 1080p with this phone was often blocky and pixellated in a way that made it look more like streaming video than something straight off a camera. If video is important to you, don't buy this phone; at least, not until TCL fixes this.
If video recording quality is important to you, other phones do it much better.
Despite having a dedicated macro sensor and a depth sensor, neither the macro nor portrait modes are perfect. Macro mode is a fun function for particular use-cases but, ultimately, falls short of my expectations. I found some fun taking pictures of small bugs, but even those shots didn't turn out too well — one of the few situations where I found I wanted to get as close as 2cm from the subject.
Portrait mode on the rear camera is super finicky and seemed to have difficulty deciding on a subject to isolate. It also didn't work for most objects I tried to use it with — just people. Ironically, the front-facing camera — which has no dedicated depth sensor — did a significantly better job of separating the person from the background.
TCL 20 Pro 5G: Competition
As already discussed, the most direct competition to the TCL 20 Pro 5G is the Pixel 4a 5G. Not only do these two phones sell for the same $500 price tag, but they both boast 5G connectivity as a selling point and use very similar processors. While the Pixel is theoretically faster, I couldn't find any noticeable area where this was the case. TCL gets the leg up with a larger screen, fancier build, more storage, better battery life, and more OS features, but the Pixel will offer you a better overall camera experience. It's also highly likely the Pixel will see more major Android updates in its lifetime, while TCL will almost certainly always offer more features.
If you don't need the extra features, don't care about 5G, and just want a solid — yet very basic — camera experience, there's no way to beat the $350 Pixel 4a. Admittedly, its processor is a bit of a downgrade compared to the TCL 20 Pro 5G. You'll be losing the additional cameras, but given that the extra cameras aren't very good anyway, you won't be missing much.
A step up is the Samsung Galaxy S20 FE. It'll absolutely cost you more money, but the phone recently dropped under $500 on Prime Day, so it's not impossible to find it for the same price. If you can get it for that price, there's little reason to choose the TCL 20 Pro 5G. Otherwise, at the normal prices, TCL wins by a $200 margin.
TCL 20 Pro 5G: Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
You want a phone with a ton of great features
Android skins have come a long way, and the TCL UI 3.0 retains the simplicity of stock Android without skimping on features. In fact, you'd be remiss to ignore just how many amazing quality of life features TCL has added to the Android experience. They really do make a difference in day-to-day use.
You need a phone that'll last all day (or longer), no matter how you use it
That Snapdragon 750G inside the TCL 20 Pro 5G sips at the giant 4,500mAh battery, resulting in excellent battery life for everyone. You could even see 2-day battery life if you're a light to moderate user.
You want a premium experience at a mid-range price
Phones are becoming more expensive, but $500 gets you a surprising amount of value with TCL. Great performance, more storage, better battery life, and other quality of life features make this feel well worth the cost.
You should not buy this if ...
You want a class-leading camera
TCL has significantly stepped up its game from the TCL 10 Pro, but the camera on the TCL 20 Pro 5G still leaves a lot to be desired. The main camera and front-facing cameras are actually quite excellent — so long as you're just taking pictures — but the additional sensors are middling, at best, and video recording has some serious issues.
You plan to keep the phone longer than 2 years
TCL promises at least 2 years and 2 major software upgrades, but the company remains unproven in this area.
You need flagship performance
The Snapdragon 750G in the TCL 20 Pro 5G is more than adequate for everyday phone usage. It plays games just fine, multitasks very well, and loads quickly, but power users are sure to run into some snags here and there.
The TCL 20 Pro 5G is a phenomenal phone for the price. It offers tons of storage with the ability to expand it via a microSD card easily, great performance, stellar battery life, the best display TCL has ever put on a phone, and a premium build that feels more expensive than it costs. Additionally, TCL UI 3.0 offers many great features that are actually useful — not just marketing tools — which will make you thankful for TCL's attention to detail every day.
TCL's biggest weakness continues to be the camera, where most of the cameras on this phone just aren't very good. The main sensor is a notable step up from last year, and the front-facing camera will generally give you great results, but the ultra-wide-angle camera and the portrait and macro modes aren't very good. Additionally, video capture is pretty terrible at all resolutions. If you just take pictures, you'll be pleased with those two main cameras; just don't rely on the other ones.
TCL 20 Pro 5G
Bottom line: Just as TCL TVs regularly exceed expectations for the price, so, too, does the TCL 20 Pro 5G exceed most expectations for a mid-range phone. Plenty of storage space, ample battery life, great performance, notable main cameras, and lots of great quality of life features are scattered in TCL UI 3.0. Unfortunately, two years of promised updates are less than what Samsung or Google offer, and video recording leaves a lot to be desired but could be fixed in an update.
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