When it comes to the best cheap Android phones, last year's TCL 10L was actually a decent offering. It lacked 5G connectivity, but no "budget" phones had it then, at least not until Qualcomm released lower-end 5G chipsets like the Snapdragon 690 later in the year. With 2021 bringing us solid, budget-priced 5G phones like the OnePlus Nord N200 5G and T-Mobile REVVL V+ 5G, I expected that TCL's latest budget offerings, the TCL 20S and TCL 20 SE, would come with a few nice upgrades (like 5G).
These phones recently made their debut in the U.S. at the end of June along with the higher-end TCL 20 Pro 5G, and while that phone managed to impress Nicholas Sutrich, these phones did very little to impress me. In fact, it almost seemed like TCL threw these devices into its 2021 lineup just to have something to offer. That said, it wasn't all bad, and I enjoyed some things about these devices. Just not enough to recommend them.
Bottom line: The TCL 20S is a decent phone for anyone who wants a smartphone right now and doesn't want to break the bank. It has a good design that resembles some better smartphones, and the software is pretty lightweight. Unfortunately, things go south quickly for the 20S when you decide to take a picture or play a mobile game.
- Nice design, smooth to the touch
- Fast, useful fingerprint sensor
- Great battery life
- Super Bluetooth is a joy
- Cameras could be a lot better
- LCD still at 60Hz
- No 5G connectivity
- No IP rating
TCL 20 SE
Bottom line: The TCL 20 SE should be your last resort for a smartphone. It's inexpensive at under $200, but you'll miss out on features like a decent display, decent cameras, or an overall decent experience. Fortunately, it has long battery life to keep you going.
- Fast fingerprint sensor
- TCL UI 3.0 isn't terrible
- 60Hz HD+ display is offensive
- Cameras are pretty bad
- Don't even try to play games
- No Super Bluetooth
- No IP rating
TCL 20S and 20 SE: Price and availability
The TCL 20S and 20 SE launched outside the U.S. back in April, but now you can purchase these devices stateside from Amazon. For now, that's the only place where you'll be able to snag these devices, but we'll be on the lookout in case other retailers start selling them.
TCL 20S and 20 SE: Spec comparison
|Category||TCL 20S||TCL 20 SE|
|Operating System||Android 11||Android 11|
|Display||6.67 inches, 20:9 aspect ratio, 2400x1080 resolution||6.82 inches, 20.5:9 aspect ratio, 1640x720 resolution|
|Processor||Snapdragon 662||Snapdragon 460|
|Memory||128GB, 4GB RAM||128GB, 4GB RAM|
|Rear Camera||64MP, ƒ/1.8, 0.7μm + 8MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.12μm (wide-angle) + 2MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.75μm (macro) + 2MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.75μm (depth)||48MP, ƒ/1.8, 0.8μm + 5MP, ƒ/2.2, 1.12μm (wide-angle) + 2MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.75μm (macro) + 2MP, ƒ/2.4, 1.75μm (depth)|
|Dimensions||166.2 x 76.9 x 9.1mm, 199g||172.1 x 77.1 x 9.1mm, 206g|
|Colors||Milky Way Gray, North Star Blue||Aurora Green, Nuit Black|
TCL 20S and 20 SE: What TCL managed to get right
Right off the bat, I'm quite taken with the design of these phones. From the front, the TCL 20S could almost pass for a mid-range Samsung smartphone. While I'm not a fan of the camera layout on either, the 20S has a very nice frosted back that's quite smooth to the touch, to the point where I almost didn't want to put the included case on it. The TCL 20 SE, on the other hand, takes a glossier approach, as if it's trying to look more premium than it actually is. It pulls the look off, though it quickly gets covered in fingerprint smudges.
The fingerprint sensor placement is different on both devices; it's located on the side for the 20S and on the back for the 20 SE. That said, both perform quite well, and the 20S even lets you double-tap the sensor to bring up a customizable menu of apps and functions. It's probably one of my favorite features on this phone and one I used quite a bit to bring up YouTube Music on the fly. Meanwhile, the 20 SE doesn't have any special tricks with its sensor; it doesn't even let you swipe to pull down the notification shade. However, it has a sidebar of shortcuts similar to what's found on many of the best Samsung phones.
Having never used TCL phones, I wasn't sure what to expect from the UI. I find that I'm pleasantly surprised that it's not terrible. TCL UI 3.0 feels a bit like stock Android 11, complete with the Google Discover feed just a swipe away from the home screen. However, there are some questionable icon choices, particularly in the quick settings menu. Still, it doesn't ruin the experience, and TCL included some of its own goodies that are quite useful.
Super Bluetooth takes audio to another level — over 9000!
Super Bluetooth is one of the best features of the TCL 20S. It allows users to play audio on two different speakers or wireless headphones and lets you calibrate the sound in case it's not exactly synced. It's not all that different from Samsung's Dual Audio feature, but the calibration takes it up a notch, and you can pair up to four devices at once to really get the party going from your phone. There's also a 3.5mm headphone jack in case you want a more private listening experience.
Battery life is also fantastic on both these phones. TCL upped the capacity to 5,000mAh, and I can manage more than a day on either phone before running the battery down to dangerous levels. That's with me shooting photos and video, making phone calls, and trying to play my games. I actually felt comfortable not lugging around a battery pack because the batteries didn't drain fully unless I really pushed them beyond regular use.
TCL 20S and 20 SE: What didn't work
It's true that you get what you pay for, and for under $300, one wouldn't expect too much out of any smartphone. However, 2021 has changed that thinking, and many smartphones at this price point have proven that you can have decent performance on a budget. TCL missed that memo, though, because the word "performance" doesn't exist anywhere near these phones.
The "higher-end" TCL 20S comes with a two-year-old Snapdragon 665 chipset, which was probably a fine midrange chip in 2019 but doesn't cut it in 2021. The phone struggles to do almost anything and really tests my patience — and I consider myself a very patient guy. You know that feeling where you're stuck behind someone moseying along real slowly while you're in a hurry to catch the train? That's how I felt using this phone, all the time. Plus, the TCL 20 SE is even worse with its Snapdragon 460.
And did I mention that there's no 5G here? I'm pretty sure the only thing "fast" about these phones is the 18W charging speed, but that still pales in comparison to other phones.
I can't even play my favorite mobile games on either of these phones. The 20 SE struggles with the most basic tasks in Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery. The 20S studders when I try to play GYEE, and because I'm a masochist, I put the game in 60fps mode, and the phone immediately heats up. That's something I haven't experienced since the LG G8, which was also released in 2019. The only thing these phones could do with relative ease is scrolling through menus, and even that seemed like a chore with these displays and their sluggish refresh rates.
I don't understand why TCL didn't spring for the newer 5G chips.
The TCL 20S HDR display isn't exactly horrible at FHD+, but the 60Hz kills me, particularly when Samsung and Motorola are releasing budget phones with 90Hz and even 120Hz displays. The fact that it's an LCD wouldn't even bother me, except I could see permanent dark splotches near the hole-punch selfie camera. Meanwhile, the 20 SE's HD+ display is just hard to look at with such a low resolution, and the HDR doesn't help much. Both phones feature TCL's NXTVISION display tech, which is supposed to give the display a boost, but it only manages to make images look a bit unnatural, so I disabled it.
Cameras exist on these phones, but almost as an afterthought. There are four on each to make it seem like TCL put in some effort. I wouldn't call them horrible, but I won't be sharing any images from these phones on my Instagram.
The TCL 20 SE often produced photos that were a bit too punchy for my liking. The 20S images were a bit duller but truer to life. Both phones seemed to struggle with capturing details at any given moment.
The ultrawide cameras were often a bit more pleasing to capture with, exhibiting more dynamic range. The 20S seemed to overexpose a bit, though.
The macro camera, as is often the case, was largely useless on both phones.
Daytime photos are passable, but things fall apart when using the macro lens (why are we still doing this?) or taking photos at night. Both phones feature a "Super Night" mode, but that actually seems worse than the automatic night mode, which isn't particularly good either. Selfies are also a hot mess, and it was so hard for me to take a decent photo that I gave up altogether. These phones are definitely not for millennials like myself.
TCL 20S and 20 SE: Competition
If you're looking for an affordable smartphone with decent capabilities, the OnePlus Nord N200 5G might be a good bet. It's one of the cheapest 5G phones money can buy, with a premium design, smooth 90Hz display, and great battery life.
Samsung makes some of the best Android phones on the market, and the Galaxy A32 is available in the U.S. with 5G support, a large battery, and an impressive camera array. You can get it on several different carriers like T-Mobile and Google Fi. If you're a fan of Galaxy smartphones, you should pick this one up.
The Moto G Power (2020) continues to be a highly recommended cheap Android phone. Even with the newer version already available, the 2020 version seems to hold its own. It comes with a large FHD+ display and decent cameras, plus up to three days of battery life if you're careful.
TCL 20S and 20 SE: Should you buy it?
You should buy this if ...
- You need an affordable smartphone right now.
- You have an affinity for TCL phones.
- You like to stream music from your phone to your speakers.
You shouldn't buy this if...
- You want decent camera quality.
- You want to play mobile games with relative ease.
- You want 5G connectivity.
There aren't many reasons anyone would want to buy either of these phones, but they could be good starter devices for younger kids; that way, parents don't have to spend an arm and a leg on a smartphone that could get lost or stolen at school. Anyone looking for a decent smartphone experience should probably look the other way.
The TCL 20S is the better value offer of the two phones thanks to its FHD+ display and features like Super Bluetooth. The fingerprint sensor shortcut is also a handy feature to have, and buyers will be rewarded with long battery life. Unfortunately, the positives stop there, and you won't get much out of this phone outside of the basics.
The TCL 20 SE is a budget smartphone trapped in a premium chassis. TCL put little effort into differentiating this device from other smartphones in this price range that offer more, including 5G connectivity. Even the large 5,000mAh battery can be matched or even bested by many of the best Android phones under $200.
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