TCL is no stranger to the smartphone industry, although it is fairly new to the self-branded mobile game. Making the TCL 20 Pro 5G it recently shipped out for review only its second-generation flagship mid-ranger.
The company shipped its latest top phone in a stunning Marine Blue coloration. And, to be honest, I wasn’t expecting the gadget to be leaps and bounds better than its predecessor. Rather, my assumption was that most of the development was put into the aesthetics based on my reviews of other mid-rangers.
This is, after all, a remarkably beautiful device. Especially since the company managed to pack all of its cameras flush with the frame instead of as protrusions.
But, as it turns out, this phone builds on the successes of its predecessor almost across the board. And it’s well worth examining just how that’s the case. So, without further ado, let’s take a closer look at the latest top smartphone from TCL.
You can expect a flagship hardware experience with TCL 20 Pro 5G
At first glance, the TCL 20 Pro 5G is incredibly similar to late model Galaxy Note handsets. At least in terms of corners and edges. But that’s just a cursory glance and this phone stands as a gorgeous device all on its own, without that comparison. In fact, upon opening my review unit, it was immediately obvious that the TCL 20 Pro 5G is one of the best-looking devices around. Let alone in its class.
Priced at just $499, the latest TCL mid-ranger looks just like a flagship. It comes in a glassy frame with metallic edges and a near-bezel-free design.
That’s available in two color tones, both of which are dual-tone for an even more premium aesthetic. TCL shipped us the Marine Blue variant. A gunmetal-like Moondust Gray is also available for those that would rather have a more subdued look. In terms of aesthetics, the images below speak volumes but don’t quite capture the beauty of TCL’s design.
In terms of hardware quality, the design here also means that this phone fits wonderfully in hand. It feels durable — helped along by a moderate IP52 dust and water resistance rating. The ports and buttons are all clicky and strong. That holds true for the USB-C port, 3.5mm audio combo jack, and all of the buttons.
TCL 20 Pro 5G is also incredibly well-balanced and feels properly weighted, without being too slippery. But for those who want a bit of extra protection, TCL does ship this phone with a transparent protective sleeve. That’s in addition to the charging brick and cable, which itself is longer than I’d expected. At the very least, that’s compared to the length of cables generally included with smartphones.
The final noteworthy hardware points here are the fingerprint scanner, front-facing camera for facial recognition, and dedicated “smart key.”
Like all of the latest flagship, TCL includes an in-display fingerprint scanner. That’s well-engineered and snappier than on other mid-range or budget phones I’ve used. And the punch-hole embedded camera — with regard to unlocking the phone — is too. We’ll discuss the cameras in much greater depth later on. Especially since TCL has improved massively over the last generation’s TCL 10 Pro model.
Finally, TCL includes a dedicated smart key that’s programmable to any of dozens of options. And that’s not just for one action. It can be used for up to three. Each of those worked quickly and efficiently thanks to the internal hardware.
So I was able to set up a single click to access Google Assistant, a double-click to snap a photo directly without bothering to open the app manually, and a long-press for my flashlight. The button requires the same amount of force as pressing the power or volume keys. So accidental clicks never happened during my review of TCL 20 Pro 5G either. Easily making this hardware inclusion one of the most useful I’ve seen in any smartphone. Flagship or not.
The display here is amazing …and also holds this phone’s one major flaw
Before delving into all of the things that make the TCL 20 Pro 5G 1080p display brilliant, it’s important to note that not all was great during my review. In fact, despite the implementation of NXTVISION 2.0, there’s still one big caveat. Namely, that’s the refresh rate.
TCL NXTVISION 2.0 is an enhancement over last year’s version in terms of providing SDR to HDR conversions in real-time. And in terms of outdoor brightness, color contrast, sharpness, and details in darker portions of the image. The image modes available — Vivid, Natural, Standard, and Advanced, as well as Adaptive Tone for controlling those aspects based on environmental lighting — all work better than ever.
This is a screen that is easily better than a good majority of its competitors and rivals even flagships in terms of sheer quality. All of the modes and features provide a noticeable improvement via its OLED panel. Especially over the standard LCD found in its predecessor. Putting this phone very nearly alongside its AMOLED and OLED peers. There’s even a reading mode, direct sunlight mode, and comfort mode. For those that want to make use of those. And each works well, in addition to simply working as expected.
The big caveat here is, as noted already, refresh rates. While contemporary competitors are shifting to 90Hz and 120Hz panels, TCL opted to stay back for at least one more generation. So this display, at just a 60Hz refresh rate, feels much less snappy and looks much less smooth than it otherwise could. That is, in fact, a big enough drawback to make the screen the biggest weakness for this handset. Despite how good that screen is otherwise.
In terms of performance outside of refresh rates, the touch responsiveness of this screen is great. Although the edges are curved, accidental touches should be minimal — I didn’t see any at all during my review. And the curved edges help keep the upper reaches of the screen within range, despite its large, 6.67-inch size. The screen should — again, setting the refresh rate aside — be great in terms of color accuracy, scale, brightness, and responsiveness for everything from web browsing to movies and gaming.
This isn’t a flagship chipset but you wouldn’t know that from the performance
With a Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G 5G chipset, TCL 20 Pro 5G isn’t a flagship but I wouldn’t have known that solely from my review usage. TCL optimized this hardware, backed by 6GB RAM and expandable 256GB storage, to perform at its peak. And that’s setting aside additional software solutions we’ll discuss momentarily.
Of course, it’s also fair to say that, due to my desire to utilize this device to its fullest, it also wasn’t performing at its weakest. I didn’t turn on any battery-saving features at all for the duration of my review. And I didn’t turn off any of the gaming-specific hardware features or screen functionality. So the strain on the chipset was, summarily, not tuned for efficiency during my review. And tuning things that way in settings will undoubtedly resulting in some measure of performance drop.
Now, the performance dip isn’t all that noticeable except in the most intensive games where the included game modes — pictured above — really came into play. And those game modes and options don’t really impact battery much as we’ll discuss momentarily.
So it’s probably best just to turn those on and leave them on. Including the dedicated Game Turbo option and an option to hide games in the app drawer for a cleaner organization — with those being moved into a dedicated folder.
Having said that, this phone performs like a flagship, as noted already here. Comparing it to an on-hand Google Pixel 5 or Samsung Galaxy S10, it didn’t lag behind at all.
Even in more intensive tasks beyond gaming such as video editing and photo processing, this TCL phone holds its own. Although there is going to be some extra latency on the processing and encoding side of things for those tasks, as file sizes ramp up. It simply isn’t going to be so noticeable that most users will wish for a more powerful phone.
TCL 20 Pro 5G won’t disappoint on battery life
On the charging front, I wasn’t as impressed by the TCL 20 Pro 5G as I’d hoped to be during my review. That’s despite its 18W wired charging. And comes down mostly to the size of the battery being charged. TCL packed this phone with a 4,500mAh battery.
At the wired rate of 18W, this phone took an hour to reach just under 70-percent charged. And that’s going to be a bit slower still at the 15W rate of wireless charging. The latter of which is, however, a premium-level feature and shouldn’t be discarded out of hand. Especially since this phone will last most users all day and then some. And even more so since the slower rate will make simply popping it onto a wireless charger at bedtime more feasible.
A full charge, by the way, took right around an hour and 45-minutes using the wired method.
In terms of battery drain, using the TCL 20 Pro 5G as a daily driver for my review was anything but bothersome. Despite the fact that I play games on my phones on a fairly regular basis and despite the fact that some of those are more battery intensive such as Animal Crossing, it lasted me all day. In fact, it lasted all day and then well into the next day.
But that, of course, is subjective. As is always the case with battery life. Looking at things more objectively, I was averaging around 7-hours of screen-on time during my review. And, as noted earlier here, I had all of the battery-saving features turned off and all of the premium extras turned on. With one exception. I actually left the adaptive brightness turned on since this screen was bright enough to be almost painful at full brightness in a dark room.
Bearing that in mind, it might be expected that such a large battery would last even longer than this one does. And that could be a pitfall for some users. That’s if not for the fact that the battery does last at least one day in spite of the features. And that should be the case for just about every user, regardless of whether or not they’re a power user.
Camera improvements abound for TCL 20 Pro 5G but there are still quirks
The TCL 10 Pro packed an amazing design with great cameras and the latest features. But it had a fatal flaw in the cameras under review that would have made it arguably not such a great choice for mobile-first photographers. Of course, this article is to discuss the TCL 20 Pro 5G under review, so why does that matter?
The answer is that TCL took the reviews of that device and made significant improvements to this generation’s camera array. It’s still using a quad-camera array with two flashbulb types. And that quad-camera array is led by a less-pixel-dense 48-megapixel snapper compared to the previous gen’s 64-megapixel sensor. But TCL has greatly improved the cameras on the software and hardware front across the board nonetheless.
Starting with two still-flawed but massively improved areas, Zoom performance and Super night modes.
The latter of those modes on the previous generation of “Pro” TCL gadgets effectively shot photos that appeared to be taken using a potato. This generation fixes that to a certain extent. And while still not as good as something like the Google Pixel 5, with color accuracy issues in night mode and some distortion caused by clouds — and firework smoke — as shown in our Flickr sample gallery, the new improvements are anything but weak.
The same holds true for the maximum of 10x zoom. While there’s still quite a bit of pixelation at the maximum, the cameras here shoot much more clearly, with even more crisp detail and color accuracy than before. And all while being even snappier than before on the software side. With everything from Super Night to Slow Motion and Light Trace modes included.
In fact, as shown in the aforementioned gallery, which tells the whole story better than I could, that’s true for all shooting modes. With this camera easily rivaling shots captured from top-tier performers in every regard I tested. Even when compared to my usual daily driver — the Google Pixel 5. All of the shots in that gallery were taken without a tripod or other stabilization.
Expect software that’s a bit different and still somehow familiar
Android is a fast-moving mobile operating system and it’s important that OEMs recognize and respond to that. So it’s a bit disappointing that TCL has only promised a minimum of two major OS upgrades and two years of security patch updates for its 20 Pro 5G. But it also isn’t altogether surprising. Most manufacturers don’t offer much beyond that.
Having said that, my review of TCL 20 Pro 5G quickly revealed that this particular handset is starting out on the right foot. Namely, shipping with Android 11 and all of the perks and features that entails. And TCL took things quite a bit further than that too.
Not only is its app drawer sortable via a number of methods. The default is an automatic categorization of pre-installed apps, with the option to create new categories for easier, personalized navigation. The software outside of that user-first experience is responsive and lacking in the “bloat” department.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t any pre-installations or bonus features to talk about. But the pre-installed apps that don’t belong to TCL are also readily uninstallable. These include Facebook, Booking.com, Modern Combat: Rebel Guns, Netflix, and a few utilities. Otherwise, it’s predominantly Google apps that are installed. As well as a TCL app for Smart Key reassigning, phone switching, and NXTVISION controls.
All of which work flawlessly thanks to TCL’s excellent optimizations. As do the added sidebar, which works similarly to Samsung’s Edge features, and TCL’s smart management tools for controlling notifications, battery, memory usage, and which apps can automatically start on start-up.
But TCL also packs in a feature not seen too often on smartphones that many users may find useful. Namely, that’s an IR Blaster. And that tool is completely customizable, allowing your phone to work as a universal remote for everything from TVs, projectors, sound systems, and DVD players to air conditioners, water heaters, fans, and net boxes.
In a word, IR Blaster is extensive. And the feature made my use of this particular smartphone broader than I’ve noticed with just about any other phone. Especially since it meant that I was picking up my phone more often and using it more as a more well-integrated tool to enhance my life than as just a mobile computer.
All of that, and more, is part of the TCL 20 Pro 5G experience. Effectively, showcasing TCL’s quick mastering the art of software with a design that’s engineered to adapt to suit your needs. Whatever those needs may be. And it’s all implemented in a way that felt as familiar to me as stock Android.
TCL 20 Pro 5G audio is great, even if you choose not to hook up headphones
For audio, in every review I write, it first needs to be mentioned both that audio can be subjective and that phone speakers are never perfect; the TCL 20 Pro 5G is no different. But, happily enough, this TCL does perform better than most. Even without consideration for the 3.5mm audio jack.
Of course, that inclusion is increasingly rare and many users will rejoice that it’s there. Wired headphones are still very much alive and well. And the best audio you’ll hear comes through that port with this phone. But Bluetooth 5.1 also brings near-lossless audio at an increased range, with increased stability. So most users won’t notice a big difference whichever way they choose to listen.
The loudspeaker audio, conversely, could reasonably be expected to be awful. But it isn’t. Instead, TCL’s speaker layout — with a single bottom-firing speaker and the earpiece — offers brilliant clarity. And plenty of bass, albeit not heart pounding tones on that front. They are, summarily, just short of being on-par with the best smartphone speakers I’ve heard.
The balance is great and there’s no tinniness to contend with in any form of media. The only thing that would make these speakers better, given that they are phone speakers, is a bit more volume and more powerful tones toward the low end of the spectrum.
Connectivity with TCL 20 Pro 5G isn’t perfect but it’s still pretty good
On the networking front, there are really only two issues with this handset. And, during my review of the TCL 20 Pro 5G, neither affected me at all. For starters, I use Google Fi for my mobile needs and that’s using primarily T-Mobile in my region. So, the fact that there’s no 5G support for AT&T really made no difference to me. But it will for others.
Verizon also doesn’t have full support just yet, although that’s going to be added via an update in the near future. That’s according to TCL.
The other caveat is that there’s only one SIM port in the drawer. The other side of the SIM drawer is occupied by a microSD card slot. And that’s both a good and bad thing, depending on the user. I don’t utilize expandable storage personally but some users will definitely need the extra space. Even with the more than generous allotment of 256GB. But users who need the extra SIM slot for international travel or for business and home use will need to take note.
In terms of the perfomance of networking, that’s another matter entirely. This phone is blistering fast. Or, at the very least, performs as quickly as my Google Pixel 5 on 5G via T-Mobile.
Other options for connectivity, including Bluetooth 5.1, NFC, and the FM radio — via the abovementioned 3.5mm audio jack — work as expected too.
TCL 20 Pro 5G is the best TCL so far?
Put simply, TCL 20 Pro 5G is not only the best TCL I’ve been sent to review. It’s also one of the best smartphones, overall, that I’ve reviewed or used. There are, of course, still improvements to be made in terms of the cameras’ night mode. The screen would be better if it were set at a 90 or 120Hz refresh rate instead of 60Hz. Better waterproofing would also be desireable, as would faster charging.
But, setting those small changes aside, TCL 20 Pro 5G is a fantastic handset with a world-class design, great cameras, display contrast and color, long-lasting battery, and all of the extras a user could want. The fact that it isn’t classified as a flagship comes down chiefly to its chipset and associated RAM.
Anybody looking for a new smartphone in the $500 range would be remiss not to give TCL 20 Pro 5G a closer look.