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TCL 20S Review – A Great, Good-Looking Phone Mostly Held Back By Its Price

00 TCL 20S review title DG AH 2021
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Great battery life and performance with minimal forced software installations

TCL 20S
$249.99
Rating
star star star star star_empty
Pros
  • 8+ hours of screen-on time
  • All day battery life without sacrificing features
  • Flagship-level design and feel
  • Comes with a protective clear case
  • TCL's Android overlay is easily among the best around
  • Top notch display for the price in terms of clarity, performance, and brightness
  • Android 11 with two years of OS and security updates to come
  • Performance is slightly better than on-par for the price range
  • On-device speakers are great compared to similarly-priced handsets
Cons
  • Inconsistent camera performance with poor night mode & zoom
  • Battery takes 2 hours to "fast charge"
  • No IP rating for dust and water protection
  • Display has a lower refresh rate than some modern competitors
  • 4G only

TCL isn’t new to the smartphone game by any stretch of the imagination but its TCL 20S — recently sent to us for review — is only in the second generation of self-branded devices. In fact, it’s effectively the budget-end entry for that. As might be surmised from that, the TCL 20S should be a fantastic smartphone. Or, at the very least, one that feels as though it’s designed and built by veterans in the space.

Without question, it absolutely fits that bill. So let’s dig in a bit closer and take a look at how this smartphone earned itself such a high rating from us. And where it falls just short of the expected mark.

TCL 20S is easily one of the best-looking phones for 2021

TCL isn’t messing around when it comes to pack-ins for the TCL 20S

From a purely design-oriented perspective, TCL 20S is not just another cookie-cutter budget phone. And it isn’t just the high-sheen, metallic reflective back panel that makes it one of the best-looking phones either. This is easily one of the best-looking phones available in 2021 in either the budget or mid-range market.

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Starting with that above-mentioned back panel, flecks of silver in the grey metal design aren’t the only thing to love. The rear panel is slightly square-shaped with a great curve at all of the edges helping this phone to fit smoothly and comfortably in hand. But the four cameras embedded in the back are also, well, embedded.

That means that the cameras don’t poke out more than the slightest raised bump. Which is a breath of fresh air after the recent trend toward unsightly camera humps. While not quite seamless, that rear panel is also made of premium-feeling materials. And transitions smoothly to the even more brightly polished edges, where users won’t find any rough edges or sharp curves to catch or snag on their pocket or handbag.

Instead, all that TCL includes is a 3.5mm audio jack, USB-C, two speaker ports, and three buttons. Among the latter of those, there’s a volume rocker, a power button that doubles as an incredibly snappy fingerprint scanner — for the money, anyway — and a shortcut key that’s end-user-programmable.

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Each of those hardware components works, in fact, exactly as I’d expect from a much more premium device. The buttons and ports are clicky and feel firm to the press. So this hardware doesn’t just look sleek for a phone that costs under $250. It feels well built and durable. This is a benefit because while the phone isn’t slippery at all — the metallic texture sees to that easily enough — this is also not flagship hardware. Aesthetics aside.

The biggest caveat to all of this, of course, is that the TCL 20S doesn’t pack any kind of waterproofing or dust proofing. So although this phone does look close to flagship-level in design, whether in Milky Way Gray as my review unit for TCL 20S or in North Star Blue, it isn’t quite going to stand up like one. At least not against water or other debris.

You’ll have to look hard if you want a better budget display than this one

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In the brightest sunlight on a cloudless day, TCL 20S stays visible thanks to NXTVISION 2.0

The display on TCL 20S is, in a word, marvelous. Especially with consideration for the low price-point. And that doesn’t just come down to its 6.67-inch size or its resolution of 1080 x 2400 pixels with a 91-percent screen-to-body ratio. Although those things definitely help drive a more premium experience.

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The sole caveat taking away from this experience, of course, is that TCL didn’t opt for a higher frame refresh rate.

No, the real star of the show when it comes to this display is NXTVISION. With the software in place, starting from the easiest-to-notice difference, bright sunlight isn’t an issue anymore. With “Sunlight display” enabled, even direct sunlight doesn’t cause unnatural glare or the vanishing details problem that appears on most smartphones. Leaving alone smartphones in the budget tier, competing directly with this TCL handset.

Under review, the other major NXTVISION features were also more than noticeable with TCL 20S. At its simplest, the feature takes users’ selected color presentation option — the default is “vivid” — and adjusts things on the fly. So contrast, brightness, tone, hue, and other factors automatically adjust precisely to environmental lighting.

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Additionally, NXTVISION upscales SDR content to HDR. Improving contrast further. With improvements also possible on the gaming and imaging front.

All of that is, conversely, looking past the included Reading and Eye Comfort modes. And completely ignores that the display responsiveness is also incredibly high with this phone. Especially compared to others in its price bracket. If you want a great screen at a budget price — again, sans the high refresh rate — TCL 20S definitely delivers.

Building on top of that, finally, this display is TÜV Rheinland Circularly Polarized certified. Put simply, that means that you can still see the display in natural colors, unlike most smartphones, while wearing polarized sunglasses.

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Performance is well-optimized but hardly perfect, as its price suggests

Play all of the latest titles with TCL 20S, despite its low price

If you like games but don’t want to spend a lot of money, TCL 20S has you covered — or at least that’s the impression my review left me with. Not only was I able to play some fairly intensive titles without lag. That’s because this phone comes with dedicated game optimization features. And, as we’ll discuss later on, a dedicated space to store games. That way, they weren’t taking up space in the app drawer.

But it appears the optimization extends to the entire underlying OS as well. In apps, the only slow-down I noted was in image processing and in launching some of the heavier Play Store titles. Otherwise, the octa-core Snapdragon 665 powering this handset just seemed to handle everything I threw at it. Up to and including multitasking.

Of course, there are always going to be exceptions on this front. And games are hardly the best gauge of the performance of a smartphone. Although they are the most common use cases users will notice any dips in responsiveness or long load times.

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Beyond that, obvious delays are going to be noticed in image processing and video processing. Particularly where editing of those is concerned. But TCL’s optimizations also help on those fronts, compared to other Snapdragon 665 handsets I’ve tested out. Albeit, not to the extent we’d want in order to call it a “premium” experience.

Fast charging is nice to have but great battery life is better

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Fast charging is part of the TCL 20S bundle but not quite up to flagship standards

It isn’t at all uncommon for a budget-friendly smartphone to feature a long-lasting battery. So, when I averaged between 6.5 and just over 8 hours of screen-on time during my review of TCL 20S, I wasn’t too surprised. The battery, which can be used via OTG cable for reverse charging too, is rated at 5000mAh, after all.

But it’s equally important to note that battery life is always subjective. It’s going to vary widely from user to user, depending on usage, screen brightness, volume, and which radios are turned on. Among other things.

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For my battery test, I effectively simply used the TCL 20S. That meant a good deal of time was spent in streaming media, with slightly less time spent in games. Regardless of how I used it though, with battery-saving features turned off and NXTVISION 2.0 active to boot, this phone consistently made it through well over a single day of use.

And that’s a good thing since TCL’s “fast charging” here isn’t necessarily the quickest. In fact, using the included cable and wall adapter, this phone took just over two hours to refill. Fast charging smartphones in the upper end of the mid-range and even some in the budget segment take on average just over an hour to fuel up. So it’s a bit difficult to justify calling the charge here “fast.”

All of that did, however, mean that I could use the phone all day. I just charged it at night when I wasn’t using it. So it didn’t turn out to be a big deal for me. Although it could be for some users.

Camera quality is one area where TCL 20S really takes a hit

Extras abound with the TCL 20S quad-camera

As already covered in this review so far, TCL 20S is a smartphone that doesn’t really look like it’s all that cheap. It also doesn’t perform like it is. But not everything is perfect in this device either. We’ll discuss some highlights of the cameras here momentarily. To begin with, though, it’s well worth looking at the flaws too.

Now, obviously,  TCL has done a lot of work with its camera software to ensure a great user experience. And, for the most part, it’s been successful on that front. Especially for a low-end handset. There are really three areas where this camera setup, comprised of a 64-megapixel high-resolution camera falls apart.

The first, of course, is on Super Night Mode. While that’s reasonably good, especially for the price, the mode feels like it simply isn’t ready for prime time. The camera, in night mode, only captured as much light as my eye could see in closer shots. And in longer shots, particularly sky shots, it didn’t even do that. Instead, offering up a pixelated blur as shown in our sample gallery via Flickr.

The same held for low-light video captures. Despite being relatively great in standard lighting on both fronts.

Moreover, and perhaps worse, the camera couldn’t quite seem to settle when it came to the processing side of things. Photos often took longer than expected to finish and then didn’t seem to want to hold in terms of brightness and color accuracy. That appears to be a software-related issue. And TCL will likely fix that in a future update. But it is disconcerting, as of this writing.

Conversely, the shots captured in good or moderately good lighting are great. Color accuracy is high and detail is too. But zooming in doesn’t work out so well either and color accuracy takes a hit again when zoomed all the way out to 0.6x zoom.

What this phone lacks in those areas though, it makes up for with a great selfie camera and loads of features, as shown in the image above.

The front-facing camera is a 16-megapixel sensor, just for starters. And that comes packed with HDR support, which seems to work very well.

Taking pictures with either set of cameras, indoors at least, shows that the phone handles heavy backlighting fairly well. Maintaining detail and color accuracy, up to a point.

At the end of the day, whether or not a phone offers a great camera experience comes down to one thing. That’s how well the software and hardware join up to handle everyday photography.

Unfortunately, TCL 20S cameras just weren’t great under my review. In mid-level to good lighting, they are much more than just serviceable. But they don’t maintain that quality across the broad swath of circumstances and environmental factors I would expect to use my smartphone as a camera for.

TCL shines on software and so does the TCL 20S

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Software is one area where TCL’s phones — budget or otherwise — do exceptionally well

Now, as time goes on, smartphones are more and more likely to perform and look like flagships. But that doesn’t mean they all offer software experiences to match. Fortunately, TCL is among the best on this front and its TCL 20S is no exception. We’ve already covered performance, of course. But one thing we’ve yet to discuss in any depth, beyond a smooth experience, is just what it’s like to interact with the company’s software.

In actuality, there’s very little to actually discuss on the software front. Aside from the usual utilities, Google apps, and a smart device manager, TCL doesn’t really force any software down users’ throats. The few extras that are installed, including Facebook, the Booking.com app, Gameloft’s Modern Combat: Rebel Guns, and Netflix, can be uninstalled.

That leaves just a few topics to discuss here, looking past the previously-discussed NXTVISION app. A few of the extras included by TCL, such as Game Box, are useful. With Game Box, for example, users can hide away any installed games rather than showing them in the app drawer. That’s in a single app that also helps optimize performance. The same kind of usefulness is present in the included Support Center app, as well as the Switch Phone and File Share app. And each of these experiences works as well as would be expected.

Digging a little deeper under the hood, TCL also packs in plenty of system-level features. For instance, users can select which hand they’ll use predominantly, during setup, and that will alter how the bottom-row navigation is displayed. They can also set the phone up to work using Google’s standards for app drawers, or to function without an app drawer.

Of course, using the app drawer is recommendable with TCL phones. Especially since that app drawer is fully customizable, down to the automatic management of sorting. With the apps automatically assigned to folder-like sections in the app drawer and custom segments made possible via TCL. Or using a more traditional sorting method.

And all of that, including switching between sorting methods, is smooth and fast. There’s no jitter to speak of in any of the system-level settings or pre-installed software. It all just feels like a flagship experience. And that’s not going away anytime soon either since TCL shipped this phone with Android 11 and a promise of two years worth of security and OS updates.

Audio from this phone is great, particularly for 3.5mm wired headphones

3.5mm is here to stay if TCL has anything to do with it

As noted in the connectivity segment below, Bluetooth 5.0 is built-in with this device. And, under review, that gave TCL 20S a great way to wirelessly listen to near-lossless audio. In fact, that performed — unsurprisingly — almost exactly as I’d expect from a much more expensive handset.

And, on that front, TCL also includes an extra feature to set this phone apart. Although it’s also included in its other handsets. Dubbed Super Bluetooth, users can use this phone to connect up to four Bluetooth speakers or headphones. Then they can stream music or media to those simultaneously.

As it turns out, that worked flawlessly in my review. Most handsets simply don’t come with this feature or anything at all like it. So it’s good to see TCL include it in a sub-$300 smartphone.

However, the premium experience on audio doesn’t end there either. The company also includes dual speakers specifically designed for those who are using the phone in landscape mode. That made movies and games alike much more enjoyable during my test of the audio.

The audio from those speakers, conversely, isn’t great since no smartphone audio really is. There’s just no real ‘punch’ in the low end. But, in the same breath, the audio was genuinely great compared to other smartphones. Each tone is well represented, if not too pounding on the bass end. And there’s no sign of anything that could be called “tinny.”

Instead, TCL ensures that a balanced audio experience is easily attained. With sound coming from both the top and bottom of the phone for a more immersive experience.

Connectivity with TCL 20S is fantastic but not the latest tech

Support for an SD card and SIM all in one with TCL 20S

Connectivity is an important feature on a modern smartphone and TCL 20S lived up to my expectations under review. It packs in a lot of the latest features such as NFC, Bluetooth 5.0, and advanced 4G features such as VoLTE and Voice-over-Wi-Fi (but only for T-Mobile on the latter).

But it is also not a modern handset in other ways when it comes to this technology. For example, while the phone does feature support for both a SIM card and storage expansion from 128GB up to 1TB via microSD card, it only supports one SIM card. There’s also no support for the latest Wi-Fi protocols — Wi-Fi 6. And, it goes without saying, no 5G networking support.

Given that 5G is still rapidly expanding in terms of availability, it may be surprising that there’s no 5G here. But that’s only if we choose to ignore that 5G components are still considerably more expensive than their 4G counterparts. Setting aside that there are design decisions that need to change based on 5G support. Especially when it comes to antenna placement, among other things.

Having said that, no 5G is a disappointment for a device that’s as advanced as this phone looks and feels at this price point. In fact, it serves as just one more area where pricing this phone firmly in the budget segment has dampened how good it is or could be. Although 4G LTE is still a great networking technology and will be around for years to come.

Worth the cost? Yes but not quite perfect

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TCL 20S is ready to at a moments notice, for just about any use case

At the end of the day, whether or not TCL 20S is a phone that’s perfect for you will depend on whether or not the caveats and benefits described in this review will suit your needs. If consistent performance and great visual management are more important than a display with a high refresh rate, TCL 20S has you covered. The same can be said if being able to easily see the screen under bright light is important to you.

Similarly, if 5G, the fastest charging, and a great nighttime camera aren’t too important, but great software optimization, daytime camera, updates, Bluetooth sharing, and design are important, this phone absolutely won’t let you down.

The only caveat here that seems unjustifiable, in fact, is the lack of any advertised IP rating. Without that information, it’s impossible to tell how well TCL 20S will stand up to water and dust. And that’s more likely to be a larger problem for a wider swath of users.

However, the overwhelming majority of the minor issues here are, summarily, to be expected. After all, TCL 20S is still a hard-to-beat smartphone. And that’s only made more true by its relatively low price point, which appears to be the source of those caveats. So, at the very least, it’s not a handset anybody shopping in the budget end of the Android landscape should ignore.