At this year’s CES 2021 event, TCL announced a brand new era of budget-friendly, top-feature Android handsets, including the TCL 20SE. Now, that handset is ready for the US and North American market, leading TCL to send its 20SE to Android Headlines for review.
Of course, at under $200, TCL 20SE is not going to be a flagship phone. Although it’s not going to be a slouch either. And it’s going to accomplish just about everything that can be thrown at it as though it is a flagship. Albeit more slowly, in some cases.
All of that is, of course, setting aside any talk of the design, special features, or software efforts put forward for this handset by TCL. Those factors are going to go a long way toward making this phone better than many in its price bracket. But not quite all the way, as we’ll discuss throughout this review.
This TCL hardware doesn’t betray the 20SE’s pricing
Now, the TCL 20SE is slotted just below the TCL 20 Pro 5G and TCL 20S but it didn’t necessarily look that way, under review. In fact, it looked far better than I’d have expected it to, given its budget-friendly leanings. And that’s even though the company shipped its fairly ‘standard’ Nuit Black color instead of the available Aurora Green hue.
If the TCL 20SE were rated on looks and in-hand feel alone, it would be easy to mistake for a modern flagship. Or at very least a mid-ranger.
Starting with the obvious, this phone doesn’t feel as though its rear panel is made of glass. But, since it’s a budget phone, that’s not really an issue. What matters here is aesthetics, in-hand feel, and durability. The materials and coloration used here will almost certainly check the full list in every regard.
TCL started by using a fairly standard, thicker smartphone design with smooth curves to help it fit better in hand. Then it added a few accentuating curves to the edges, which I found really helped when it came to blindly find the buttons. The power button is additionally textured, as compared to the volume rocker and dedicated Google Assistant shortcut key.
The company opted for a striking two-tone design in terms of aesthetics, contrasted against the shiny low-profile camera array. The brighter portion of the design emits a burst-like effect in any lighting, with hues shifting from deep-sea blue to almost black or white, depending on lighting or viewing angle.
The result is a phone that looks like a flagship. And the hardware is engineered to match that in terms of usability, feel, and durability. With one noteworthy exception. There’s no ingress protection — or IP — rating associated with this phone. At least not officially. Which will presumably mean that it’s more susceptible to dust and water.
Each of the buttons and the bottom-mounted USB-C port is firm and clicky. There’s no real wobble to speak of and the phone doesn’t creak or complain under moderate pressure.
While the included protective clear case is appreciated, TCL didn’t engineer this phone to be slippery either. It fits neatly in-hand comfortably and just enough heft not to feel cheaply made.
The fingerprint sensor around the back is snappy, as is the front-facing camera’s face unlock feature.
Overall, TCL 20SE feels like it exists in a similar class — comparatively speaking — to the Samsung Galaxy S20 Fe. That’s in that it isn’t a cheap phone and doesn’t feel like one, despite being much more affordable than the TCL 20 Pro 5G. It feels like it belongs in the same category, the mid-range, rather than in the wallet-saver group. And it looks as though it belongs alongside devices that are four or five times the cost.
This display isn’t likely to disappoint
Despite a great run of features, we’ll discuss those momentarily, the display on TCL 20SE is one of the few areas where it became obvious that this isn’t a flagship during my review. In fact, it’s one area where this phone very clearly fits among other budget devices launched this year by TCL.
No, we aren’t talking about the NXTVISION enhancements on the display panel. Those go a long way toward making this smartphone’s screen a lot better than it would otherwise be. For instance, the 6.82-inch display panel has a built-in algorithm to help adjust color and temperature to be more accurate based on environmental lighting. That’s setting aside the more accurate contrast, crisper edges, and other enhancements — such as the dedicated direct sunlight mode, reading mode, and gaming enhancements brought by NXTVISION.
Where this all starts to feel a little underwhelming then, is on resolution and refresh rate.
That’s because TCL 20SE packs an HD+ resolution of just 720 x 1640 pixels. And, coming from the other recent TCL gadgets as well as my daily driver device, that felt rather low. Of course, users who have been buying budget-friendly devices already aren’t likely to notice as big a difference. But where even that falls apart somewhat is on the refresh rate.
TCL opted for a lower-than-average — unlisted — refresh rate for TCL 20SE. Presumably, based on my hands-on time. That’s a once-standard refresh rate of 60Hz. Many competing devices are now opting for a smoother 90Hz or even 120Hz. Even in this price bracket.
In part due to TCL’s optimizations and NXTVISION, the results aren’t immediately obvious. But after spending some time with the handset, it just doesn’t transition in animations or scrolling as smoothly, from a graphical perspective, as it might otherwise do.
That’s not necessarily going to mean much in terms of responsiveness. The screen is brilliant on that front. And it is bright and clear under just about every use case. As provided by the NXTVISION enhancements. This is, at the end of the day, a great screen for the price. But it’s lacking in one or two areas that are increasingly less common to have as drawbacks in this segment of the market.
Performance from this phone won’t leave you wanting, mostly
It — almost — goes without saying that you probably won’t be playing the most intensive games on TCL 20SE and, as shown by this review, that’s probably for the best. Powered by the octa-core Snapdragon 460 SoC, it isn’t the strongest performer when it comes to heavy hitters. But that doesn’t meant it’s not great for gaming anyway. At least not compared to other handsets in its price bracket. Because it is.
With optimizations via a dedicated game space and a great, comparatively, display, most games will run on medium settings smoothly.
Similarly, this phone will lag behind others in terms of proccessing images and video edits. The hangups are not, relatively speaking, unexpected or even bad enough to be annoying. But there is a noticeable difference coming from a flagship to this phone.
Setting those things aside, TCL 20SE proved a worthy competitor under review for the money. The OS and system-level interactions as well as most of the apps and games on the Play Store run flawlessly. As does multitasking, by and large. With only minor momentary slowdowns in split and floating screen modes with other apps running. And switching between apps, thanks in part to the 4GB of RAM and 128GB storage, is effortless as well.
Battery life is a highlight for TCL 20SE but charging isn’t
Now, TCL series budget devices often share several aspects with their pricier counterparts. In fact, as discovered under review, that doesn’t include the battery life and charging for TCL 20SE. Or at least not the charging. With USB-C wired charging at 10W, that takes around and a little over 3 hours for this phone.
While that timeframe is a bit less than desirable for handsets at a higher cost, between the 5000mAh battery and the fact that this is on par for handsets in this price bracket, it’s not bad at all. There’s also no wireless charging included, unfortunately. But that’s also not unexpected for a handset at under $200. And that’s offset by reverse charging for other devices from the TCL 20SE via OTG cable. So it isn’t a complete wash by any stretch.
For more impressive, is battery longevity from this phone.
The company claims up to 17-hours of video streaming is possible on a single charge. And it doesn’t hit too far from the mark, although that is likely to require battery-saving features turned on and NXTVISION features drawn back or turned off completely. I didn’t do either of those things. Instead, opting to use all of the extra features and keep battery-saving turned off. Although I did leave auto-brightness turned on.
My test of the TCL 20SE battery resulted in right around 10-hours of screen-on time and light-to-moderate activity. Meaning that this phone will last all day under most use cases, with plenty of screen-on time to spare. And it could last even longer for other users with lighter use habits. Ultimately allowing those users multiple days of use on a single charge.
Given the performance of this smartphone, that’s outstanding. And easily one of the biggest perks in this model.
The TCL 20SE camera doesn’t work the best but it’s definitely better than expected
This is effectively the most affordable in the TCL 20 lineup. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that TCL 20SE didn’t hit the highest marks during my review on the camera front. But it also doesn’t come anywhere close to being as potato-like as is often the case with sub-$200 smartphones. Aside from the lack of a dedicated night mode, in fact, it hits right around the same marks as many in the $300+ range.
That shows through well enough in our sample gallery over on Flickr. But some explanation is also in order.
For starters, the image above shows one of the TCL 20SE’s biggest exclusive features. Dubbed “AI Color,” in this mode, the camera searches for objects and people at a portrait mode distance — just a few feet. Then it colorizes that while rendering everything else — in real-time — in black and white. The results can be quite stunning. Just as the results from the Light Trace, Slo-Mo, Super Macro, Pano, and Stop Motion modes.
High Pixel, conversely, shoots photos at the highest possible resolution for crystal clear detail and depth. That’s going to be a mode that does well with motion or action photography too. Especially since it’s somewhat faster than the “Auto” mode, although none of the modes really feels slow.
However, that mode only shoots slightly better than the more ubiquitous Auto mode — except for action shots. Which, mostly, captures details and colors in stunning clarity for a device that costs less than $200. Where issues do occur, it’s fairly predictable. Complex reflections, such as those in the zoom shots in our sample gallery, resulting in artifacts. As do shots with strong backlighting but not under every circumstance and only with direct sunlight levels of backlighting.
Zoom shots get grainy beyond the x2 point as well.
Otherwise, this camera feels and works dependably, smoothly, and almost effortlessly.
That the TCL software is customizable and smooth can’t be overstated
In terms of software, TCL offers some of the best experiences to be found on the market. And not just because all of the apps that are pre-installed fit into a single drawer page, as shown above. Or just because each of the pre-installed third-party apps can be uninstalled either.
No, TCL 20SE was great under review in part because the software was so buttery smooth despite the price, with full support for the dark mode theme. And because the experience itself is incredibly customizable, right from the first startup.
TCL starts by asking users whether they’re right or left-handed. That’s going to change the way that the home row of navigation keys is presented. And, presumably, helps prevent accidental touches and swipes too. Although that’s not been confirmed, when switching hands after setting mine to right-handed, the right-hand side did seem less sensitive than the left
From there, the company also lets users choose right out of the gate whether they want an app drawer at all. That’s the drawer that, in Android 11, is accessed by swiping up on the home screen. If not, the system will switch over to simply loading up the pages with apps. Very similarly to how Apple’s iOS and some Android OEMs layout their apps. Giving you the option to decide how you want your experience with navigation and apps presented.
In the app drawer itself, the apps can be automatically arranged by purpose or category. As well as sorted by installation date, size, and other metrics. There’s even a Game box app for storing all games if users choose that route. Which I did. It kept my app drawer much cleaner in the long run.
And all of this is presented in a way that doesn’t allow things to become overwhelming.
Audio here is clearer than usual for the price
Audio from smartphone speakers is never the best. And, during my review of TCL 20SE, this phone didn’t break that mold either. The tones from the speakers — and via the mics — are clear and represented. But, in part because of the price, they’re also somewhat tinnier and less punchy than might be hoped. Although, volume is equally important and both that aspect and clarity are relatively well done.
Conversely, most users will be listening via Bluetooth — Bluetooth 5.o for this device — and other headphones. Which they can, with TCL 20SE. Especially since this handset includes a 3.5mm audio jack. And those methods for listening immediately rectify any problems that could be associated with the audio. Particularly as that stands for music, movies, and gaming.
With that said, all on their own, the speakers here are more than just good enough to match what else is available in the budget segment. So there’s not likely to be any disappointment on that front.
In terms of mics and call quality, that feels almost identical to that of the much more expensive TCL 20 Pro 5G. And it may be a safe assumption that similar or the same hardware has been used for this device. So I never felt like I was having a conversation on a smartphone that costs less than $200.
Connectivity feels slightly behind with TCL 20SE but not in terms of performance
On the connectivity front, the biggest caveats with TCL 20SE — neither of what was a big one during my review — are the lack of 5G support and lack of CDMA support. This phone was used on Google Fi for my review and will work on all major US carriers. But it may require some support at Verizon to work properly. Namely, by requesting that Verizon reps allow the device to be used on its service as a CDMA-less device.
Having said all of that, the TCL 20SE performed as well as any other 4G handset that I’ve used with my service. Network connections were strong and didn’t exhibit any problems in terms of voice clarity or audio issues. My calls weren’t dropped and data rates stayed consistent with my expectations. Although, that may not prove to be an identical experience for Verizon since there is, as noted already, no CDMA support.
Other connections included here are Bluetooth 5.0, FM Radio, and Wi-Fi Direct. As well as Wi-Fi Display output. Each of those worked exactly as I’d expect an upper mid-range or flagship device to work. With solid performance across the board. That’s with a single exception that may prove too much for at least some users.
Among smartphones in the budget segment, NFC is increasingly included. Primarily as a means to use hands-free payment methods such as those included with Google Pay. Unfortunately, there’s no NFC with the TCL 20SE. So it’ll be best to avoid that if it’s something you rely on or really need.
Should you buy the TCL 20SE?
Obviously, if you’re looking to see how good any phone is at under $200, you’re not shopping in the flagship segment. But shopping in the budget segment doesn’t need to result in a cheap, plastic handset either. That is, seemingly above all else, what the TCL 20SE proves without question. It is an absolutely gorgeous smartphone, $189 price tag or not.
Similarly, its software falls in very nearly second-to-none, in my eyes. That’s minimal, customizable, and just about everything aftermarket can be uninstalled. That’s as long as it isn’t TCL software you’re trying to uninstall. And that’s without consideration for just how smooth this phone operates. Or the cameras (in good lighting), networking, mics, audio, and battery life.
Where this phone fails to be great, that’s not going to be an issue for everybody. Not everybody needs charging faster than this. Or night mode cameras and NFC. Not every user is going to want or need access to 5G. The real issue here arises from the fact that those technologies are staples. They’re part of the new, and ever-evolving, mobile standard. So it’s still disappointing not to see them included. Even if that won’t be a dealbreaker for everybody.
And this phone absolutely excels outside of those minor caveats, especially for the cost.