TCL 20S and 20SE review: budget phones that beat expectations

The TCL 20S, and 20SE phones would be on The Price Is Right. You'd probably expect much higher prices than the retail versions. These 4G phones, which retail for less than $300 and cost only $250 each, are a steal at just $190. These phones have all you need in a smartphone. They come with bright and large screens, large 5,000mAh battery packs, 128GB internal storage and decent cameras. Each box comes with a clear silicone case.
TCL is an expert in the production of budget 4K Smart TVs and affordable soundbars. It was producing phones for Alcatel, BlackBerry and Palm before it started its own line in 2020. It now uses those skills to build other affordable gadgets for its phone line.

The TCL 20S Pro is more expensive than the 20S and 20SE, but neither the 20S or the 20SE have the most recent processors. They also don't support 5G networking, which are not surprising at these prices. Despite the fact that the TCL 20S has a long history, the TCL 20SE's real stars are their stunning displays. They use different panels. The phones feel and look more luxurious than they actually are due to their solid build quality as well attention to details that matter most: long-lasting battery life as well strong performance as well ample storage. There is no reason to think that good things cannot be found in affordable packages.

TCL 20S Verge score 8.5 out 10 Good Stuff Bright screen

A decent camera

Battery life is long

Fast charging slow stuff

Macro modes and bad nights

Buy 4G for $249.99 on Amazon Buy for 2499.99 at Best Buy. Our review of TCL20SE Verge Score: 7.5 out 10 Good Stuff Long Battery Life

There are many storage options

Vibrant screen and macro modes

This is not for 4K content or games.

Amazon: Buy Buzzy Speakers for $189.99

The $190 20SE's 6.82-inch screen is too small at 720 pixels. The 4K Dune trailer was too blurry and dim at 720p to watch on YouTube. This display still displays vibrant colors at 50 percent brightness. It doesn't matter if you use the NXTVISION display optimization program (I didn't notice much difference).

The 20S is a more expensive model with a 6.67 inch screen and a better resolution FHD+ LCD panel. It has 1080 x 2400 pixels at 20:9 aspect ratio. The 20S's Dune trailer was sharper and had more detail when I viewed it at 1080p. The screens are bright enough outside that I can read text even if the brightness is increased to 100 percent. The 20S' pinhole front camera is much more discreet than the tear-drop 20SEs design.

The 20S model is easier to use than the other models. It's still quite large and I need to have two hands to operate it safely. It can be difficult for me to use the screen with my fingers. I also have to hold the phone in one hand. The 20SE is 0.23 inches (5.84mm taller) and 0.25oz (7.1g heavier) but it weighs in at 0.23 inch (5.84mm).

TCL needed to make savings in the $190 20SE, which costs $60 more than the 20S. The 20SE is powered by the Snapdragon 460 chipet from Qualcomm, which has a slower processing speed than the 4GB RAM. The Snapdragon 665 processor powers the 20SE, while the 20S has 4GB of RAM. Although the difference isn't noticeable in basic texting or social media doomscrolling I found that the 20SE would sometimes force me to open the same app twice as the 20S because it wouldn't load the first attempt.

To test the capabilities of these devices, I played a few rounds of Pokemon Unleashed to find out. The TCL phones took almost the same time to load the game as the OnePlus 9 Pro, which had a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 chip. However, the OnePlus 9 Pro loaded the same round in half the time. My Pikachu was a little slower on the 20SE due to its lower quality processor and display. The 20S was slightly responsiveer, however. The dual speakers of the 20SEs are louder and more buzzy than those of the 20S, which were quieter, but still produced a richer sound.

Both devices have 128GB of internal storage and both offer microSD expansion. The 20S microSD slot can accept up to 1TB cards, while the 20SE supports only 256GB cards. Both phones come with Android 11 as a default, and a TCL skin called TCLUI. The 20S will receive one major OS update, while the 20SE will not. Both phones will also get two years worth of security updates. This will give you ample space to install these updates and store your content for the future.

The 20S and the 20SE fingerprint sensors deserve special mention. They are quick to identify my fingerprint and unlock the phone. The fingerprint sensor built into the power button of the 20S, which is located on the right-hand side of the phone, is my favorite feature. One touch and you can wake up your phone, as well as unlock it. It is simple and intuitive. The 20SE also has a traditional round fingerprint sensor at the back that works equally well.

The 20SE's facial recognition can be quite ineffective. The phone either does not recognize my face or it asks me to touch an icon to unlock the phone using my face. This defeats the purpose and makes it impossible to use a hands-free method of unlocking the phone. You can disable facial recognition. Facial recognition worked better on the 20S than the 20SE.

The phones have a 3.5mm audiojack on top, volume control on the right, and non-customizable Google Assistant buttons on the left. There is also a USB-C port, as well as a pair bottom-firing dual speakers. The 20S has an understated back that looks curved from various angles, but the layer of micron-sized prismatic crystals actually makes the back cover really fingerprint-resistant. The back cover of the 20SEs is quite the opposite. It's a fingerprint disaster zone thanks to its shiny, nanophotoetched back.

It was difficult to use the 5,000mAH batteries in both phones on deadline. My usual phone routine includes checking my email, sending messages via WhatsApp and Google Hangouts as well as visiting Reddit and other websites. I also listen to podcasts. To mimic real-world usage, I tried to use both Wi-Fi and 4G services during testing due to the pandemic.

TCLs claims were actually close to what I got. The 20S lasted 31 hours (TCL recommended 36 hours for 3G/4G). It took me 2.5 hours to charge the device fully, which is not as fast as TCLs claim. The 20SE also lasted 32 hours on one charge, which is a lot longer than the TCLs 31-hour estimate for 4G.

The 20S and 20SE cameras are great in natural light. However, I wouldn't hang these photos on the wall. Each model has a different sensor, although both phones use a quad-camera setup. The 20S has a 64-megapixel main camera and a front camera of 15-megapixels, while the 20SE has 48-megapixel main camera and front camera of 13-megapixels. However, these numbers don't really tell you anything about the quality or the photos.

Grid View TCL 20S, rear camera, no zoom.

TCL 20S Wide angle camera.

TCL 20S night shot with rear-camera

TCL 20S, portrait mode.

TCL 20S night shot at 10x zoom

TCL20S Sunset photo taken without any in-camera adjustments

TCL 20S tried to brighten the image in camera, but the sunset now appears overexposed.

TCL 20S, no zoom

TCL 20S, full zoom

TCL 20S front camera selfie

TCL 20S, indoor Super Macro mode

TCL 20S, outdoor Super Macro mode

Photos from the TCL 20S

I used both my phones to snap a lot of wide-angle shots and main camera shots (of essentially the same area). The 20S shots have more details and are more balanced than the 20SE ones, which has the water fountain more exposed at 4x zoom.

There is a noticeable color difference between photos taken with the main cameras on the phones and those taken with the ultrawide angle cameras (8.5 megapixels on the 20S, 5.5 megapixels on the 20SE). Super Macro mode, which is available on both phones with 2-megapixel macro cameras, has a problem. The photos of the fuchsia flowers look flat and pixelated, while indoor photos of blue hydrangeas look too saturated in the yellow channel.

Given the low price of these phones, I was surprised that any night shots turned out to be acceptable (I know they are in various degrees of blurriness). Even my Pixel 5 photos weren't perfect, to be fair. The 20S and the 20SE had trouble focusing with multiple light sources in darkness, so each photo took many awkward seconds to process. The 20S took sharper photos, while the 20SE's photos are much more detailed, especially when you consider the light from Manhattan's office towers.

Grid View TCL 20SE, rear camera no zoom.

TCL 20SE wide angle camera.

TCL 20SE, 2x zoom.

TCL 20SE, 4x zoom.

Night shot with wide angle camera TCL 20SE

TCL 20SE, portrait mode.

TCL 20SE front camera selfie

TCL 20SE, indoor Super Macro mode.

TCL 20SE, outdoor Super Macro mode.

TCL 20SE Sunset photo without any lighting adjustments in camera

Photos from the TCL 20SE

Both front-facing cameras took decent selfies at first glance. The 20S 16-megapixel camera is my favorite because it captures more natural colors and takes better photos. The selfie taken with the front camera of the 20SEs, 13-megapixel resolution, just looked worse. My sunglasses were frosted and my skin was unnaturally pale.

The TCL 20S is my favorite budget phone under $250. The TCL 20S has all the characteristics of a higher-end device, but at a lower price. The 6.67-inch 1080p display looks great next to other flagship phones. It also feels luxurious thanks to the fingerprint-proofed layer made of micron-sized prismatic stones on its back cover.

It's hard to find a better phone than the 20S for $250.

The $250 Moto G Power (2021), on the other hand, has a larger battery and a slightly more recent processor. You get 64GB internal storage in exchange for the 128GB plus microSD slot offered by the 20S. You also have the $269 OnePlus Nord 10 (global GSM Unlocked version). This newer Snapdragon chip is 5G-compatible, but it still runs Android 10, even when Android 12 is available. The TCL 20S is a better choice if you don't care about having a 5G ready phone.

This unlocked TCL 20S is a great choice if you're looking for an unlocked phone compatible with Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile 4G GSM networks.

TCL 20SE is the smart choice if your budget is less than $200 and you won't be using Verizon as your carrier. The $180 OnePlus Nord N100 may save you $10 but you will lose half of the internal storage (from 128GB to 64GB on N100). That's a horrible trade-off. With a large bright screen, plenty of storage, battery life and the ability to select any GSM network (including AT&T or T-Mobile), you'll be happier. The 20S is worth an extra $60. Your future self will be grateful that you spent the extra money.

Gloria Sin Photography / The Verge