TCL 20 5G review: Great display, fair cameras but poor battery life
Quick verdict: The TCL 20 5G brings the essential features that you’d expect in a mid-range 5G handset at a good price, but it’s not a standout phone at this price point.
- NXTVISION does a good job of SD upscaling
- Good all-round app performance
- Fair but not exceptional cameras
- 5G ready
- Battery life is sub-par
- Plastic body feels cheap
Power, storage and battery
|Launch price (RRP)||$0|
TCL is best known in Australia for its affordable TV ranges, but in recent years, we've seen a number of TCL-branded phones launch locally as well. TCL is no stranger to the phone space since it is the brand behind Alcatel as well as those curiously licensed BlackBerry and Palm phones over the past few years.
The TCL 20 5G promises the speeds of 5G network compatibility for under $500. Where once you had to pay into the thousands to get into the 5G world, prices are rapidly tumbling, with many makers offering up phones at $499 right now. The TCL 20 5G offers fair all-round value, although it struggles to really stand out next to competing phones at the same price.
- Two colour choices
- 6.67-inch FHD+ display
- Feels like a cheap plastic phone
- Side-mounted fingerprint reader is fast
The TCL 20 5G ships in two different colour variants. For those who prefer plain, there's the darker "mist gray" finish, while the more extroverted types may gravitate towards the "placid blue" model, which is what I've tested with. Even though it's called placid blue, it's a rather vibrant blue. If this is placid blue, I'd love to know what TCL thinks agitated blue might look like.
Weird colour names aside, the TCL 20 5G's plastic body looks and feels as though it belongs on a phone that's just slightly cheaper than the phone's actual asking price. It's not unpleasant to speak of, but at the same time, we've seen sharper designs at this kind of price from TCL's competitors.
The display is a 6.67-inch 1080x2400 LCD with a centrally mounted hole-punch camera, or "dotch" in TCL-speak. "Dotch" is a weirdly ugly term for TCL to hang its hat on, but there it is.
One design feature I genuinely do appreciate is that the Google Assistant button sits alone on the right-hand side of the phone. If you want it, great, and if you don't, you're far less likely to tap it when you actually wanted the power button.
Mind you, you'd struggle to get that one wrong because the TCL 20 5G uses a combination power button and fingerprint reader on the left-hand side, just below the volume rocker. It's nicely placed for quick location, and it's also quite speedy for unlocking the phone when needed.
- 48MP primary camera is decent
- 2MP macro isn't exciting
TCL has, to date, tended to use a "follow the leader" type approach to its camera arrays on smartphones, and that's exactly the story that the TCL 20 5G adopts as well. Many mid-range phones build around a primary 48MP lens, and that's what you get at the rear, along with an 8MP 118° wide-angle sensor and, of course, a 2MP macro lens because if your mid-range phone doesn't have a 2MP macro lens, is it even a phone anymore?
As with every single other 2MP macro lens on every other phone, unless you've got very steady hands, good light and a lot of luck, you'll struggle to get particularly good shots out of the macro lens. That's also true to an extent of the wide lens, which delivers a notably different exposure to the standard lens if you switch between them.
That puts the main carrying strain on that primary 48MP sensor, and here the news is rather better because it's a mostly-capable device for everyday shots. You do get an image-stacking "super night" mode that shoots a little better than some of its contemporaries, but it's hardly challenging the Pixel 4a for low-light supremacy, either.
Weirdly, what that does mean is that while it's not really a standout, the TCL 20 5G is TCL's best camera phone to date. It's only keeping up with the competition at best, however.
- Snapdragon 690 is a good all-round performer
- Android 10 for some reason
The TCL 20 5G is the first phone launched in Australia running on Qualcomm's mid-range Snapdragon 690 platform. That means that it's a mix of mid-range performance and 5G, but also that it has to compete with a number of handsets typically running on MediaTek's Dimensity 800U platform. Historically speaking, Qualcomm tends to deliver better performance in the mid-range than MediaTek, which is favoured for its lower cost by manufacturers.
So where does the Snapdragon 690 sit? It's a somewhat complex question to answer as the TCL 20 5G's benchmarks show. Here's how it compares against a range of 5G capable handsets selling at the same price point at the time of writing:
The Snapdragon 765G in the Moto G 5G Plus slightly outpaces the Snapdragon 690 in the TCL 20 5G on a multi-core basis, but it's a flipped scenario for single-core performance.
The TCL 20 5G doesn't fare anywhere near as well on graphics performance, with its Adreno 619L faring badly against the same competition in 3DMark's graphics benchmarks:
In more anecdotal use, the TCL 20 5G is fine for everyday Android tasks, fitting in well with what we'd expect from a phone at this price point. I technically tested with the lower end model of the TCL 20 5G, which ships with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard storage, but then the higher end model only varies the storage up to 256GB anyway. You can always up the storage quota with microSD cards as well if needed.
TCL 20 5G ships with Android 10 on board, not Android 11. That's a really unusual step for TCL to take given how many phones are already shipping with Android 11, including the cheaper TCL 20 SE that TCL's launching in Australia in the same month!
TCL doesn't have a spectacular update history when it comes to its cheaper Alcatel phones, and while we've only seen a handful of TCL-branded handsets in Australia to date, there's not seemingly the same dedication to upgrades as you see from, for example, HMD Global/Nokia.
TCL's take on Android 10 is a curious one too. Where some Chinese makers opt for a full overhaul of Android – the likes of realme or Oppo – and others take a hands-off approach, such as HMD Global/Nokia or Motorola – TCL sits somewhere in the middle, with some areas left entirely like stock Android, and others reworked, seemingly just because they could.
You get a smattering of TCL-branded apps that run alongside the existing Google ones, the most interesting of which is NXTVISION. That's been TCL's secret display tweaking algorithm designed to bring more of an HDR-style feel to its displays, allowing you to set image enhancements, display colour tone, reading modes and more.
NXTVISION can make a really big difference to some video content, although like a lot of image manipulation algorithms, it can also really highlight the deficiencies in lower quality video as well.
- 4,500mAh battery performs under expectations
- 18W fast USB-C charging
Battery life for 5G handsets is a tricky matter to balance out. We know 5G access can be an absolute battery vampire a lot of the time, but then 5G isn't entirely ubiquitous. TCL's gone down a fair but not exceptional route with the TCL 20 5G's battery, placing a 4,500mAh sealed power pack within its frame, but sadly, it sits below the competition when it comes to real-world battery endurance, and that's even without the spectre of 5G gobbling up all your electrons.
Running Finder's standard battery rundown test over the TCL 20 5G showed this off almost immediately. That involves streaming a YouTube 1080p video at maximum brightness and moderate volume for an hour to gauge rough battery usage. Here's how the TCL 20 5G compared against a range of other 5G capable handsets:
The TCL 20 5G's performance here can't be called anything but disappointing. Typically what we find is that phones that drop under 90% in this test may struggle to get through a full day's usage. You can mitigate for this, naturally, by dropping the NXTVISION feature, not using 5G or not using the phone quite as much, but where's the fun in that – especially as competitor phones manage better battery endurance?
At least when you do have to top up the TCL 20 5G's battery, you're not left all that wanting in terms of recharge speed. It supports up to 18W cabled charging via USB-C, although there's no sign of wireless charging.
Should you buy the TCL 20 5G?
- Buy it if you want TCL’s best phone to date and watch lots of phone video.
- Don't buy it if you want better than average battery life.
On paper, the TCL 20 5G delivers quite a lot of value across the board, and in testing, there's plenty to like, except for that regrettably poor battery life. Bearing in mind that our battery test doesn't yet include 5G battery testing, it's a factor that's only likely to be worse if you're buying the TCL 20 5G for its 5G network speed.
Pricing and availability
PriceThe TCL 20 5G retails in Australia for $499
Where to buy
Power, storage and battery
Images: Alex Kidman