TCL 20SE Review: Great display but otherwise unremarkable
Quick verdict: If you're after a low-cost mobile with a quality display, the TCL 20SE is appealing, but you'll otherwise be left wanting for app performance, camera quality and battery life.
- Large display
- 18W charging
- Android 11
- Poor battery life despite 5,000mAh battery
- Middling performance
- Cameras aren't great
Power, storage and battery
|Launch price (RRP)||$299|
TCL has to date left the lower-cost segment of the market to its Alcatel subsidiary and instead offered up mid-range priced handsets under its own branding. At $299 outright, the TCL 20SE dips its toes into the more budget-friendly end of the market, even if only just so. It's a phone that largely sells on the size and quality of its display, and if that's all you need, it's fine. However, at this price point, you can get phones with better overall performance, so consider carefully before laying down your cash.
And if you're looking for the latest TCL handset, here's our full review of the TCL 20 R 5G.
- 6.82-inch display
- Rear fingerprint reader
- Only one colour choice in Australia
The TCL 20SE is a big phone, measuring in at 172.08x77.14x9.1mm with a carrying weight of 206 grams, so you're getting a fair bit of phone for your money. That size comes about because of its display, a 6.82-inch 1640x720 pixel LCD with TCL's NXTVision capability to enhance visual fidelity even on lower-quality material.
It can be a little bit of a shock looking at photos taken on the TCL 20SE and then on another display because NXTVision does tend to pump up the colour vibrancy quite a lot. The practical upside here is that it's a good choice for phone users who spend a lot of time streaming media because while it's only a 720p-capable phone in technical terms, it punches a little heavier than other 720p phones when it comes to video presentation.
The design of the TCL 20SE is otherwise fairly ordinary. Here in Australia, we've only got the Nuit Black variant to buy, although some overseas markets can instead opt for a slightly flashier Aurora Green model. Either way, it's a plastic-backed phone that ships with a simple clear protective case. At the rear, you'll find the fingerprint sensor relatively high up the phone body and next to the vertically arrayed camera bump. Like many phones, using the supplied case cuts down on the physical impact of that bump markedly.
On the right-hand side of the TCL 20SE, you'll find standard power and volume buttons, while the left-hand side houses a Google Assistant button. One nice design touch here is that it's ever so slightly offset against where the power button is, making it a little easier to discern if you're trying for one or the other through blind touch alone.
- Rear cameras are fair, but that's all
- Limited digital zoom
In the budget space, we've seen a lot of phones ship with multiple lenses, which on paper gives them a lot of potential for photographic experimentation. The TCL 20SE features a primary 48MP sensor for the model sold in Australia, although in some international markets, it's replaced by a simpler 16MP sensor. As such, if you were looking at an import model, it would be wise to work out which variant of the TCL 20SE you were actually getting.
Everything drops down in quality after that, with a 5MP f/2.2 ultra-wide, 2MP f/2.4 and 2MP f/2.4 depth camera at the rear, while the front teardrop style notch houses a 13MP selfie camera on the tested model. Again, confusingly, there's a lower-spec 8MP selfie camera version of the TCL 20SE out there, but that seems to be the match for the 16MP rear version, which you'd want to be cheaper on that basis alone.
While in theory you could do a reasonable amount with the TCL 20SE's cameras, the practical side of using them shows them to be merely average within their space. Like many higher-megapixel cameras, the TCL 20SE defaults to pixel binning to just 12MP in auto mode by default, although you can opt to shoot at the full 48MP, which TCL refers to as "HIGH PIXEL" because shouting about your full pixel count photography is exciting or something. What's less exciting is that HIGH PIXEL mode is notably slower to capture and post-process than 12MP regular shooting.
There's also the issue that while the TCL 20SE's display is lovely, that NXTVision upscaling can make images seem a fair bit more vibrant than they actually are. The TCL 20SE shoots at a level that's totally appropriate for its price range, but there's just nothing that really makes it stand out next to competition that's a little quicker or a little sharper. TCL, rather smartly, limits the digital zoom to just 4x, and frankly, at that level, you'd be better off using the 48MP pixel mode and cropping afterwards.
- Snapdragon 460 delivers moderate results
- Android 11 is a good inclusion
- Slow app switching
The TCL 20SE is built around Qualcomm's budget Snapdragon 460 SoC with 4GB of RAM and 128GB of onboard storage. Again, there's some international variance, with TCL also listing a 4GB RAM/64GB storage variant, which should logically be a cheaper unit.
At this price point, TCL has something of a challenge on its hands, however, because it's not that hard to shop around for a system running on a slightly fancier processor. That's pretty clear when you benchmark it against similarly priced handsets. Here's how the TCL 20SE compared using Geekbench 5's CPU test:
Here's how its Adreno 610 GPU stacks up with 3DMark's graphics benchmarks:
This is not all bad news for the TCL 20SE, which at least ships with Android 11 preinstalled, rather than the Android 10 that TCL astonishingly opted to ship on the more expensive TCL 20 5G. TCL's own Android UI, which it simply calls "TCL UI" does rewrite some core Android functions so you may have to dig around to find key features. For what it's worth, Chinese rivals Motorola and Nokia/HMD Global offer slightly cleaner interfaces here.
What all of this adds up to is a phone that's entirely acceptable for single app use as long as you're not throwing heavy duty games or similar at it. However, if you are trying to run your social media, view a little video, surf the web and blast a few aliens, you're pretty quickly going to hit a processing lag wall. That's not entirely unusual for phones in this price bracket – but again, we've seen faster phones at this price too.
- 5,000mAh battery doesn't live up to the hype
- Reverse wired charging
At one time, a 5,000mAh battery would have been seen as monstrously large, especially in a budget range phone. It was a capacity that largely only Motorola offered on its "Power" suffixed handsets, but in recent times, it's almost become the expected default for most Android handsets.
5,000mAh sounds like a really big number, but as always, it's a question of power efficiency, especially for a phone with a large display like the TCL 20SE.
To put that to the test, I ran the TCL 20SE through Finder's standard battery-life drain test – streaming a YouTube video at maximum resolution and brightness and moderate volume for an hour from a fully charged battery. All battery usage is relative, but what I'm looking for here is at least 90% remaining after that hour. Experience suggests that phones that drop below that limit tend to struggle to last an entire day in most circumstances.
Here's how the TCL 20SE compared against other phones using that test:
That's not a great figure, and what it means is that if you're a heavy user, you'll be reaching for its 18W charger sooner rather than later. It's entirely feasible to get the TCL 20SE to last a full calendar day, but you'd be wise to pop it on to charge overnight because a second day is likely to be a real test unless you're a very light user of your handset.
One oddity here is that the TCL 20SE supports reverse charging from its 5,000mAh battery. That's not the reverse wireless charging you find in some Samsung and Huawei handsets, but instead the ability to use the TCL 20SE as though it were some kind of battery pack for other wired devices, presuming you've got a suitable cable handy. This does work, but given its mediocre battery endurance, I'm not sure you'd want to use it all that often.
Should you buy the TCL 20 SE?
- Buy it if you want a budget phone primarily for video watching one app at a time.
- Don't buy it if you want best in class performance at this price point.
The TCL 20SE is all about the screen, really. If your primary need for a budget smartphone is to watch video, then it's a fair buy thanks to its display. However, the compromises that you have to put up with relative to the performance available at this price point mean that it's worth considering what you really need in a budget handset.
Pricing and availability
Power, storage and battery
Images: Alex Kidman