The TCL 20S ($249.99) is a perfect example of just how much bang you can get for your buck in 2021. It has an incredible display, performs like a champ, ships with intuitive software, and has a battery that last for days. Our Editors’ Choice for budget phones, the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G ($279.99), is a better value overall, since it includes 5G connectivity and guaranteed security updates for four years. But if you don’t need 5G—and many people still don’t—the 20S has a lot to recommend it.
I Can’t Believe It’s Not AMOLED
Over the past few years, while people moaned about the lack of originality and innovation in the flagship smartphone market, the budget phone market evolved rapidly. Gone are the days of settling for a $250 phone with a low-resolution plastic display, a staticky speaker, half-day battery life, and a bloatware-filled, out-of-date version of Android. The 20S makes it clear just how far budget phones have come, putting beautiful hardware and capable software within reach for shoppers who don’t want to break the bank.
The 20S is one of the most attractive devices on the market, from its slim camera module to its iridescent finish. Our review unit is blue; it’s also available in gray. It’s a big, thoughtfully designed phone, measuring 6.5 by 3 by 0.4 inches (HWD) and weighing 7 ounces. That may sound big, but the 20S feels good in your hand thanks to its curved display and backplate.
On the front of the phone, you’ll find a 6.5-inch curved LCD with a small hole punch for the selfie camera. Display resolution clocks in at 2,400 by 1,080 pixels. Color accuracy is spot on, and the display is bright enough to see in direct sunlight.
TCL is among the world’s largest producer of television displays, and that expertise shines through in the 20S’ screen. The company’s custom NXTVISION display engine works miracles on the LCD. Colors are rich and vivid, and blacks are inky and immersive. It may not have a 90Hz refresh rate like the similarly priced OnePlus Nord N200 5G ($239.99), but the 20S’ LCD otherwise surpasses all the AMOLED displays we’ve seen on budget and midrange phones.
The backplate is made of plastic but could easily be mistaken for glass. Its slight texture doesn’t get smudged by fingerprints, and the iridescent finish hides small scratches well. A svelte module of four vertically stacked camera sensors protrudes from the upper left corner. The TCL trademark is arranged vertically in the lower left corner.
The top edge holds a 3.5mm headphone jack; a USB-C charging port and dual speaker grilles are on the bottom. On the left edge, you’ll find a SIM/microSD slot along with a convenience key that opens the Google Assistant by default and can be remapped to open most preinstalled apps. A power button with an integrated fingerprint sensor and a volume rocker are on the right edge; the fingerprint sensor is fast and accurate.
Durability is a mixed bag. The 20S’ plastic backplate and chassis should survive minor drops and dings unscathed. Its curved display is constructed of strengthened glass and should be able to withstand a bit of jostling without much damage, but a hard drop will probably crack it.
The 20S has an IP52 rating, so it should be fine with sweat and small splashes. If you drop it in the pool or tub, though, you’ll probably be shopping for a new phone.
High-Res Audio Makes Spotify Shine
The TCL 20S is available unlocked and has extensive 4G (LTE) band support, including band 71 for T-Mobile. It works on all the major US carriers and most MVNO’s. VoLTE is also on board.
As 5G phones become more affordable, you may wonder whether it’s even worth buying a 4G phone in 2021. It’s a valid question, and one we can’t answer definitively. Though all the major carriers promote their 5G speeds, the vast majority of their networks are still LTE and will continue to be so for at least the next five years. If you live in a large city, you’re likely to see the be benefits of 5G sooner than someone who lives in a rural area. Wherever you live, if reliable connectivity matters more than super-fast speeds, we believe LTE networks will serve your needs just fine.
The TCL 20S’ Snapdragon X12 modem is capable of fast LTE speeds, thanks to its advanced carrier aggregation, 4×4 MIMO, and 256-QAM encoding. We tested the phone on US Mobile’s network and encountered no issues streaming HD video or lossless audio.
Call quality is excellent. The earpiece has a maximum volume of 84dB, which is loud enough to hear on busy streets. Our test calls were made on a windy rooftop and noise cancellation worked perfectly.
The stereo speakers are a nice perk for a budget phone. They have a peak volume of 94dB and actually sound pretty good. The soundstage is immersive, and there’s a lush timbre, with mids pushed to the front and a slight rumble of bass.
If you’d rather use headphones, the 20S also has Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity with LDAC and aptX Low Latency encoding for High-Res Audio. There’s also dual-band Wi-Fi. NFC for mobile payments is not included.
Skip the Macro Lens
The four cameras on the back of the phone consist of a 64MP primary sensor, an 8MP wide-angle sensor, a 2MP macro sensor, and a 2MP depth sensor. The front-facing selfie camera clocks in at 16MP.
The primary lens does a tolerable job with enough light. Our test photos were fine for sharing on social media, but we noticed several issues when examining them at full size. Colors were vivid but oversaturated, and noise crept into the shadows in our high-contrast shots. There was significant ghosting in several shots.
Our daylight test shots with the wide-angle lens were just OK. In addition to the issues we encountered in photos taken with the primary lens, the depth of field was slightly shallow, and we noticed minor distortion in most of our test photos.
Low-light performance is mediocre with both the primary and wide-angle lenses. Blurring, edge noise, and clipping were noticeable in all our test photos. We also noticed complex distortion in several photos taken with the wide-angle lens.
Despite our best attempts, our test photos with the macro lens were just awful. Every photo was flat and blurry. Several photos had significant fringing, and one of our macro shots of a flower transformed into a giant red blob, thanks in part to a machine learning error.
With good light, the front-facing camera takes a solid selfie. Portrait mode is underwhelming—ears were clipped, hats cropped off, and even part of a shoulder became background in several of our test shots—but every budget phone other than the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G stumbles with Portrait mode.
Leave Your Charger at Home
The TCL 20S is powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon 665 mobile platform with 4GB of RAM. There’s 128GB of storage on board, which is twice the amount you’ll find on the similarly priced Motorola Moto G Power. If you need a little more space, you can add up to 1TB of external storage with a microSD card.
The Snapdragon 665 means the 20S performs well for a budget phone. Apps open quickly and multitasking works perfectly. We noticed minor lag when turning on the phone and with screen transitions, but neither was slow enough to be bothersome.
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For gaming, we tested the phone with Alto’s Odyssey and Genshin Impact. Although it took a while to load Genshin Impact, we noticed no issues or skipped frames during an hour of gameplay. Alto’s Odyssey was an absolute joy, thanks to the 20S’ gorgeous display and spunky processor.
Benchmark testing shows the TCL 20S can handle heavy loads without issue. On PCMark Work 3.0, a series of tests that emulate everyday smartphone tasks, the phone scored 6,654. For comparison, the Moto G Power scored 6,209 on the same test. The 20S earned scores of 311 single-core (SC) and 1,381 multi-core (MC) on Geekbench 5.0, a benchmark that quantifies raw performance. That’s on par with the Moto G Power scores of 313 SC and 1,435 MC.
The 20S’ 5,000mAh battery can easily get you through two days of moderate use between charges. In our battery drain test, which streams HD video over Wi-Fi at full brightness, it eked out 14 hours and 19 minutes before shutting down. The Moto G Power has a slight edge here, since it lasted for 15 hours, but you’d likely notice any difference in battery life between the two phones with normal use.
If you do find yourself needing to top off the battery in a hurry, the 20S supports 18W fast charging. Unsurprisingly, wireless charging is not available.
TCL UI Makes Android Better
The TCL 20S ships with Android 11 and the TCL UI overlay. TCL’s custom skin continues to improve with each update and adds many helpful features to the stock Android experience. You can customize the Always-On Display, switch the Navigation Bar for left or right-hand use, and tweak the Quick Settings menu. If you swipe up with two fingers, you’ll also find a new Privacy App where you can hide sensitive files and apps.
When Android 12 is released in a few months, the 20S will get the upgrade. You’ll also get two years of regular security updates. TCL’s upgrade and update policy are like Motorola’s and are fine for a budget phone, but we wish it would follow Samsung’s lead on the Galaxy A32 5G by supplying two years of OS upgrades and four years of security updates.
A Lot to Love, if You’re Happy With 4G
If you’re shopping for an LTE phone, the TCL 20S is an incredible choice. It offers plenty of power for the average user, multi-day battery life, and a stunning display. The cameras aren’t the best, but for a budget phone, they do well enough. We wish the phone had better water protection and a more generous software upgrade policy, but neither feature is common at this price.
If you’re willing to spend slightly more, the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G remains our Editors’ Choice award for budget phones. Although it lacks the TCL 20S’ gorgeous display, it has similar performance, slightly better cameras, a more generous software upgrade policy, and 5G connectivity with future-proof C-band support. But with a lot of features for less than $250, the 20S is a strong contender.