Competition in the smartphone market is hot right now. You can get a device that will meet the needs of most users for about $400 or so, with specs and features increasing notably as you go up in the budget. Given generally how good devices can be in the $400 – $700 price bracket, it seemed to be worth the chance to review a mid-range device again.
So for the last couple of weeks, I’ve been rocking the TCL 20 5G and it’s a pretty solid delivery. The phone looks good, feels good in the hand and has decent specs. On paper, it’s got acceptable storage, decent connectivity and an alright camera. So I was prepared for lacklustre performance, but an acceptable device for the budget – I was surprised.
What’s in the TCL 50 5G?
While my earlier point stands and specs, in part, are irrelevant; in a tight market space like the mid-range, it’s important to know what you’re getting. Let’s start with the obvious, TCL has put a 5G phone in users hands for under $500 which is impressive.
The quick spec breakdown is that it’s a 6.67” FHD+ screen with a hole punch selfie camera. Powered by a Snapdragon 690, 128GB of storage and 6GB of RAM. You’re looking at a somewhat stock version of Android 11 on a device that also carries a decent 4,500mAh battery.
The battery should last almost any user a whole day with some — aggressive at times — power optimisation but there’s also an 18W Fast charger in the box which will top your battery up at a pretty acceptable rate.
In a bit of a step away from the growing trend, TCL has delivered a flat-screen which is surprisingly easy on the eyes. It an attractive colour and is delivered with a clear TPU case that protects the long term presentation of your device.
When looking at some of the recently released phones, it’s easy to get caught up in specs. Forgetting about the fact that the device needs to look good too, where TCL hasn’t forgotten this fact. The camera setup is easily visible but also doesn’t present as a comically oversized camera bump. It melds into the shape of the device and houses the 48 + 8 + 2MP camera setup and — while some will debate this — the power button doubles as a fingerprint reader.
There’s all of the connectivity that you can expect in the mid to high end phone ranges today including:
- 802.11 ac Wi-Fi
- Bluetooth 5.1
- A headphone jack that supports the FM radio
Out of the box, you’ll be looking at Android 11 with TCL UI 3 which really doesn’t have any huge differences from a stock experience. Further to the software version, you can expect to get a quick update to the latest security patch level. As of writing this, our review unit is on the May 5th security patch which is great news if you’re conscious of such things.
Let’s talk about user experience
Coming from a device that’s significantly more expensive, I was prepared to be a bit disappointed in the day to day use. What initially was disappointing is that I wasn’t “wowed” by anything the phone had to offer. After a week or so in my pocket, I realised that there was minimal impact on my daily use, which really impressed me. The more I thought about it, yes, there are some areas that aren’t as good as a phone more than three times the cost but it’s a very capable daily use device.
Once I got some of the idiosyncrasies of the launcher tweaked to my liking, the experience was really good. The screen is easy on the eyes and plenty bright enough — after a brief lag to adjust to sunlight conditions — to use outdoors. The NXTVision software can be disabled but I honestly don’t see the point, it provides you real-time SDR to HDR for more dynamic colours and clarity during media playback. It’s not something I specifically noticed day-to-day but noticed when it was turned off.
The face unlocking was a bit hit and miss, either working perfectly and quickly or I had to resort to the fingerprint or code unlock options. The times it failed were almost certainly in less than ideal light which is OK, but we don’t live or lives in perfect lighting conditions.
The redemption is the fingerprint reader, it’s really fast and reliable. So much so that with a little bit of adjustment, by the time I removed the phone from my pocket it was already unlocked. That adjustment was simply how I put the device in my pocket so my thumb fell on the reader as I retrieved it. While it’s a great idea, I just can’t adjust to a Google Assistant button. The placement of this one worked, but not brilliantly. The reality for me personally is the fact that there are so many other ways to trigger assistant, I just feel like we — users that is — don’t need another one.
Looking more at the software experience, the day to day use feels very “stock”. But there are a few minor issues with bloatware. Most of which can be uninstalled or disabled so it’s not a big deal; merely an annoyance.
To top off a generally very good user experience, the battery life is great. Even on my heaviest days of use, I got to the end of the day with 22% in the tank. As with any phone, there are ways to really hammer the battery and ways to sustain it. I didn’t feel the need at any stage to consider using battery saving modes, I’m confident I’d get two heavy days of use without too much concern.
The camera – It hits the marks for a mid-range device
During testing of the TCL 20 5G there were plenty of chances to take photos. Side by side with a couple of other cameras, the TCL held up well. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a mind-blowingly good camera and won’t go toe to toe with the likes of Samsung or an iPhone but it does go very well. The low light camera does perform very well, particularly when you consider the cost of the phone.
The modes available cover the common array of options including panorama, macro, portrait, “super night”, pro mode, video and auto. There’s a couple of extra options in there including stop motion and light trace that Jo explored in her TCL 20 SE review. For the most part, the automatic mode did everything expected and needed of it with the automatic focus fast and reliable.
An area that it’s easy for phone cameras to fail is the software but TCL has excelled. The software is intuitive and easy to navigate and, the shutter reacts almost instantly. The results, while not necessarily standing up to those of a $1,600+ device are pretty solid. The AI scene detection occasionally oversaturates colour, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. All tolled, the camera more than acceptable and contributes to the great user experience.
In honesty, I wasn’t hugely excited by the prospect of this review unit, mainly because it doesn’t have a huge sell. No magical camera, no super high res screen and the battery sit in the middle of the road. I wasn’t wowed by it initially, but in realising that I wasn’t really missing anything having moved from a significantly more expensive phone I started really looking for issues.
The conclusion I came to was that when you look at individual features, the TCL 20 5G is a mid-range device and you’re getting what you pay for. But each and every feature of the phone is delivered really well, particularly considering the price and that makes for an excellent user experience. Adding to the fact that you’ve got a 5G capable device in your pocket for sub $500 it’s an impressive and pretty cheap cost of entry that I would be happy to spend my money on.
The physical size of the phone is spot on for my preference, easily (keep in mind I have big hands) operating the device with a single hand. The fingerprint sensor is very quick which offsets the hit and miss nature of the face unlock.
It’s not a perfect phone and you’re getting what you pay for in the grand scheme but this thing has some personality and it’s grown on me very quickly. While I have referred to the price as a consideration of how good the phone is, TCL has delivered an excellent device period.
You can pick one up through the usual retailers, both online and in-store for $499.00 or less if you shop around a little bit.