It’s easy to just accept that phones have to cost the earth to meet your needs. The bigger names in the field would happily have you believe that as an ongoing need. But when other players like TCL start banging at the door, they’re going to shake things up.

Last year we saw the TCL 10 Pro, a first real dip of the toes into a higher end market. Now the 20 Pro 5G is the first time that TCL has really shown their hand. As we explored in our first impressions post, there’s a lot to like about the device and a few weeks later it’s still maintaining a good impression whether you take the $799.00 price tag into account or not.

What is it?

The specs of the TCL 20 Pro 5G were covered pretty comprehensively across the launch and first impressions so we won’t go over it in full, just the highlights:

  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 750
  • 256GB Storage
  • 6GB RAM
  • 6.67-inch FHD Curved AMOLED display
  • 4,500mAh battery

A slightly more powerful, even “current” processor would have been nice to have, but remember: This is an $800 device, not $1800 or more!

Excellent user experience

In technology realms, there’s always a race on or a battle being fought. At the moment there seems to be a couple, but the TCL 20 Pro 5G has a foot in both. The spec race and the battery battleground are both being hotly contested. Both of these have their own pros and cons when it comes to user experience.

Whether or not you think this is a good thing or not, is your call to make. The main issue I’ve seen is some pretty aggressive power optimisation. While this leads to truly excellent battery life (regularly getting two days without needing a charge), it also means that that apps you really do want running are closed out by the OS. Easy to overcome by adding an exception to the power optimisation though.
Aside from the temporary hiccup, I was really happy with the user experience right from the outset. It wasn’t a mind blowing experience, but it delivered everything that was needed to navigate daily life without lag, features missing or aggravation from poor performance.

Interfacing with the device is easy and frankly, a delight on the really well optimised 6.67-inch screen. It’s running FHD+ and is one of the first curved edge screens that I’ve used, where regular false triggers weren’t plaguing the experience. Clearly, there is some software optimisation involved in this, regardless it’s a great outcome for users. Exploring the look and feel a bit further, the colour is quite frankly: Gorgeous! It’s really elegant with a soft appeal that doesn’t overshadow the lines and curves of the device and, keeping true to their way, TCL also includes a clear TPU case to protect your device and show it off.

As part of that combination of sleek lines, curves and colour – you’ve got a quad-camera system that’s well recessed into the body of the phone. In terms of design, possibly the only real “let down” for me is the under screen fingerprint reader that seems to have bipolar disorder: It’s brilliant one moment and almost useless the next, failing over to swipe pattern on a regular basis. Thankfully this is offset by the accuracy and speed of the face unlock that usually triggers before I get my finger to the reader. This is a fascinating contrast to the TCL 20 5G we recently reviewed where the role of the fingerprint reader and face unlock were totally reversed.

A smart key that’s actually useful

We’ve seen a number of phones that have smart keys on them, usually to trigger assistant or Bixby. But in this case, the smart key on the left side (when looking at the screen in portrait mode) can be set up to suit your needs. There is a seemingly endless number of features and functions you can trigger with a single press, double press or a long press of the button. I set up the three things I most frequently want to access quickly:

  • Single Press – launch camera
  • Doubple Press – screenshot
  • Long Press – torch on/off

This is such a welcome change, a single purpose smart button is just poor thinking. It’s either going to get used or not, but being able to choose the functions of the button ensures that it will be useful to a majority of users.

Connectivity and software

The connectivity hits the marks that you can reasonably expect of this phone. While some may argue that it’s a “miss” that the Wi-Fi is 802.11ac, not ax (Wi-Fi 6) there are a significant number of homes without Wi-fi 6. Regardless of your opinion concerning the Wi-Fi, it still ticks the others you’d expect including Bluetooth 5.1, NFC and 5G. I feel like we probably should have moved past needing to mention this, but it also has a headphone jack which is useful for some, but it’s got Bluetooth for newer headphones. It’s USB-C for charging which comes in at 18W quick charge or 15W wireless charging (optional extra if you want a wireless charging pad) to keep your battery topped up.

When you fire up the phone you’ve got Android 11 and TCL’s own UI 3. During the review we saw a couple of updates, one being a stability update and the second being a security patch. All great news because it means that TCL is committed to maintaining the software at a current level for some time. For the Android purists, TCL UI — while it does have some minor tweaks — is near to stock delivery of the Android OS, there aren’t any major behavioural characteristics or visualisations.

The screen is bright, clean and really easy on the eyes for daily use or media consumption. This is somewhat aided by the NXTVision software that has a really clear and positive effect on the images you see. If you’re streaming video, then turn it off the colours look washed out to a point of almost being pastel. During testing, only once, did I feel that the colour reproduction was oversaturated as a result and only momentarily. Aside from briefly playing with turning it off, NXTVision stayed on during the full review process, it just makes the screen nicer to look at.

The camera delivers great results

It’s been a bit of a challenge to get some good opportunities for photos between the lockdown in SA and high level restrictions reducing travel and social opportunities. What’s been quite impressive is the performance of the cameras in varying light conditions. Whether it’s under natural light, electrical or even combined low light conditions – the colour and detail reproduction is really clean, vibrant and natural.

I’m very pleased to say that the camera software delivery from TCL is so simple. The software is easy to navigate, intuitive and the shutter button doesn’t lag which is really nice to see. The other factor making navigation through the software very easy is the fact that the modes produce exactly what you expect them to, there aren’t any overly complex or unexpected names for common camera features.

The modes available within the camera software include pro, super night, portrait, video, auto and (under “more) there’s a handful more. You can play with super macro, slo-mo, light trace stop motion and panorama. Interestingly, there’s also a “short video” mode ready for TikTok or YouTube Shorts.

This isn’t just a great value phone, it’s a great phone: Full stop!

We’ve already covered the fact that we’re looking at a $799.00 cost for this phone. While it’s not a consumable device you throw away when it breaks, it’s far from the $1,800 plus for the Samsung flagships. While it’s not got the big name or selling points, boy does this deliver a great experience to users far beyond what you would expect from the financial outlay. Some users will continue to want the big name, Ultra Premium experience and more power to them. If you don’t truly need that raw power of the bleeding edge technology, then this phone is going to blow you away with the value and performance it offers.

The phone itself looks great, feels great in your hand and performs reliably well throughout the day, regardless of what you throw at it. If there are any issues with the hardware it’s the fingerprint sensor, but that’s only an issue if you’re going to use that as your primary unlock method. The face unlock is nearly as quick and just as reliable as that offered by OPPO, which really is a big compliment.

Given the surprisingly positive experience I had with the TCL 20 5G, the prospect of the TCL 20 Pro 5G was enticing. It didn’t take long to realise that TCL has me seriously thinking about where the premium experience in the phone market is. In the case of the TCL 20 Pro 5G, a better experience will cost you significantly more money, making this an outstanding value phone on top of being a great phone outright.

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Paul W

In Australia do 5G phones have to have a special carrier load installed to get them to work?? Here in Kiwiland if the phone has been carrier certified it won’t work. Pixel phones are a perfect example as Google doesn’t sell them here.

Chris Rowland

Not 100% sure Paul, but I don’t believe so. If it’s 5G and on a compatible band and used with a carrier with 5G networks, it should work. We’ve had overseas 5G phones work here.

Paul Warner

Thanx Chris.

Andrew Priest

I am waiting to see the pricing on the Google 6 Pro but if it is unreasonable it may well come down to the Oppo X3 Pro or this phone.

Currently have a Pixel 3 so I suspect even the TCL will be an upgrade.