'ZDNET Recommends': What exactly does it mean?
ZDNET's recommendations are based on many hours of testing, research, and comparison shopping. We gather data from the best available sources, including vendor and retailer listings as well as other relevant and independent reviews sites. And we pore over customer reviews to find out what matters to real people who already own and use the products and services we’re assessing.
When you click through from our site to a retailer and buy a product or service, we may earn affiliate commissions. This helps support our work, but does not affect what we cover or how, and it does not affect the price you pay. Neither ZDNET nor the author are compensated for these independent reviews. Indeed, we follow strict guidelines that ensure our editorial content is never influenced by advertisers.
ZDNET's editorial team writes on behalf of you, our reader. Our goal is to deliver the most accurate information and the most knowledgeable advice possible in order to help you make smarter buying decisions on tech gear and a wide array of products and services. Our editors thoroughly review and fact-check every article to ensure that our content meets the highest standards. If we have made an error or published misleading information, we will correct or clarify the article. If you see inaccuracies in our content, please report the mistake via this form.
While I spend the majority of my time with flagship smartphones, there are solid options available for less than half the cost of the high-end phones that may be perfectly adequate for your needs. I spent a couple of weeks with the sub-$200 TCL 20SE and it's an acceptable phone for those who just want a phone for communication purposes or a backup to get work done.
The TCL 20SE is not a gaming phone or one that will help you easily take award-winning photos. As a TCL-branded phone, it is focused on the display experience and the basics. There is no 5G connectivity and it will get 18-24 months of Android security patches, likely released on a quarterly basis. It is also a very large phone with a 6.82-inch display and thickness of 9.14 mm.
Also: Best Android phone in 2021
All of that said, it is priced at just $189.99. There are not many phones priced less than $200 and the TCL 20SE appears to be well built with a rather lovely modern design. I enjoyed using the large display for messaging and enjoying Google TV movies so there are definitely ways to enjoy to optimized visual experience of the phone.
TCL sent the Nuit Black color to test out. The back panel is plastic but has a design that bends the light and adds a touch of class to the design. There is a glossy solid strip on the far left that transitions up into the quad-camera assembly. A rear fingerprint sensor is positioned in the middle of the upper third portion of the back.
My first impression was that this is a rather large phone that is also quite thick at 9.14mm. It's one of the largest phones I've tested in the last couple of years, likely designed to support the large 5000 mAh battery.
The display takes up a generous portion of the front, with a reported 90% screen-to-body ratio. A central teardrop notch is cut in the display for the front-facing camera. The display is LCD, but incorporates TCL's NXTVISION technology and I thoroughly enjoyed streaming several movies on it during my evaluation period.
Along with the large, vibrant display, there are two speakers so you can enjoy movies in landscape orientation. The speakers are not going to set the bar for high quality speakers, but the sound was enjoyable. There is also still a standard 3.5mm audio port on the top of the phone.
A Google Assistant activation button is on the left side, with the SIM/microSD card tray, while volume and power buttons are on the right. A USB-C port is on the bottom to charge up the 5000 mAh battery. The battery will easily get you through at least a day of use.
The TCL 20SE launches with Android 11 and TCL UI version 3.x. The April 5, 2021 Android security update is present on the review device.
TCL's UI offers a fairly stock Android experience with most of the TCL customization found in the launcher and settings focused on TCL's display technologies. I'm not a huge fan of the application launcher default setting that arranges your apps by category, but you can simply switch to the more common by name option with two taps.
There are a couple of apps provided, such as the Gallery, FM radio, and NXTVISION utility, that facilitate using features found on the phone. Some unique settings/utilities include an Edge Bar for quickly launching apps, accessing a handy ruler, and connecting with your contacts. There is also a fingerprint quick launch option so that a long press on the under-display scanner takes you right into your selected app.
The Google Feed is available as a far-left home screen panel. All the other expected Google Android functions are present on the phone too.
Also: Best cheap phone in 2021
The TCL 20SE is available now for $189.99 from the TCL Store on Amazon. There are very few phones available for under $200 so as long as you know what the limitations are and identify the need for a basic smartphone then this is a solid purchase.
Some key things missing from this phone, understandable for less than $200, is no NFC for Google Pay support, no IP rating for dust or water resistance, no high resolution or high refresh rate display, no 5G and limited carrier support for T-Mobile and AT&T, and cameras that are just adequate for social media and sharing.
Battery life has been solid, the large display is easy to read, phone calls sounded just fine, movies were enjoyable to watch on the big screen, and the phone feels very well built.
I took photos with all of the TCL Series 20 devices along with a Samsung and iPhone to check quality and the TCL 20 SE clearly came in last place. However, the photos weren't terrible and with a steady hand and good lighting you can capture decent photos in a pinch.
The TCL 20SE is not a gaming phone and trying out racing games and other games with demanding graphics presents some blocky performance. Puzzle games and other static games were fine though. I am so used to high refresh rate displays now that going back to a 60Hz display is a bit painful for fast scrolling up and down web pages and long lists.
The TCL 20SE is one of the better sub-$200 phones you can find today. If you need a basic backup phone or are looking for a big phone for an older family member for communication purposes then the TCL 20 SE is a solid choice.