TLC

TCL 20 L+ 4G and TCL 20 5G – new kids on the smartphone block (review)

8.1

TCL is ramping up its 2021 smartphone range with the TCL 20 range. This review covers the TCL 20 L+ 4G (Lite+) and the 5G that, apart from the processor, camera set-up, and battery size, share the same parentage.

First, let me assure you that the TCL 20 L+ 4G and the 5G are high-quality phones. Neither is class-leading, but you can’t make a mistake with either. There is a little too much marketing hype on the website (but that is a universal problem), and in both cases, they are not exploiting the full capabilities of the excellent Qualcomm System-on-Chip (SoC) under the bonnet.

We are reviewing both models together and will show the different results from over 70 tests. Their ratings and explanation in detail are at the end of the review, or just click here to skip all the technical stuff. Hint: 5G for $100 more – it wins hands down but not without caveats.

Update: TCL 20 Pro 5G here now

During the review period, TCL launched the TCL 20 Pro 5G website here. It has an AMOLED screen, Qualcomm SC750 5G, quad-camera (OIS, and 4K video) and later specifications. But the cost is $799, so it has some pretty stiff competition in that segment. We hope to review it soon.

TCL 20 L+ 4G Model T775H and 5G Model T781

L+
5G
AU Website here
AU Website here
L+
5G
$399 from Vodafone, Officeworks and Harvey Norman
$499
WarrantyTwo years ACL
CompanyTCL Technology (Wiki here – originally an abbreviation for Today China Lion) is a Chinese multinational electronics company headquartered in Huizhou, Guangdong Province. Founded as a state-owned enterprise, it is now on the Hong Kong Stock exchange. It designs and manufactures television sets, mobile phones, air conditioners, washing machines, refrigerators and small electrical appliances. TCL now means ‘The Creative Life’. It also owns the Alcatel brand.
MoreYou can read more GadgetGuy TCL news and reviews here

TCL – the little engine that is trying

TCL is probably better known for its TVs. It had a relatively late entry to the Australian smartphone market – the TCL 20 series is Gen 2 under its brand. It also owns the long-standing Alcatel brand that recently launched the entry-level 2021, 1-series. You mainly find these as <$200 pre-paid phones at Big W and Bing Lee. Aussies embraced Alcatel, once a proud NRL Rabbitohs sponsor. TCL wants to occupy both spots.

TCL’s smartphone global market share less than the double digits of Samsung, BBK (OPPO, realme, vivo, etc.) and Xiaomi and single digits of Nokia and Motorola. However, we expect to see it grow as more products enter the market.

2020 TCL 10 Gen 1

We reviewed the 2020 TCL 10 Pro last year, and while it was a reasonable phone, the custom TCL Launcher, lack of the RCM C-Tick (still an issue on the TCL 20 5G), no Australian website (at that time), and too many UI (user interface) quirks meant a pass mark. We were also concerned that the price was not competitive with other better-known offerings from OPPO, vivo, realme, Samsung, Motorola, Nokia etc.

It is nice to see the TCL 20 series has addressed most of those issues. The generational difference is tangible. The TCL UI V 3.0.1.AFD (Android 11 on the L+) is smoother and better than the TCL V2.0.1.A.2.P (Android 10 on the 5G) and streets ahead of the V1.0 on last year’s TCL 10. But there is still room for improvement in comparison to the mature OPPO ColourOS or Samsung One UI.

First impression – glass slabs with painted backs

The ostensible twins have a conventional flat slab design with a centre o-hole selfie and coloured plastic frame and back. Essentially the same size at 166.2 x 76.9 x 9.1 mm, the L+ is 199g, and the 5G is 7g heavier. There is an integrated Goodix fingerprint sensor in the power button. But that is where the twin analogy ends.

Now a lecture. The consumer sees the TCL 20 model name and has a reasonable expectation that they share similar characteristics. A quick call to Officeworks confirmed that they thought both were essentially the same. “The decision is 4G or 5G for an extra $100”. That may be the sales truth, however, we do the technical truth. It was clear during testing that, apart from the external look, these are two very different phones.

Screen – Big difference #1

Both have a 6.67”, 2400×1080, 20:9, 339ppi, 60Hz, 8-bit 16.7 million colour, IPS display. While they are ostensibly the same at 1500:1 contrast, the L+ has a 500nit/SDR peak screen compared to the 5G at 450nit/HDR. Tests show typical nits at 350 and 333, respectively.

The 5G looks brighter and more colourful due to better colour accuracy and a warmer white temperature. The image below uses identical settings – the L+ screen has a distinct cool blue cast and not as bright. However, TCL has a NXTVISION setting, and you can adjust image enhancement (contrast) and video/game (HDR).

The L+ claims a 92% NTSC colour gamut, which ‘theoretically’ should be well over 100% sRGB. NTSC is a really outmoded measurement – nearly all other phones quote % sRGB or % DCI-P3. Our tests show about 84% of sRGB (low) with a Delta E of 8 (<4 is accurate). While the website claims HDR enhancement, it does not appear to have this.

The 5G also claims 82% NTSC and adds a Delta E claim of <1.0. Our tests show the 5G has 89% sRGB (average) and Delta E of 2.5 (<4 is excellent). That is not quite the wide colour gamut that it suggests, but again, it is fit for purpose. It will play Netflix 1080p HDR10/+ content downscaled to what the screen can handle, and should look quite good.

There is a Day Light readability switch – which will make the screen brighter so it can be seen in a sunny environment. However, we found that it makes little difference, as all IPS-type screens have struggle in direct sunlight.

Screen summary: Fine for the price bracket, but the 5G model has a better screen.

Processor – Big difference #2

The L+ has a Qualcomm SD662 11nm, and the 5G has a Qualcomm SD690 5G 8nm. The SD662 is an early-2020 release with the typical Big:Little – 4×2.0GHz and 4×1.8 GHz cores. Its Gen 3 AI reflects the tech of that time – Wi-Fi 5 AC 1×1 stream, X11 Modem, and Adreno 610 GPU. Many competitors offer the latter, SD670 or SD675. But no matter – it is fit for purpose. Its closest chip competitor is a MediaTek Helio P65.

The 5G has a Qualcomm 690 5G chipset released mid-2020. It has a new, more energy-efficient design – 2×2.0GHz and 6×1.7 GHz, its Gen 5 AI is vastly superior, and it supports Wi-Fi AX 2×2 stream (not implemented on this phone), X55 Modem, Adreno 619L GPU and QC 4.0 charging. It is more competitive with current lower-cost 5G offerings.

  • L+ Geekbench 5 single/multi-core scores are 293/1250, which is average.
  • 5G Geekbench 5 single/multi-core scores are 610/1853, roughly equivalent to a 2018 SD845.

GPU – not for gamers

Neither the Adreno 610 nor 619L GPU are for intensive mobile gaming (scores respectively) but can handle occasional gaming alongside other tasks.

  • Open CL    376/972
  • Vulcan ?/933 (the L+ was unable to complete the Vulcan test)

CPU throttle 15-minute test

  • L+ 147,021 GIPs max, average 125,849, 97° and 28% throttling.
  • 5G 182804 GIPs max, average 175,857, 93° and 11% throttling.

The L+ reached 97° CPU temp after 8 minutes, after which it dropped nearly 50% speeds. This is not a heavy-duty device. The 5G fared better but its not for continuous load either. These are both within what you can expect for the price.

Ram and Storage

Both have 6GB of LPDSDR4X, and that is about average for this price bracket.

  • L+ has 256GB (220GB free) UFS 2.1 (slower data rate but expected) and can support up to 1TB microSD.
  • 5G has 128GB (101GB free) UFS 2.1 and supports up to 256GB microSD (less capacity than expected).

Androbench test – sequential read/write MBps

  • L+ 515/204
  • 5G 963/211

Speeds although on the slower side, are acceptable given that it exceeds the maximum write of [email protected] video. The USB-C 2.0 interface is 2.0 means a maximum of 480Mbps/60MBps half-duplex OTG external backup to a maximum of 1TB.

Comms

  • L+ Wi-Fi dual-band 1×1 with -41dBm (lower is better – most recent phones are -<-33dBm) and 433Mbps (higher is better)
  • 5G: Wi-Fi AC dual-band 1×1 streams. -39dBM and 433Mbps maximum at 2m from Netgear Nighthawk RAX200 AC1100 router
  • Both have NFC PayWave
  • L+ has a single band GPS accurate to 12.4m. 5G has a dual-band accurate to 4m.
  • BT 5.1
  • Sensors include combo accelerometer/gyro, e-Compass, ambient light, proximity

The 5G SD690 SoC has far greater capability than has been implemented.

4G/5G – We test using a Boost Mobile SIM on the retail Telstra network.

Both have a Dual hybrid sim (both active but only one in use at a time or one sim and one microSD), and VoLTE (Voice over 4G) depends on the carrier. Read more here.

L+

  • 4G bands 1, 3, 5, 7, 8, 20, 28, 38, 40, 41 – fine for Australia – not a world phone
  • Signal strength -102dBM (lower is better) and 63fW (higher is better)
  • DL/UL 25.3/3.7/45ms – average

The signal strength is acceptable for the city/suburbs. Not finding adjacent towers means you may experience call issues in 4G 1-2-bar or 3G only locations.

5G

  • 4G bands same as L+
  • 4G Signal strength -103dBM (lower is better) and 50.1fW (higher is better), Next tower -106dBm and 39.6fW
  • DL/UL 36.6/8.6/43ms – good
  • 5G n1, 3, 5, 28, 41, 78

The 5G can find an adjacent tower, but it is still a city/suburbs phone. To suit regional or rural use, you need to have a signal strength over 100fW.

It is timely to mention that Australian Telcos are repurposing low bands (3G and some 4G) to 5G, and to receive these; you will need at least n5, n28, n40 and n78. We can’t verify that anything more than n78 is currently enabled.

Battery

L+ has a 5000mAh battery and comes with a 5V/2A/10W charger. TCL’s website claims it supports 9V/2A/18W (QC 3.0), but we could not get it to charge at that even using the TCL 5G charger (3.0) or several other PD chargers.

  • Video Loop, 50% screen/volume, on-device storage: 13 hours
  • Video Loop, 50% Screen/volume, YouTube Wi-Fi: 11 hours
  • GFX Benchmark Manhattan Battery: 403 min/6.72 hours/716.9 frames
  • GFX Benchmark T-Rex battery 405.3 min/6.75 hours/1778 frames
  • PC Mark 3.0 battery test general use: 9 hrs 40 minutes
  • 100% load battery discharge: 4 hours
  • Charge 0-100% using supplied charger was over five hours.

5G has a 4500mAh battery and comes with 5V/3A/15W, 9V/2A/18W and 12V/1.5A/18W QC 3.0 charger. This does charge at 9V/2A/18W. Use can use any QC 4+ or USB-C PD charger.

  • Video Loop, 50% screen/volume, on-device storage: 14 hours
  • Video Loop, 50% Screen/volume, YouTube Wi-Fi: 12 hours
  • GFX Benchmark Manhattan Battery: 405.9 min/7.52 hours/1448 frames
  • GFX Benchmark T-Rex battery 431.4 min/7.19 hours/3223 frames
  • PC Mark 3.0 battery test general use: 6 hrs 52 minutes
  • 100% load battery discharge: 3.5 hours
  • Charge 0-100% using supplied charger 2hours 20 minutes.

Battery summary:  Neither gives class-leading battery life, but again they are fit for purpose. I expect you will need to charge both daily. But using a USB-C PD charger on the 5G should reduce charge time a little.

Sound – average

L+

The L+ has dual speakers – a top/forward earpiece and bottom-firing and two Awinic AW882XX 5W/1%THD amps (also used in the Moto 9 series). Our tests show a distinct volume bias towards the bottom speaker (mismatch), shifting the sound stage that way and skewing the left/right separation.

We tested the TCL 20L+ Super Bluetooth, which provides you a “…seamless connection across four devices.” Apart from the fact that we count not get it to work, the ‘four devices ‘has a disclaimer which says that it: “Supports two devices when connected to a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi network.” We are unclear what Wi-Fi has to do with BT, however, perhaps a simultaneous Wi-Fi connection limits its use.

The L+ provides the system default SBC codec – it does not support the full range of Qualcomm codecs. The music via the 3.5mm jack (analogue) and BT earphones fares a little better – 16-bit, 44.1kHz music (CD quality) with adequate volume and good L/R separation.

5G

The 5G uses the standard Qualcomm Aqstic amplifier with similar speakers to the L+. The 5G supports a broader range of Qualcomm codecs – SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, aptX Adaptive, LDAC and TWS audio at up to 32-bit/96kHz sample rates (Hi-Res via headphones only). If you want good music, the 5G is the one to go for.

Volume

Neither are loud, scoring below the competition.

dB at 300mm distanceL+5G
Ring tone67.365.2
Notifications67.970
Media (music)71.474.4
Alarm66.771.7
Hands-free volume (adequate)5557
Decibels

How do they sound?

We tried various tracks from R&B, Vocals and Synth – you can try these tracks and read more about Sound signatures here. While both have a similar sound signature, the 5G sounds slightly more balanced.

L+

No low-mid-high bass at all and reasonably flat 300Hz to 6kHz. There is almost no treble from 6KHz and a volume mismatch between the top and bottom speaker. It is called Bright Vocal, and it is acceptable for a hands-free speakerphone, but the music is harsh and dull.

5G

No low-mid-high bass but then builds to solid mid and treble. There is almost no treble from 6kHhz but less of a volume mismatch between the top and bottom speaker. It is called Bright Vocal, and it is acceptable for a hands-free speakerphone, but the music is harsh and dull.

Build

  • Front glass (scratch resistance not specified) with a pre-fitted screen protector
  • Rear – painted Polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA), also known as acrylic glass
  • Frame: panted PMMA
  • No IP rating (not expected)

The L+ has Milky Way Grey (a nice textured, fingerprint resistant, non-slip finish) and North Star Blue (ditto). The 5G has Placid Blue and Mist Grey with a glossy finish – an amazing fingerprint magnet.

Android – something old and something new

  • L+ has Android 11, TCL UI V3, security patch 1 March 2021, security updates to April 2024
  • 5G has Android 10, TCL UI V2 security patch 5 March 2021, security updates to November 2023

It is a shame that the 5G does not ship with Android 11 and TCL UI 3 – it would have made quite a difference as there are still quite a few rough edges on V2. We understand that Android 11 is coming. But other brands now offer at least two, if not three, OS upgrades and longer security patch updates.

Other software includes Google app alternatives (mostly removable) plus Facebook, Bookings.com and TCL+ – all removable. Netflix is not un-installable.

Cameras – Chalk and cheese

Again, we have two entirely different camera setups. The L+ uses the 64MP (binned to 12MP). The wide-angle is user-selectable from the preview screen – it does not match the primary lens for colour or AI. The Macro and Depth sensors help there, but most 2021 cameras realise that four lenses are just about bragging rights.

The 5G is technically a lower specified camera, yet it produces better images courtesy of the Qualcomm AI Gen 5 (versus Gen 3 on the L+) and uses the 8MP as a depth/macro camera. If you want an ultrawide shot, it shoots 48MP, crops it, and processes it using the same AI to get over the L+ colour variations and detail issues.

L+ – quad

  • Primary 64MP binned to 16MP, .8μm (binned to 1.6), AF, 6P, F/1.79, FOV 79.4° (68.7°), 8X digital zoom, OmniVision OV6B40. Can shoot at 64MP without AI. Video maximum [email protected] with EIS (Claims 60fps – no). No night mode (despite the website advertising Super Night Mode 2.0)
  • Wide-Angle 8MP, FF, 5p, f/2.2, 1.12μm, FOV 118°, OmniVision OV8856
  • Macro 2MP, FF, 3p, f/2.4, 1.75μm, FOV 83°, GC2M1B
  • Depth 2MP, FF, 3p, f/22.4, 1.75μm, FOV 83°, GC02M1B
  • Front 16MP binned to 4MP, FF, 5p, f/2.2, 1.0μm (binned to 2.0), FOV 76.3° (66.2°), Samsung S5K3P9, [email protected], screen fill light

Features: 2x zoom, face detection, Google Lens, in-recording snapshots, Light Trace Mode, low-light video, Panorama Mode, Portrait Mode, Pro Mode, Scene Detection 2.0, Slow-Mo Video Mode, Stop-Motion Video Mode, Super Macro Mode, Wide-Angle Mode.

The website claims Super Night Mode (no) and 4K video (No). This and many other claims reflect a lack of attention to detail in copying TEXT AND IMAGES from other TCL 20 model pages.

5G – tri

  • Main 48MP binned to 12MP, .8μm (binned to 1.6), PDAF, 6p, f/1.79, FOV 79° (61.5°), 10X digital zoon, Samsung S5KGMN1. Can shoot at 48MP without AI. Video maximum [email protected] with EIS (Claims 60fps). Super Night mode.
  • Depth 8MP, FF, 5p, f/2.2, 1.12μm, FOV 118°, OmniVision OV8856
  • Macro 2MP, FF, 3p, f/2.4, 1.75μm, FOV 83°, GC2M1B
  • Front 8MP, FF, 4p, f/2.0, 1.120 μm, FOV 78° (72.8°), OmniVision OV8856, screen fill light

(Note are the sensors are on the 5G review unit – some may have a 48MP Sony IMX582 and 8MP Samsung S5K4H7). It is a far better set-up than the L+.

Features: 10X digital zoom, Google Lens, EIS, HDR, in-recording snapshots, LED flash, Light Trace Mode, Panorama Mode, photo filters, Panorama Mode, Portrait Mode, Pro Mode, real-time bokeh, scene detection, Slo-Mo Mode, Super Macro Mode, Stop Motion Mode, Super Night Mode, Super Steady Mode, Wide-Angle Mode.

The images below are TCL 20+ (L) and TCL 20 5G (R)

TCL 5G – good <40 lumen photo but lacks details (L). Slide to see Night Mode 2 in action – its very bright but introduces a lot of noise

Gadget Guy’s take

They are both TCL 20-series, look the same and should have more than a familial resemblance. But these are not twins. As I said initially, there is nothing fundamentally wrong with either – they get to the pass mark.

The competition

The TCL 20 L+ at $399 competes with an awful lot of phones including some well under its price.  Vivo Y20s (128GB $249); Samsung Galaxy A12 (128GB $299); Nokia 5.4 (128GB $299); Motorola G30 (128GB $299); vivo X50 Lite (128GB $329); Samsung A23S (128GB $349); OPPO A74 (128GB $369); and vivo Y70s (128GB $399). Throw in the OPPO A74 5G (128GB $449) and realme 7 5G (128GB $449). The TCL’s main advantage is its 256GB storage, but is outclassed in many other areas.

The TCL 20 5G at $499 competes against other 5G phones, including OPPO A74 5G (review $449 9.8/10), realme 7 5G (review $449 9.7/10), and the runout OPPO Reno 4Z 5G (128GB $499 review 8.9/10). Having reviewed all of these, the TCL is strong but not the class leader, so it comes down to personal preference.

Rating explanation

Both phones reach the pass mark of 8/10, in part that reflects TCLs late entry to the market. It is paddling in the same pool as major players who have had a lot longer time to ‘get it right’.

It does not help that retails sales are only via Officeworks or Harvey Norman (retail). To complete, it needs to outclass or offer more than all comers. Had TCL done so, we would have shouted that to the heavens – as it is, they are both solid performers.

TCL 20 L+ has 256GB (more than its competitors), NFC, adequate camera, decent warranty and Android 11, so it earns extra points. Its comparatively slow 10W charge loses points.

TCL 20 5G has a better camera, processor, colour screen, and fast charge to earn more points. But shipping with Android 10 in 2021, and no RCM C-Tick mark detracts from its overall score. Overall, we rate these as 8.1 each. Yes, TCL 20 5G is worth the extra $100 because it is better all around.  

TCL 20 L+ 4G (Lite+) and the TCL 20 5G
The TCL 20 series is the company's Gen 2 offering under its brand. While they are competent, the competition is offering more features and better value. A safe buy.
Features
8
Value for money
7.5
Performance
8
Ease of use
9
Design
8
Positives
A safe buy - either meets our basic expectations
Negatives
Nothing outstanding inm a field of intense competition
Amdroid 10 on TCL 5G is so yesterday
No RCM C-Tick regulatory screen on the TCL 5G - there should be
8.1