The TCL 40 SE is a slow phone, but it’s also cheap and has a couple of notable features you wouldn’t expect when spending this little. It has lots of internal storage and stereo speakers.
- Lots of storage (128GB)
- Stereo speakers
- Can take good-looking daytime photos
- Flat-out bad CPU results in a languorous feel
- No 5G
- Default screen calibration doesn’t look good
- Camera array not as advanced as it looks
- Stereo speakersDespite being a dead cheap phone, the TCL 40SE still has stereo speakers, ideal for landscape video viewing and gaming.
- 6.75-inch screenThe sense of value here rests significantly on the size of screen you get for the money, a giant 6.75-inch LCD.
- 128GB storageTCL includes double the storage we’d usually expect for this sort of money, a great bonus.
The TCL 40 SE is a cheap phone. That is the whole deal here. But where a relatively unknown phone brand like TCL might often be off-putting when spending a lot, buying from a brand like this is often a decent idea if you want the most phone you can possibly get for your cash.
There are real positives here. 128GB storage for this sort of money is great. The design could easily belong to a phone that costs double the price or more. Battery life is good and the display is large enough for comfortable video streaming.
Bad bits? The TCL 40 SE does not have 5G mobile internet and its CPU performance is abysmal. This slows down the phone noticeably, affecting every interaction you have with it, from flicking through menus to loading apps and taking photos.
Real-world performance could still be much worse, though, becoming a mild irritant rather than making you want to smash the TCL 40 SE against a wall. I’d advise spending a little more to get smoother day-to-day operation, but if money is tight, this isn’t a bad option.
Design and screen
- Great design for a budget phone
- microSD support and 3.5mm headphone jack
- 6.75-inch display
The TCL 40 SE costs around £140, but would slot right in next to phones from companies like Xiaomi that sell for £300.
Sure, the whole outer shell is plastic bar the glass used to cover the camera lenses and screen, but the “look” isn’t bargain bin fodder. The TCL 40 SE back panel has a shimmering, almost glitter-like effect. And it is subtler than it may come across in some of my photos. The sparkle only shows up in direct sunlight.
The camera housing sits in an inlay of glossy plastic that looks a lot like glass, using a shape similar to the camera design of the Samsung Galaxy S22 series phones. But most of all, this is simply quite a large-screen phone for something this low-cost.
Big, high-quality screens clearly come cheap these days, as proved by the many cheap, large phones from Xiaomi, Realme and Oppo. But it doesn’t diminish the sense of value for actual buyers.
The TCL 40 SE’s big 6.75-inch screen does not leave a brilliant first impression, though. Its default colour temperature is too cool, and it has the colour character of a phone trying to look saturated without having a display panel truly capable of it. As such, the TCL 40 SE ended up looking sickly.
You can thankfully improve matters with a quick tweak in the phone’s settings menu. Its colour now looks fine enough, and I don’t find its limited 720p resolution too obvious. There are no hot fixes for the TCL 40 SE’s mediocre maximum brightness, though.
The phone, unsurprisingly, does not have the kind of display power that makes seeing what’s on-screen on a bright day easy. It barely gets by. But it is also unreasonable to expect 900-nit brightness when you’re paying this little.
Other parts of the hardware to note include a side-mounted fingerprint scanner for PIN-free secure unlocking, a headphone jack, microSD card support and a stereo speaker array. It’s great to see TCL manage to squeeze a stereo pair in the budget phone. It improves the video streaming experience significantly. However, they do sound a bit coarse at maximum volume and don’t have the full tone of a truly good phone speaker, mind.
- Can take surprisingly good-looking images during the day
- Feels like a single-camera phone as there’s no ultra-wide
- Poor low-light image quality
The TCL 40 SE camera looks the part on the phone’s back, and getting a 50MP camera at this price sounds like a steal. Too good to be true? Sort of.
The secondary cameras here are used for window dressing as much as taking photos. They are 2MP macro and 2MP depth sensor cameras, the typical gruesome twosome used when a phone manufacturer needs to fill out a phone’s photography hardware.
Actually taking photos with the TCL 40 SE becomes characterised by the phone’s limitations too. It feels slow and laboured. You have to wait for the TCL to do its thing. And if you try to take pictures too quickly, you’ll may find some of those frames were not captured at all.
Capturing pics on a sunny day is a struggle too. The screen isn’t bright enough to compete with powerful ambient light. It makes composition a chore.
However, the camera hardware itself sounds solid enough on paper, with a 1/2.55-inch sensor size making the pixel binned sensor pixels equivalent to a 1.4 micron “real” pixel.
It can also produce genuinely lovely photos during the day, ones that might not look all that different from shots produced with a phone several times the cost. Colours are not obviously undersaturated or oversaturated, there’s plenty of detail for a budget phone and even when you zoom right in to the images, the signs of processing are usually not too heavy-handed.
The Auto HDR function, essential for avoiding blown-out skies and murky foregrounds, is solid too. However, just as the TCL 40 SE does not always take the photos the camera app’s UI suggests it does, sometimes when you shoot multiple images in a row, the HDR just doesn’t engage.
TCL 40 SE main camera sample
There’s a blurry background mode, but we’ve lost HDR processing in the trade off here
TCL 40 SE main camera sample
Here’s a demo scene for the zoom example (next)
You can shoot using a 4x digital zoom mode, but its digital roots are quite obvious
A slight warm-leaning tone, evenly exposed sky — what’s not to like?
An image captured using the macro camera
TCL 40 SE main camera sample
At night the results take a severe nosedive. While the processing sometimes tries damn hard to brighten the scene and increase dynamic range like a modern night mode, this results in either scratchy detail or pure sludge — and often both in the same image.
Video is also highly limited on two fronts. 1080p at 30 frames per second is your maximum capture mode. I’m more concerned about the total lack of stabilisation, leaving all handheld videos looking quite amateurish. That said, I used the phone to capture some singers at a pub open mic night, and the video — while a judder-fest — could have been a whole lot worse.
- Very poor CPU performance
- (Just about) bearable day-to-day performance
- Not good for gaming
The TCL 40 SE has a supremely weak processor. It’s the MediaTek Helio G37 from 2020, which itself is barely any better than the Helio P35 from a lifetime ago, back in 2018.
This is an old processor, and it wasn’t much cop when it was new. But is it enough?
For the first 24 hours I thought my time with the TCL 40 SE was going to be a pure nightmare. It seemed unforgivably slow. This was caused by the phone downloading and installing app updates in the background.
There’s so little headroom here that this kind of basic multi-tasking, now taken for granted, can derail the TCL 40 SE. Things improved after that, though.
The phone is still slow throughout. Apps are slow to load, navigation seems more sluggish than I’m used to and web pages do not move with anything like the grace they would through a higher-end phone. However, some of these budget phones can leave you swearing at their screen glass as you wait for the virtual keyboard to pop up.
I don’t actually find the TCL 40 SE all that frustrating to use, as its slow feel is at least consistent.
Judging by its benchmark scores, a worse outcome was possible. The TCL 40 SE scores just 822 points in Geekbench 6, worse than what a Motorola Moto G2 might hope to achieve. That phone is almost a decade old.
I couldn’t even run the more graphically intensive phone tests I normally do as part of a phone review, because the TCL 40 SE just wouldn’t support them.
This kind of performance in 2023 is like seeing a mobility scooter on a motorway. And yet it’s a scooter blazing along at 55mph, as the just-about-passable day-to-day performance is bearable.
Obviously you should keep your expectations of gaming low. Asphalt 9 is too choppy to be truly enjoyable in actual races beyond the tutorial. You can’t install Fortnite at all. The Epic Games app won’t even let you download it.
- Does not include an adapter
- Uses an annoying semi-proprietary 18W charging system
- Good battery life
The TCL 40 SE has a large 5010mAh battery. That’s pretty big for a phone running off such a weak engine, but about what you should expect from a phone this size.
Real-world stamina is good. The phone has lasted me into the early-mid afternoon of the second day after a full charge, offering a good amount of buffer for those who need their phone to last through a long and challenging day.
Using this phone is also evidence of how spoilt we are by today’s affordable ultra-fast-charging phones. The TCL 40 SE supports mediocre “up to” 18W charging. But it doesn’t include a charger, just a cable. You’re likely to have a hard time finding a charger that will let it use its full speed too.
USB-PD chargers will only draw around 11W according to my power meter. I used the better part of a dozen adapters to try to get it to hit 18W. An old Lenovo charger got the closest, drawing around 16W.
This saw the TCL 40 SE reach just 26% in 30 minutes, 13% in 15 minutes. A full charge takes a little under two hours, which is pretty slow by 2023 standards. This is a phone you’ll need to recharge overnight. There is no wireless charging option here — which you never get for this kind of money anyway.
Should you buy it?
You want a cheap all-rounder:
The TCL 40 SE is cheap, doesn’t look too bad and is not a totally frill-free zone. It has stereo speakers and loads of storage for a lower-tier Android phone. You’re unlikely to run out of space for a long, long time.
You prioritise performance over all else:
This phone is slow thanks to its weak processor. It affects not only the TCL’s ability to play games and run more demanding apps well, but also how the most simple interactions feel. Some patience is required here.
There are no truly great phones this cheap, unless you consider feature phones a contender for that title. The TCL 40 SE doesn’t challenge that statement. But it may not be a bad buy if the budget is tight.
It has stereo speakers, a big screen and loads of storage for a mobile this cheap. The chipset is pretty dreadful, but does not induce too many headaches unless you try to try to actually use the TCL 40 SE while the phone downloads or updates apps in the background.
The biggest compliment I can give the TCL 40 SE is I’m not desperate to get rid of it and switch to something else. I have felt that way about significantly more expensive Androids.
How we test
We test every mobile phone we review thoroughly. We use industry-standard tests to compare features properly and we use the phone as our main device over the review period. We’ll always tell you what we find and we never, ever, accept money to review a product.
Find out more about how we test in our ethics policy.
Used as a main phone for the review period
Thorough camera testing in a variety of lighting conditions
Tested and benchmarked using respected industry tests
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Does the TCL 40 SE have 5G?
This phone does not have 5G, only 4G and older standards.
Does the TCL 40 SE have a headphone jack?
Unlike higher-end phones the TCL has a classic 3.5mm headphone jack.
Is the TCL 40 SE water resistant?
This phone has no official water or dust resistance.
Trusted Reviews test data
First Reviewed Date
TCL 40 SE
50MP + 2MP + 2MP
76.5 x 8.5 x 167.9 MM
720 x 1600
USB-C, 3.5mm headphone jack
MediaTek Helio G37
An abbreviation for milliampere-hour and a way to express the capacity of batteries, especially smaller ones in phones. In most cases the higher the mAh, the longer the battery will last but this isn’t always the case.
The type of display usually used on cheaper and mid-range devices. Lacks the punch on an OLED panel.