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Hands on: TCL Plex review

A solid first phone from a...TV maker?

What is a hands on review?
(Image: © Future)

Early Verdict

The TCL Plex is the first name-brand phone from a company known for its TVs - and its initial budget-friendly phone is a contender with decent specs, impressive battery capacity and cameras you'd expect on midrange-and-above phones. It's not the most exciting smartphone, but worth checking out for the price.

For

  • Triple-lens camera
  • Premium look
  • Decent display

Against

  • No standout features
  • Lacking some standard perks

TCL is widely known for its TVs, but now it's moving into new territory: a smartphone with its flagship brand name, the TCL Plex.

The company isn't a stranger to the phone business, as it has been releasing cheap Alcatel handsets for years, and in more recent years has taken on building BlackBerry devices and the odd-ball Palm companion phone

But the company's first attempt at a proper mid-range smartphone is a new frontier for TCL as it looks to capture an area of the market it hasn't focused on until now.

While the TCL Plex is a decent contender in a crowded market, it has a few unique features to distinguish itself - including the camera. 2019 is the year of rear triple-lens (main, ultra-wide, telephoto) camera setups, but instead of a zoom lens, TCL's phone has a slow-mo video shooter.

It's an interesting choice - and whether or not consumers discover the phone, it's a sign that TCL is open to experimenting rather than following the tried-and-true mid-range phone formula - that is, adopting whatever successfully debuted on flagship phones the year before.

Samsung does a bit of that, too - its Galaxy A80 phone this past year, for example, introduced an intriguing rear camera panel that flips forward for selfies. But whereas Samsung treats its A series like the minor leagues of phone features to test out new concepts before bringing them to the majors, TCL's new phone is the closest thing the brand has to a flagship. 

Folks hunting for a decent mid-range phone should like the TCL Plex just fine with its Snapdragon 675 processor, 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage, as well as an impressively large 3,820mAh battery.

(Image credit: Future)

TCL Plex price analysis

The TCL Plex is already shipping in some markets and will continue to roll out in a number of European countries in 2019 - although we already know that it won't be available in the UK, and there's no word on a US release for the handset.

The TCL Plex price is €329 (around $360, £290, AU$535), making it competitive with the higher budget/lower mid-range realm dominated by the likes of the Moto G7.

(Image credit: Future)

TCL Plex design and display

You can say this for TCL: the Plex is more than an jumped-up version of an Alcatel phone. Given the company’s strong hold on the TV market, they're promoting the Plex's screen as its standout feature (more on that below). But the rest of the design takes a decent stab at differentiating the phone from the competition. 

On the back are three horizontally-aligned lenses running down the center, with a fingerprint sensor below it. 

It's a bit of a shame TCL didn't try to fit an in-screen finger reader into the phone, but it's not an essential feature for mid-range phones - and given the iffy accuracy of similar scanners in phones like the Nokia PureView 9 at launch, at least Plex has tried-and-true unlocking tech.

The phone has a glass back, which is a nicer premium feel separating it from the budget pack. The rear finishes are glossy and, at least in the Opal White, a shimmering color gradient that looks nice - the Plex will also be available in Obsidian Black. There's a USB-C port at the bottom for recharging and a single bottom-pointed speaker.

As for the display, the TCL Plex's 6.53-inch LCD screen is certainly higher quality than some of the competition - very good, but at FHD+ resolution (2,340 x 1,080), not miraculous. 

The company packed in plenty of buzzy tech you'd see listed on the side of a TV box: NXTVision for 6-axis color enhancement, sharper pictures with 2D edge enhancement, SDR to HDR real-time conversion for "HDR-like" visuals with improved contrast, color, highlights and shadows. 

There's also adaptive modes that tone the display brightness and temperature to adjust the picture to suit external conditions. We didn’t get a lot of time with the phone, and these are absolutely the kind of claims we'll test in our full review for you budget media bingers.

TCL opted for a punch-hole in the top left corner, which extends the screen-to-body ratio to 90%, which is better than most mid-range phones. The Plex's looks do punch above its price range.

(Image credit: Future)

TCL Plex camera

Mid-range phones are just starting to break into three-lens territory, and here is where the TCL Plex is taking the opportunity to shine. It has a 48MP f/1.8 main lens, a 16MP f/2.4 ultra-wide lens with a 123-degree field of view, and a 2MP f/1.8  slow-motion video camera capable of capturing up to 960fps in HD.

You probably won't miss the telephoto lens that typically comes in such three-lens arrays; as we found with this year's budget flagships (the iPhone 11 and Samsung Galaxy S10e), ultra-wide lenses offer much more utility, especially indoors or other cramped areas.

The triple-camera setup is also where TCL Plex sports one of its most unique features: in the camera app, a button on the right splits the screen into three parts, each feeding from a different lens. 

Sure, it’s something of a parlor trick, but at least you can easily compare which shooter to use - even if it’s sort of ridiculous to include the video lens with the static photo lenses.

The photo software is middling, with basic features and capture speed that definitely struggles in lower light. This isn’t too big of a deal for a mid-range phone, as that’s the case for almost all competitors in this price range...with the glaring exception of the Google Pixel 3a

It’s unfair given that handset inherited nearly everything from the flagship Google Pixel 3, but we’d be remiss not to point out the reigning champ of mid-range phone photography as a benchmark for comparison. 

(Image credit: Future)

While we didn’t get much time to capture photos with the Plex, we weren’t too impressed with its indoor and/or low-light shots. That’s not surprising, but we’ll have to see how its higher-megapixel lenses handle daylight and portrait photos.

Finally, the Plex’s front-facing 24MP f/2.8 camera takes perfunctory photos, though at a higher megapixel than expected for a budget phone.

(Image credit: Future)

TCL Plex performance and battery

The TCL Plex packs the Snapdragon 675 chipset, the same processor that powers the Google Pixel 3a and Moto Z4. It’s more than capable of enjoying media and zipping around the phone; we didn’t notice any slowdown in our short time with the Plex. 

As fits a first-run phone, the Plex only comes in one model, with a respectable 6GB of RAM and 12GB of storage, which is expandable with up to 256GB via a microSD card.

The UI is a basic overlay on top of Android (the phone launches with Android 9 Pie). In our short time, it seemed minimal and unobtrusive.

The big software flex for the Plex is, unsurprisingly, the ability to control select TCL smart TVs through preinstalled apps. This includes using the phone as a remote control and casting content, including standard media (videos, photos, and music). 

The Plex comes with a surprisingly huge 3,820mAh battery. In our short time, we didn’t get to test, but that would presumably be enough for a full day’s worth of usage and then some. 

Assuming no first-phone quirks drain the capacity faster than expected, this could be a real contender for the longest-lasting budget phone - which is even nicer with Quick Charge 3.0.

Early verdict

The TCL Plex is a decent first foray into the mid-range for a company that’s only made phones in the lowest end of the market. The handset is capable for its price range, if not exactly revelatory, and its lack of standout features may not be enough to attract folks to the TCL name. Its quality might...over time.

But if the phone is the first of many to come, we could see TCL release serious contenders to Motorola, Vivo, Xiaomi, Honor, and other mid-range brands in the years to come. 

What is a hands on review?

Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.