After years of building devices with the Alcatel, BlackBerry and - more recently - Palm brands, TCL has finally stepped out of the shadows and launched its own-brand smartphone. It's called the Plex, and it's the first of many phones to be designed and built by TCL under its own name. 

Having found some success in the affordable smart TV market, TCL has chosen now to release its own phones. It's got experience, it uses its very own display technology, and it has some interesting ideas for foldable phones. It may not be a name you're all that familiar with, but this is a company worth keeping an eye on. It feels like it's been preparing to get itself in on the smartphone game for a while, and now we're at this moment. 

Design

  • 162.2 x 76.6 x 8mm
  • Multi-coloured glass
  • 192 grams

Having practiced over many generations of many different other branded phones, TCL wasn't exactly out of practice when it comes to phone design. With its own TCL brand though, it had to do something that stood out from its other phones, and we think it's just about done that. 

TCL's Plex comes in a couple of different finishes. One white, the other black, but there's much more to it than that. Like we've seen from other Android phone makers in recent years, the glass layers are designed in conjunction with other effects. The black model, for instance, has a rainbow colour-spectrum layer that looks really eye catching when held towards light at the right angle. Similarly, the silky white shimmers and offers intriguing reflections of its own. 

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TCL has focussed attention on symmetry with the Plex. The bottom edge, for instance, has two identical triplets of grilles on either side of the Type-C port, to keep it looking clean. Even if one of those sets of holes isn't a speaker, it's a pleasing look. 

The triple camera setup on the back is beautifully symmetrical too, with an LED flash on either side of the three lens system. To make it comfy in hand, the glass curves towards the edges, which feature the usual selection of buttons on the right. It has the power and volume keys here. 

On the opposite side, TCL has taken what it's learned from Alcatel and BlackBerry by offering what it calls a Smart Key. This is your programmable quick access button that you can set to do virtually anything you want. If you'd like it to call up Google Assistant, you can. If you'd rather have it switch on the flashlight function, you can do that too. In fact, you can program it to do a number of things depending on how many times, or how long, you press it. 

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Apart from that, there's not much else on the design side to really discuss. From the front, it's your fairly standard minimal layout, with just a big screen taking up nearly all of the space. The bottom bezel (or chin) is quite a lot thicker than the other sides, but that's pretty standard for phones in the price range that this is targeting. In fact, even some more premium phones have struggled to make all four sides equally slim. 

Display

  • 6.53-inch LCD display
  • 1080 x 2340 resolution
  • Hole-punch cutout for selfie camera

One advantage TCL has over nearly of its competitors in the smartphone world is that it designs and creates its own display panels. It's not buying them in from Samsung or LG. TCL is a company that prides itself on its display research and development, and is well capable of building quality panels. 

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From first impressions, that experience shows on the Plex's 6.53-inch display. It's LCD, which is why there's no in-display fingerprint sensor, but it boasts a pixel density of 395 pixels per inch, which is more than enough in a smartphone screen. What struck us on our first play was how good the colours looked. They strike the balance between vivid and natural really well, and the screen seems quite bright too. 

Of course, we couldn't get a full experience of the screen in the short amount of time we spent with the Plex, but we certainly didn't see anything to concern us. It uses up a lot of the available space on the front, and the hole-punch camera in the top left generally keeps out of the way. It wasn't obviously there at all, unless we had a white screen loaded up, like the Settings app, for instance. 

Other hardware and software

  • Snapdragon 675 processor
  • 6GB RAM
  • 128GB storage (microSD card expansion)
  • 3,820mAh battery
  • 18W Quick Charge 3.0

Inside are all the components you'd expect to find in a phone that's trying to offer value for money in the £300~ price range. That specifically means the higher end Snapdragon 600-series processor: the Snapdragon 675.

Paired with 6GB RAM, it should offer plenty of smoothness and you shouldn't notice any real performance issues. TCL has worked the software to be quite light and undemanding too, to ensure it handles everything as well as you'd hope for an every day phone. 

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As well as a very capable processor, TCL built in a relatively large 3,820mAh battery. We'd need to test it to see just how well it performs, but we suspect it'll get through a busy day without a sweat. What's more, it'll charge relatively quickly using an 18W Quick Charge 3.0 power adapter. 

As for the software, that's TCL's own take on Android Pie. It has a skin, similar in ethos to what we've seen from other Chinese manufacturers. That means you get the smart screen on the left of the home screen collating data from a number of apps and services, giving you quick access to the contacts and information you need the most. You also get a phone manager app to help reduce the amount of unused files and apps taking up precious memory. 

Cameras

  • Triple camera
  • 48MP primary (12MP auto shots)
  • 16MP ultra-wide
  • 2MP depth/low light sensor
  • Ultra slow-mo 960fps

It's 2019, and that means the primary camera on the back is one of Sony's 48-megapixel sensors. It's far from being the only phone with such a pixel-packed sensor, but like all the others, in it's default automatic mode it combines four pixels into one to create a 12-megapixel photo. You can select a 48-megapixel option if you want, but we suspect this means the light it captures and colours won't be as good. Especially not in low light. 

Then there's the ultra-wide camera, and a third 2-megapixel camera which is used to capture extra depth and light information. What's interesting, is that TCL has used this to boost the phone's low light performance. 

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This not only means supposedly fantastic low light photography, but also means the phone can shoot ultra slow-motion video at 960fps. As with all of its other features, we won't get a full sense of how good it is until we spend more time with the phone.

First Impressions

TCL's first own-brand phone is something of a safe play. It's an attractive glass phone with eye-catching colours, a nice looking big display and a versatile triple-camera system at an affordable price point. The only real downside is that it's not going to be available everywhere. 

The company told us the phone may not come to the UK or the US, and that it's going to be released in a handful of European countries. Instead, we should expect something a bit different to land on our shores later on down the line. This very much feels like TCL testing the waters, and not going all-guns-blazing into the smartphone market. 

Still, despite the weird name, the Plex definitely seems like a very capable phone, especially at its €329 price point.