TCL – whose smartphones you might have known up until now as Alcatel in Australia – finally has its own smartphone here, and the TCL Plex is an impressive, affordable smartphone with a great display and a decent camera system.
With features that compare favourably with devices that cost three times as much, the TCL Plex is a heavy hitter in its category, and while there’s room for improvement, as a first attempt, it’s a very good one.
What’s good in the TCL Plex?
In a nutshell, the display is excellent. You don’t typically see display quality like this in a sub $500 phone (which this is, only just). There’s some slight degradation of quality around the hole-punch front-facing camera, but that’s it. The rest of the display is great.
The triple-camera system impresses, and while it’s not the first mid-range phone to come with multi-lens cameras by any stretch, it does the job well, with a good wide-angle lens for macro shots, and a decent low light option as well.
A handy feature? Being able to see the shot from each of the three lenses at once, and choosing the one you like best.
Battery life is also a pleasant surprise; by opting for a mid-range processor that isn’t super thirsty, you’ve got battery life all day and then some. Two days is easily possible.
What stands out?
TCL – as a brand – is known for its televisions, and it brings its image-handling creds to the smartphone in the Plex; the 6.53-inch IPS LCD display is right up there with the best OLED displays, offering SDR and HDR conversion in real-time for a TV-like viewing experience. Other features like reading mode – making it more like an eInk display – and adaptive tone which – like many other phones – reduces brightness and colour temperature to make reading at night (or in the dark) a little more comfortable.
There’s no notch here, which is welcome in 2019 with so many horrid notches around. TCL have opted for – and yes, this name is dreadful – a “dotch”, which is a fancy way of saying a hole-punch in the screen for the front-facing camera.
The 24-megapixel selfie camera is great – unremarkable, perhaps – but that it cuts through the front display in the most non-disruptive way possible is a welcome feature. Considering how much screen real-estate you lose on Samsung’s Galaxy S10+ with dual-front-facing cameras, and the almost full-width notches on Pixels and Huawei Mates, the single dot cutout is much better.
It leaves you with a usable notification area, as well as having space for dual-SIM network indication, a clock, battery and more. It’s intelligent, and solves the front-camera problem much more elegantly than does the notch.
The physical design is – in 2019 – somewhat unremarkable, but the addition of a smart-key with customisable functions is a great idea. It’s not a useless Bixby button, but something you can link to a flashlight, launching an app, the Google Assistant, or even the camera. It’s not quite Motorola’s “chop chop” camera launcher – which was excellent a few years ago – but it’s good.
How’s the camera?
From what I’ve seen in my limited time with the device – I have half a dozen phones on my desk as I write this – the camera system is pretty good.
Others have observed – and I concur entirely – that the camera appears to dial up the blues and greens (using a healthy dose of AI here) to bring landscapes and outdoor scenes to life. This is, after all, exactly what you need in a smartphone camera where your photos are just as likely to end up on social as they are in the keepsakes box.
While some of the individual features may not be the equal of $1,500 super smartphones, remember that this isn’t one of those in price. Performance, it’s very close. The night mode does well in low-light situations, though it’s not the witch that Huawei’s P30 Pro is (and nor should it be).
As with most smartphone cameras, you don’t need to tweak the settings to get a great shot. Leave it in auto, let TCL’s AI do the trick, and just point and shoot. It’s simple, pure and desirable – no mucking about and good photographic output. If you’re a pro, use a pro camera, but for everyone else, this is fine.
Under the screen is a Qualcomm Snapdragon 675 processor with (in our review model) 6GB RAM and 128GB storage. You can supplement that with a MicroSD card, of course.
Android 9.0 is found out of the box, and while an update is plausible, it mightn’t be all that likely at this price range. Frankly, this doesn’t really matter. Android 9.0 is solid, fast and optimised, and on the TCL Plex, the experience is smooth as silk. Apps run as you’d expect, multi-tasking is swift, and everything just runs the way you’d expect from a decent Android phone.
I never found issues with it, and while I use my phones a lot, I don’t use them for intensive things like 3D gaming, photo editing or the like. Lots of social, lots of music, lots of email and calls/SMS/etc, and that’s about it.
With my use, TCL’s Plex lasted all day and then some. An average day saw 35% left at 10pm (after coming off charge at 5.30am) and for me, that’s a great outcome. Plenty in reserve in case I have a busy day, and plenty left over for you should you get unavoidably kept from a charger until the following morning.
Charging is on-tap with USB-C and 18W fast charging delivers 50% battery life in just over half an hour on the charger, so if you can find a charge, you’ll be right as rain in no time at all.
What’s not great?
With any $500 phone there’ll be a compromise somewhere, and frankly here there aren’t many. The lack of stereo sound is noticeable – particularly coming from phones that have multiple front-facing speakers – but it’s a small issue. We don’t often consume media without headphones, and chances are you don’t either.
Launching with Android 9 Pie when Android 10 is available is a side-note rather than an issue; whether this phone will see an update is debatable, but really, not the point in this price range.
Otherwise, there’s not much to draw criticism here. The TCL Plex is a great package.
Should you buy one?
TCL’s Plex is an impressive first own-branded attempt for TCL. The display shines considering the IPS LCD technology, and easily looks better than you’d otherwise expect. The triple camera system is solid, and produces photos that you’d expect to find from a device costing twice as much.
With good features, great battery life, and frugal battery consumption, this is a two-day smartphone that will do everything you need and more.
For me, in a second generation Plex, I’m looking for a more interesting case design, and a move from IPS LCD to an *OLED of some description for the display technology. Besides that, there’s little room for improvement in the $499 package, and this is a smartphone you won’t be disappointed with.