TCL Plex is a particularly interesting smartphone, which marks the arrival of the Chinese giant in a complex world such as that of telephony.
TCL is a Chinese multinational corporation known primarily for its televisions. Do you think that, in that sector, it is the third-largest producer in the world? We were therefore surprised when the company announced the arrival of its first smartphone, TCL Plex, during the 2019 edition of the IFA in Berlin. We know: TCL controls Alcatel, but here we are talking about a product that bears his name directly and that seems to want to aim higher.
Our first thought linked to this “new path” was aimed at the screen: the company has a lot of experience in the field of panels for TV and we couldn’t wait to understand what would be invented in mobile devices. Well, we had the opportunity to test in depth, for about three weeks, TCL Plex, smartphone sold at a price of 259 euros on Amazon Italy (6 / 128GB). Let’s go, therefore, to see how the device behaved during our tests.
Design and unboxing
TCL Plex arrives in a white package with the product name printed on the front and the classic sticker with the details on the smartphone at the bottom. Inside, in addition to the device, one of the first things you notice is a card that welcomes the user and indicates the company’s vision in this new path. There is also the USB Type-C cable for charging (unfortunately we cannot give you more information on the latter since it was not present in our package), the 18W charger, various manuals, the pin for removing the SIM compartment (Dual nanoSIM or nanoSIM + microSD) and a semi-rigid transparent cover.
This is a good feature for a smartphone in this price range. The only thing that made us a little twisted is the cover: we have always preferred soft covers to semi-rigid ones, especially if the latter tend to be “cheap”, as in this case. Excellent however that TCL has decided to insert a cover in the package.
TCL Plex has dimensions of 162.2 x 76.56 x 7.99 mm, for a weight of 192 grams. These are normal numbers: of course, the device is not among the “lightest” on the market, but it holds well in the hand. Too bad for the back cover, which is sometimes too “slippery”. In any case, the front of the smartphone has a 6.53-inch panel with a hole for the camera in the upper left.
The edges are not the most contained, but we can safely turn a blind eye in this price range. The way the Chinese company has customized the back cover is interesting: at the top there are the three cameras arranged horizontally and flanked by two LED flashes. A little further down we find the fingerprint sensor and the TCL logo. Speaking of the reader, the unlocking speed is normal: we have never had any problems and there is also the even faster Face Unlock.
Excellent constructive solidity, especially with the price range in mind: the frame is made of metal, while the back is made of glass. The colouring we have had the opportunity to try, the Opal White, guarantees excellent light effects, especially when exposing the smartphone to sunlight. Certainly, the design of TCL Plex differs from other devices on the market and this is good, even if the upper part of the back cover can be liked or disliked.
For completeness of information, you should know that there is also a darker colour called Obsidian Black, which may appeal to those who have different tastes from those of the writer.
Arriving at buttons and ports, in the lower part of the smartphone there are the speakers and the USB Type-C port, while on the right side we find the power button and the volume rocker. At the top are the microphone and the 3.5mm audio jack for headphones. On the left, however, the trolley for the SIM and the button called Smart Key.
The latter can be “programmed” to perform different activities on three levels: single press, double press and long press. To give you a concrete example, it is possible to assign to the single press the activation of the NXTVISION mode (of which we will talk more in detail later), to the double press the start of the Camera app and to the long-press the opening of Google Assistant. An interesting possibility that allows you to quickly access, through “hardware shortcut”, some features that are often used.
Summing up, TCL Plex convinces both in terms of design and in terms of constructive solidity. The only flaws are the cover inserted in the package, which we would have preferred was soft, and a slightly “slippery” back cover.
Inside the smartphone we find a Qualcomm Snapdragon 675 octa-core processor operating at a maximum frequency of 2.0 GHz (2 x 2.0 GHz + 6 x 1.7 GHz), flanked by an Adreno 612 GPU, 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal memory (expandable via microSD up to 256GB). We are talking about a configuration similar to other devices in this price range. We are far from the top devices in terms of brute power, but the vast majority of applications have no problems working.
TCL Plex mounts a 6.53-inch IPS LCD panel with Full HD + resolution (2340 x 1080 pixels), 19.5: 9 aspect ratio, 90% screen-to-body ratio and HDR support. Here we really have to applaud the Chinese company. The experience in the TV field is noticeable, the colours are well balanced.
It is a panel specially designed for viewing multimedia content and it is in this field that the smartphone manages to give its best. Here, in fact, the NXTVISION functionality enters the field, able to improve the vision, especially as regards the SDR contents, trying to bring them closer to the HDR experience. The difference is noticeable and the final quality is excellent. There is also the possibility to go to manage the colour by setting one of the available presets (Vivid or Standard, Lukewarm, Default or Cold).
The only burr is a maximum brightness, not the highest and some software side bugs (but we will talk about this later). Interesting, however, the way in which TCL manages applications that by default would not be able to cover the parts close to the hole of the camera. To give you a concrete example, usually, the contents of Amazon Prime Video are not displayed in full screen even by activating the “zoom”. Well, by going to the settings and activating the “Hole-punch Display” functionality, you can also force an app like Prime Video in full screen. This could cause some small inconvenience (such as the three dots icon that ends “under” the hole for the camera), but just turn the smartphone to solve everything and enjoy the full-screen content.
In any case, Netflix, YouTube and Disney + can be easily reproduced in full screen via the “zoom” officially integrated in the respective apps. Too bad for the support that only stops at the Widewine L3 standard. For the uninitiated, this means that HD content cannot be played on platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video. Summing up, we are faced with an excellent panel for viewing multimedia content, although the limitation due to the lack of support for the Widewine L1 standard is to be taken into consideration.
As for the photographic sector, we find a 24MP front camera (f / 2.0) and a triple rear camera 48MP (Sony IMX582, f / 1.8, main) + 16MP (Samsung S5K3P9, f / 2.4, wide-angle, 123 degrees) + 2MP (Omnivision OV02K, f / 1.8), flanked by two LED flashes. The three rear sensors can record videos in 4K at 30fps, while the front one reaches 1080p / 30fps. Do not miss the Slow Motion at 960 fps in 720p.
The Camera application implemented by TCL allows you to use these features: Slow motion, Time-Lapse, Long exposure, Panoramic, High Pixels (48MP / 24MP), Portrait, Super night and Pro. Interesting the button of the three lenses, which allows you to see simultaneously on-screen the original scene, the one with the ultra-wide lens and the optimization in low light conditions.
The digital zoom reaches 10x and there is no lack of HDR, artificial intelligence and classic effects that are expected from an application of this type. Note the fact that the app integrates by default uses a watermark that inserts the TCL Plex logo in the photos on the bottom left. The latter can be safely disabled from the settings.
The quality of the photos is good for the price range. As often happens, the photographic sector it gives its best in contexts with good light conditions, while night photos have far too much noise. Super night mode manages to improve the situation a little, but not to completely relieve it. In any case, we would not have expected more from a device that falls into this price range and therefore we can say that the final result is good. We did not, however, as regards the front camera.
The latter snaps to 6MP by default and fails to reach the level of detail that we would have expected. It is just enough to publish some photos on social networks, but nothing more. Not bad, however, the stabilization of videos, even if in 4K / 30fps some problems start to arise. On the other hand, few have managed to go beyond this result in the economic segment of the market, so it is not a particular problem.
Summing up, the photographic sector of the device is average, it does not stand out either positively or negatively. If you want to get a more precise idea of the quality of the shots, you can take a look at our Drive folder dedicated to TCL Plex, where we have uploaded several uncompressed photos taken with the smartphone.
TCL Plex mounts a 3820 mAh battery, which on paper could make you think of results not exactly at the top. Instead, the smartphone often took us to the evening with 25/30% of remaining charge, exceeding our expectations. Probably with less intense use of ours you can even do two days, this also thanks to the little energy-intensive SoC Snapdragon 675. Good recharge from 18W, it goes from 0% to 100% in about an hour and 15 minutes.
There is no lack of 4G LTE, Wi-Fi 802.11 a / b / g / n / ac, NFC and Bluetooth 5.0. The presence of all these standards is not at all obvious in this price range and it is excellent that TCL wanted to focus on connectivity as much as possible. Not bad the audio sector, which, despite being mono, supports technologies like Qualcomm aptX HD (listening to audio up to 48 KHz and 24-bit via Bluetooth headphones) and has a good maximum volume (our tests showed 82 dBA, a respectable value).
TCL wanted to make various customizations on the software side, through its TCL UI, based on Android 9 Pie. In late March 2020, at the time of writing the review, security patches have stopped at December 5, 2019 and no updates are available. This is not a very positive aspect, although it was to be expected, given that the company has just arrived in the smartphone field. Returning to the customizations implemented by the company, the interface changes a lot, starting from the app drawer (the screen where all the software installed on the device is present).
In fact, the latter highlights the “suggested applications”, which are the ones most used by the user, and subdivides them by cards. For example, there are the sections “System”, “Travel”, “Business” and so on. Each card is customizable and you can change the order of the “sections”. A solution that someone might like, but which as far as we are concerned is a little too “cumbersome”. It is, however, possible to search for the apps and just a few taps are needed to set a more “classic” view or deactivate the app drawer and keep only the Home screen. In short, at first glance the choice of TCL could be “chaotic”, but in reality, it is not a problem (we would have simply set a “classic” sorting by default, so as to make even users who use fewer settings feel at home).
The page on the left of the Home screen is dedicated to what the company calls “Smart panel”. By default, this summarizes the main information on the day and the weather at the top, provides statistics related to the steps, km travelled, kcal and smartphone usage time and presents shortcuts to the applications most used by the user. Then we find a Smart Manager, which allows you to optimize memory and battery with a touch and to manage notifications and applications that start automatically.
The classic management software, therefore, similar to those found pre-installed on many smartphones. There are also various tabs that can be added, from the one relating to favourite contacts in the address book to the weather “widget”. In general, the smart panel can be useful, even if a little limited compared to other solutions.
Speaking of pre-installed applications, TCL has tried to include everything the user may need, from the OfficeSuite app (it is not the Microsoft Office Suite, but another solution that aims to manage the same documents) to the Smart Key (which allows you to manage the physical smart button located on the left side of the device), passing through Change Phone ( designed to transfer data from an old smartphone of the Alcatel brand, which we remember is controlled by TCL), for TCL + (to get more information on the products coming from the company) and for T-Cast (which acts as a universal remote control for Smart TV TCL).
There is no shortage of Weather, News, Music and Browser applications. In short, the Chinese company has not exaggerated with the pre-installed software and this is excellent since often those who carry out such customization for the first time tend to insert bloatware, which in this case does not happen.
There is also the possibility of duplicating apps to use, for example, multiple WhatsApp accounts. Also present the gesture, which we found a little uncomfortable. For example, to go back you have to scroll towards the centre starting from one of the lower corners of the screen. In short, we would have preferred the classic swipe starting from one side of the display.
To note the absence of a Dark Mode feature at the system level, which made us turn up a bit ‘nose.
In terms of fluidity, the system runs well in the daily environment, but the main problems are related to some bugs and several burrs. In some cases, the settings menus are a bit confusing, moreover, the translations in some contexts are not the best: to make you understand, the option to put the apps in full screen is called “Display hole-punch”. As for the bugs, we have encountered several during our trial weeks.
For example, once we activated the WhatsApp Dark Mode and TCL Plex accidentally applied one of the features to optimize the display, going to create a particularly unpleasant dark shade to see. By deactivating and reactivating NXTVISION, the bug has been resolved. This is only one of several small drawbacks that we have encountered. Nothing transcendental, it is clear, but the TCL UI is not the most stable customization on the market and it is certainly the aspect on which the Chinese company must work more in view of future devices.
Performance and benchmarks
The smartphone did register a total of 214777 points on AnTuTu Benchmark. On Geekbench, however, it reached 489 points in single-core and 932 points in multi-core. Not exactly top numbers, which confirm the performance limits that we found smartphones in hand. Let me be clear: in daily use, there are no problems whatsoever, but the inconveniences begin to occur with the most expensive software in terms of resources, as we will better see in the paragraph dedicated to gaming.
To make a comparison with other smartphones belonging to the same price range, Realme X2 records a total of 257545 points on AnTuTu. We will never tire of repeating that the benchmarks are to be taken with clamps, but they give a clear indication of the hardware differences. In this case, the device in hand, the performance gap is felt in the most “heavy” contexts, while on a daily level everything runs smoothly.
In the gaming field, we opted for the usual titles: Call of Duty Mobile, ARK: Survival Evolved and Shadowgun War Games. These are games that can potentially create different headaches for a smartphone in this price range.
Call of Duty Mobile, well-optimized game, runs smoothly with details and FPS set to “High”. The title would also allow you to go beyond the level of settings, but there are several drops in framerates in that case. Summing up, COD Mobile runs very well on TCL Plex and this reminds us of how important software optimization is in these contexts.
The problems begin to arrive when you want to focus on titles that take advantage of more advanced graphic libraries. To give you a concrete example, the Play Store indicates the smartphone how “not compatible” with ARK: Survival Evolved, game known for being particularly resourceful. This is a limitation to consider, as it may preclude access to some titles.
As for Shadowgun War Games, game recently arrived on the Play Store, the title from the authors of Shadowgun Legends has some drop with settings on “High”, therefore for an optimal experience it is necessary to go down to “Medium”.
Interesting the presence of a mode that allows you to perform different activities, which is automatically activated when you enter a game. Accessible with a swipe from the side towards the center of the display, it provides indications on the remaining charge and on the time and allows you to start recording the screen, disable notifications and set the application to full screen (by restarting the app and activating the option we talked about earlier).
In short, we are not talking about a gaming mode and it is not possible to use apps in PiP or optimize performance, but it is still a welcome addition that works as it should. You can certainly implement more possibilities, but the road taken by the company for this mode is the right one, even if, as we have seen, TCL Plex is not a smartphone that focuses too much on gaming.
TCL Plex is an excellent starting point for the Chinese company, mainly known for its televisions. The strengths of the smartphone are the excellent display, the good autonomy, the complete connectivity sector, the excellent constructive solidity and the good price (we arrived at about 250 euros, initially it was 329 euros). However, the smartphone field is a complex world, made up of myriads of facets and aspects that need to be filed over time. It is therefore normal that the first product of an essentially “new” company in the sector has problems such as those relating to the cover inserted in the package, which is not the best, and to the software, not too updated and with various bugs and burrs. A little less “forgivable” only the average performance, which gives some problems with the heavier apps, the absence of the Widewine L1 standard (therefore no HD content on Netflix and Prime Video) and the fact that the backcover is a little too “slippery”. The quality of the photos taken by the photographic sector are average. In any case, taking into account the company’s past and TCL’s commitment to customization and the various functionalities implemented, we would like to say that the path taken is the right one.