Review, Smartphone

TCL Plex Quick Review: A Good Starting Point

TCL is not a brand name most of us are familiar with, but chances are, you’ve heard of BlackBerry and Alcatel; two brand names that are owned by TCL. Now, the Chinese company is releasing smartphones with its own branding, starting with this one right here, the TCL Plex.

After using the Plex as my daily driver for quite some time, there’s definitely plenty of room for improvement. However, given that this is TCL’s “first” smartphone, it’s really a reasonably good device.

What It Is

Display6.53-inch FHD+ IPS (2340 x 1080)
ChipsetQualcomm Snapdragon 675 2.0GHz octa-core
GPUAdreno 612
RAM6GB
Storage128GB, expandable
Camera (rear)48MP f/1.8 (primary), PDAF
16MP f/2.4 (ultra-wide angle)
2MP f/1.8 (low light video)
Camera (front)24MP f/2.0
Battery

3,820mAh
Dimensions162.2 x 76.6 x 8 mm
Weight

192g
OSTCL UI based on Android 9 Pie
ConnectivityLTE
NFC
Bluetooth 5.0
WiFi 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac (2.4/5GHz)
USB Type-C
3.5mm headphone jack
PriceRM1,199

For a mid-range smartphone, the Plex is relatively well-equipped, even if it doesn’t offer particularly great value for money. After all, at this price point, you can get the Xiaomi Mi 9T, which has a faster Snapdragon 730 chipset, a more vibrant AMOLED display, as well as a sleeker-looking design.

That being said, the 128GB variant of the Mi 9T (the same storage capacity as the Plex) also costs slightly more at RM1,399. The RM1,199 variant, on the other hand, only comes with 64GB of storage. While you’re still getting a better package with the Mi 9T, the Plex does have its own strong points – let’s get to it.

The Good Stuff

What really caught me off guard as I started using the Plex as my daily driver is its sheer battery life. Even though the phone’s 3,820mAh battery isn’t particularly large, I was consistently getting between seven to eight hours of screen on time with this phone. That is ridiculously good battery life.

On top of that, the charging rate isn’t too bad either. Within 30 minutes of charging, the phone got up to 47% from empty. Not the fastest charging rate I’ve seen, but still respectable.

When it comes to performance, the Plex is no slouch either. Sure, the Snapdragon 675 may only be a mid-range chipset, but it can offer reasonably good level of performance. I can play Call of Duty: Mobile on it without issue, and I can multitask with this phone relatively well too.

Sure, compared to, again, the Mi 9T with its faster Snapdragon 730 SoC, the Plex doesn’t feel quite as zippy or responsive. However, never did the phone feel cumbersome to use, and that is important for a pleasant user experience.

Speaking of user experience, TCL UI on the Plex is surprisingly good. It’s close to stock Android, so it is intuitive to use, it feels polished, and it’s a lightweight version of Android too. Given that this is TCL’s first take on Android, I’m really quite impressed with the software’s level of polish.

Another software feature I like is the dedicated Smart Key on the left side of the Plex, and it is completely programmable. There are three customisable actions: single, double, or long press of the button. I can set either one of these actions to summon Google Assistant, open an app, or even activate the flashlight. It’s a neat little feature, and I imagine most folks will get some use out of it.

One of the most highlighted features of the Plex is its 6.53-inch FHD+ IPS hole-punch display with TCL’s “NXTVISION visual technology.” In a nutshell, this tech allows the phone to upscale SDR content to HDR, and it certainly delivers. Whether I’m on Netflix or YouTube, enabling NXTVISION does make colours look more vibrant and bring out the details in darker areas.

So much so, in fact, that I’d argue the IPS display’s colour reproduction rivals that of an AMOLED panel, and that is high praise. Of course, it doesn’t offer the deep blacks of AMOLED screens, but it’s still a very visually pleasing display to look at. Evidently, TCL’s expertise in the TV business helps it to deliver a great-looking screen on the Plex.

Build quality of the Plex is pretty good too, thanks to the glass back of the phone. It gives the phone a premium touch, and I’m quite a fan of the glass back’s iridescent effect. The painted frame also does a good job of hiding the fact that it is made out of plastic.

The Bad Stuff

This is TCL’s first-ever smartphone to be released under its own branding, so there’s bound to be a number of shortcomings. For example, the Plex has one too many bloatware, though they can be easily disabled or uninstalled. Even so, it is still troublesome (and confusing) for a regular user to comb through some of these duplicate apps.

Camera performance of the Plex could use some work too. Don’t get me wrong, the 48MP f/1.8 primary shooter is actually quite good, but the 16MP f/2.4 ultra-wide angle sensor struggles quite a bit in darker environments. It feels sluggish in low light conditions, detail preservation isn’t great, and noise level is very noticeable as well.

Fortunately, the same doesn’t apply to the 48MP main camera, which takes advantage of pixel binning to improve low light performance and reduce the file size to the equivalent of a 12MP image. With some patience and effort, it can really capture good-looking shots that are properly exposed with flattering (albeit saturated) colours.

Besides that, my other qualms with the Plex are relatively minor. The auto brightness could’ve been much better – it has difficulty adjusting to the right level of brightness occasionally – it has tinny-sounding speakers, the chassis is a bit too slippery, and there is no in-screen fingerprint sensor.

Given that a number of smartphones in this price range (like the Xiaomi Mi 9T) has in-screen sensors, it would’ve been great if the Plex had one too. Granted, some folks may prefer the quicker and more accurate capacitive fingerprint sensor on the back of the phone.

Is It Worth It?

Retailing at RM1,199, the TCL Plex has to compete with a number of more established players like Xiaomi, Samsung, and even Realme. In order for a newcomer like TCL to stand out from its competition with the Plex, it has to offer a device of the same calibre (or even exceed them) to gain consumer confidence in the brand.

Based on my time with the Plex, I’d say this mid-range smartphone has what it takes to stand toe to toe with other phone makers in this price range. The Plex has incredible battery life, a good quality display, decent camera system (bar the ultra-wide angle sensor in low light conditions), and reasonably pleasant software experience, even if there are a number of bloatware.

But, again, TCL has to build consumer trust as a smartphone brand now, and the Plex is a good starting point. If the company can show that it will continue to support the Plex in the form of software updates, bug fixes, and so on, I’m sure TCL will be a phone maker to watch out for in the foreseeable future.

After all, the Plex is only the beginning for TCL’s smartphone journey. At least, that was what conveyed to me when I spoke with the company.