It's not often that simply seeing a smartphone on sale will prompt me to review it, but as soon as I saw the TCL Plex existed, I was very intrigued and reached out to TCL about it. That's because I've known about TCL for some time, but the company has been making phones for other brands, like Alcatel and BlackBerry, so I was interested in how its own brand would stand out.

The TCL Plex is aimed squarely at the mid-range, and on paper, it fits the bill perfectly. The Snapdragon 675 is one of the more recent mid-range chips from Qualcomm, and packing 6GB of RAM and 128GB of internal storage is pretty good, too. I've found that I have some trouble reviewing mid-range phones because there tends to be nothing that stands out too much about them, but I quite like the TCL Plex.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 675, two Kryo 460 Gold 2.0GHz, six Kryo 460 Silver 1.7GHz
GPU Adreno 612
Body 162,2 X 76,56 X 7,99 mm (6.39x3.01x0.31in), 192g (6.77oz)
Display 6.53 inches, 1080x2340, 19.5:9, 395ppi, IPS LCD
Camera 48MP with Quad Bayer technology, 16MP wide-angle, 2MP Ultra Large Pixel; Front - 24MP with quad pixel
Video 4K - 30fps, 960fps Slow Motion; Front - 1080p - 30fps
Aperture Main: f/1.8, Wide-angle: f/2.0, ULP: f/1.8, Front - f/2.0
Storage 128GB
RAM 6GB
Battery 3,820mAh, 18W fast charging
Material Metal and glass
Price €329

Day one

Design

On the surface, the TCL Plex is a pretty standard glass and metal sandwich, like so many phones on the market right now. What I like about it is that, despite initially appearing fairly plain, the back of the black model I got reflects light in a beautiful rainbow sheen. I like it a lot, but I feel like the Opal white model, with the S-shaped glow, would have been a little prettier. The back also houses the square-shaped fingerprint sensor and the triple-camera setup. I like how the cameras aren't in an isolated camera bump, and instead, each of them has its own housing. It's unconventional, but it's unique, and I like that. There are also two LED flash lights, one on each side of the camera setup.

Going around the edges of the phone, the left side has the power button and the volume rocker. The left side has the SIM/SD card slot, and the convenience key that I found extremely useful. It can perform a series of actions, including summoning the Google Assistant, taking a screenshot, or turning on the flashlight. I was a big fan of the pressure-sensitive edges of the nubia Z20, but this offers three different shortcuts, and you can activate it with the screen turned off, so it's even better.

The top edge only has the 3.5mm headphone jack and a microphone, while the bottom edge has the single speaker on this phone, as well as the USB Type-C port for charging.

Finally, on the front, we get the 6.53-inch Full HD+ display with minimal bezels all around, though there's just a bit of a chin. The camera is housed in a punch-hole cutout, a first for me when it comes to longer periods of use, and it turns out I actually love it. It mostly goes unnoticed, and it actually feels like it has a certain charm to it. Even compared to small waterdrop notches, I ended up loving it. I also love that it sits flush with the screen. I think that should have been a natural expectation when this kind of camera cutout started showing up, but I was surprised to find out that phones like the Galaxy S10 family actually had a slight camera protrusion. I'm glad that's not the case here.

Display and sound

The display is TCL's biggest focus for the Plex, with the company using an IPS LCD panel at Full HD+ resolution. It's not exceptionally bright, but I also don't have any issues viewing it outdoors. TCL says there's a dedicated chipset for the display, which sounds somewhat like what was in the Nokia 7.1. It has some of the same features, like SDR to HDR conversion, though I still can't really see a difference when I turn it on. However, there's a bit more to help this display. Using what TCL calls NXTVISION technology, there's a multimedia enhancement option, which is supposed to enhance the edges of objects, contrast, and more. This setting actually makes a significant difference when you turn it on, and dark parts of a picture get notably brighter, which helps make the picture look a little clearer in most situations.

In addition to the Eye Comfort mode, which is basically a different name for Android's Night Light feature, there's a specific display mode for reading, and you can set it to turn on automatically when you open specific apps. So if you want to read your Kindle books at night, this should help a bit. The screen also has an auto tone adjustment feature, which adjusts the display colors based on your surroundings. This is helpful, but it also brings a problem. In outdoor situations, the screen will brighten up significantly, and sometimes it takes a while for it to revert that, so colors will sometimes be unnaturally bright for your environment. This also makes some light bleed apparent on the edges of the screen, but that's the only situation where I had any problems with the screen.

For sound, TCL went with a single bottom-firing speaker, which is somewhat disappointing. It doesn't sound terrible, but it's not exceptionally loud or sharp. It might be one of my least favorite speakers in any phone I've used this year. It's still alright for my standards, though. One thing that's unique, at least in my experience, is the phone's Super Bluetooth feature, which lets you connect up to four Bluetooth devices to listen to music. The goal is to set up a more immersive sound experience, but I thought it might be interesting to connect to different headsets, in case you wanna force your friends to listen to the same music as you. It seems to work fine, though you'll need to turn off 2.4GHz Wi-Fi to connect more than two Bluetooth devices.

Camera

The TCL Plex has a triple-camera setup on the back, like many phones in the past couple of years, but TCL's approach is quite unique. There's a 48MP main sensor - another staple in many phones in the past couple of years - as well as a 16MP wide-angle camera, which I prefer over a telephoto lens. What's unique about this setup, though, is the third camera, which is exclusively for recording videos in low-light. We'll get to that in a bit.

For photos, the TCL Plex is a solid smartphone. Its daytime shots are some of my favorite of the phones I've tested, with both punchy colors and decent sharpness and detail. The phone also has both an automatic night mode and a separate Super Night setting. The former isn't as aggressive, but it does make low-light pictures a little better. Super Night is the most similar to what I've seen in other phones, and it works almost as well. While it tones down highlights as other phones do, it has a bigger tendency to create a glow around the source of light, which isn't realistic. It also doesn't work as well in daytime scenarios, making the whole scene appear noticeably bluer than it should be.

The selfie camera is also interesting because it's a 24MP sensor that work similarly to the 48MP camera on the back. That is to say, it combines four pixels into one to get an image with more light. The resulting photo is therefore 6MP, which is still sharp enough for a selfie. My only issue with it is that the viewfinder seems to always have a beauty filter applied, with some skin smoothing happening even if you've disabled it. The thing is, it is actually disabled for the final shot, so the picture you get doesn't look like what you see in the preview.

Where the TCL Plex really lets me down is in video recording. There's no optical image stabilization on any of the cameras, so the phone relies on electronic stabilization. The problem is, it's not very good stabilization, so when time it corrects for movement, you get blurry edges around objects, and thin objects like tree branches just look like a smudge. I actually preferred recording with image stabilization, and that goes for both the main camera and the low-light sensor.

The good news is, the third camera, dedicated to low-light recording, actually does its job well enough. As the environment starts to get darker, the large pixel size really helps videos look a lot brighter, so you can see a lot better in the dark, and colors are also more vivid. Because the sensor is 2MP, you can only record at 1080p, but that's not too bad for my tastes. However, the main sensor creates sharper videos, even at the same resolution.

Performance and software

I was initially a bit surprised with how well the TCL Plex handled day-to-day tasks for a mid-range phone. Switching tasks is fast and the 6GB of RAM allow plenty of apps to be stored in the memory, and the overall performance is pretty solid for just about anything. Apps open quickly, nothing takes too long to load, and the interface feels smooth enough. I really have no complaints about it for general use.

As you can see, AnTuTu benchmark givers it a respectable score of 216274, which is above the Xiaomi Mi 9 Lite, a phone powered by the Snapdragon 710, but below the Realme Q, powered by the Snapdragon 712. It completely trounces the OPPO Reno Z that I reviewed earlier this year, and that phone falls in the same price range. Where it seems to fall short on the benchmark is the GPU performance, and the phone stuttered a lot while rendering the GPU tests. Still, playing Asphalt 9 or Pokémon GO didn't offer any big problems.

One area that impressed me was battery life. With a somewhat modest 3,820mAh battery, the TCL Plex usually managed to last me two days on moderate usage, consisting of a couple hours of YouTube videos, browsing Twitter through its website, and texting. If I extend my YouTube usage too much or take a lot of pictures, I do need to charge at the end of the day, but never before that.

As for software, TCL uses its TCL UI on top of Android Pie, but for the most part, the changes it makes are purely aesthetic. Most of the stock Android settings are there, though I need to point out the lack of a display scaling setting. Though I'm used to it now, everything feels a little too big for my taste, and I only get the option to scale text sizes, not the entire UI. Otherwise, the Settings app feels like the stock Android version with a different skin on top.

One difference is that the default lock screen doesn't actually show you notification banners, so you can't control music playback unless you unlock the phone, which is annoying. On the flip side, TCL has enough common sense to unlock the phone as soon as you enter the last digit of your PIN, instead of forcing you to press OK, which is something I don't like about stock Android. The phone has a custom launcher, with options to choose between having an app drawer or showing all your apps on the home screen, and a "Smart panel" page that doesn't really feel very useful. It can count your steps and track how much you've walked, and it also has some widgets for system apps, but you can't add third-party widgets, so I didn't really care about it.

One last noteworthy piece of software is the Smart Manager app, which gives you shortcuts to manage your memory usage, apps that can automatically run in the background, battery saving modes, and block notifications from specific apps. There's also a secret vault for files you want to hide, and there's really no way to tell files are hidden there aside from the first time you use the app, so it should do a good job of hiding your files.

Conclusion

I quite liked using the TCL Plex during my review. There's nothing about it that I really disliked, with the exception of video recording, but that's not something I do that often. The phone performs very well, the display is great, I like the design, and the camera is very good for daytime shots. The software is also familiar enough coming from stock Android, while also having a unique visual identity and some distinctive features.

Of course, there are downsides, and the terrible video stabilization is definitely something to consider. Another thing to look out for is the below-average speaker. Nevertheless, if it comes to choosing between this and something like the OPPO Reno Z from earlier in the year, this is definitely the one I'd choose. If you're in Europe, you can buy the TCL Plex from the company's website for €329.99 or £289.99 or find it in your local retailer.

 

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