The TCL Plex Smartphone Hands-On: Dedicated Low-Light Camera for Videoby Dr. Ian Cutress on September 5, 2019 9:00 AM EST
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As one of the world’s largest TV manufacturers, with its hands in a lot of other things, TCL is a fairly common name among certain regions of the world. The company also does the hardware for a number of smartphone brands already, namely Blackberry and Alcatel, but this year at IFA, executives were keen to launch TCL as its own smartphone brand, as well as showcasing new smartphone technologies like foldable displays. TCL is coming to the market with its first device, the TCL Plex, very soon, and we had a chance to see the hardware in action.
Going for Brand Recognition: TCL as a Smartphone Company
So I’ll be honest, being a UK citizen and residing in London means that TCL doesn’t pop into my ecosystem that often. It just isn’t that much of a brand here, at least on its own branded products. However whenever I visit the US, at least a dozen times a year, TCL is in full swing. The two brands from TCL that I do recognize back home are Blackberry, for its keyboard based devices, and Alcatel is popular on the continent for its low cost and very good value-for-money entry smartphones. However, TCL wants to play in more in just these markets, and wants to provide competitive mid-range (and potentially high-end) hardware for the mass market under its own name.
TCL’s representatives described the process as using its prowess in display technology and applying it to the smartphone market. They want to be a competitive player – they don’t need to be on the bleeding edge in the premium markets, they’re happy for others to do that and take the risk, but they also understand that at certain price points, they want to certainly be better than the average offering. Through that, they will grow the brand and expand globally, looking at reception and how the market responds. That process all starts with the TCL Plex.
TCL Plex Hands-On
The first thing to note about the TCL Plex is that it looks like a high-quality smartphone on first inspection. In particular the Opal White color stands out with a polished finish, coupled with a tri-reflective S-design that moves through the light. The rear also takes cues from the Huawei P20 design, with that unified camera band on the rear, but TCL has implemented a symmetric tri-camera dual-flash setup that is a very aesthetically pleasing. TCL has the design of the rear of the Plex done right, which is a great result for a first own-brand product.
The front of the Plex shows the 6.53-inch LCD display with its pin-hole front facing camera in the corner. The display is a 1080x2340 resolution, conforming to the 19.5:9 standard, with a screen-to-body ratio of 90%. The display, we are told, is calibrated to be very accurate, with a deltaE less than one (we’re still waiting to hear back to which standard it is calibrated). TCL has also bundled into the hardware a Pixelworks based processor, which acts on the display output to upconvert all SDR content (most of it) into HDR for the display. This setting is adjustable in the options, but the idea is to improve the visual fidelity of the majority of content (video, games, pictures) on the smartphone. The exact phrasing was ‘to be more true to life’. We have seen this before in tablets, but this might be the first time seeing the Pixelworks hardware in a smartphone – certainly the first at this price range.
For the camera system, the front facing camera is a 24MP Omnivision OV24B with 0.9 micron pixels and an f/2.0 aperture. It has a 78.2 degree field of vision, supports 1080p30 video, and has Portrait mode as part of the package.
The rear camera system is much more interesting. The main hardware is a 48MP Sony IMX582 that supports 960 FPS slo-mo video (1 second), with an f/1.8 aperture and 0.8 micron pixels. A secondary wide-angle lens is provided by a 16MP Samsung S5K3P9, with 123 degree field of vision, an f/2.4 aperture, and 1.0 micron pixels. The third camera is a dedicated night-vision camera, capable of night-vision video. The 2MP Omnivision OV02K does this with 2.9 micron pixels, allowing for more light per pixel. On either side of the rear camera are single-tone LED flashes, designed to help illuminate scenes not covered by the night-vision camera.
Other hardware inside includes the Qualcomm Snapdragon 675, Adreno 612 graphics, 6 GB of DRAM, 128 GB of UFS 2.1 storage, and support for microSD cards up to 256 GB. The battery Is rated at 3820 mAh, with Quick Charge 3.0 support and 32 minutes to 50%. It has a Type-C USB 2.0 port, a headphone jack, and comes with Android Pie. LTE Band support includes 1/3/5/7/8/20/28/38/40, and the modem is capable of Cat 6 (400 Mbps) download. The device supports dual nano-SIM, with one spot also supporting microSD.
One of the interesting features is the Bluetooth. It comes in as standard Bluetooth 5.0, however TCL have licensed technology from Tempo, who have manipulated the driver stack such that the BT hardware can support four simultaneous connections to headsets and Bluetooth speakers. This technology must be more than a simple time mux, with likely some proprietary algorithms to ensure consistent audio latencies.
TCL did mention that the version of Android they have is very close to a stock Android experience. They have a ‘TCL UI’, which has modified some of the base apps to more fit a TCL aesthetic, but the end-goal here is to make common apps across all its platforms (TV, smartphone, etc) all have a similar familiar interaction for its users.
The TCL Plex is only going to be a limited launch – four countries in Europe, and Australia. The idea here is for TCL to find its feet with its own brand first, then look into scaling between regions as well as scaling the number of devices. TCL’s aim here is to develop more of a vertically integrated stack for its own-brand smartphone business.
The TCL Plex will be offered shortly in ‘Obsidian Black’ and ‘Opal White’, in select regions, with a 6/128 configuration, for $329. That’s a great price to be honest for a smartphone of this caliber.
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rocky12345 - Thursday, September 5, 2019 - linkThis looks to be a very decent phone with fairly good hardware for the price. SO much so if it becomes available in Canada I could see myself picking one up. It will depend on reviews though on how good or bad the phone is.
peevee - Thursday, September 12, 2019 - linkCareful - it's not a global phone. No bands 4/17 - almost useless for Rogers for example (only short-range B7 available).
SigmundEXactos - Thursday, September 5, 2019 - linkI'm so excited about Tempow (not Tempo) -- finally streaming bluetooth to more than one device without a special separate transmitter.
nicolaim - Thursday, September 5, 2019 - linkGlad to see a serious new entrant in the smartphone market. The price is awesome.
I'm surprised this article hasn't garnered more comments.
sonofsanta - Friday, September 6, 2019 - linkGood grief, that is a great price. The only compromise I can see is the Snapdragon 6xx rather than an 8xx chip (entirely expected at this price point), but otherwise it's got everything you actually need in a smartphone--so long as it has NFC as well. This is definitely promising.
philehidiot - Saturday, September 7, 2019 - linkIndeed. When I see this kind of thing (6 series SoC in a decent phone) I do always remember the HTC M7 which did the same. They got away with a more mid range SoC in a flagship as it was seriously well optimised and, from my point of view, was not distinguishable in use from the high end chips. Having seen this, I have hope that someone may release a phone I might actually want to buy. I'm sick of headphone jacks running away, low capacity batteries with fudged capacity figures and finishes designed to break with the slightest drop. How often do you drop everyday items? I do it a lot. I'm usually drunk.
So the only thing that really gets to me about this is the materials look fragile but that's the style at the moment and it's not changing for a new entry.
NFC for me is a nice to have. It's useful when you have things like hotel access cards which run on RFID tags. Because we all have a collection of hotel RFID cards to play with.... right? I like wireless charging as it reduces the use of the USB connection which I've had go wobbly a few times or the cable snap off and so on. It also works well for me at night - I first had it on the Palm Pre and it works well for that, can work well in a car but otherwise it's not a biggie for me.
One last thing I want to see from this (may have been covered and missed) is an unlocked bootloader and a general openness to hacking. If I buy, I want to buy and be able to play. When it reaches end of life I want to be able to latch it to my bike and make it do things it wasn't meant to do. This is always a good move for a new entry company as it is unlikely the huddled sheep will want to buy an unknown brand, regardless of features. The nerds are the ones who are going to be curious and excited and we also like to hack our posessions. Therefore, if you are the only people out there encouraging people to hack your product, you're going to get all the nerds flocking to check you out and it'll build your brand. Plus, they hack, improve and then will publish what they did and how so you can improve your product. Hell, if it was me I'd have a button in the developer options page that says "The Shit List" which is a list of people who hacked the product and made part of it better than the manufacturer could.
RSAUser - Sunday, September 8, 2019 - linkIn regards to NFC, I use it for card payments via my banking app. There are so many other use cases as well though, e.g. I can use it to check my bus card balance, and pair with my headphones.
NFC tags are super useful though, have one for guest Wi-Fi, so I can still have a password too complex for most to type in, way easier than memorizing and if someone gets that close into my house, I don't care about the wifi password.
eastcoast_pete - Friday, September 6, 2019 - linkAgree that this is an interesting phone, it checks a lot of boxes, and the price would be attractive if they bring it stateside. I look forward to a review, especially curious about the video from the low light camera. Sadly, even "flagship" phones often fall flat here.
As for the SoC, the two A76 cores should serve my needs fine, as I am not much of a mobile gamer.
Ashinjuka - Saturday, September 7, 2019 - linkI'm a bit surprised at the name Plex from a company best known for its TVs, seeing as how Plex is already widely known as a media server system. I think a fair number of people will be initial confused when they hear "TCL Plex" and think it's talking about HTPC stuff.
brucethemoose - Saturday, September 7, 2019 - linkAny chance they'll stuff a motion interpolation ASIC in there some day?
I know, I know, but personally, I think the "soap opera effect" is just a meme perpetuated by stuffy, oldschool film guys and bad implementations from a decade ago. Samsung seemingly has the best tech for something like that, but I don't see them thinking outside the box like that until someone else does it first.