TCL is expanding into a new product segment: it's going to start making phones donning the TCL brand, rather than relying only on its wholly-owned Alcatel and BlackBerry brands. It's a big move for a company that has only recently made its way into public consciousness (particularly in the West) in the consumer electronics realm with its fast-growing TV line.
And on the surface, it feels rather boring when you look at the brand's first phone: the TCL PLEX, a mid-range device with mid-range specs and generally expected features. The PLEX is, well, a phone. There's an all-glass unibody design wrapped around a large 6.53-inch display, typical specs (Snapdragon 675, 6GB RAM, 3820mAh battery) and a triple camera array with a dedicated sensor for low-light video capture.
TCL has a somewhat-interesting story to tell when it comes to the display, because the company can leverage its TV panel expertise in this much smaller LCD to improve colors and accuracy — and I'll say the screen looks darn nice for the money. But aside from that, the PLEX is just another mid-range phone; one that the market will probably like at just €329 considering its build quality and specs, but not one that you'll hang your hat on as a representation of what your company is capable of in mobile. Particularly with limited country availability — the PLEX is launching strategically in a handful of markets, starting in Europe, and won't be coming to the U.S.
But to focus on the PLEX would be missing the important part of the TCL brand's expansion to phones. What's far more exciting is the other projects the company has in the works — and is giving us a sneak peek at.
TCL has several foldable display concepts it's working on, including a clamshell-style folder with a few novel design elements. There's also a more tablet-like device that's designed to be predominantly used in landscape but folds up a bit like the Galaxy Fold. TCL is experimenting with different exterior designs and materials at the same time it's showing off new foundational technology like hinges and folding screens.
I also saw a couple of other concepts that aim to show the types of things TCL is thinking about; and capable of making working prototypes of. There's a phone with a nearly bezel-free "waterfall" display that curves sharply on both sides and runs all the way around the edges of the device. And also a phone without any buttons or ports — just a glass body, and a screen. Obviously neither one of these devices will come to market as-is, but it shows that TCL has aspirations for releasing far more than just mass-market mid-range phones with little excitement.
And TCL is doing far more. Naturally it has a whole lot to say about forthcoming 5G devices, like any other smartphone maker. But it's also talking a big game in expanding to other form factors with folds of different types, wrist-worn convergence devices, smart glasses, and everything in between. Nothing seems off the table at this point, and it's far more interested in trying new things and seeing what works while it experiments than being first to market with new form factors.
TCL is a massive company that clearly has the engineering talent and desire to handle multiple types of mobile projects at once. It can pump out solid, but uninspiring, devices like the PLEX to serve the mass market right now; and at the same time make really interesting devices that are pushing boundaries on new form factors for the future. Just don't focus too much on the former, and get excited about the latter instead.
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Andrew was an Executive Editor, U.S. at Android Central between 2012 and 2020.