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TCL makes good TVs and now it wants to make your phone, too

The new TCL Plex wants to woo you with three rear cameras for under $400.

tcl-plex-5

TCL is making its phone debut.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

If you thought the phone space was competitive enough, get ready for a new kid on the block. TCL, the company behind some excellent value TVs, is ramping up to be the next big name in 5G and foldable phones. At the IFA tech show here in Berlin this week, the brand launched the TCL Plex, the first phone of many that TCL hints could be released in 2019 and beyond, including 5G and foldable phones.

But although the China-based brand is a new label for smartphones, the company itself has a long history selling devices under the Alcatel name. TCL also licenses the rights to market BlackBerry devices and even the diminutive, resurrected Palm. So why the shift? TCL is trying its hand at being an integrated consumer electronics company like Samsung or LG that can build brand-name value for everything from phones to TVs, smart home devices and beyond.

"For us, this is more a brand launch than a product launch," said Stefan Streit, who heads TCL's global marketing efforts. "We're not just in a rush to pump out something ... We're going to go step by step."

Now playing: Watch this: First TCL phone: 48-megapixel camera for under $400
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The first step, the TCL Plex, is a midrange handset for Europe and Asia that will sell in October for 329 euros (about $360, £295 or AU$530 converted), less than half the price of a premium phone. It brings with it sought-after features such as a large, 6.5-inch screen and three rear cameras, including a main 48-megapixel shooter. The screen also performs a neat trick by turning standard-definition content, like videos, into high-definition images using some software built into the phone. 

And there's a customizable side key that you can program to do things like launch Google Voice, take a selfie, open your favorite app or do nothing at all. (See more specs below.)

While the Plex itself is squarely intended for budget-minded buyers, TCL made it clear that it's got its eye on more ambitious designs. The company also showed off prototypes for foldable phones, a curved dual-screen phone with a "waterfall display" that wraps around the sides and a concept device with no buttons at all. Earlier this year, we also saw a mock-up of a phone that bends back into a smartwatch. 2020 could be an interesting year for TCL phones.

TCL Plex specs

  • 6.5-inch LCD screen with 2,340x1,080-resolution display
  • Three rear cameras: 48-megapixel main, 16-megapixel wide-angle (23-degree), 2-megapixel low light sensor
  • 24-megapixel front-facing camera (hole punch on left side)
  • Portrait mode, super night mode for front and rear cameras
  • Fingerprint reader on the back
  • Up to four devices connected with Super Bluetooth (stereo effects, but not full surround)
  • Headphone jack
  • 128GB on-board storage
  • 6GB RAM
  • Up to 256GB external storage, or Dual-SIM
  • Programmable smart key
  • Qualcomm Snapdragon 675 chipset
  • 3,820-mAh battery
  • Android 9