While Huawei, Motorola, and Samsung race to release the most popular foldable phone on the market right now, TCL, the Chinese manufacturer well known for its budget-friendly Alcatel lineup, is playing it cool. We had an opportunity to get up close with a few of its foldable prototypes, which seem more promising than anything we’ve seen released so far. We also spoke with Stefan Streit, TCL’s general manager of global marketing, about the company’s plans for foldable display tech in upcoming products.
A Twist on the Clamshell
While TCL was keen to show off its tri-fold and rollable prototypes, we found its basic clamshell phone to be the most interesting. Slightly larger than a cigarette case, from the outside the phone resembles a giant emerald with a glossy green finish and facets that reflect light. A discreet camera array, flush against the body of the device, is the only indicator you’re holding a phone at all. Inside is a single AMOLED display no larger than what you find on a traditional flagship.
Describing the phone, Streit told PCMag TCL’s goal with its flexible display technology is to break out of the familiarity we’ve come to expect from modern phones and “create completely different form factors.” He admits the gemstone-like clamshell is “probably not what you bring to the customers as a commercial device because people don’t recognize it as a phone,” but it’s an opportunity to show off the creative potential that exists with foldable displays.
While the hinge works well, it emits a loud creak when opening the phone, similar to the Motorola Razr. Streit told us the handset was used in TCL’s lab for months and opened more than 200,000 times. He also said the company is “focusing on the different hardware pieces to really understand, OK, how many times can this open and close without seeing failure?”
A Tri-Fold Phone/Tablet
The second protype, a tri-fold phone that serves double duty as a tablet, was first shown off last year. Folded, the device looks like a chunky 6.65-inch smartphone with the traditional camera array on the back. Unfolded, it becomes a 10-inch tablet with an AMOLED display.
TCL is using its DragonHinge to manipulate one third of the display, and a butterfly hinge for the other third. The flexible hinges allow you to fold the device in a zigzag pattern for multiple use cases, like folding one third down to create a workspace with a freestanding screen and on-display keyboard.
Unlike the clamshell model, we opened this device in multiple positions and didn’t hear a single whine or creak from either hinge, and the display showed almost no noticeable creases.
From Foldables to Rollables
The third device, a phone with a rollable display, is arguably the most consumer-friendly of the bunch. It’s also the only non-working prototype we saw; TCL said the working model is stuck in China.
The phone is only slightly thicker than your average flagship and features a 6.75-inch AMOLED display that extends to 7.8 inches with the push of a button. Since we didn’t have a chance to actually try the phone, we can’t say how well it works. A representative for TCL told us the display has no creases, though Streit confirmed the company is still working on the device to make sure the screen isn’t damaged by dust or scratches as it opens and closes.
TCL has no plans to release any of its prototypes as consumer-ready devices at the moment. Streit told us several times the company is in no rush to release a phone with a folding or rollable display. Right now, its focus is on finding the best uses for flexible displays, tweaking the hardware, and making the products affordable.
But while we may not see a foldable handset from TCL in the near future, the company’s first TCL-branded phones are just around the corner. The company provided a preview at CES earlier this year and promised an update on US availability in the coming months, so check back soon.