Within TCL’s labs, there exists a prototype of the Fold ‘n Roll, a phone-like device that has a screen that folds open/closed into phablet and rolls open into an even larger tablet.
It looks absolutely wild (from what I could see in on Zoom).
The Fold ‘n Roll is one of three dozen concept devices that TCL is working on. The company has been exploring new form factors with its patented DragonHinge and flexible displays for years, but has yet to release any consumer product to demonstrate its commercial feasibility.
These teases for tri-folding phones and digital scrolls are great for racking up YouTube views, but they’re vaporware until they’re released. Stefan Streit, TCL’s general manager of global marketing, is aware of the anticipation that the company has been building up over the years. He knows everyone wants to see these products become a reality and reiterated that TCL is “still on track to launch our first flexible device later this year as a commercial device.”
“We are 100 percent convinced that the future goes in this direction.”
While TCL’s first flexible devices may not resemble the out-of-this-world rollable, tri-fold phone/tablet, or even the Fold ‘n Scroll, Streit is adamant that devices that fold, bend, or roll (or some combination of these mechanics) are the future.
“We are 100 percent convinced that the future goes in this direction,” Streit told Input. “That's why we have invested in this technology like crazy. This is one of the key differentiators. This will come and this will be disruptive.”
Tablet in your pocket
The whole point of foldable phones is to put a tablet in your pocket. The problem with phones like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold 2 is that they’re essentially the thickness of two phones. That makes it both thick and heavy — fine for your jacket’s inner breast pocket, but not for in your pants. Huawei’s Mate X2 tries to solve this thickness challenge with a tapered design that’s thinner on one end.
TCL knows chunkiness is an issue and why the tri-fold phone/tablet is probably a poor device to produce. To get around this, the Fold ‘n Roll incorporates both a hinge and a rolling mechanism to expand the display from a 6.87-inch phone to an 8.85-inch phablet to a 10-inch tablet. Streit walked me through the design, explaining how one half of the folded display is actually thinner than the other half that includes the scrolling mechanism. The end product is a device that’s about 1.5x the thickness of a regular phone. It’s a far more practical design than the tri-fold phone that’s as thick as three phones stacked together.
“We’re talking visionary things. Doing the real sample — you don't get that feeling from a mock-up.”
Even though the Fold ‘n Roll is not necessarily a real product you’ll be able to buy, the form factor and aspiration that comes with it is what TCL is hoping will differentiate the brand from everyone else.
“I'm not sure if you would come to this one if we didn't do the tri-fold before. We see this as a process,” Streit said. “We're not saying these products are coming to the market. We've shown many different things. But it helps us to put something like this, in a working stage or even as a mockup, in front of consumers or focus groups that they tell us 'I like this or I don't like this.'"
I asked if all this teasing was doing more harm than good to the TCL brand. How much longer are we going to keep ogling concepts and prototypes only to be disappointed when these never arrive? TCL doesn’t want to be known as the vaporware brand. Samsung used to do this all the time — trot out some far-flung concept that it had no intentions of ever turning into a consumer product. After a while, you get so jaded by the vaporware, it felt like Samsung was conning us all and we let them do it.
“Other brands have commercially launched an outside display. We feel like it's too early. To fight in this space, in the phone space — this is super competitive and you see [with the news of LG closing its mobile business] not everyone can survive. It's very difficult to do innovation.”
Streit may be right. Foldable phones with screens like the Huawei Mate X and FlexPai failed because there’s no protection with an outward fold. That’s why Huawei switched to a design where the screen folds inward like Samsung’s Galaxy Z Fold. So why is TCL even making a prototype only to dangle it in front of everyone?
“We’re talking visionary things. Doing the real sample — you don't get that feeling from a mock-up,” Streit said. “You need to do the real sample to understand how the hinge needs to be done. If you need to have a free stop or if you need to have some certain fixed positions. What varies the display movement? You need to see it in reality — what really stretches and what is the mechanic? What is the way to keep the dirt out?”
Going beyond mobile
For TCL, a display company that’s in the business of selling affordable high-quality TVs, these mobile explorations are worth it in the long run. Streit believes the company’s vertical integration positions it to not only be at the forefront of offering new mobile form factors, but also supplying other companies with new display solutions.
“Think about these mechanics. This combination — we could also do in watches. They can fold up something and then you can roll out something.”
TCL’s parent company, TCL CSOT (China Star Optoelectronics Technology Co., Ltd) which makes TV display panels and the flexible displays that the mobile division is working with could also license its flexible displays to other brands for different applications. Streit threw out the possibility of its flexible display innovations being used in cars, for example. “Any product that has a display we can do that; for a product company like TCL we can apply this particular technology to so many different products.”
“Going to this new category — this is like regular cars and electric cars,” Streit said. This is a different world and this is an opportunity for a new brand — something that we can add our innovations.”
The Fold ‘n Roll looks beyond futuristic. But so did TCL’s other prototypes. Until the form meets function for these zany new devices, TCL’s marching on with more standard commercial phones. The new 20 series — the 20L, 20L+ and 20 Pro 5G — are your typical glass rectangles and successors to the 10 series launched last year. At €229 for the 20L, €269 for the 20L+, and €549 for the 20 Pro 5G, they appear to be reasonable mid-range devices with respectable features for the pricing.
As is TCL’s specialty, the 20 series emphasizes display quality. Though none of the phones have high-refresh rates (they’re all 60Hz), TCL has included a number of proprietary display technologies borrowed from its TV expertise like NXTVISION, which enhances image quality and filters out blue light. Another display feature, called “Natural View, that” TCL touts as the world’s first mobile screen to work with polarized sunglasses, means colors won’t look darker or washed out; the screen also reportedly reduces eyestrain by 80 percent. On the 20 Pro 5G, AI is used for real-time SDR-to-HDR conversion, to enhance skin tones while preserving background colors, and display more accurate colors.
That’s not to say there aren’t other notable improvements. TCL’s improved all the cameras; all three phones have microSD card slots for storage expansion; and the 20 Pro 5G has 5G and no camera bump thanks to its tapered design. The color options are striking, too.
None of these devices are as exciting as the Fold ‘n Roll or any of TCL’s past concept devices, but they’re necessary commercial stepping stones toward that sci-fi future. For TCL’s sake, we hope it’s not another handful of years of vaporware teases.