What if Samsung and Motorola and Huawei and every other company that’s chasing foldable phones are all wrong?
What if the next generation of phones don’t have displays that fold in half with a janky crease you can see and feel, but a screen that expands open, kind of like a scroll, instead?
TCL showed me such a concept phone with a “rollable” display that would use two motors to extend a regular smartphone into a tablet without using any questionable hinges. The device I got to touch was a plastic mock-up with no working parts, but TCL said it’s real and showed me a working version in several short videos.
Even though all I got to play with was a mock-up, the rollable phone concept already has me way more optimistic about new mobile form factors than the Galaxy Fold, or Razr, or Galaxy Z Flip. Rollables could be the new foldables, but without the durability problems.
“We studied the [foldables] market in detail and we see there are a few challenges, which you can see with devices that came out or are about to come out,” says Stefan Streit, TCL’s general manager of global marketing. “They’re getting better and the things where we felt like this could get better — the foldable display itself — yeah we can do that, but what about the hinge? The mechanics?”
Stefan says TCL is well-positioned to innovate with new phone form factors — especially devices that include flexible and foldable displays and require complex hinges and motors — because of its heritage making high-quality TV displays and its mechanical engineering expertise.
“Most of the phone manufacturers, they haven't done any mechanical parts for the last 10 years, right?,” he says. “TCL has a high expertise when it comes to mechanical engineering because we've been building washing machines, air conditioners, vacuum cleaners. [Things] with lots of moving parts. We take that expertise and apply it [to new phone form factors].”
While TCL could make a foldable phone — it showed one off at CES this year and has another tri-fold foldable phone concept that's in the lab — Stefan says they’re asking the hard questions (the how and why) internally and externally, but not rushing to market with anything that’s half-baked.
“[TCL] can also do a thousand pieces of a [foldable phone] and sell it for $2,500 and make the consumer a beta tester. That we don't want,” says Stefan. “We have to do the job ourselves on these mechanical things.”
And it’s not just the hardware that TCL wants to perfect before asking consumers to buy its next-gen phones. Stefan says the company is intensely focused on making sure the software for foldables makes sense, too. Something Samsung could learn a thing or two about; the Galaxy Fold’s poorly optimized software is a great example of rushing a product to market.
“What does it mean when you have a display open with your Facebook app and you close it? Does it close the app? Or does the app open on the outside display if you have one? How does multitasking work and what can you do with these [foldable] displays?”
He says TCL has been working very closely with Google to fine-tune what an Android experience on a foldable should look like and how it should work. “We have lots of discussions on this topic because this is something that we need Google's help with.”
I expected Stefan to show me some kind of foldable that solved the challenges of today’s foldable phones. All of his talk about the hinge had me convinced that maybe — just maybe — TCL had cracked (no pun intended) the hinge. Or maybe even made a screen that bends in half without an ugly crease.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, Stefan showed me something else — a device that’s potentially superior to a foldable — and still able to offer something new and more exciting compared to the existing glass sandwiches that phones have now become.
The concept phone and its rollable display has no official name; TCL is just calling it a “rollable extendable smartphone concept.” After all, the device is just a concept — an experimental prototype that the company is toying with.
Despite being a concept, I was immediately drawn to its hinge-free design. If you know me, you already know I’m super skeptical of foldable phones. Not because I don’t want them to succeed, but because, by design, their foldable displays (plastic or glass) and the hinges they require have yet to prove they’re durable.
The Royole FlexPai’s hinge literally has rubber covering for all the mechanical parts underneath, and the gears on the Razr are completely exposed. With the exception of the “hideaway hinge” on Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip, none of the hinges on commercially available foldable phones inspire confidence.
But with TCL’s rollable phone there’s no hinge. Two internal motors (not dissimilar to the ones used to raise and lower the pop-up selfie cameras in phones like the OnePlus 7 Pro) work together to enlarge the display from 6.75 inches to 7.8 inches. Stefan told me a button controls the motors.
I instantly took to the rollable phone for two reasons: 1) There’s no hinge, which means there’s no crease (yuck) in the screen and no chance for debris (like fine dust) to get trapped inside and 2) the device is barely thicker than big phones like the Samsung Galaxy S20 Ultra or OnePlus 7 Pro.
A third reason (albeit nerdier one) later bubbled up: there’s no need to split the battery in two like manufacturers do on foldable phones.
“We’re looking at different ways we can use [flexible display] technology,” says Stefan. So one different form factor, one different thing we're doing is this device which is a regular smartphone. But if you need a bigger display, you can pull it out."
“Why motorized? It's a much better experience, you don't want people to pull it out with different strengths. You want to have an engine to control that.”
A motor to expand and retract the screen isn’t a bad idea! Despite companies ensuring their foldable phones have been tested for X number of folds, real-life usage differs greatly from lab testing performed by robots. As Stefan notes, varied strengths opening and closing a foldable phone or pulling or pushing a screen introduce more variables for breaking points. A motorized screen would be a constant that’s easier to test for durability.
Again, I only saw a non-functional mock-up. But even so, the rollable phone already seems more sensible than any foldable that’s been released so far. The literal breaking points that could crop up at the hinges on foldables wouldn’t be an issue on the rollable phone.
TCL proudly says in its press release that the rollable display “has no wrinkles or creases which are commonly found with foldable AMOLEDs.” If that’s true, that would be a big advantage, but until I see a working rollable phone with my own eyes, I’m going to remain cautious about this. Even LG’s rollable TVs have some very faint wrinkles if you look closely enough.
“We’re using our internal mechanical engineering skills to make [this rollable device] work, but it has different challenges, of course,” cautions Stefan. “On these ones that fold, you need to make sure there's no dirt coming in the hinge. But on this rollable, we have to make sure there's no dirt coming in [the side edge of the screen].”
“We’re using our internal mechanical engineering skills to make [this rollable device] work.”
Mechanical parts getting gummed up with dirt and dust is indeed a challenge. Not to mention, it’s harder to make moving parts water-resistant (that’s why the OnePlus 7 Pro and the Galaxy Fold and Z Flip aren’t). But for durability, a rollable display that isn’t working to resist physics as much as one that folds means there's potentially one less thing that will fail.
That said, the rollable display would still face the same issue I have with most foldable phones: the plastic screen. Compared to glass screens, plastic screens are easier to damage with little effort. (That's why there are so many warnings on the Galaxy Fold.) Unless there's some kind of breakthrough to make plastic screens more durable, any device — foldable or rollable — that uses one is going to be a tough sell.
"We don't need to rush to the market to just bring out [new phone form factors]," Stefan adamantly told me. "We need to make sure we have a good user experience."