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Foldable phones are coming, even if they've hit a bit of a roadblock

TCL, best known for big-screen televisions, wants to use foldables and 5G to make a bigger mark in smartphones.

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TCL 10 5G phone

The TCL 10 5G looks set to cost $400 and come to the US in the fall. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

A year ago, foldable phones captured the imagination of gadget enthusiasts and did something handsets hadn't done in a while -- elicit genuine excitement. But in a year beset by a global pandemic and now focused on protests seeking an end to police brutality and racial injustice, that sort of whiz-bang product -- which so far sells for more than $1,000 -- doesn't seem appropriate. 

Stefan Streit, general manager of global marketing for TCL's phone business, said in an interview last month that he believes foldable phones could see more momentum in two years, especially once you see greater variety of products. The company has teased a number of prototypes, from trifold displays to a phone with a rollable display that extends out, but hasn't released a product yet. 

Streit also said he's shooting to launch a 5G phones for less than $500. The phone goes on sale in Europe for 399 euros this month, and arrives in the US with an unnamed carrier in the second half, with the potential to  hit the $399 mark

That price would make the TCL 10 5G phone one of the most affordable ways to get into the world of 5G, the next-generation of wireless technology that's supposed to dramatically change our lives with super-fast network speed and responsiveness. The early days of 5G saw spotty coverage and expensive devices, but devices like the 10 5G and the Samsung Galaxy A51, which has 5G and will retail for less than $500, underscore the notion that this technology is accessible to more people. 

For TCL, which is better known for making affordable but feature-packed televisions, trends like 5G and that other flashy mobile trend, foldable phones, represent an opportunity to make a better name for itself in the smartphone world. The Chinese company has long operated different brands, including Alcatel, BlackBerry and Palm, but it's ready to tout a broader family of products under one name, a la Samsung or LG, but with more of a mass-market bent. 

"It's part of TCL's philosophy," Streit said. "We're looking at how we can bring this technology into something more affordable."

The 10 5G is part of TCL's broader 10 line, which includes the 10 Pro and 10 L. These phones were supposed to light up the flashier coming-out party of the TCL brand as a phone maker at the Mobile World Congress trade show in Barcelona earlier this year, but that got squashed when the conference was canceled amid the coronavirus pandemic. 

While the coronavirus has locked down millions of people in their homes, sparked tens of millions of job losses and thrown a lot of uncertainty into our lives, Streit believes that 5G adoption will still continue to be strong. 

That's partly because many consumers -- especially younger ones -- live their lives so completely on their phones that a faster connection is critical. He sees a lot of potential in both streaming and broadcasting video, as well as in gaming. 

A lot of it will come down to pricing. And while a $400 5G phone sounds like an outlier now, Streit believes there will be more affordable options that emerge in the second half. 

TCL may be known for its budget projects, but it's investing in higher-end, aspirational products. In China, the company sells an 8K television that has its own 5G radio. There are, sadly, no plans to bring that to the US, he said. 

Foldable goal

One category TCL's research and development team has been working hard on is the foldable smartphone. 

Streit said of the response the company's received that the folding phone, similar to the Motorola Razr or the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip, is an obvious contender, while the rollable phone is a good example of a device that initially looks like a normal phone, but with a screen that expands in a subtle way. 

"If you go too far and make it too big a step and bring too many crazy products, it takes a bit of time for people to adapt to that," he said. 

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TCL still doesn't have a specific timeline for when it wants to bring a foldable phone to the market beyond the first half of 2021. But it's unclear whether that'll happen given the pandemic. The company needs to reassess whether the demand for a $1,000-plus phone remains, given the economic uncertainty the crisis has brought.

Other concepts TCL teased included a foldable wearable that wraps around your wrist. He compared it to the era of feature phones that offered different designs like sliders, clamshells and candy bar handsets. 

Streit touted TCL's internal resources, which include people working on the in-house display business, that can be tapped to build unique devices. 

But TCL definitely isn't releasing one anytime soon. Streit said that a foldable phone released now would cost somewhere around $2,400, which would make it more expensive than some of the company's high-end televisions. 

"That doesn't make sense," he said.