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Forget foldable phones. Large rollable displays are the way to go

Commentary: It sounds ridiculous, but TCL's prototype phone with a slide-out screen has shown me the light.

TCL extendable phone prototype

We got our hands on TCL's prototype scrollable phone. And even if it's just a mock-up that doesn't work, we think the idea has a lot of potential.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The Galaxy Fold blew people away when Samsung showed off the device a year ago. A few days after that, Huawei added fuel to the fire with the crowd-stopping Mate X. The age of foldable phones was upon us. This year, with the Galaxy Z Flip and Motorola Razr out, there's a modest level of interest in foldables, but not the rabid curiosity of a year ago. Are foldables -- gasp -- already passe?

Yes, yes they are. And that's because there's already something else on the horizon: rollable or, as I like to call them, scrollable phones.

Scrolls. If they're good enough for pharaohs and knights, they're good enough for us. At least that's what I used to joke about after seeing LG's rollup OLED TV and musing about whether the technology would find its way into a more compact form.

TCL, a company best known for making budget-friendly big-screen televisions, actually did it, and in a way that makes perfect sense. Though foldable phones have been pitched as the future of how all our phones will look and operate, the idea of a rolling display that unfurls and enlarges could prove to be an alternative vision of our future handset.

Now playing: Watch this: A phone with a sliding screen
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After leaked images obtained by CNET gave people a look at the concept device, TCL made it official by showing off a dummy prototype of the scrollable (or slidable) device to media earlier this week. The scrollable made its appearance alongside a working model of the trifold concept TCL showed off last year, which my colleague Eli Blumenthal got to try

I had a chance to play with the scrollable, sliding the display in and out. When you initially hold the phone, it looks fairly normal, but there's a break in the phone's frame, near the right edge, that lets you pull out the screen and extend it to twice the normal width.

It's a normal 6.75-inch display when closed, but it extends to 7.8 inches when opened.

The effect is remarkable when you give it a quick glance, as if the screen is stretching like taffy while you pull it. Take a closer look, though, and you see the excess flexible display roll out of the left side. When closed, the rest of the screen is rolled up into the back of the display.

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When I say a dummy prototype, it was very much a dummy. The mockup had no electronics, and the display was little more than a thin, flimsy-feeling plastic sheet printed with what the display would look like. There were multiple instances when I had trouble prying the thing open. And the entire time, I was fearful it would break.

TCL said it has a working prototype, including a mechanism that automatically opens and closes the phone. We saw footage of the device and the moving screen. It moved slower than we would've liked, and still looked rough as a prototype.

But the idea is enough to get me excited, and aside from the wow factor, there are a few reasons why.

Much of the attention around foldables has been focused on the hinge and getting the display to fold down completely. That's why the Mate X folds outward, and why the Galaxy Fold has an unsightly gap in the middle. The clamshell Galaxy Z Flip and Motorola Razr use different hinges to minimize the actual turn radius, but they don't actually fold flat.

A scrollable phone would avoid that issue. Because it would roll out, there'd be no need for it to fold completely shut or for a fancy hinge to get around the crease issue. There wouldn't be creases.

It would also scroll down to a phone that's a normal size.

Now playing: Watch this: Playing with TCL's triple-screen foldable
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Bringing this to a larger device would have even more applications. Imagine taking a tablet and stretching it out into its own full-fledged monitor. CNET editor Scott Stein has a nice take on why foldables have more applications than just phones and tablets

For TCL, a scrollable phone would be a good way to get on the map. The company has long made budget phones using the Alcatel brand, and it has a deal to sell BlackBerry-branded phones. But the TCL name itself is associated with affordable (and extremely good) TVs, not phones.

And the company's budget roots should have us all encouraged. TCL is shooting to release a foldable or scrollable that's 30% to 40% less expensive than existing foldables in the market, according to Stefan Streit, general manager of global marketing for the company.  

That would make a huge difference when the starting price for the Galaxy Z Flip is a mere $1,380.

Here's the bad news. TCL has been steadily showing off these foldable concepts for a while, starting a year ago. And while they look cool, you shouldn't hold your breath for one to hit the market soon. Streit predicts one will come out in the first half of 2021.

The company has 36 different sorts of prototypes it's worked on, according to Streit, so there's no guarantee the scrollable will be chosen.

But if TCL wants to generate some buzz, it would be wise to put the scrollable on the road map. We're all itching for something different, and a scrollable phone might be something different that makes sense.