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Galaxy Fold's cheaper challenger: TCL's foldable phone bends into a watch at MWC 2019

At MWC 2019, we saw two foldable phone concepts that even you can afford.

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TCL's vision: making foldable phones at a fraction of the price.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Out in the showroom, TCL's first foldable phone stands in a glass box as though entombed, safe from the greedy hands of the journalists who have come to see the cheaper alternative to Samsung's $2,000 Galaxy Fold and Huawei's just-announced Mate X. But behind closed doors, TCL's GM of global marketing, Stefan Streit, lets us paw over a modest pile of design concepts that includes a hinged metal frame of the foldable phone prototype behind glass, and a long, narrow phone that wraps around your wrist like a watch.

We weren't able to take photos of these devices, but we did get to push them together, pull them apart and peer closely at their seams. It's clear why TCL doesn't want photos of these specific prototypes out in the wild. These are well-worn models that have in some cases been pulled and snapped in directions they were never meant to go. They're not pretty, but they suggest new ways to imagine a foldable device, other than Samsung and Huawei's tablet-into-book design and Xiaomi's double-bending approach. 

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Most importantly, they're ways for TCL to experiment with the "DragonHinge" that makes the hardware bend at all.

ReadGalaxy Fold versus Huawei Mate X: Battle of the foldable phones

CNET was the first to report that TCL is making five foldable phone designs. This is the company in charge of the Alcatel and BlackBerry phone brands that's best known for midprice TVs. When it comes to foldable devices, TCL will push to make its brand better known for phones that cost far less than Samsung's "luxury" Galaxy Fold and Huawei's Mate X -- at least 30 percent cheaper, maybe more.

The Galaxy Fold and Mate X rival

The most familiar design was a wallet-style phone that folds out into a tablet display. This appeared to be on the smaller side than the 7.3 and 8-inch screens we're seeing from Samsung and Huawei, and it did have a curved gap where the hinge bends (this seems to be pretty common). Remember that it's still also just an early-stage concept device, too. 

I liked two things about TCL's approach here. First, the concept we saw in the glass played around with a light-up LED exterior on the casing that shows the clock time. This would take the place of at least one of two possible exterior screens -- a trade-off when you're making a cheaper version of something that's inherently more expensive -- while still providing something useful in return. 

Second, I liked the magnetic ends that kept the device securely closed. Since we haven't actually been allowed hands-on time with either the Mate X or Galaxy Fold, this was the closes we've been able to get to feeling what it's like to open and close on of these newfangled devices.

We also saw a concept that folds the other direction, with the largest screen on the exterior.

ReadTCL's DragonHinge can enable a family of foldable devices

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Instead of sporting two screens on the outside and one on the inside, this concept design has an LED clock. 

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

The phone that turns into a watch

Imagine a long, narrow phone that arches backwards like a gymnast doing a backbend and wraps around your wrist. I handled a silverly concept design with articulated hinges all along its back that give it a reptilian feel -- it's called a Dragon Hinge, after all. It reminded me of the links in a silver watch my dad used to wear, which I used to play with as a bored kid sitting somewhere that required my silence.

This wearable, bendable phone concept is similar to the Lenovo C-Plus concept we saw back in 2016. Considering how long foldable concepts have been in the works, it's no surprise that at least one brand is revisiting the design.

Although TCL won't come forward with its first foldable device until 2020, both concepts are promising early starts for a brand that wants to make foldable affordable for all.

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This foldable phone concept from TCL intentionally leaves a strip of screen peeking out.

Jessica Dolcourt/CNET

A phone with a lip

The last phone concept we saw also had a longer, narrow design. This one's screen bends in over itself like a wallet. Instead of joining symmetrically at the ends, the top portion reveals a bottom lip when it folds down. 

TCL said it played around with the idea of making this exposed strip functional, say a mini screen that shows the time and key notifications. My two CNET colleagues and I unanimously shunned that design. Call us conventional, but I guess we prefer symmetry.