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Hands-on with TCL's newest foldable phone (it'll cost less than the Razr)

TCL's working prototype of a foldable phone could come out later this year.

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I got to try TCL's working prototype foldable phone.

Angela Lang/CNET
This story is part of CES 2020, our complete coverage of the showroom floor and the hottest new tech gadgets around.

There's no escaping the fact that foldable phones in 2019 cost double what they "should" for the specs they carry. Developing new technology is expensive, from the research to creating the hinge and flexible screen. There's also the premium you pay for owning a futuristic device. But phone brand TCL is working on a foldable phone that will cost less than the $1,500 foldable Motorola Razr flip phone. (And also less than this concept phone that folds into three parts.)

I first saw the concept for this phone last February at Mobile World Congress, but here at CES, I got a chance to play around with a working prototype. The phone is fairly square and opens in the center to reveal a 7.2-inch plastic display bordered by thick black plastic bezels. There's no selfie camera on the inside, but it does have a strip of four cameras along the back, and a deep emerald color with a slight diamond pattern on the back. It's definitely eye-catching.

Unlike other foldable phones I've seen, this one has enough tension to stand up on its own and any stage of the fold. Others tend to snap fully open or closed at a certain point. Because of the relatively square shape, it felt natural to hold it in both orientations. I could even see sitting it up and using one half of the screen to type on.

The experience itself was a bit clunky. The software was slow to respond when I rotated the device, and frequently got stuck on a screen. I could actually hear the phone squeak when I opened and closed it -- I'm not sure if this is the hinge or the screen itself. 

I'll forgive most prototype foibles like that since the company is making the effort to be transparent about what it's working on. TCL, a brand best known for affordable, high-quality TVs, said that it has a dozen foldable designs in the mix, from conception to working prototype phase, and not just phones, either -- wearables and smart home products could bend, too. 

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The brand sees foldable devices as a way to establish the TCL name at a time when phone-makers are scrambling to shake up the slowing industry through new design and the race to adopting 5G speeds. 

There's no pricing, release date information or even a name for this TCL foldable phone, but we do know that if it comes out this year, it'll be a relatively more affordable option for people who want to try life with a foldable screen.

Foldable working prototype phone specs

  • Will launch under the TCL brand
  • Run Android
  • 7.2-inch display
  • 4 cameras, including main, low-light sensor, super-wide-angle, macro
  • 5G support
  • Will probably have a Snapdragon 765 or 765G processor

Originally published earlier this week.