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TCL's DragonHinge can enable a family of foldable devices

The company best known for its TVs and Alcatel phones shows off prototypes at MWC in Barcelona that use its new patented hinge mechanism.

TCL

If you want a good foldable phone, you need a good hinge. At least that's what TCL believes. 

The Chinese company is best known for budget televisions but also produces phones through its BlackBerry Mobile and Alcatel brands. And on Sunday it unveiled its new "DragonHinge" at MWC in Barcelona. The multi-gear hinge, for which TCL has filed a patent, will enable it to build a variety of foldables as soon as next year.  

"We see the opportunity to really shape and bring something fresh to market ... because there's so many different ways you can do [foldables]," said Stefan Streit, TCL's general manager of global marketing, in an interview in Spain ahead of the DragonHinge announcement. "We want to break out of [doing the] same thing."

I got a close look at the new DragonHinge and foldable prototypes TCL has built. The hinge lets you do things like fold a display inward to close it like a book or curve it outward to wrap it around your wrist. 

The design concepts use custom flexible AMOLED displays from TCL's sister company, China Star Optoelectronics Technology (CSOT). Samsung, LG and CSOT are three of the biggest panel makers in the world, giving them all in-house expertise in flexible displays.

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CNET reported earlier in February that TCL has been working on at least five devices with flexible displays, including two tablets, two phones and a flexible phone that could curve into a smartwatch, according to company renderings and patent image filings obtained by CNET. This is the first time TCL has shown any physical products to reporters. 

One of TCL's designs is booked-shaped, with the two sides of the screen folding in on each other (similar to how Samsung's Galaxy Fold works) and held in place by magnets. It becomes a tablet when expanded. Other versions of that design could have the display on the outside. 

tcl-dragon-hinge-foldable-phone-dsc09339

TCL shows off several foldable prototypes that use its new DragonHinge at MWC 2019.

Shara Tibken/CNET

Another design shown by TCL is skinny and long, with the DragonHinge all along the back so it can be worn as a watch. 

Yet another model folds tightly almost like a flip phone, with part of the screen exposed for always-on notifications or other use when the main display is closed. The last device doesn't use a DragonHinge but is an example of TCL's early research in foldables.

TCL's push at MWC underscores the industry's growing interest in foldable devices, which is seen as the next major leap in phone design and a way to get us interested in phones again. People are holding onto their phones for longer than before, and it's getting harder to justify a pricey upgrade given the relatively minor tweaks made every year. The hope is that foldables can change that and introduce a new way of interacting with electronics. 

Here in Barcelona, at the world's biggest mobile show, it's what everyone's buzzing about. 

Foldable fanatics

Samsung earlier this week unveiled its first foldable phone, the Galaxy Fold, at its Unpacked event in San Francisco. The device is a compact phone with a 4.6-inch display when closed and a more expansive, 7.3-inch tablet when fully opened. The Galaxy Fold has six cameras, with three on the back, one on the front and two inside, and it will cost a whopping $1,980 (about £1,500 or AU$2,800) when it hits the market April 26.

Samsung isn't the only company making foldables: Most major Android phone makers and even unknown startups are working on foldable devicesGoogle has said it's committed to providing Android support for foldable designs. Startup Royole already sells its foldable device, the FlexPai, at $1,318 for the version with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. The FlexPai closes like a book, with its screen on the outside. Even Apple has filed patents for foldable phone designs.

Huawei, the world's second biggest phone maker, introduced its Mate X foldable 5G phone  on Sunday at MWC but didn't say anything about price or availability. The device folds on a mechanism called the Falcon Wing Hinge.

TCL, meanwhile, is among the top players in televisions but has a lower profile when it comes to phones. It struck a licensing deal with BlackBerry to make productivity-focused phones, and then licensed out the Palm name to a startup that's made a bizarre tiny phone that's a companion for your main phone. The company is now hoping to build up its name recognition by jumping on one of the flashiest trends in the industry.

TCL's aim is to make foldables cheap enough that people will actually buy them. Phone prices have been rising over the years, but Samsung's first foldable is about double the price of regular, high-end phones. 

"If we create innovation that prices customers out of the market, it's not necessarily a meaningful innovation," said Jason Gerdon, TCL's head of communications and strategy.

The company said it wants to price its first foldables about 30 percent less than the FlexPai's $1,318 price tag. That means its first foldables could cost less than $1,000, which would make them cheaper than Apple's $999 iPhone XS

The only hitch is TCL's foldable phones won't hit the market until 2020.

"We're being patient [so] we can deliver something meaningful," Gerdon said. "But we also want people to understand TCL is capable of this innovation."

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