We Tried TCL's New Foldable Phone Concepts with Rollable and Bendable Screens
TCL is experimenting with devices that have roll-out screens and displays that can bend all the way backwards.
Lisa EadiciccoSenior Editor
Lisa Eadicicco is a senior editor for CNET covering mobile devices. She has been writing about technology for almost a decade. Prior to joining CNET, Lisa served as a senior tech correspondent at Insider covering Apple and the broader consumer tech industry. She was also previously a tech columnist for Time Magazine and got her start as a staff writer for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide.
TCL hasn't released a foldable phone yet, but that hasn't stopped it from coming up with new ideas. The company is showcasing two new foldable device concepts ahead of Mobile World Congress. One prototype has a display that can fold inwards and outwards, while the other can fold and expand the size of its screen.
TCL is calling the concept that can fold both ways the 360-degree Ultra Flex, while the combination foldable and rollable is being called the Fold N' Roll. Both devices are in the prototype stage and are just concepts, meaning they shouldn't be considered products. TCL said the Ultra Flex is being shown for the first time, while the Fold N' Roll has only been previously demonstrated in China. They're both meant to illustrate TCL's general approach to foldable phones as it seeks to distinguish itself in a market largely dominated by Apple and Samsung.
Foldable phones are still a nascent part of the overall smartphone industry, comprising just 0.5% of the market as of 2021, according to forecast projections from the International Data Corporation. But that number is expected to grow to 1.8% in 2025, according to the same report. The IDC also says foldables are expected to take over a third of the market for premium Android phones. With that in mind, it's not surprising that Samsung, Microsoft and Motorola have all released foldable phones over the past couple of years, while Apple is rumored to be developing a foldable iPhone.
Watch this: We Tried TCL's New Foldable and Rollable Phone Concepts
The 360-degree Ultra Flex and Fold N' Roll concepts
Of the two concepts, the 360-degree Ultra Flex is more similar to publicly available foldable devices such as the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Microsoft Surface Duo 2. Similar to those devices, TCL's concept can unfold like a book to provide more screen space on the inside. But it can also fold all the way back in the opposite direction. The phone's backwards-bending ability would make it possible to use the device with one hand since there's no cover display.
This design makes the Ultra Flex concept seem like a hybrid between the Galaxy Z Fold 3 and Surface Duo 2. Unlike Microsoft's foldable, which has two screens joined together by a hinge in the middle, TCL's prototype consists of one large screen that folds in the middle. But like the Surface Duo 2, it can bend backwards to be used multiple modes. The Ultra Flex is like Samsung's foldable in that it has one continuous screen that folds in half. But Samsung's Galaxy Z Fold 3 doesn't bend the other way like the Ultra Flex prototype and Surface Duo 2.
The Ultra Flex concept felt thick and a bit awkward to hold in one hand when folded back completely. If this were to become a real product, I imagine most people would use it fully opened like a tablet or partially folded like a book. The hinge also stood out as being one of the concept's most striking visual elements. It also felt durable and easy to bend in both directions; I had no concerns about potentially damaging it when folding it all the way back.
TCL's Ultra Flex has an 8-inch AMOLED screen with a 2,480 by 1,860 resolution, making it larger than the Galaxy Z Fold 3's 7.6-inch inner screen. But the prototype wouldn't power on during the brief time I spent with it, so I couldn't really tell what it would be like to use it. The company also wouldn't reveal details about the device's processor or other specifications, like the camera resolution. But the prototype was still developed enough to provide insight about TCL's general approach to foldables when it comes to style and design.
The Fold N' Roll, on the other hand, feels decidedly different from today's commercially available foldable devices. When opened, it may look similar to the Ultra Flex concept and other foldables at first glance. Like the Ultra Flex and Galaxy Z Fold, the Fold N' Roll opens to reveal a larger screen on the inside. But as its name implies, the phone can also extend its screen in addition to folding in half. Just press a button on the device, and the screen will begin to roll out from one edge -- providing 8.8-inches of total screen space. That's larger than the iPad Mini, pushing it closer to full-sized tablet territory. The screen has a resolution of 2,880 by 2,160 and measures about seven inches when rolled in.
The screen extension function only worked once during my demo, and the software was very glitchy since it's only a prototype. But the software still quickly adjusted to accommodate the new screen size when extending and retracting the extra portion of the display, which was impressive. The crease running down the center of the screen was also barely visible when unfolded.
The display on the Fold N' Roll wraps around the device's edge to cover its entire front when closed – another design element that makes it stand out. But again, it's difficult to tell how this would add to the user experience – if at all – since the software wasn't stable.
We still don't know when TCL will launch a foldable phone
TCL is best known for its value-priced TVs and is a relative newcomer to the US smartphone market. But its investment in foldable devices signals that it intends to challenge the mobile industry's biggest players for years to come.
The question, however, is when TCL will actually begin selling foldable phones. The company scrapped plans to launch a flip phone-style foldable similar to the Galaxy Z Flip 3 in 2021. It made this decision for a variety of factors, including the relative weakness of its brand in the mobile market and increases in component prices because of the pandemic, as CNET previously reported.
If and when TCL does release a foldable phone, it intends to sell it for $700 or less, the company said. That would make it considerably cheaper than today's foldables, which cost upwards of $1,000. Still, TCL already faces a lot of competition, and not just from existing foldable phones that are available for sale. Samsung showcased four new concept foldables at CES 2022, while LG teased a rollable phone at CES 2021.
Stefan Streit, TCL's chief marketing officer, told CNET in September that it would take at least 12 to 18 months for the company to launch its first foldable. That remains to be seen, but the new concepts suggest TCL certainly isn't giving up anytime soon.
"For us, this category is really, really important," Streit told CNET in that September interview. "We will bring products. We will bring a number of products."