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TCL’s foldable phone prototype is untouchable for now

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Enter the DragonHinge

If you want a signal for how far out the dreamy foldable phone that we can actually afford is, look no further than the prototype that TCL just unveiled at Mobile World Congress today. With a 7.2-inch flexible screen, it’s in the same size class as Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, and just like the Fold, the TCL prototype is not to be touched or even breathed upon by mere mortals. I’m a little surprised the company let me lift the glass surround to take a closer look at the thing. And, take note, I never saw this foldable device actually folding or unfolding: the thing on show at MWC can be more rightly classified as a folded phone prototype.

TCL is a bit of a complex company, given that it has one business that builds display panels — which does contract work for all sorts of consumer product manufacturers — and a separate consumer arm that designs and sells devices under its own brand as well as the Alcatel, BlackBerry, and Palm names. The MWC prototype comes from that latter operation: TCL is not just showing off the flexible OLED display, it’s here to convince people that its patented DragonHinge construction is the future of foldable device design.

I was shown the interior metal structure of the DragonHinge frame (no photos allowed), and the hinge itself operates using a series of small gears. I imagine most companies will be taking a similar approach to building their foldables, and there’s certainly a significant mechanical engineering challenge when trying to create something that’s both protective of a fragile display and tactile and immediate enough for a person to use every day.

Holding a non-functioning mockup of the same 7.2-inch notebook-like device, I was able to get a sense for the ergonomics of the proposed foldable. Firstly, yes, there’s a huge gap at the hinge side of the closed device, because the screen can only be rolled, it can’t ever fold fully flat (unless you want a crease, a dead screen, or, most likely, a dead screen with a crease in it). But TCL’s design around that limitation really impressed me. Magnets clasp the two sides together securely when you want the tablet closed, the exterior finish takes inspiration from the grippy, matte surface of Moleskine notebooks, and the hinge construction has just the right amount of give and flex to be reassuring without being flimsy.

And yet, the working prototype at MWC was so fragile that even TCL’s own staff were warned off from touching it. That’s a super early stage of development. I have no complaints to offer about the display itself, which was playing a demo loop, but I also didn’t get to see it at its fullest extension: how flat will be it when it’s supposed to provide a regular tablet experience with its 2048 x 1546 resolution? How much of a compromise will a user have to accept for the admittedly charming ability to fold the device and pocket it?

Beside the inward-folding device, TCL also brought a selection of other concepts to MWC, all of them mechanical mockups and not to be photographed. One is for a super elongated smartphone, which would collapse down into a bracelet that you can wrap around your wrist. Another has a rigid U shape, like a bangle, and is again intended for the wrist. In both those cases, TCL tells me the screen is less challenging — because there’s a more gentle curve, no folding issues to deal with — but then the battery becomes a massive challenge.

I really liked the phone concept that looked like a regular smartphone but could be folded outwards to an almost flat position. Not because it looked like anything practical, but because it triggered in me the sense of loss for a smartphone that’d been snapped in half, only to then find out that, hey, it’s fine, this is our foldable future. One useful thing I learned from my talk with TCL: you need a bigger hinge radius when folding the display inward than outward — because of the aforementioned crease threat factor. So now companies intending to get into the foldables business are weighing up the pros and cons: outward-folding devices will be flatter, sleeker, and more visually engaging, but an inward-folding tablet protects the screen much better and is ergonomically reminiscent of using a regular old paper book.

TCL’s timeline for bringing either the 7.2-inch working prototype or anything else from the company’s developing foldable portfolio is focused on the middle of 2020. That’s still aggressive, to my mind, when you consider that Alcatel doesn’t play in the premium market, BlackBerry is too conservative for anything of this sort, and the Palm name — well, I guess you could slap the Palm name on a foldable and enter the Bohn zone of combining nostalgic appeal with an earnest desire for the latest and weirdest. But still, TCL’s pedigree is that of a cheaper alternative to the Samsungs of the world, and the company isn’t shy about saying that it wants to democratize foldables.

My sense from talking to TCL executives is that their goal is to bring foldables below the $1,000 mark, and probably further than that still, though they wouldn’t commit to saying anything other than admitting surprise at Samsung’s epic $1,980 pricing on the Galaxy Fold.

This year’s MWC is going to play host to a great many more foldable concepts, prototypes, and potentially even retail products. But none of them are on the near or affordable horizon, and TCL’s roadmap seems to make the most sense to me. We’ll be talking a lot more about foldables over the next year and a half, but buying one will be another matter.