TCL Communication, one of the fastest-growing TV brands in the US, now wants its own slice of the phone market—and it’s not afraid to push the envelope to get it.
The company took the wraps off two foldable device concepts, different from the one it showed at CES 2020. The first has a tri-fold display; think the triple-folded paper brochure you get at state parks, except replace the paper with a phone. It’s one of the first concepts we’ve seen with two separate hinge mechanisms working simultaneously, converting a 6.65-inch phone into a 10-inch tablet.
I got a chance to play around with a prototype. It feels very rough around the edges—namely, it’s stiff and tough to unfold—but the device veritably went from a traditional-looking phone into an iPad-like tablet. You can also fold one-third of the screen away for the times you don’t need the maximum available amount of screen space. I can easily see myself unfolding this in a coffee shop and pulling out a slim Bluetooth keyboard to type up some words instead of lugging around a laptop.
Unfortunately with so much folding going on it, it’s a very thick phone—around the chunkiness of Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, if not more. It’s not terribly fun to use one-handed.
That’s why the second concept is a little more interesting. It’s not exactly a foldable phone, rather a phone with a “rollable” screen, as TCL puts it. It looks just like an ordinary smartphone with a 6.75-inch screen, but spectacularly, you can tug on the right edge of the handset to roll out more display and increase the screen real estate to 7.8 inches—about as much as the iPad Mini, and with no folding required. This design keeps the phone really thin at 0.35 inches. The dummy unit I used required me to manually extend the screen out but TCL said it has a motorized version that automatically does it for you.
Since TCL manufactures its own displays, the company has gone wild playing around with various form factors. It has more than three dozen other concepts floating around in its factories. However, it’s likely the two concepts being unveiled today (as well as the wallet-like foldable device that debuted at CES) will never make it to market.
“We are not shy to show some of these ideas to engage in a discussion, to get your feedback, to learn,” says Stefan Streit, general manager of global marketing at TCL. “We believe this is much more important than just putting a product out, keep the volumes low, charge a very high price, and make the consumer a beta user and pay for it. That’s not TCL’s style.”
This testing phase lets the company identify which types of foldable phones resonate with people the most. Once it nails down a particular design and form—and there’s apparently a leading candidate—TCL intends to create a portfolio of foldables that give several options to buyers.
Being patient also gives the company time to figure out how to make foldable phones more affordable overall. Most of the products we’ve seen from the likes of Samsung, Lenovo, Motorola, and Huawei start at $1,380 and go all the way up to $2,700. That’s far more expensive than some of TCL’s most popular TVs.
“We’re not here to make novelty products,” says Jason Gerdon, head of global strategic communications. “We’re here to make innovation accessible.”
Whatever design TCL ends up settling on, the foldable phone is expected to arrive by the end of the year or early 2021. Before then, TCL is expected to launch its first US phones: the TCL 10 Pro, 10L, and the TCL 10 5G, which it teased at CES. (Gerdon said TCL doesn’t see the Covid-19 outbreak causing a substantial impact on its supply chain in the immediate term, but there is a chance products could be delayed “the longer the crisis continues.”)
Regardless, all this shows just how much TCL is now investing in its own brand name after a few attempts at leveraging others. It licenses the BlackBerry name and made a couple of keyboard-laden phones, but after making no real gains in smartphone market share, TCL is ending its BlackBerry contract this summer. Streit said making BlackBerry phones was still a very valuable learning experience.
TCL also licenses the Alcatel brand and owns Palm, both of which are here to stay. Alcatel will continue to offer ultra-low-cost phones—the TCL phone brand will sit just above it—and Palm will explore other ways to minimize screen time, like say, slapping a flexible screen on your wrist as a bracelet, Streit suggested.
Whether foldable phones prove to be a big part of our future is still up in the air. There’s no singular folding device stealing the hearts of mainstream consumers. But it’s undeniable that a folding screen makes any phone just a little more interesting.
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