TCL foldable phone hands-on: A prototype with promise


TCL has revealed a new foldable phone prototype at CES 2020, a clamshell that opens up to reveal a 7.2-inch flexible touchscreen, and one which already has a few advantages over the Samsung Galaxy Fold. While the device is still at the “functional prototype” stage, and won’t launch quite as you see here, there are already good reasons why what TCL has achieved should get Android fans excited.

It’s not TCL’s first foldable screen device design, mind, though it is an important milestone as the company readies its production plans. Last year it showed off a phone that could be wrapped around your wrist like a bracelet, but that was only a design mock-up. This new tablet for CES 2020 actually works.

Well, it works as in it’s a functional Android device, with a flexible touchscreen that bends down the middle, and has cameras on the back. TCL is at pains to point out that this is still a functional prototype, and not necessarily what its production foldable will look like. Indeed, chatter from within the company is that there are still in the region of 30-40 different foldable designs mocked up and being considered, with no final decision made.

That means I can look past the apparent absence of an internal selfie camera, or indeed an external display of any sort. The prototype’s various glitches can be overlooked, too, like its habit of turning the flashlight on when the screen is closed, and its laggardly screen rotation.

Otherwise, though, there are some impressive details. It’s not a skinny phone when closed – the new Motorola Razr is slimmer, for example – but, unlike the Galaxy Fold, the TCL foldable shuts completely rather than leaving a triangular gap between the two halves. That homegrown hinge has a nice action to it, too: not to stiff but not too loose, either.

The screen falls somewhere in-between the Razr and the Galaxy Fold in size, too. It’s a 7.2-inch panel, running at 2K resolution. That’s a nice size, and a nice aspect ratio too: unlike the Galaxy Fold, which feels weirdly long and narrow when shut, the TCL prototype is far more comfortable in the hand. However it’s big enough that, unlike the Motorola, TCL could fit a decent-sized touchscreen on the outside for casual use.

Right now, though, we get an iridescent plastic casing made up of molded triangles, which catches the light and shimmers between various hues of green and blue. Branding is subtle, as is the row of cameras and the LED flash running down one edge. TCL hasn’t given exact specifications for the phone’s optics – again, this is a prototype after all – but it looks to have regular, ultra-wide, telephoto, and macro sensors.

It’s best not to get too caught up in what this device looks like, though, or how it’s equipped in terms of hardware. What we should probably be most excited about is affordability. TCL isn’t talking about just how much it plans to sell its eventual production foldable for, but its goal is something more attainable than the – admittedly limited – array of announced folding phones we’ve seen to-date. Part of the reason it can do that is its ability to manufacture its own display panels, something that will help it bring in its new TCL 10 Series phones at under $500 each, too.

When, exactly, the TCL foldable will launch is unclear. We’ll probably hear more about that roadmap at Mobile World Congress 2020 in Barcelona next month. Unofficially, it sounds a lot like a late 2020 release is one target, though there are plenty of moving parts to consider.

Maybe the biggest, however, is TCL’s own branding ambitions. Until now, the company has operated its phone business under a variety of sub-brands: Alcatel and BlackBerry, for example. Now it wants to position TCL as a phone brand of its own, borrowing from the selling points of its TVs – which boil down to “great screens at aggressive prices” – and building out an ecosystem of tech that all works together.

Time will tell if the market will make room for that. However there’s no denying that, for all the hype about foldables, so far everything we’ve seen is out of the reach of all but the most aggressive early-adopter. If TCL can buck that trend and deliver a folding phone that doesn’t break the bank, that’s something worth watching.

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