TCL seems to love showing off eye-catching prototypes at shows, and today it’s doing the same for MWC 2022. Alongside an array of new phones and tablets, the company just debuted a concept device tentatively called the “Ultra Flex” — a phone with a 360-degree rotating hinge and a flexible display that bends along with it. That means this thing can fold in on itself as well as out towards the world.
This is a technically challenging proposition, since the screen has to undergo much more flexing than those that only bend one way. The strip that’s right above the hinge, in particular, would probably suffer the most stress.
In fact, it’s so prone to breaking that the unit we saw at our hands-on in New York never did turn on. Its 8-inch, 2,480 x 1,860 PLP AMOLED screen remained disappointingly dark, though TCL reps did show us photos of it working earlier that day. For now, we can only take their word for it.
The display wasn’t the only engineering challenge for this prototype: The 360-degree hinge also needed some finessing. Each time I folded and unfolded the device, most of the movement was smooth until the screen’s halves were close to touching. That’s when it made unsettling noises and felt like crunching cereal under a membrane. TCL has not shared any specifics on how the hinge and display work, either, keeping those details confidential for now. It’s clear that this prototype is nowhere close to being a real product.
Why would we even want a device that can fold both ways? TCL reps said it would offer the benefits of both inward-folding devices like the Galaxy Z Fold as well as those that bend outwards like Huawei’s first Mate X foldable. Having a panel you could fold outwards could offer a preview for your camera subjects to see how they look while you frame them up, for example, or let you present slides to someone facing you. Given that Huawei has since adopted Samsung’s approach instead of sticking with an outside-facing flexible screen, it appears that style of foldable might not be very feasible.
Still, I liked the Ultra Flex prototype’s matte blue finish and the mock quad-camera array on the back. The pliable, corrugated backing for the hinge also added an interesting touch to the design, and a slot on the bottom left indicates potential for the inclusion of an onboard stylus.
We also got to see the company’s “Fold n’ Roll” concept device in person for the first time since it was unveiled in April last year. This is a foldable 6.7-inch phone that uses a motorized mechanism that, at the push of a button, unfurls more of its screen to make an 8.8-inch 2,880 x 2,160 canvas. Like the Ultra Flex, this prototype felt janky, and getting the device to roll out its screen was like asking a dog to sit. Sometimes it worked as expected, sometimes pushing the button did nothing and sometimes the mechanism would whir away but the screen would struggle to move.
At least on this device the screen was working… Ish. For the first half of the demo session, the Fold n’ Roll was stuck on the lock screen, and didn’t respond to any touches or swipes. By some miracle, it eventually unlocked and revealed the Android home screen, but still refused to register any taps. I launched a grand total of zero apps on this prototype, helplessly watching it do nothing as I jabbed at the screen. It reminded me of the panel on Motorola’s Razr — both felt like they were slightly detached from the rest of the components below, like a piece of tape stuck to itself and no longer adhering to the rest of the roll.
The only thing it did was actually recognize when the additional bit of screen had finished rolling in or out, and change its aspect ratio and size to fill up and match the new widths. At this point I was so happy something worked that I was probably too impressed by a feature that should be expected, rather than a bonus.
Were these prototypes buggy as hell? Yes. Was I intrigued by them regardless? Also yes. We all love being distracted by interesting new form factors and product types, especially as non-foldable smartphone hardware matures and stagnates. As foldables continue to pique our interest and actually become better over the years, who knows what other shapes they might evolve into?
TCL hasn’t said if these prototypes are worth pursuing and turning into actual products, but the company has promised that it plans to launch a foldable phone that costs hundreds less than the competition. Though that has yet to happen, we did see a canceled product last year codenamed Chicago. It’s very similar to Samsung’s Galaxy Z Flip 3, though with a different external screen and camera setup, as well as a slightly more textured finish. I was impressed how nice this looked in person, and the hinge felt less resistant than the Z Flip 3’s. Until TCL starts selling these for real, though, all of its prototypes and concepts remain aspirational. I get that there are global supply issues potentially in the way, but at this point it feels like TCL has teased us for too long.
Catch up on all of the news from MWC 2022 right here!