TCL Unveils First Rollable Screen Smartphone

TCL tests the flexible display waters with a pair of new Android 10 devices

Why This Matters

Flexible displays are popping up like daisies, but we've never seen one roll inside a standard-sized smartphone. If it can perfect this concept, TCL could change the cellphone game.

TCL Rollable Display Concept
TCL Rollable Display Concept.  TCL

Flexible displays have birthed the wild west of device technology. Once you no longer need to maintain a ridged frame, mobile design becomes almost as malleable as Silly Putty, and for manufacturers, that flexibility is catnip. Samsung, Motorola, Huawei, Lenovo, LG, and others are all testing and even marketing new, flexible-screen hardware designs. Now TCL is folding into the mix.

Two Flexible Display Devices: The Chinese consumer electronics giant unveiled a pair of flexible-screen phone devices that arguably push the boundaries of utility and desirability. One is a tri-fold tablet that starts as a bulky 6.55 inch Android 10 phone and then unfolds accordion-style into a 10-inch tablet. The other is the Rollable Display Concept phone that starts as a 6.78 Inch handset and then, with the touch of a button, expands while unrolling the screen from inside the body until it’s a 7.8-inch display.

Rollable Display Concept
Rollable Display Concept non-functional protoype with the screen unrolled.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Granted, when they showed me the products last week, only one of them was functional. The extendable display device was a dummy prototype (the real one was stuck in China thanks to, naturally, the Coronavirus).

TCL did show me a video of the phone in action and, to be honest, it’s the more exciting and practical device.

The First of Its Kind: Rolled up, the Rollable Display Concept phone is (at 9 mm thick) basically a standard-sized Android 10 handset, albeit with a display that wraps all around both edges. Because of the expandable back and rollaway screen, the back of the phone is an unusual-looking design that pushes the 4-camera array (48MP, Ultra-low-light, Macro, 2X Optical Zoom) to the far-left edge. In the dummy prototype, I literally had to pull the two sections apart to reveal (unfurl) the whole screen. The real product’s expansion is activated with the touch of a button.

Rollable Display Concept
Without the functioning device, I had to rely on videos like this to understand how the rollable screen would work.  TCL

TCL claims that the rollaway technology will do away with the creases or bumps typically found in flexible display devices.

Rollable Display Concept
Rollable Display Concept non-functional prototype with the screen rolled into the body.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

This Screen Folds Twice: TCL’s tri-fold tablet is a different story. Collapsed, the device is more than a half inch thick and very heavy. It uses two different hinge technologies: There’s a butterfly hinge for the inward fold and a dragon hinge for the outer fold. Both felt stiff and maybe a little to susceptible to over-extension.

Tri-fold Tablet Concept
TCL's Tri-fold Tablet Concept.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The flexible, 3K resolution AMOLED screen is covered in plastic (as most flexible displays are, with the notable exception of the Galaxy Z Flip). Though bright and colorful, the screen was a bit unresponsive to touch.

TCL Tri-fold tablet concept
The edge of the TCL Tri-fold tablet concept acts as a mini, quick-look display.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

One feature I did love is that when you fold up the tri-fold, one folded edge of the screen (like the binder on a book) displays time and information about the on-display media.

TCL Tri-fold tablet concept
Folded the TCL Tri-fold tablet concept is thick and heavy.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

TCL didn’t have many details to share on components, pricing, or availability, but like so many other mobile technologies companies, it appears eager to test the flexible display device market.

TCL Tri-fold tablet concept
TCL Tri-fold tablet concept unfolds into a 10-inch tablet.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Bottom Line: If there’s one flexible display goal that both the Tri-fold Tablet Concept and Rollable Display Concept fulfill, it’s big-screen devices in surprisingly small form factors. That’s the appeal of everything from the Lenovo X1 Fold to Samsung’s sexy Galaxy Z Flip. I look forward to learning more about TCL's flexible products and its folding screen strategy, which is clearly a work in progress.

Check out my hands-on video here.

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