At CES 2021, rollable and foldable phones are a reason to get excited again

Commentary: LG and TCL offer clues about what to look forward to down the line. It's been a while since we had that.

lg rollable smartphone
lg rollable smartphone

It may have been just a fleeting glimpse from LG at its CES 2021 press conference, but that tease of a smartphone with a screen that rolls out hints at a comeback for mobile devices looking to shake up the conventional metal and glass slate.

Roger Cheng headshot

Roger Cheng

Despite the introduction of a few new foldable phones in 2020 — notably the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip and Z Fold 2, plus the wider release of the Motorola Razr, few people were in the mood to spend as much as $2,000 in the midst of a global pandemic. 

It’s 2021 and, well, little has changed. The hope, however, is that a rapid dissemination of the COVID-19 vaccine — still a big if at this point — may bring some normalcy to our lives, as well as a renewed appetite and appreciation for more creative and dynamic phones.

Because let’s face it, we could all use something to excite us again.

LG did its best with its tease during the first day of CES. It was the second brief look, this time offering up the name of the device, the on-the-nose LG Rollable. Curiously, LG executives didn’t even mention it during the press conference — glimpses of the phones were seen in quick promo reels that began and ended the event — but it is real and coming this year. 

TCL, which has shown off multiple foldable prototypes over the last two years and which teased more rollable concepts on Monday, will finally release a foldable phone to consumers this year, according to Stefan Strait, general manager of marketing for the company. The most notable aspect is his target of a $1,000 price tag. That’s in line with commentary from Samsung last month about more affordable foldables.

These foldable and rollable phones aren’t just gimmicks meant to generate some buzz. These new, experimental designs help move the industry forward when it comes to how mobile devices look and work in the years to come. Just like the iPhone caused handsets to evolve from flip and candy bar designs to sleek metal-and-glass slates, foldables may spark a change in how we interact with our phones down the line. Lower prices mean that these phones are somewhat more accessible for people. 

Turn the clock back two years to 2019 and the foldable hype was at a fever pitch. Samsung kicked things off with an early look at its Galaxy Fold, followed a few days later by Huawei’s Mate X. Motorola capped off the year with the Razr. Things were supposed to ramp up in 2020, with more foldables coming. 

We all know what happened next. 

But the early activity at CES suggests we may be in store for more breakthroughs this year. 

An evolution from foldable

The LG Rollable phone’s display harkens back to the Signature LG OLED R, the rollable TV that’s been a highlight of the past few CES LG conferences. Employing flexible displays in a large 65-inch television is impressive, but squeezing that technology into a handheld phone is another challenge. 

“I can’t help but marvel at the technological innovation that goes into these,” said Ramon Llamas, an analyst at IDC. “It says a lot about display technology and their resolution that can be tucked into such a flexible form factor.” More

Roger Cheng headshot

Roger Cheng