If you want a signal for how far out the dreamy foldable phone that we can actually afford is, look no further than the prototype that TCL just unveiled at Mobile World Congress today.
With a 7.2-inch flexible screen, it’s in the same size class as Samsung’s Galaxy Fold, and just like the Fold, the TCL prototype is not to be touched or even breathed upon by mere mortals. I’m a little surprised the company let me lift the glass surround to take a closer look at the thing. And, take note, I never saw this foldable device actually folding or unfolding: the thing on show at MWC can be more rightly classified as a folded phone prototype.
TCL is a bit of a complex company, given that it has one business that builds display panels — which does contract work for all sorts of consumer product manufacturers — and a separate consumer arm that designs and sells devices under its own brand as well as the Alcatel, BlackBerry, and Palm names. The MWC prototype comes from that latter operation: TCL is not just showing off the flexible OLED display, it’s here to convince people that its patented DragonHinge construction is the future of foldable device design.
I was shown the interior metal structure of the DragonHinge frame (no photos allowed), and the hinge itself operates using a series of small gears. I imagine most companies will be taking a similar approach to building their foldables, and there’s certainly a significant mechanical engineering challenge when trying to create something that’s both protective of a fragile display and tactile and immediate enough for a person to use every day.
Holding a non-functioning mockup of the same 7.2-inch notebook-like device, I was able to get a sense for the ergonomics of the proposed foldable. Firstly, yes, there’s a huge gap at the hinge side of the closed device, because the screen can only be rolled, it can’t ever fold fully flat (unless you want a crease, a dead screen, or, most likely, a dead screen with a crease in it).
But TCL’s design around that limitation really impressed me. Magnets clasp the two sides together securely when you want the tablet closed, the exterior finish takes inspiration from the grippy, matte surface of Moleskine notebooks, and the hinge construction has just the right amount of give and flex to be reassuring without being flimsy. More
By Vlad Savov