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TCL folding phones are more concept than practical reality

TCL’s folding phones are an interesting hint of what’s to come but they're not available for you to buy

The hype around folding phones has died down a touch since the fiasco surrounding the Samsung Galaxy Fold last year. Undeterred by ongoing stories surrounding reliability, however, TCL has been busy working on a series of folding phones, ranging from the sensible to the downright crazy and it’s been showing them to journalists.

This isn’t the first time TCL has shown off these concepts: it showed them to US journalists in October last year and at CES in January. However, it’s the first time we’ve had the chance to go hands-on in the UK and at least two of the phones we were shown looked interesting.

READ NEXT: Samsung Galaxy Fold review

1. Three’s a crowd

The most eye-catching of the trio is a triple-folding phone, which concertinas like a room divider. It unfurls from a single 6.65in AMOLED display, transforming into a large 10in tablet with a 20.8:9 aspect ratio and a 3K resolution.

TCL says this is the first folding phone to utilise two hinges – the firm’s own DragonHinge and ButterflyHinge tech – and it would appear to be a great device for watching movies and TV shows, but all of the heavy engineering involved in the two hinges means it’s quite a lot heavier than a normal phone and very thick when folded up. Plus, the model I had a brief play around with during the demo was rather industrial in its build quality with stiff hinges and a very unfinished feel.

However, unlike a lot of folding phone manufacturers, TCL was at least happy to let me (carefully) manipulate the hinges and the phone itself was working, too, albeit running a version of Android that hadn’t been optimised to work on the three screens.

It’s certainly an interesting idea but, I think, perhaps rather too bulky to be practical and, given how unreliable folding phones with a single hinge have so far proved to be, perhaps a fold too far to ultimately prove successful commercially. Unsurprisingly, there are no price or availability details yet for the phone, or any other technical specifications either. The phone has four cameras arranged in a horizontal strip on the rear and a pair of LED flashes flanking them, but other than this we don’t yet know any other specifications or a specific release date.

TCL did say it was working towards a release date of early 2021, though, so you might not have to wait as long for this one as you might think.

2. Gotta … know when to roll ‘em

The only new concept in the trio, alas, is an even more tenuous proposition than the monstrous tri-fold handset. It isn’t a folding phone, per se, but one with a screen that rolls out of the body of the phone when you want a bigger screen and rolls back away – powered by tiny motors – when you want to stow the phone in your pocket.

This is a great idea and keeps the phone down to a more manageable size than most folders I’ve seen so far. It’s a mere 9mm thick and for a phone that can expand from 6.75in to 7.8in that’s impressive. However, the “device” I was shown was a plastic dummy unit with a printed vinyl “display” and no working innards. I’m going to hold my excitement in check on this one and you probably should, too.

3. Kiss and makeup

The third – and final – folder is an altogether more practical proposition. Designed with a single hinge, it’s like a fatter version of the Motorola Razr with the flexible OLED display on the inside that’s only revealed when unfolded.

Another concept phone, first shown at CES 2020 earlier this year, but at least working this time, it has an attractive, faceted finish on the outside and, as well as looking like an oversized makeup compact, appears to be the closest to a finished device of the three we were shown at the briefing.

Once again, there was a slightly unfinished feeling to the phone with the hinged portion of the folding screen lifting away from the body as you unfold it. However, the folding action felt solid enough and the phone didn’t feel too bulky, either.

Clearly, TCL is attempting to reposition itself in the smartphone market, having relinquished the BlackBerry brand last year, and what better way to distance itself than to go all out with a host of high-end folding phones. It remains to be seen, however, which of these designs will actually make it into shops and how much they will cost.

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