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TCL’s foldable phone prototype can bend in both directions and raise your concerns

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Foldable phones have gone mainstream, but we’re still a long way from perfecting that technology. We’re still at a stage where display makers and phone manufacturers are playing around with different materials and designs in hopes of finding the perfect fit. Looking at devices from Samsung, Huawei, Xiaomi, and most recently OPPO, there seems to be a consensus on how phones should fold, but that doesn’t stop TCL from envisioning a foldable device that works in both directions to satisfy both camps, whether or not it’s actually possible.

Designer: TCL

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TCL may be a brand best known for its TVs, monitors, and, in some markets, smartphones, but one of its biggest businesses is offering displays for these types of devices. In years past, I kind of toyed with screens that looked like sci-fi stuff and props. It hasn’t launched such a device yet, but it’s dabbled in foldable and rollable phones that actually work, at least in prototype form.

That certainly seems to be the case this year at MWC 2022, when it showed off a prototype of the TCL Ultra Flex. At first glance, it looks like a typical foldable phone with a hinge in the middle, except there’s no second screen on the back. You might assume, then, that this phone folds out, like the first Huawei Mate X. You’d only be half correct because it actually folds in and out, depending on your mood.

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A flexible display that can fold in both directions is one of display board makers’ dreams, and seeing it in action on a real device feels surreal. This design will resolve one of the biggest debates in the smartphone world over foldable phones as there is no clear winner yet. However, at the same time, the door is still wide open due to durability and longevity concerns.

A foldable device like the Samsung Galaxy Z Fold 3 or the later OPPO Find N folds inward like a book, sometimes called the “innie” fold, which helps protect the relatively more fragile screen. However, this model requires a secondary “cover screen” on the outside, otherwise the phone will be completely unusable until you open it. On the other hand, the opposite “outdoor” design removes the need for a second display but risks exposing the foldable display to potentially harmful elements and objects.

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Some might think the solution is to have it both ways, with a screen that folds inward to protect the screen when necessary, but also folds outward to keep the screen always available when needed. That’s pretty much the design of the Ultra Flex concept phone that TCL is showing off at MWC 2022 in Barcelona this week. Unlike the more precise hinges on today’s foldable phones, the Ultra Flex uses what might be described as an “accordion” hinge that can fold 360 degrees. This looks and feels almost like Lenovo’s old “watch strap hinge” for its Yoga line of laptops, but it’s a little less cute.

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The reason Samsung hasn’t experimented with this type of 360-degree foldable display yet, at least not publicly, is due to the screens’ fragility. Bending it in one direction actually puts some stress on the point of the fold. Allowing them to flex in both directions increases the risk. TCL may have figured out a way to reduce the tension, but it probably isn’t ready for primetime just yet. It certainly takes a lot of confidence for a loose design that can break more easily than current foldable phones. And given how much these devices cost right now, this probably isn’t the right time for a phone like this to come out.

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