TCL's three-fold phone: Bend and bend again

Mala Bhargava | Updated on October 28, 2019

TCL's tri-fold phone. Photo credit:

Phone makers are getting serious about the foldable form factor

I was a child when I first heard the word concertina. I didn’t know what it was and barely know now, but in our family, it meant that my parents both stood on either side of the bed and took a good 15 minutes to fold up their sheets and blankets as part of their make-the-bed routine. Carefully aligning a sheet underneath and a blanket on top, they would pull carefully upwards, downwards and back upwards again, forming a layered fold that looked like part of it might have been borrowed from the accordion-like musical instrument after which the fold is named.

I often stood around to watch the ritual and managed never to learn how to replicate it. But my parents loved it and the feeling of luxury each night when they pulled the coverings towards themselves to settle in to sleep.

Now, someone else has just borrowed the concertina fold: Chinese company TCL, the Chinese electronics company we know for its TVs in India. They double-folded a smartphone so that it opens in a zigzag and becomes a 10-inch tablet. That’s roughly the size of a regular iPad.

Imagine what you could do with a device that could fit in a little bag but when you settle down somewhere and unfold it becomes a big tablet that you can watch a movie on or use to get down to work. The hinges seem to fold in opposing directions which is how the zigzag occurs. How tired we must really be of the everyday slab form of our smartphones.

When closed, the phone looks from the front like any other, except that it’s thick as a club sandwich. Well, probably less, but thick all the same. Opened up, it looks like a tablet in landscape mode, but with two creases. Tech portal CNET has a photo report on the radical prototype.

The TCL phone is not yet a complete phone as it reportedly doesn’t have a working screen and is only a patent filing, so no sign of availability. It does show though how serious companies are getting about exploring the foldable form factor for phones made all the more difficult because glass doesn’t bend very much. Huawei’s Mate X was supposed to have become available in October and may well still be, specially seeing the intense interest in Samsung’s Galaxy Fold.

Meanwhile Motorola is said to be bringing in a foldable version of its Razr phone, which actually was a foldable in the first place but just not in one piece where the screen itself bends but more of a flip phone. This upcoming device actually has a launch date with invites to a press event in the US where the Razr was actually a very popular device.

According to a report by iGyaan, Xiaomi, which is also making a foldable smartphone currently referred to as Mi Fold and Mi Flex, will be priced half of what the Galaxy Fold and Huawei’s Mate X will cost and it will launch first in China.

It’s evident that 2020 will see more foldable phones but there are numerous challenges to overcome, as one has already seen with Samsung’s Galaxy Fold. Fragility is a concern, of course, but so is the less talked about issue of ergonomics and a change in usage behaviour compared with the phones we use today.

The latter will unfold as we see more foldable and enough people begin to use them in different situations showing whether it will be possible to type properly on them and use them for work and as primary devices, or whether they will in fact end up being impractical and inconvenient though interesting. But because the phones are thicker and differently balanced, their ergonomic quotient should be worked on from the start. It probably won’t be long before we have a phone that folds into four to become a smaller square, so let’s see.

Published on October 28, 2019

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