At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, TCL unveiled a slew of foldable phone and tablet concepts to test the waters for a production device debuting as early as 2020. One of those half dozen prototypes was a clamshell-style handset that folded more or less over itself, leaving a small gap between the inward and downward portions of the display and an exposed upward-facing lip toward the bottom.
The handset — DragonHinge — was off limits at Mobile World Congress. But after begging and pleading the folks at TCL, I managed to get my hands on a unit this week at IFA 2019 in Berlin.
First things first: DragonHinge isn’t a hinge per se, but an R&D project in three parts. It refers to the 0-180 degree fully inward foldable AMOLED display built by TCL; the flexible metal join that frames it; and the software that will intelligently bifurcate, expand, or switch between apps on the display.
On the foldable clamshell I tested, the hinge was the only one of those three in a functional state. The dummy unit had a laminated printout of an Android home screen in place of an actual display, reinforcing what TCL reps had repeatedly told us earlier that afternoon: It’s early days.
Even so, spending some quality time with the flip phone felt like a glimpse into a potential future device family. It might not be the most practical design, considering how exposed to the elements it leaves the phone’s screen. And the hinge is much too loose for my liking — it doesn’t lock into place at any angle, even 180 degrees, and it’s too easily whipped around with glass-cracking force.
But some refinement — and a more resistant hinge — could go a long way toward solving those concerns. I’m keeping an open mind.
It’s worth noting that TCL isn’t the only company exploring the idea of a clamshell-style foldable phone. Motorola is reportedly readying a new Motorola Razr, a reimagining of its iconic phone series from the early 2000s, with an OLED screen that folds in half. Not to be outdone, Samsung is said to be developing a 6.7-inch foldable clamshell with a hole-punch front camera on its display.
Given early birds’ woes and the high costs involved in producing foldables, however, a mob rush to ship products out the door seems unlikely, at least at present. Perhaps it’s for the best that companies like TCL, Huawei, and Xiaomi are taking their sweet time getting to market.