TCL is working on a foldable phone that bends into a smartwatch

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TCL is exploring making a flexible phone that folds into a smartwatch.CNET

Foldable devices are all the rage. Even television maker TCL is getting in on the game.

The Chinese company, best known for budget televisions, but also phones through its BlackBerry Mobile and Alcatel brands, is working on at least five devices employing flexible displays, including two tablets, two smartphones and a flexible phone that could curve into a smartwatch, according to company renderings and patent image filings obtained by CNET.

One tablet has a display that folds inward, like a clamshell, while the other has a display on the outside, like the Royole Flexpai. The smartphones, meanwhile, also have two variants that fold on the inside and outside, but they bend at the horizontal line, like a traditional flip phone. The last phone appears to be tall and skinny and able to curve into a cuff around a wrist. None share the same design as Samsung’s foldable phone.

The images underscore the industry’s growing interest in foldable devices, which is seen as the next major leap in phone design and a way to get us interested in phones again. People are holding onto their smartphones longer than before, and it’s getting harder to justify a pricey upgrade given the relatively minor tweaks made every year. The hope is that foldables can change that and introduce a new way of interacting with electronics.

The images are preliminary, and TCL could change or scrap its plans. It’s also unclear when the devices could hit the market.

But a TCL executive told CNET last month that the company will release its first foldable device in 2020. At the time, it was unclear just what kind of device it would be, since the company makes so many different ones.

“It’s not just smartphones,” said Stefan Streit, TCL’s general manager of global marketing, said in an interview at CES, adding that other consumer products like wearables, home appliances and TVs could also benefit from the new foldable technology.

One of the renderings seen by CNET show devices that fold with a Surface Book-like gap in the middle. There’s little else known about these devices.

The company is among the top players in televisions, but has a lower profile when it comes to phones. It struck a licensing deal with BlackBerry to make productivity-focused phones, and has itself licensed out the Palm name to a startup that’s made a bizarre tiny phone that’s a companion for your main phone.  The company is hoping to build up its name recognition by jumping on one of the flashiest trends in the industry.

One TCL patent filing shows a foldable phone that curves into a smartwatch.
One TCL patent filing shows a foldable phone that curves into a smartwatch.CNET

Most major Android phone makers and even unknown startups are working on foldable devicesGoogle has said it’s committed to providing Android support for foldable designs. Startup Royole already sells its foldable device, the FlexPai, for $1,318 (£1,209) for the 6GB of RAM and 128GB variant. The FlexPai closes like a book, with its screen on the outside. And even Apple has filed patents for foldable phone designs.

Samsung, the world’s biggest smartphone maker, will show off its efforts at next week’s Galaxy S10 launch. Its device — rumored to be called the Galaxy X, Galaxy F, Galaxy Flex or Galaxy Fold — is a tablet when it’s fully opened and then a phone when it’s closed. It uses a new display technology called Infinity Flex Display that lets you open and close the device over and over without any degradation.

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