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TCL's New Foldable Concept Swings Both Ways

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Feb 28, 2022, 2:44 PM   by Rich Brome   @rbrome

In what has become something of an annual tradition, TCL has unveiled new, unique flexible-display concepts. The newest and most unique is the "360-Degree Ultra Flex", which has a 360º hinge that allows the device to be folded either inward or outward. This allows the display to be exposed in a traditional smartphone form factor, opened flat like an 8-inch tablet, or folded closed to protect 100% of the display surface. In its current form, the device is not ready (nor intended) for market, but it is a functional prototype. We spent a few moments hands-on with it. It wasn't lighting up at the time, but was working that morning (we have photos from both). We got close-ups of the hinge and explain a bit about how this unique hinge mechanism works in this hands-on report.

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These are interesting concept devices to see because they're actual working prototypes, but nowhere near production-quality. Companies often make such devices, but rarely share them with the public. TCL is clear that these are concepts only, created strictly to explore ideas, get feedback, and help TCL learn how to make good foldables. If this device was intended for commercial launch, I have no doubt it would still be top-secret at this point in its development.

TCL 360 Ultra Flex  

For a device that does power on, I was impressed with the thin-ness and apparent sturdiness of the two halves. But the hinge is the tricky part.

The core structure of the hinge actually seems to work quite well. It didn't want to stay in the folded-fully-open position, but otherwise it felt relatively smooth and strong. That's impressive for such a complex and compact mechanism. And that hasn't always been the case with TCL foldables I've handled in past years; some prototype hinges have felt "crunchy" and extremely delicate. This one felt dramatically better in action.

But the little things around the hinge — like the end caps, the flexible base layer of the display, and the rubber cover on the other side — need more refinement. Those parts felt loose / wobbly and just didn't inspire confidence when handled. (To be clear: that's definitely normal for a device in this stage of development, its being allowed to see/handle something at this stage that's unusual.)

hinge up close  

The way the hinge works is interesting. At first glance, I thought the flat parts of the display might "slide" a bit, a trick that some early foldables used. But no, it's the flexible section on the non-display side (the ridged sheet of black rubber) that slides in and out of the rigid parts as you fold the device.

The other key to how this hinge works is that the whole hinge mechanism itself slides in and out of the rigid casing as you fold it. So when the device is closed and the display fully protected, the hinge extends out from the two halves, creating extra space for the display to fold inside. But as you fold it the other way, the hinge retracts into the two halves, so as not to pull and stretch the display.

The 360º Ultra Flex concept also theoretically supports an active pen stylus. You can see the slot for a stylus in the bottom-right corner.

It did look and feel like a working unit; definitely not just a mock-up. Although the display had unfortunately failed — or perhaps just the battery had died — by the time we held this unit, it was working that morning. Here are the photos TCL provided as proof:

360 Ultra Flex lit up  

Since these are just hardware concepts, almost no work has been done to optimize the Android software for this unique form factor. Therefore there wouldn't be much to see even if we had been able to power it up. That was the case with TCL's other foldable concept this year, the "Fold n' Roll", which has both a folding part and a sliding/extending part. That did power up, but the software was un-optimized to the point of being barely functional.

Would I want a device like the 360º Ultra Flex, if it were coming to market? For me, it's too tall, and possibly too narrow when folded. Most of the time, I would want to use it folded, display out. And in that configuration, I would want it to be closer to a standard smartphone shape.

But I love the Ultra Flex as an example of what flexible display tech. can enable. I was also impressed by how well TCL has managed to get the core hinge mechanism to work, give its extreme complexity and compact size.

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About the author, Rich Brome:

Editor in Chief Rich became fascinated with cell phones in 1999, creating mobile web sites for phones with tiny black-and-white displays and obsessing over new phone models. Realizing a need for better info about phones, he started Phone Scoop in 2001, and has been helming the site ever since. Rich has spent two decades researching and covering every detail of the phone industry, traveling the world to tour factories, interview CEOs, and get every last spec and photo Phone Scoop readers have come to expect. As an industry veteran, Rich is a respected voice on phone technology of the past, present, and future.

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