There's nothing wrong with the tried and true slab form factor we've all grown deeply familiar with over the last decade and some change. Nearly all of the best Android phones these days are some variation of a glass and metal sandwich with a tall, narrow aspect ratio that's both comfortable to hold and spacious enough for today's widescreen videos.
That form factor isn't going away any time soon, but while I love the Pixel 5 that I use every day, I also love more experimental phones like the Galaxy Z Fold 2 and even the LG Wing (pouring one out for you, LG). Phones that push the boundaries not just of how powerful a phone can be, but what a phone should be.
Foldables and other types of shapeshifting devices aren't for everyone, at least not yet, but for the right user, they offer incredibly powerful features and tools that simply can't happen on more traditional devices, no matter what processor or camera tech you throw at them. There's power — not to mention style — in folding your phone out to a tablet-like form factor for split-screen multitasking or rotating your top display to reveal a smaller panel that can be used for things like camera controls and texting.
All of this is to say that expandable devices are incredibly exciting. For as refined as the Z Fold 2 was last fall, I can't remember the last time I've wanted to get my hands on a piece of tech as badly as when TCL showed me its new Fold 'n Roll concept devices in a briefing last week.
The design of this phone is wild. TCL didn't have a working unit to show me, but the mockup model was barely thicker than the company's other newly announced phones, yet folded out into what the company is calling "phablet mode," extending from 6.87 inches to 8.85. That isn't particularly impressive on its own; Samsung and Huawei have been doing this type of design for the last couple of years.
Where the Fold 'n Roll sets itself apart is ... well, with its rolling tech. Once you're in phablet mode, the left half of the device extends out even further to offer a full 10-inch tablet experience. This is the first device I've seen that truly lives up to the promises of a full-sized tablet that fits in your pocket, and I can only imagine how useful this could be, especially when paired with a portable Bluetooth keyboard and stand. But of course, this device has a few hurdles to clear before it can hope to sell in droves.
First off, the device needs to be real. TCL has yet to turn any of its wild concept devices into actual products an average consumer can buy, and while the company says it's on track to release its first commercial flexible device sometime this year, there's no further word on which device that'll be. I'm hopeful it'll be the Fold 'n Roll, which may need a bit of a rebrand before it goes up for sale, but only time will tell.
I almost wish I'd been able to go to CES this year, just to go hands-on with this concept.
Along with this, I have a lot of questions when it comes to the design. Traits that work in one form factor may not perfectly translate to another; there's certainly appeal to a thin foldable, but when using this device in full-on tablet mode, will making it pocket-friendly make it feel too flimsy, particularly around the rolling portion of the screen?
What about ingress protection? How will TCL protect the screen from harm, since it sits on the outside of the phone, as we've seen before on the original Huawei Mate X?
There's also the matter of pricing and availability. We have no word on when or even if this phone will ever be available for purchase, but all of this experimental tech likely means we'd be looking at a prohibitively high price. With that being said, TCL is typically known to provide great value with its handsets, undercutting the competition while retaining impressive build quality and display tech, so it's anyone's guess what this type of phone could cost.
In all honesty, the Fold 'n Roll may be the first device that's made me wish CES had been in person this year, as per usual. There's no telling if TCL will ever ship this device, but I would've loved the chance to go hands-on, even if only with a mockup.
Even if we never get to see this particular device in person, TCL is laying out the groundwork for other manufacturers to bounce off of this design concept and potentially develop their own versions further on down the line. I definitely hope we see more devices like this soon, and in the meantime, I'll be pushing to get a review unit of the Fold 'n Roll. Maybe someday.