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Rollable phone tech is improving fast, but I still can’t really see the point

OPINION: Back at MWC 2023, I got to play with the then-new Motorola rollable concept, a squared-off phone that could extend its display to a regular 16:9 aspect ratio on demand. 

Fast forward a year to MWC 2024 and Tecno has taken up the rollable mantle with what I think is the most polished rollable concept phone yet – but I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s something consumers want or need. In its current form, anyway.

Let’s start with last year’s Motorola rollable concept. It was something I was very impressed with at the time, having not previously seen the tech in action for myself. It was still an early prototype, however, and there were a few key issues with the hardware during my demo.

Not only was the screen extension fairly slow, taking multiple seconds, but the protruding thin display was just asking to be snapped, lacking any real protection from the squared-off chassis. 

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That’s why I was so shocked that, just a year on, Chinese manufacturer Tecno burst onto the rollable scene with its Tecno Phantom Ultimate concept. It’s a completely different design to the concept from Motorola, instead offering regular smartphone dimensions that, with either the push of a dedicated button or a side-swipe with three fingers, can extend horizontally rather than vertically.

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Tecno’s screen expanding tech is far more impressive too; it felt seamless in use with a smooth screen extension while sitting comfortably in my hand. At just 1.3 seconds to extend and retract, it’s the fastest rollable concept around right now. The main display is just about as premium as foldables get in 2024, with the extra bit of rollable screen doubling up as a rear display for notifications when not fully expanded. 

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It also doesn’t feel that different to a regular phone in its rolled-up mode, helped by the fact it measures in at a fairly chunky, but still not massively thick, 9.9mm.

When unrolled, the tall and narrow display widens to something akin to a 4:3 aspect ratio, one which Tecno claims is much better for multitasking than your regular candybar screen. 

The rep I spoke with gave examples like being able to view both photos and album lists in the Gallery app with the extended display active, and I imagine it’d be handy for split-screen multitasking, though there isn’t really anything it could offer that a foldable or a tablet couldn’t – and that’s my problem with the concept. It just doesn’t seem to fix any real issues in its current form.

Tecno Phantom Ultimate concept
Image Credit (Trusted Reviews)

The ability to get an extra half an inch on your screen doesn’t really seem worth the current trade-offs to durability and resistance, and I imagine that if/when these begin to appear, they’ll be similarly priced to top-end foldables. Instead, I think manufacturers need to think bigger.

In the same way that book-style foldables offer a regular candybar experience when folded and a tablet-esque experience when unfolded, I think manufacturers really need to lean into the extension tech to provide a similar phone-tablet hybrid. 

In an ideal world, it’d be able to extend by quite a bit – inches, rather than centimetres – to really transform what you can do with the device, whether that’s split-screen multitasking or simply enjoying a film on a larger screen.  

I imagine that’s still quite a way off, but considering the leaps and bounds that the technology has come along in the past year, we might not be that far off from seeing the first rollable hit the market. The question is, will they be phone-sized or tablet-sized?

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