Alcatel Shakes Up Smartphone Displays at CES 2019

LAS VEGAS — TCL Communication may be introducing some new budget phones under its Alcatel brand at CES today (Jan. 8). But the company's focus is very much on displays and how those might change for future smartphones it plans to release.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

The display is very much front and center on the new Alcatel 1X, a $120 phone that will arrive sometime in the first three months of 2019. At last year's CES, TCL announced that all future Alcatel phones would feature Full View displays with 18:9 aspect ratios, and the 1X is very much in keeping with that trend, with minimal bezels on each side of its HD+ LCD panel, and some bezels on the top and chin of the display to house the phone's earpiece and front camera.

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At the same time, the company was showcasing the Alcatel 1X and a low-cost Alcatel 1C smartphone aimed at emerging markets. Even then, though, TCL was looking to future phones — specifically, the kinds of displays those phones would feature. It's an understandable focus, as TCL also makes displays through sister company CSOT, and thus has a vested interest in the future direction of smartphone screens.

"Today, we're limited to a black box that's defined by the display," said Stefan Streit, general manager for global marketing at TCL Communication. "It's very hard to do hardware innovation, so the focus [with smartphones] has been on software innovation."

The display of the future

TCL thinks that's about to change, and it's got the concept devices to prove it. Alongside displays for the Alcatel 1X and 1C, TCL was showing off a pair of concept designs. One device features a 6.2-inch WQHD+ display with even thinner bezels than the current lineup of Alcatel phones. Another 6.39-inch panel featured a 2340 x 1080 resolution with a maximum brightness of 600 nits, but its most noteworthy feature was easily the hole-punch-sized opening in its upper left corner to house the phone's front camera. Such an approach lets phone makers use truly edge-to-edge displays without having to resort to a notch for the selfie cam.

TCL's 6.2-inch concept screen

TCL's 6.2-inch concept screen

It's also an approach that other phone makers are adopting before TCL does. Samsung will reportedly use a similar design for its upcoming Galaxy S10 flagship while Honor spent CES showing off the upcoming Honor View 20, which also uses the hole-punch approach.

Don't expect TCL to shed any tears that other phone makers may launch new screen designs while it's still mulling concepts. Streit says the company wants to take its time to come up with just the right design, eyeing 2020 as the date to make new screen concepts a reality.

"We have no ambitions to be the leader," he said. Whatever screen designs TCL's phone brands adopt, "we want to make sure it's mature and affordable. We don't want to disappoint the consumer."

Alcatel 1X specs and features

As for the Alcatel 1X, it offers a few features that should make budget smartphone shoppers feel like they're getting value for money. The MediaTek MT6739 processor and accompanying 2GB of RAM won't set any performance records, but a 3,000 mAh battery could deliver decent battery life on a charge. The phone will run Android 8.1 Oreo when it ships, which is a little disappointing now that we find ourselves in an Android Pie world.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

You'll find two cameras on the back of the Alcatel 1X — a 13-megapixel shooter augmented by a 2-MP lens to help with portrait shots. More impressive is a new one-handed camera mode. Swipe left or right on the view finder in the Camera app and controls will fan out within easy reach of your thumb in the direction you swiped.

The look of the Alcatel 1X is probably the phone's most compelling feature, especially in light of its low price tag. Besides the 5.5-inch Full View display, you'll get a pebble-painted back in either black or blue that I found made the phone more grippable. Some models will sport a rear fingerprint reader, too, if that's something a wireless carrier selling the phone chooses to offer.

Credit: Tom's Guide

(Image credit: Tom's Guide)

Unlike the 1X which will definitely find its way to the U.S., the Alcatel 1C is aimed squarely at emerging markets. The sub-$70 phone runs the Android Go version of Oreo: a stripped-down version of Google's mobile operating system. And it offers only 3G connectivity.

Alcatel isn't the only TCL smartphone brand making news at CES. The company also designs and sells BlackBerry phones, and Verizon will offer the BlackBerry Key2 LE to its business customers in the coming weeks. Previously, smartphone shoppers could buy an unlocked version of the $449 Key2 LE that worked on Verizon's network, but asa most people in the U.S. buy their phones through wireless carriers, this move could put the latest BlackBerry model in the hands of more people.

Philip Michaels

Philip Michaels is a Managing Editor at Tom's Guide. He's been covering personal technology since 1999 and was in the building when Steve Jobs showed off the iPhone for the first time. He's been evaluating smartphones since that first iPhone debuted in 2007, and he's been following phone carriers and smartphone plans since 2015. He has strong opinions about Apple, the Oakland Athletics, old movies and proper butchery techniques. Follow him at @PhilipMichaels.