At the moment, modular phones are in a small niche, but they are gaining interest. Aside from Google's Project Ara, the PuzzlePhone and the Fairphone 2 are also getting their fair share of public attention. But should consumers buy a modular phone?
The whole idea of a modular phone is akin to that of a desktop and its replaceable and upgradable parts. When the RAM gets busted, take it out, replace with a working one and keep the rest of the components. The same is true for the SDD/HDD, power supply unit, the processor, the fans and so on. Modular phones are trying to port this desktop feature into handhelds, which, just like the desktop, is supposed to make them easily upgradeable and serviceable.
This presents the promise of a reusable device that is more serviceable, can be upgraded for years to come to meet specifications, and thereby lessens consumer spending for newer gadgetry. Think of it as a protest to the current age of unibody flagships that won't even let users replace the battery.
Unlike desktops with standardized parts, however, Google's Project Ara, Fairphone and PuzzlePhone have their takes on modularity and how a modular phone should be. There's no standard yet, and that's why the modular phone niche is very competitive at the moment — most of the aspects of a modular phone is still in infancy. But which one should be the standard and the one consumers should place their hard-earned money on?
Fairphone, a social enterprise based in Amsterdam released the Fairphone 2 last month. The Android-powered 5-inch phone, which is fitted with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 SoC, 2 GB of RAM, 8-megapixel main camera, a 2,420 mAh battery and 32 GB of eMMc storage, was introduced to the market at $580. And while the technical specification is not that compelling for the price it is introduced at, the Fairphone 2 allows users to change every part — camera, speakers, chip, display, and so on.
With the way the Fairphone is set up, users can easily replace the display. However, a screw driver will be needed to replace most of the other parts. Due to this, a lot of people are questioning Fairphone 2's classification as a modular phone.
Even with the criticisms, Fairphone is managing to sell Fairphone 2 units fairly well. The company has been very transparent to the consumers. From the sourcing of materials used in the devices it manufactures down to the breakdown of price which its devices are sold for. Its social campaign for a more ethical manufacturing process for mobile devices is a big reason why it is seeing success.
This one is interesting, to say the least. Unlike Fairphone 2, the PuzzlePhone can be dissected into three parts: the brain, the spine and the heart. The brain contains all the critical electronics: processor, RAM, modem. The spine has the display. The heart has the battery and other electronics.
At the moment, developers of the PuzzlePhone are running a campaign to develop a working prototype. They are looking to fit the PuzzlePhone with a 64-bit ARM Octa-core, 3 GB of RAM, a 5-megapixel front camera, 12-megapixel main shooter, 2,800 mAh battery pack, a bunch of sensors and a USB Type-C port. The starting price is $333 and the phone will ship out on Sept. 2016.
Google did a demonstration of Project Ara back in Google I/O 2015. The processor and RAM, speakers, camera, battery and all the other components are put in modules, which will be attached to a metal frame. Thus, everything can be changed simply by sliding, without the need for screws, that is. Of course, modularity comes at a price.
In a normal phone, almost every component is assembled into one circuit board. With Project Ara's individual modules, everything will be heavier and fatter. The battery capacity will also be limited. However, the Project Ara team, headed by Paul Eremenko, is positive that they can lessen these trade-offs and present a functional phone that people will want to use. The phone's release was supposed to be this year but it was delayed to an unspecified date in 2016.
Now, some argue that modular smartphones are pointless for there is a wide variety of available smartphones to choose from. Moreover, the display sizes will also be limited by the frame's form factor and if the user decides to change the display into a bigger one, the other components must also be changed to keep the optimal performance. But while all these are valid points, it should be noted that the the upgrades can be done gradually and that the performance shouldn't suffer that much if the display sizes aren't that far off. The iPhone 6s Plus, which keeps the same innards as the smaller iPhone 6s, is a big testament to this.