Modular Smartphones: The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly

Since the very first PC hit the market, there’s always been an emphasis on making computers that were upgradeable and sufficiently versatile. This trend took a bit of a slump with laptops, limiting you to being able to upgrade only the RAM, the hard drive, and a few non-core components. The smartphone made this even worse, with many of them allowing you only to expand storage with a microSD card, and some of them not even allowing you this privilege. Enter 2014. Motorola and ZTE have both made announcements that they will be developing phones with interchangeable parts. The fact that manufacturers have a vested interest in making this work shows that this kind of development is an inevitability. It’s time to discuss whether modular smartphones are a force to be reckoned with, or if this idea will just end up a novelty that won’t make it very far.

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I think it goes without saying that having a proper interchangeable-parts ecosystem on smartphones will really push the limits of what you can do with your device, making this a great phenomenon. Think about it: You don’t have to stick to having a 5-megapixel camera if you don’t want to. You can transform it into a 13-megapixel beast with a dynamic depth of field by just switching the old camera module out and introducing the new one.

Having a modular phone means that you don’t have to pay for a new phone when you want new hardware. You can just buy the hardware you want to upgrade and slap it on your phone. Not only does it save you money, but it also cuts down on electronic waste. If you’re an environmentalist, you’d totally dig this! And even if you’re not, the potential savings you’d make could compel you to purchase one of these phones.

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Many things can go wrong in manufacturing such a small device that was originally designed to be pretentious about the kind of hardware that goes into it. First of all, CPU architecture and specifications are changing all the time. The number and types of pins that connect to one device’s motherboard changes in tandem with all of this.

In the end, you will have to change the motherboard at some point, which for all intents and purposes will most likely remain attached to the screen. But what if you just want a bigger screen and don’t want to change the motherboard? This is the point where you probably won’t make the savings you anticipated. These design implications will make it difficult, at the very least, for manufacturers to maintain the same specifications for all the iterations of the hardware that they release.

As the years pass, you’ll find it more difficult to find hardware that fits well into your phone, and you’ll have to buy a new phone anyway. Still, that scenario is better than the “buy a new phone every year” scenario we currently have. Of course, you could just not buy a new phone every time your hardware is a little bit outdated. But why do that when you can just upgrade its components without a hitch?

Overall, the worst that can happen is that you’ll end up with modular phones that are compatible with at least two years’ worth of hardware iterations, which will save you money in the end. The best we can hope for is that the smartphone market will become similar to the PC market, except for the fact that it would be much easier to upgrade your smartphone. I think that modular phones will do exactly what they hope to accomplish, only to a bit of a lesser extent.

What do you think of modular phones? Please, let us know your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

6 comments

  1. Who will be selling the parts will this create jobs and businesses will be able to buy parts for your smartphone without waiting 2 to 3 weeks for arrival Will this be like the accessories you can buy just about every corner Who will regulate the parts knowing that they are legitimate parts for your smartphone and not generic

  2. The problem that I see is whether or not compelling parts are going to be readily available or not. Without the choice of no camera, a ~2mp cheap camera, a ~14mp, and a ~40 mp optimized camera the camera options will be rather flat. The choice between the current smart phone audio quality(poor) and excellent audio is a another obvious trade off. The most likely big deal would be the ability to have large character readable displays for those who have poor eyesight or use distance glasses.

  3. As an idea, this is great. As the two previous posters mentioned, there will be key issues to work out. First, regulated versus unregulated parts. Who gets to say what will be out there? Second, what software will it run? Third, who gets to warranty the parts, if there are parts from different manufacturers? Fourth, what if different parts of your phone have different warranty end dates? I think it would be best if this model would be in-line with most other countries in the world, where you buy your phone outright, and pick your service. It’s the only way to avoid things like different contract or warranty dates.

  4. ever thought about the size of this thing? A stationary PC is still that big because the parts (that have better quality then those from a laptop) are large.

    Adding a better camera or audio part to your phone will enlarge the size of it
    Talking about the motherboard. It will probably have a set of slots to connect the several parts to. This point to a bus structure on the mother board. This will definitely become a bottleneck.

    Why, do you think, are the phone as small as they are now?

  5. The most important question is, will the phone manufacturers be able to make money by offering modular phones? if the answer is ‘no’ or even ‘uncertain’, the idea is dead in the water. Otherwise, the ability to add, say, a real keyboard, or additional wireless features, more storage or a bigger battery would be very appealing to me.

  6. Yes reading above, there are problems. But looking at my Sony Z1 as a example. Imagine I’m happy with the phone and the screen size, but to be able to upgrade the cpu, ram and memory in say 1-2 years, and then get another 2 years of fast performance of my phone, rather than pay £600 every year, would be fantastic.

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