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Phones, in general, have had a significant transition in the past decade. From 'Feature phones' which were nothing more than a block of plastic or offering rudimental functionalities to 'Smartphones' that are capable of performing high-level tasks, these devices have come a long way.
In fact, not-so-long-ago, it appeared as if the smartphones have reached a point of culmination. And the fact that the smartphone vendors have repeatedly been producing incremental upgrades of the previous models pretty much explains it all.
However, just at a time when innovation seemed to have taken a backseat, Google's Project Ara popped into the limelight as a breath of fresh air. It had the entire smartphone industry going bonkers about the tech for it was the search engine giant's vision for making a truly customizable modular smartphone. In fact, Google had promised to out a developer device this year with a consumer model outing in 2017.
But sadly, for various reasons, Google had reportedly pulled the plug on the project.
Nevertheless, hopes for a modular smartphone are not lost yet. LG and Motorola had already launched modular smartphones (semi-modular smartphones perhaps) for the consumers this year. While according to the latest reports, LG may not unveil another semi-modular smartphone for obvious reasons, Motorola may certainly continue to do so. And the recent announcement made by the company to launch 12 Moto Mods next year provides a little hope.
While some of you may know it already, by now, most of you may have been wondering what's all the fuss about a modular/semi-modular smartphone. Are they worth your time or money? Well, allow us to explain.
What are Modular/Semi-Modular smartphones?
Before we explain to you what a modular phone is, it is essential for you to know what a Module is in the first place. Google defines ‘Module' as "each of a set of standardized parts or independent units that can be used to construct a more complex structure such as an item of furniture or a building" or a smartphone.
To put it in other words, a modular smartphone is essentially a regular smartphone but with hot-swappable hardware. Meaning you'd be able to replace all (or any) of the hardware parts including camera module, processor, speaker, display, and battery among others.
Similarly, a semi-modular device is something which allows you to swap only some of the hardware parts much like the LG G5 or the Moto Z series of smartphones.
What are the benefits of such devices, you may ask? Well, it's simple, you can upgrade your smartphone (or parts of it) as you want. For instance, you need an upgraded camera on your smartphone, but with rest of the hardware remaining untouched, with modular technology, it is possible. The camera is just one example. You can swap other parts one at a time or all at once based on your requirements.
So far so good, right? Sadly, we are afraid it's not all sunshine and lollipops. Modularity on smartphones means a few compromises ... compromises that may not be comfortable. Below are a couple of issues we believe will truly hamper the overall experience of a modular smartphone.
It is the design where most of the compromises have to be made. Firstly, it gets chunkier and secondly, it loses the most important aspect of a phone, the portability that is something not many smartphone users would like to compromise on.
For instance, we've used the Moto Z Play along with JBL SoundBoost Speaker Moto Mod. Although we are not nitpicking about the quality of either of the devices, when used them together, it was not a very comfortable affair. In fact, we would rather invest on a dedicated speaker like the Logitech X50 Portable which is pretty decent in terms of sonics and on top of that, one doesn't have to compromise on the smartphone's thickness or portability.
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High price tag is certainly a pain point
Okay, let's get this straight out of the way. Given the fact that majority of the Indian consumers are price sensitive, we wonder why one would invest in a phone that sets you back by a huge amount and then, on top of that, swappable parts are to be purchased separately.
For simplicity, let's consider the Moto Z which ships around Rs. 40,000 with the Moto Mods starting at a price range of Rs. 6,000 and reaching as high as Rs. 20,000. Let's say you want to purchase a swappable camera mod - Hasselblad True Zoom Camera and a battery case - Incipio offGRID Power Pack along with the Moto Z.
One would have to spend around Rs. 66,000, which is certainly quite high for a smartphone with which you'll have to fidget around every single time to get a particular functionality and still have to compromise on one thing or the other.
Moreover, when there are smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge, Google Pixel XL or Apple iPhone 7 Plus, these will more or less offer a better experience as a package. By this, we don't mean that they are perfect as each of these devices has its downsides, but still, as a whole they fare much better without many compromises on design or portability.
So, should you care about them anytime soon?
So, eventually, it all boils down to one question, should you care about modular/semi-modular smartphones anytime soon?
The idea seems to be pretty exciting and may indeed revolutionize the smartphones, but we feel it may take some time for that to happen. How much, you may ask? Well, as long as it takes for hot-swappable hardware prices to narrow down to a point when people don't have second thoughts on investing in them. And of course, no big compromises on portability.
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Disclaimer: The idea of explaining a Modular smartphone with an example of Google's definition on Module has been borrowed from one of the videos by MKBHD for simplicity.