Modular smartphone hardware is fraught with problems (but ones worth solving)

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.

Buying a new smartphone is a big commitment for a lot of us, involving a fair amount of research, price-hunting, weighing the pros and cons of various features, and ultimately sinking what can be a sizable amount of cash on our purchase. After going through all that, we're ready to stick with that phone for as long as we can, so there's little worse than finally deciding on your new dream-phone only to see a fresh model come out a month later with some fantastic new feature.

Oh, your phone has optical image stabilization? Well this new phone has an X-ray camera that shoots pics through walls. Yours has support for Bluetooth headsets? This new one friggin' ultrasonically beams music right to your eardrum.

But soon this kind of buyer's remorse could be a thing of the past, as we're in the early days of the era of modular smartphones, where adding new functionality to your existing handset promises to be as easy as changing your case is now.

Sure, there have been a few notable stabs in this direction from manufacturers in the past, but 2016 is seriously lining up to be the year of the modular phone. We've already got LG with the G5 (and Friends), Motorola looks ready to announce the MotoMods for the new Moto Z and Droid Z phones, and we've got Google's first Project Ara phone gearing up to hit developers later this year.

How will this whole modular-phone experiment play out? We reached out to get your opinions earlier this month, and you were decidedly mixed: about a third of you were really excited for all this potential, a bit less of you were ready to dismiss the whole concept as a gimmick, and a bit more were just all sorts of unsure.

You've got got good reason to be a little uncertain, as while the idea of modular smartphone hardware is utterly overflowing with potential, it's also going to be incredibly tricky to do right.

A really successful modular smartphone platform will do three things: it will offer users the hardware options they want, it will have solid software support, and it will do all this without unnecessarily interfering with our established smartphone-use routines.

We're going play a bit of Devil's advocate and check out why each of those goals is just a little more difficult to achieve than it might initially seem.

Hardware solution, or creating more hardware problems?


This here's the big one, as hardware primarily drives the whole modular smartphone conversation: will buying a phone that supports modular hardware guarantee that you get the future-proof expansion you're looking for?

When LG launched the G5, it put the phone's hardware expandability front and center, but already we had a problem, as there just weren't enough expansion modules to choose from. The LG Cam Plus camera module was a great choice to introduce the phone with – who doesn't use their phone as a camera, and wouldn't love a way to make that interaction more powerful? But the Hi-Fi Plus audio module has had some serious availability issues, and even if it had been easy to get your hands on, two modules doesn't represent a whole lot of choice.

Sure, LG promises that more modules are coming soon, but that doesn't make the G5 much easier to sell today. Instead, we find ourselves forced to accept a lot of future promises – and until there's a really robust smartphone-module ecosystem, this is a problem that's going to plague future modular phones.


Cross-compatibility


Speaking of future phones, how will buying a hardware module today affect how you look for your next phone?

When we split up the purchases of base phone hardware and feature-packed add-ons, shoppers are going to want that modular investment to pan out – and that means supporting more than one smartphone model.

LG's already talked about continuing with its modular design for upcoming phones, but we haven't heard any assurances yet that the G5's Friends will work with the G6, or whatever the future brings. And while Motorola appears to be working on MotoMods that would be compatible with a number of its soon-to-launch handsets, will they still support next year's phones?

Maybe the most promising contender here is Google's Project Ara, with standardized modules absolutely crucial to its functionality. With slide-in modules, that's easy enough, but things get a lot stickier when the form factor of the expansion modules are tied to the shape of the phone's hardware, as they are in the G5, and presumably will be for Motorola's modules.

While a phone we use every day ends up feeling incredibly familiar over time, we're not necessarily married to that design, and often look forward to one day trying out bigger/smaller phones, thinner phones, or just models with different curves.

If a phone-maker's modular design is intrinsically tied to its handset being one particular shape, are we giving up that sort of variety?

But if I don't use a case, I know I'm going to ruin my phone


Smartphone cases represent an interesting duality: they're either the worst thing to befall phones, obscuring their beautiful designs, or the best thing to happen to them, protecting their delicate hardware from our awful, clumsy handling. As such, a lot of us have come to somewhat of an understanding with cases as a necessary evil – we may not love them, but we're absolutely terrified of not having them.

Modular hardware threatens to bring utter bedlam to smartphone cases.

How the heck do you protect a phone when swapping hardware modules suddenly makes the phone longer, cause odd protrusions to pop out of it, or introduces a camera lens where none was present before? Will each module have to come with its own case?

Motorola's MotoMod leaks suggest the modules themselves could serve as cases – that's one way to do things. And Project Ara could conceivably work with bumper-style cases, as the phone's overall profile wouldn't change much.

But however they do it, it would behoove manufacturers of modular phones to think long and hard about not asking users to give up protective cases in the name of modular expansion – because for the moment, that might be just too big of an ask.

Hardware's only part of the equation


The ability to bring new hardware features to an aging phone sounds great, but the ultimate usefulness of those new abilities is going to depend a lot on how well supported they are in software.

This problem's not unique to modular hardware – just introducing a new feature to a monolithic phone can potentially have the same issue of initially weak third-party support – but when we get into a robust ecosystem of modules, with new options appearing all the time, it's going to be that much more difficult for devs to keep up with them.

While this isn't necessarily a deal-breaker, as presumably no manufacturer would release a new hardware module without strong first-party software support, that threatens to limit its appeal; what if that crazy ultrasound-beam audio system we mentioned before only works with one music player?

This can and will get better. But if you buy your first expansion module, and quickly find yourself getting bored with it after you realize it doesn't work with a ton of apps, how likely are you going to be to purchase that next one?


Don't be so down on the future


All of these add up to some compelling reasons why that wait-and-see mentality might be the best one to take when approaching modular smartphones. Mobile tech is one long story about manufacturers learning from their mistakes: finding what works and making it better, and not being afraid to try a new idea and fail.

Some modular phone platforms are going to fail. Maybe you'll make a big investment with one family of modules, only to later regret that decision when a new alternative starts looking a lot more promising.

So while we're trying to go into this eyes-open, and accept that some rough patches could keep this from being the hardware utopia we'd love it to be, we're also still hugely excited about where this whole experiment is going to lead.

Will you be a willing test subject, eager to see how ever-changing hardware can enhance your smartphone experience? More power to you, because even if these early attempts come up a little short, we're all in for one hell of a fun ride in the long term.

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26 Comments

1. Eraman

Posts: 162; Member since: Dec 13, 2015

Ok Ok but I guess Motorola's Z series will boast one from 4 camera lenses 1 Schneider Kreuznach 2 Carl Zeiss 3 Sony 4 Leica And the CPU will be one from 3 1 SD 820 2 SD823 3 Helio X30 And the RAM will be one from 3 1 4GB 2 3GB 3 6GB And Shutter proofed and fast charged (or vooc) ... I guess those are the solutions for smart phones problems

27. sgodsell

Posts: 7052; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

I think modular phones are great. It makes smart phones more versatile, and can extend the life of one to a certain degree. So I give a thumbs up to Ara, Motorola, and LG for at least going beyond the norm of just a square slab for a smartphone.

2. medtxa

Posts: 1655; Member since: Jun 02, 2014

what it is for? bigger battery, better audio or camera? you could do that without modular design so..modular smartphone are just overcomplicated thing.

7. Finalflash

Posts: 4063; Member since: Jul 23, 2013

It's for the years after where it can't done with modern smartphones. Imagine how much money iFans could have saved with a modular smartphone if they didn't have to buy the same screen 5 years in a row, or the same camera, or the same casing, all for a new SOC.

25. Atrixboyyy

Posts: 587; Member since: Nov 03, 2011

how do you upgrade those without changing anything?

3. catze86

Posts: 731; Member since: Dec 07, 2015

Dont need Modular design. But need a phone case that can increase the phone functionality. Extra battery case? check. Extra camera lens case? check. Extra keyboard case?check. Extra memory case?... Extra screen case?.... Extra audio amplifier case?... Modular phones are almost useless and too risky for me.

4. blueghost211

Posts: 57; Member since: Oct 19, 2015

I'm actually pretty shocked more people aren't ready to embrace this technology. Yes, it's not fully developed and widely available. I can understand the apprehension of not knowing if modularity can fully deliver, but to outright dismiss it is ridiculous. If Google, LG, Motorola, or any other OEM can get this right we could be looking at a phone that can adapt with our lives. Idk, call me optimistic. Looking forward to playing with Google's Ara phone.

8. vincelongman

Posts: 5656; Member since: Feb 10, 2013

Agreed I remember seeing the phonebloks video, everyone (including me) thought we wouldn't have that for at least another 10 years, if not 20+ years Even Project Ara's limited modularity would still be a huge leap in terms of engineering

5. IAMBLCKJ3ZUS

Posts: 401; Member since: Sep 29, 2015

Rather have a Surface phone hybrid. Now that's the future.

18. sgodsell

Posts: 7052; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

Why even mention something like Surface Phone, especially since you need an OS and a ecosystem that would support modular hardware. Windows NT kernel and Windows 10 (Mobile) and it's ecosystem do not. You are forgetting a major thing about Android and it's ecosystem, which can run on any hardware you throw at it. Windows was never designed to be that way, and will never happen even 5 years from now.

6. WPX00

Posts: 511; Member since: Aug 15, 2015

I can see the MotoMods supported next year, but not LG's Friends. No way in hell is LG gonna design a phone around that same flawed bkttom chin.

13. Bankz

Posts: 2523; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

This.. There's nothing more to add to this. There's no way LG will build their next modular phone on their flawed design execution, which has made it very difficult to add any reasonable modules to their collection. Another thing is that the modules LG has out of the box are few and outrightly unattractive and serves no added purpose to the phone. Just take a look at their cam plus and Hi-Fi plus. Total duds. Infact, From from I've seeing, heard and observed, I think MOTO has been working on this for a long time and this is more evident when you see their meticulous, measured approach towards their module execution and quality of variable Mods out of the box.

14. Bankz

Posts: 2523; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

This.. There's nothing more to add to this. There's no way LG will build their next modular phone on their flawed design execution, which has made it very difficult to add any reasonable modules to their collection. Another thing is that the modules LG has out of the box are few and outrightly unattractive and serves no added purpose to the phone. Just take a look at their cam plus and Hi-Fi plus. Total duds. Infact, From from I've seeing, heard and observed, I think MOTO has been working on this for a long time and this is more evident when you see their meticulous, measured approach towards their module execution and quality of variable Mods out of the box.

15. Bankz

Posts: 2523; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

This.. There's nothing more to add to this. There's no way LG will build their next modular phone on their flawed design execution, which has made it very difficult to add any reasonable modules to their collection. Another thing is that the modules LG has out of the box are few and outrightly unattractive and serves no added purpose to the phone. Just take a look at their cam plus and Hi-Fi plus. Total duds. Infact, From from I've seeing, heard and observed, I think MOTO has been working on this for a long time and this is more evident when you see their meticulous, measured approach towards their module execution and quality of variable Mods out of the box.

16. Bankz

Posts: 2523; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

This.. There's nothing more to add to this. There's no way LG will build their next modular phone on their flawed design execution, which has made it very difficult to add any reasonable modules to their collection. Another thing is that the modules LG has out of the box are few and outrightly unattractive and serves no added purpose to the phone. Just take a look at their cam plus and Hi-Fi plus. Total duds. Infact, From from I've seeing, heard and observed, I think MOTO has been working on this for a long time and this is more evident when you see their meticulous, measured approach towards their module execution and quality of variable Mods out of the box.

19. sgodsell

Posts: 7052; Member since: Mar 16, 2013

That chin is fine and works well.

9. sunnyfpy

Posts: 277; Member since: May 12, 2013

Stil at early stage of development so little advantage over normal phones.

11. Bankz

Posts: 2523; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

I'm frankly surprised why so many reviewers are unnecessarily skeptical bout this technology. If it were apple/samsung or a major player like google, these guys would have been very excited bout the prospect of something different and intriguing. Seeing as its LG and MOTO, everyone wants to suddenly employ doubt without even given them a chance. Aren't they supposed to be commended for trying to innovate and take a risk? Aren't we suppose to commend them for thinking outside the box? First of all, we need to realize that these smart phones on their own are top of the line and will go toe to toe with any other phone out there without even thinking about any modular add ons. They all have SD820, Type C, 4GB RAM, QHD screens, powerful cameras, FPS, speaker(s), premium designs, etc by default, so why do we have a problem with the modules if they bring the extra functionality (admittedly not in LG's case though). So when you think about it, you'll get to really understand the reasoning behind these modular approach. The phones don't need them to function, but they are there for the purpose of giving the customers a choice for those that need them and in the case of MOTO, they are giving us fantastic choices with the mods they have from launch day. So why not embrace it.

12. TerryTerius unregistered

You can both recognize something presents major possibilities, and be realistic about the problems it may face. And really, that's the balance approached you should have towards everything new. Doesn't mean you are writing off the concept or saying any given company is being foolish. It means you're being pragmatic.

17. Bankz

Posts: 2523; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

Terry, great post as usual. Very true I must say but sometimes its the delivery with these reviewers that makes them sound too pessimistic. As for me I'm seriously excited bout what MOTO has on offer here especially with the quality of modules I've seeing but like you said, a balanced and realistic approach towards things are always better.

20. catze86

Posts: 731; Member since: Dec 07, 2015

Because Samsung is almost everywhere. If something happened because of the faulty product. You can find their service centers not far from your home. Imagine if its LG, Moto, Sony or Nokia? its pain in the ass to find their nearer service centres. Rather than remove part of the device. I prefer add more functional accessories.

22. Bankz

Posts: 2523; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

Yeah, you're right on that one but what part of the device have they (MOTO) sacrificed on? People wanted the FPS to be on the dimple at the back but it didn't happen because of the modules (which is frankly better, IMO), and as a result, the FPS is placed at the front now and also as a result you can't have stereo speakers at the same bottom place as well (due to the FPS), so they instead retained the speaker at the front still which doubles as an earpiece, which is still better than any other location. So, samsung has one bottom speaker, lg has one bottom speaker, apple has one bottom speaker, the note series has one bottom speaker, huawei p9 has one bottom speaker and even HTC now has a bottom speaker and one front facing one as a result of the finger print scanner placement. Only the 6p and sony currently has stereo ff speakers. So in what way did MOTO remove any valuable part of the device compared to the competition?

24. MingLiangChen

Posts: 329; Member since: Jul 06, 2012

One thing about the Z with SD820 though is the battery. It almost always prompt us to use the battery module in a way that other modules may not be convenient to swap to during those hours of lower battery level. BTW, are the battery modules discharged before the internal battery? Do they slow down deterioration of the internal battery?

26. catze86

Posts: 731; Member since: Dec 07, 2015

The device should have additional connector is the right thing to do. Replacing one part with another is seemingly not right for me. In my opinion, those OEMs shoulde creates their own version of smartcases.

21. brasstax

Posts: 540; Member since: Apr 16, 2014

Won't foldable smartphones mean that this is a non starter? Samsung seems pretty close to releasing a foldable phone and if that takes off, how do these modules work especially if the foldable phone is paper like and can be twisted in many directions?

23. Bankz

Posts: 2523; Member since: Apr 08, 2016

True, I for one hope it happens, I mean, let's face it, the smartphone industry has become pretty stale for some years now. Although, the only thing I'm getting from foldable phones is convenience, not really functionality. Then again, what if foldable phones don't take off? What if they had some severe flaws? Even if it does work out, who's to say it wouldn't become a niche? If it where say MOTO, HTC or LG, are you sure people would have been this excited bout the prospect of foldable phones? Even if it comes to fruition, it'll take a while before it goes mainstream and even if they do, that'll only make it better for the consumers (us) as then we'll have different companies offering different things to different people (Foldable, Mods, Ara, Edge screens etc). So, what I'm trying to say is that foldable phones or not, nothing should be taken away from the achievements of some other company and not every company should follow thesame path as long as they all provide meaningful improvements and functionality to our experiences.

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