Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone

Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular

Modules! They look really cool. Sadly, that's about all I was able to take away from a brief hands-on opportunity with Google's beautiful, exciting, not-coming-to-a-store-near-you-anytime-soon Project Ara modular smartphone.

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You see, all three prototype devices Google brought to the Project Ara developer conference have a bit of an issue right now where the touchscreen doesn't work, and you kind of need that touchscreen to unlock the phone and tell whether any of those modules are actually being nice and modular and hot-swappable and magnetically locking in place and electronically acting like they should.

But they sure do look really cool. So I took a lot of pictures of those modules. Find them below.

In case you're not familiar, the idea behind Project Ara is that you can basically build your own phone. Google provides an "endoskeleton" which holds a whole bunch of hot-swappable modules that act like a miniature network, adding up to a complete device. You can pull them out and replace them with other modules anytime you want -- say, trading your speakerphone for a pollution sensor on the fly. Or start with an endoskeleton with a BlackBerry-sized screen and physical keyboard, perhaps, instead of a modern pebble-like design.

Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular

It can be even simpler than that, in fact: ever wished your USB charging port was in a different location, say halfway up the phone instead of at the very bottom? I was able to do that right here with these prototypes. The endoskeleton carries power, data, and in the future even wireless signals, letting you theoretically place antennas where they will give you the best reception for cellular and Wi-Fi. Each module will theoretically lock into place with programmable magnetic locks after you slide them into place, so they won't just fall out of your phone (though I wasn't able to try that today.)

You'll also be able to personalise your phone by customising those building blocks with patterns and images of your choice. When you buy one, Google imagines that it will even have software ready that can crawl your social network feeds to use your own pictures, or pictures that you've previously liked.

And though right now, the modules are limited to pretty mundane things you'd already expect your phone to have (screen, earpiece, speaker, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, 3G cellular, camera, USB, battery, and the processor), companies could create all kinds of crazy modules much the way they create apps today. Talk about futureproof devices: whenever Qualcomm comes out with a new mobile processor or Samsung with a hot new high-def mobile screen, they could toss it into a module for Ara smartphone owners to buy. You could trade modules with friends, or resell the old modules as you upgrade. Kind of like desktop PCs. You've owned a desktop PC, right?

Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular

Still, there's just no way to tell at this point whether Google ATAP team has truly made it happen: whether this is the future of smartphones or just a really cool side project that might go extinct. Google's currently only committed to a tiny launch in Puerto Rico, as a testbed to see whether or not it got the idea right.

Google ATAP's stated mission is to see if it can turn a potentially disruptive technology into a commercial reality within a tight two-year deadline, but it does seem like Google might be bending that rule this time around. Google ATAP's leader, former DARPA director Regina Dugan, said that ATAP might take "another two-year swing at it" as long as they know why their efforts failed.

As of today, they have got a pretty damn cool looking prototype which isn't quite competitive with current high-end smartphones, as it's only got a low-res 720p screen, a 3G modem, and a tiny battery that can't yet last close to a full day. It is reasonably thin, though! It's a prototype, so we can't expect too much, and better components are coming before the Puerto Rico launch later this year. Google wants to ship with 20-30 modules to start.

But I want to see Ara really working, doing smartphone-y things, before I let this awesome concept steal my gadget-loving heart.

Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular
Project Ara Hands-On: Google's Modular Smartphone Sure Is Modular



    Much as it's an interesting idea, I personally can't see the appeal.

    All the connectors will have to make the device substantially bigger and heavier than an integrated unit and I'd be very surprised if it isn't substantially more expensive as well.

      havent you noticed that smart phones are getting bigger all the time.

      you want a higher resolution camera? done, you need an infrared temperature probe? done, larger hdd? done, dont need 3g? done. need your phone to become a cb uhf police tracker? done.

      a phone with upgradable expansion slots could replace all the hand held gadgets people have to use, instead of carrying around half a dozen specialist devices, you can now build them all in one, and connect them to the internet

        @benaresq's argument is the more customized idea (with so many standard connectors) also leads to unnecessary size and weight gain on a mobile phone, meaning you could end up getting a customized smartphone with same screen size but much bigger body size and heavy weight compared to a regular high end flagship with the same specs anyway. This is less appeal to me as well.

          Much bigger??? I think the phone is 9mm thick.
          Heavy weight??? I guess it will way some 50gm more. Also no review I've read of the prototype has mentioned weight as an issue.

          I look forward to getting one when they are released.

            Yes the phone already has an unpleasant screen body ratio as you can see the big bezel on one side of the phone, not to mention the screen is only 720P and the battery is TINY. It is a fact that you have to have so many standard connectors to make projects like this happen. However the connectors just bring the additional size and weight, or compromise.

            Last edited 19/01/15 6:04 pm

              I find them really ugly sorry to say. good idea but.... It might be canned like google glass

                Glass wasn't canned actually, it was moved to a new division. That division may can it, but hasn't as of this post.

                Yeah tbh it just isn't a simple design and complex ideas only sell to nerds.

              You see the connectors right, they can! conduct electricity and save it like a battery, meaning each piece can act like one if you really wanted it too, coding that sort of thing is possible and the pieces are already there, depending on how they are made of course but i'm sure they can hold and relay a charge so in theory you can have a larger main battery, and let the pieces act as mini ones once fully charged. This a tech theory flying around someone has a 9 page post on it, seems kinda legit

      For the average punter I don't think this idea has much merit, most people wouldn't know what components are in their phone anyway, and when it comes time to upgrade they want a shiny new gadget to show off, not some upgraded internals.

      Maybe for enterprise where a very specific set of requirements could be met and then upgraded as the requirements change there could be some use for this. As long as they're durable as work phones generally aren't looked after that well.

        Im quite sure people have at least the basic understanding that their phone consists of a hard drive, battery, camera and screen which would be the basic key upgrades. Its not rocket science - lets not overestimate human stupidity. Balance is a nice thing.

          I've sold mobile phones since the 5110 and I can tell you most people don't know what CPU, Ram, screen res etc their phone has, I wasn't saying they don't know the basics of what makes up a phone, just that they wouldn't know the exact parts in their phone, and more to the point aren't likely to think, hmmm this CPU is struggling with the latest version of Android I should update to the new snapdragon.

          How many consumers currently upgrade components in the laptop when it struggles to meet their demand? Most just purchase a new one when they can't put up with it anymore.

          My point is most consumers purchasing a new phone do so on a contract basis and have brand loyalty to a certain product, when they upgrade they want the shiny new Iphone 6 or Note 4 or HTC whatever.

          I'm not at all overestimating human stupidity just that not everyone has an interest in specifications and just want a new version of the experience they're use to. Most people won't even purchase a $15 battery halfway through their contract and instead complain about battery life until time for a new contract. I have some extremely intelligent friends who require my rudimentary understanding of computer hardware to keep them online.

            That is why many of those ppl will always be iPhone users - which are consumer products and are mostly idiot proof.
            However, the fact that your friends may not know the difference between usb and micro sd, doesn't mean that they won't love the idea of using their own pictures and designs to completely customize the exterior shell. This will just equate to alot more help required by you, or you just need to get more tech savy friends. :)
            I myself have been following this since I saw motorola had started backing the idea a couple years ago.

        A lot of people who modify their cars don't really appreciate what they're doing to them (especially when it comes to style and taste). Same thing here, I reckon - people will get the basics and then succumb to advertising for the next new module that you absolutely need to live a complete life.

      Yeah agreed. The size factor to me kills it due to the connectors and the extra chips that'll no doubt need to be there all over the place. In particular I don't think it makes sense for a market such as Australia where many of the major phone companies really go through one major iteration of any line-up each 24 months, and people are on 24 month contracts meaning that staying current with your phone isn't that difficult with the number of plan subsidised options.

      I think it'll take some very unique modules to allow this to catch most peoples interest. More RAM, a slightly faster CPU or some additional storage may not cut it when phones ship with very solid performing components already and in many cases storage can be expanded with cloud storage or perhaps even memory cards.

      None the less, it'll be interesting to see how it goes. I think it'll make sense on larger devices that aren't tied to 24 month plans...perhaps a laptop where you can easily swap out a cd drive with a dedicated graphics card depending on whether you are playing an installed game or ripping music.

    would be good to see what we will end up with

    like the idea but for some reason im skeptical about it

    Great idea, but won't this make more sense for a tablet (or phablet)?

      The smartphone market is larger. I suspect that if the idea is a success for phones, tablets will follow not long afterwards.

      I personally love this idea, and have been waiting for a modular phone for some time. Much like the SD card can be upgraded in Android phones when the memory starts running out, you can upgrade any part of the phone when it becomes obsolete. Rather than being able to market a phone with barely noticable incremental improvements (ahem *iPhone*) and charge for a whole new phone, device makers will need to really differentiate their products in order to convince a user to upgrade.

      I also love it for the ease of repairs. Camera malfunctions? Swap in a new one. Smashed the screen? Swap in a new one. Battery life isn't what it used to be? New one.

      Finally, with any developers able to make products to include in the phone, you could expect to see prices plummeting. At the moment, if you want to make a camera for a phone, you need to get a deal with a phone manufacturer - allowing anyone to make products will mean much lower barriers to entry into the market.

    Two camera modules, perhaps an infrared camera module, bit of storage and as much CPU/GPU cards that you can get and wham, a phone perfect for a GearVR setup for Augmented reality.

    Looking forwards to this, as god knows im sick of going through phones where I could replace one faulty part and get another year out of a device, or get the latest parts as I want them.

    Just as a quick thought responding to the majority complaining about thickness, weight, screen resolutions, and the current limiting factors. How's this for thought:
    When the model is released, sure, you will be right in your argument, but, being that devices are constantly evolving, there is nothing to say that the modules would not be able to be released lighter weight, or higher res screens, or perks to current downfalls. As the modules are evolving, sure, a thinner, lighter endoskeleton or Ara frame 2.0 can be released, still compatible with all modules out, yet allowing the device to still get the 'new' look.
    I think the majority of you are too closed minded about a modular design. You hear modular, yet interpret as vastly fixed.

    No thanks. Just give me a good looking unibody design like the HTC M8 or iPhone.

    I dont like the grooves of the modules, making the back of the phone "lumpy" and not smooth and flat like an iPhone. If they can make sure the endoskeleton and modules connect together to result in a smooth flat back, that would be perfect. Yes, I can slap a case on it, and yes, the grooves probably add some grip and allow for easy swapping of modules, but its still ugly imo. Still, besides this one tiny gripe, bring on Project Ara.

    Hmm, I hope they release different sized 'skeletons' so I can select a 30% sized frame, mechanical keypad, tiny screen, 4g + antenna, plus BT when I am on my bike. Contemporary massive phones are bloody annoying.

    Remember in the early days, when we drop a phone on the floor, the back panel, battery,etc would fall apart and you would assemble it back and use it again. Dropping one of these must be quiet a sight.

      Except now you dont have to commit so much to where each piece needs to fit back in. Slap a cover on it, she'll be right.

    I personally think this phone is gonna be amazing and I can't wait for it to come out

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