Smartphones with replaceable parts? Sure. Kind of.
However, these are just gimmicks. A real innovation would be modularity.
Imagine customizing your perfect smartphone. You select the screen, camera, battery, and processor that work best for you. And when it’s time to upgrade, you replace individual parts rather than the whole device.
It’s a departure from our current paradigm. But consider this: if you can customize the parts on your car, or your PC, why can’t you customize your phone?
The demise of Phonebloks and Google’s Project Ara (shown below), was a real missed opportunity. Less waste, build flexibility, easier repairs; not to mention endless opportunities to accessorize your device.
The good news is modular isn’t dead, at least not entirely. Here’s what you’re working with in 2019.
The Top Three Modular Android Phones Today
I wish I was here reviewing the latest Phonebloks device, but nothing with that level of modularity exists yet. However, there are several fascinating modular Android phones out there, and the best is yet to come.
1) Doogee S90: Unique, modular Android smartphone system
- Pros: Ruggedized, unique, accessible price.
- Cons: Quite heavy, some mods have dubious utility.
- Price: From $300
The easiest way to describe the Doogee S90 is: there’s nothing like it. It’s a ruggedized modular phone with an impressive range of magnetic, snap-on accessories.
While it doesn’t have replaceable and upgradeable internal components, the fast and durable Doogee S90 offers a unique range of clip-on modules: a walkie-talkie, a gamepad attachment, a larger battery, and even a night vision camera.
To call this massive, waterproof, ruggedized smartphone niche is putting it mildly, but Doogee absolutely clobbered their crowd-funding goals. People are clearly excited about the idea.
The phone is durable and waterproof, mods clip on super easily, and it’s pretty powerful. It’s also really big (6.18″) and quite heavy (300g, not counting the mods.)
2) Motorola Moto Z2: A modular Android system with tons of modules
- Pros: Impressive number of mods, accessible price.
- Cons: Some mods are harder to find and can be expensive.
- Price: From $219
The popular Motorola Moto Z2 Play and Z2 Force are both Android devices with modular options. Note the telltale pin connectors on the back of the phone.
Those pins allow you to connect to a plethora of snap-on mods, such as a JBL speaker, a mini-projector, a Hasselblad camera with 10x optical zoom, a gamepad, a 360-degree camera, and even a Polaroid photo printer. Cool, right?
I’d love to see replaceable parts, but the mods are pretty neat. The Hasselblad attachment, for example, turns your device into a legitimate camera. Other extras, like the projector, are surprisingly useful.
Since they’re almost two years old now, the Z2 Play and Z2 Force are both inexpensive modular Android phones. The Play is a capable mid-ranger, while the Force features a higher 1,440p resolution and more impressive specs.
Of course, the extras aren’t cheap. Collecting all those mods can really add up, and some are downright rare.
3) Fairphone 2: Modular components, easy repairs, ethical design
- Pros: Ethical production, repairable / upgradeable by the user.
- Cons: Thicker design, middle-of-the-pack hardware, not widely available.
- Price: €300, if you can find one.
The Fairphone is amazing and stands alone. While they may not have gadgets like the Moto Z2 and the Doogee S90, this is arguably the most modular Android phone out there. They just come at it from a different angle: repair.
The phone is designed to be disassembled and repaired with just a screwdriver. Display, battery, camera and more can be replaced by the user, at home.
Additionally, Fairphone uses ethically sourced raw materials and recycled plastics to reduce their environmental footprint.
Due to its modularity, the Fairphone 2 is thicker than glued phones (about 10.6mm), and its technical stats are middling. Of course, you can upgrade any component that’s slowing you down, which is quite unique.
Why isn’t it ranked higher? The Fairphone 2 is from 2016, and it’s not easy to find a new one today.
Are there other modular systems on the way?
I don’t think we’ve seen the last of truly modular android smartphones. Modularity is a rare opportunity to innovate, and someone is going to figure that out.
Here are a few companies hoping to blow the doors off this whole thing.
The PuzzlePhone is a Finnish device designed to be upgradeable and long-lasting. Consisting of a frame and two removable modules (the “brain” and the “heart), replacing worn-out components is literally a snap and can be done at home.
From a sustainability standpoint, the PuzzlePhone has a lot going for it. Its developers estimate a 10-year lifespan (outside of the replaceable battery.)
Visually, it’s slick, though it still has a distinctly prototype feel and it’s clearly thicker than conventional devices (because, y’know, it’s not glued together.)
We really like it. Sadly, despite a successful crowdfunding campaign, it seems to have stalled. We aren’t holding our breath that the PuzzlePhone will ever get to production.
That’s right. They may have shuttered Project Ara, but Google doesn’t seem to be finished with modularity yet. They recently filed a patent for a system with replaceable parts, though not to the extent that Ara boasted.
The drawings indicate a replaceable screen, chip, and battery. It’s hard to say how extensible such a device would be, but adding and replacing components seems to be the intent.