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Google Project Ara to soon release modular smartphone, not tablet; could surprise on price

-lg-g5-modular-smartphone
LG G5 with its ‘cam module’ attached


Google could release one of world’s first truly modular mobile device — one with user-replaceable parts — as early as next month and it won’t be a tablet, but a smartphone, according to person close to the company’s Project Ara unit.

“People are saying it’s a tablet because a benchmarking site said the screen size was 13.8,” the person said. “It is indeed 13.8, but in centermeters, not in inches,” he added.

It was back in early February that reports came out that the first device from Google under the project will be a tablet, and that the screen size would be 13.8 inch. This had led to a lot of disappointment from tech enthusiasts who were banking on the search giant to finally crack the ‘upgrade’ problem around smartphones.GOOGLE-project-ara

“It would be funny it was 13.8 inches.. even laptops are smaller than that,” the person quoted above said.

Google has previously confirmed that the Ara device will be launched this year, with speculation rife that it could be launched during the Google IO developer event in May.

AFFORDABLY MODULAR?

The most innovative aspect of the modular phone will of course be its modular nature.

In other words, the device will have various ‘modules’ — such as one for the camera, one for the display, one for the processor, RAM and radio — much like a PC.

One of the advantages of a traditional PC architecture — particularly for desktops and mini-PCs — is the ease with which its parts can be replaced or upgraded.

araIf, for example, a user feels like having more power, he can replace the microprocessor without having to also buy a new hard-disk, RAM, display, power supply unit and so on. Similarly, the memory can be upgraded without spending money on the CPU.

In case of phones, this is not possible due to the way everything is assembled together to save space. Components are usually compactly soldered or even etched to the main board and it’s impossible to replace the parts without running the risk of ‘bricking’ the phone.

As a result, a phone is as up-to-date as its oldest component,  and people are forced to buy a new device when they want a device with more memory, or a better camera or more processing power.

Google’s Project Ara phone will address this problem, giving the user an option to swap core units like the CPU and camera module.

Of course, the degree of ‘swappability’ won’t be of the same degree as a desktop as phones are built around SoCs or systems on chips. These SoCs, known by names such as Helio X20, Snapdragon 820 and so on, are mini-systems in themselves and contain — in addition to a core application processor — also the graphics processor and the phone’s radio components such as GSM/LTE modems, a bluetooth module, WLAN and so on.

Still, Project Ara would allow for swapping of basic components such as cameras.

South Korea-based LG Electronics has already made some advancements in introducing modular smartphones with its LG G5 device unveiled last month.

The G5 allows a user to remove the bottom of the phone and insert other modules — such as its custom-built Hi-Fi Plus DAC module or a Cam Plus module. However, Project Ara would go beyond the G5 in its swappability.

Though the benchmarks indicated a configuration of including a Snapdragon 810 processor, 3 GB of RAM and a 5 MP camera on the front, for Ara — these specifications make no sense as they can change for each unit depending on the customer’s preferences.

As a result, an exact pricing will also be difficult to predict. However, there is likely to be a ‘base’ price for the overall structure which would be very low — around $120 or so — which would rise as a user adds specific components to the structure.

What, however, remains to be seen is whether Google can overcome the biggest challenge in designing a modular smartphone — keeping the size and the looks under control. The phone is likely to be first launched in the US.
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