Modular phones: A dilemma that has been bolted on by phone makers

The concept of modular phones was one way of enhancing your phone’s productivity, battery backup and utility, by adding extra bits of hardware whenever needed. But, all that isn’t as smooth as it may sound


Moto Z
Moto Z

A brainchild of Google, the modular smartphone concept also known as Project Ara first surfaced in 2013. Three years down the line and many prototypes, all we know is that Ara remained delayed. Eventually, enough was enough and Google decided to suspend the idea of making modular phones by itself in September 2016. Instead, the company will be licensing the concept to other phone makers.

While the concept of modular in itself created a lot of buzz, it really didn’t see many adopters. Dutch phone maker Fairphone, which is yet to come up with phones in India, came up with a slightly different take on modular phones in Fairphone 2. In its case a user could actually dismantle the phone and replace it with newer components such as camera, speaker, battery in case of damage to any of them.

LG joined the bandwagon in early 2016 at CES with a modular phone called the G5, which arrived in India this year. And now it is Motorola’s turn. But, there are reasons why the modular capabilities of a smartphone alone should not dictate your buying decision.

How it works

Modular phones basically allow users to customise their phone on the go with accessories called mods, that can be clapped on the phone’s main body or using the ports on the phone, and can be used to enhance performance including the camera output and battery backup of the phone. The mods for the phone are ideally developed and made by players who have a greater expertise in that area of the phone. For instance, the camera mod for Moto Z smartphones has been made by Hasselblad, a Swedish photography giant.

What makes it impractical?

Buying a modular phone immediately means a slightly higher cost of ownership. Take the recently launched Moto Z smartphones, for instance. The higher variant, the Moto Z costs Rs 39,999 and the more mid-range variant called the Moto Z Play is priced at Rs 24,999. In both price segments, there are better alternatives available to user. However, if a user still decides to go for them, the mods available for these phones include the JBL Sound Boost Moto mod which comes for Rs 6,999, while the Hasselblad Tru Zoom camera and Moto Insta Share projector costs Rs 19,999 each. The camera mod adds a physical shutter button and 10x optical zoom. Combine that price of the phone and the camera mod, and you might as well get a proper DSLR camera if photography is so important.

The Sound Boost can enhance the audio quality by adding two 27mm speakers, while the projector mod can project a screen of up to 70 inches. Similarly, LG G5’s CamPlus mod which adds a camera button and a bigger battery costs Rs 6,999 in addition to the Rs 47,990 for the phone itself.

Owning a modular phone with all its mods means you need to carry multiple mods with you. Moreover, adding these mods would add a sizeable amount of bulk to the phone, making carrying them with any of the mods a bit uncomfortable. For example, the Hasselblad camera mod weighs 145g which when clapped on the 136g Moto Z phone will make it quite hefty.

While the concept in itself sounds cool, and can be useful from time to time, the price points right now make it too expensive to take a risk on.

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