Edge of Innovation

Modular tech: Razer Blade Stealth, Project Ara and the future of design

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

What if, instead of buying a new computer or a new phone, you could upgrade your old one? No technical knowledge required. No soldering. Just pull out a 5th Generation Intel Core processor and slot in a new 6th gen CPU. Or swap out a 250GB SSD for a 1TB one.

It sounds like a wonderful idea. Imagine future gadgets with components like Lego bricks — computing modules, sound modules, graphics modules, camera modules, storage modules, and so on. Rather than being stuck with a single, fixed specification (that can quickly become dated), you could keep pace with changes in technology.

Google certainly believes in the concept. Its Project Ara modular phone will ship to developers later this year, featuring a smartphone ‘frame’ that can accommodates six hot-swappable modules — CPU, GPU, antennas, sensors, battery and display. “Slide any Ara module into any slot and it just works,” says Google.

Project Ara modular tech
Google’s Ara smartphone concept (available in 2017) increases your customisation options.

Less versatile modular smartphones are closer. The LG G5 is another smartphone that can expand beyond its original spec, with a slide-out battery tray that can upgrade the camera experience or add a Hi-Fi DAC audio player developed in collaboration with B&O PLAY. The G5 can also paired with a variety of companion devices, including LG 360 VR goggles and a rolling robot.

The new Moto Z supports add-on accessories too, which attach to the back of the device via magnets and pins. Dubbed Moto Mods, modular extras include colourful style shells, a JBL SoundBoost speaker, a Power Pack and a Moto Insta-Share Projector.

Experiments with modular design go beyond smartphones. The BLOCKS smartwatch will shortly become available, featuring a wide range of modules that slot into the strap — extra battery cells, a flashlight, GPS and a heart rate monitor. While CellRobot is based around robotic cells that combine to form a larger automaton.

There’s also growing interest in modular PCs. We’ve already seen the Razer Blade Stealth, an Intel Core™ i7-powered Ultrabook with the ability to connect to an external graphics card via a 40Gbps Thunderbolt 3 connection. While the Acer Revo Build is a mini PC that can be augmented with magnetic modules that add extra storage, better graphics and wireless charging.

At Computex 2016, ASUS also unveiled the ROG Avalon concept PC, a modular system that uses modern edge connectors to eliminate “as many cables as possible to make assembly less intimidating for first-time builders and more convenient for seasoned veterans.” The result? A compact, prototype PC “that’s right on the edge of what’s possible.”

ASUS ROG Avalon - modular tech
The ASUS ROG Avalon is a prototype for an easily-upgradeable, cable-free PC. Via edgeup.asus.com.

Is the future of our gadgets modular? It’s too early to say. The Project Ara/Revo Build approach offers an easy way to upgrade, which means that we can keep our favourite technology for longer, reducing waste, customising our phones and PCs to suit our lifestyles.

On the other hand, modular gadgets are only as good as the modules available for them. There’s a tradeoff here — greater convenience might mean less choice.

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