Features

Project Ara’s story is all about wasted potential

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After rumors recently surfaced about the cancellation of Project Ara, we now have confirmation from Google that their highly ambitious modular phone will no longer reach the consumer market. Reasons were somewhat vague, but what we do know is that it’s being done to “streamline the company’s hardware efforts.”

It was only last May when we witnessed a revived desire from Google to push the product, complete with a cool trailer and announcement of a possible consumer launch next year. Progress before and after the unveiling was typically silent, and we’ve finally confirmed that it’s been an internal structure issue all along. Now, we think about what could have been a savior for the smartphone industry.

The beginning of the end

Imagine presenting a prototype of your company’s next big thing in front of a worldwide audience, only for it to freeze during bootup and fail to even reach the home screen. No, I’m not talking about an episode of Silicon Valley. That’s actually the nightmare Google experienced back in 2014 when it presented a “working” prototype of its first modular smartphone. Thinking about it now, the incident summarizes the current situation really well.

Project Ara (1)

In the most recent build of Project Ara, you had all the functions you’d expect from the modern-day smartphone you’re accustomed to, along with the ability to plug in your choice of modules to add greater functionality. Upgrades ranging from cameras to replaceable batteries stylishly fit into the main frame to create one unified pocket computer. If you think the process is as simple as playing with Lego blocks, you’re absolutely right.

An eternity in the tech world

What could this have meant for consumers had it become a commercial product? It would have been a possible game-changer in terms of phone upgrade cycles. With a smartphone having limitless module options to keep you busy, ordering that newly launched Samsung Galaxy or Apple iPhone wouldn’t be as tempting anymore.

However, it’s been a long two years since the initial reveal, and much has changed.

It’s important to take note that Project Ara was no longer a fully modular smartphone as of May 2016. The Google phone had its core components fixed into the main frame, meaning you couldn’t touch the processor, internal storage, RAM, and front display. This became a potential deal-breaker for enthusiasts wanting a PC-like handheld gadget they can fiddle around with on the go. The development led to disappointment from the community and the product’s eventual downfall, but it might have also been able to entice a more mainstream market wanting a simpler package.

Project Ara (2)

In exchange for the loss of complexity, the last build came with welcome refinements. Plug and play was possible with certain modules, wherein you could hot swap the unit while the phone was on and even share with other Ara users on the spot. If you wanted to get fancy, saying “Okay Google, eject the camera” commanded the phone to do as it’s told.

Google’s very own

Looking back, it’s easy to forget how big of a deal Project Ara was when it was first announced at Google I/O 2014. Modular phone schematics were tossed around brainstorming sessions prior to that, but it was only when Google unveiled a (partially) working prototype that this concept became closer to commercial reality. Still, the fact that it froze shortly after being turned on established how much of a pipe dream it was back then, and how it continues to be one now.

During Project Ara’s downtime, a couple of companies took a crack at modular designs in attempts to overshadow the hype Google built and lost. The Fairphone 2 was the first modular phone to officially hit the market, and the LG G5 garnered even bigger headlines as a totally revamped flagship device with modular Friends you could attach to its Magic Slot. Most recently, Lenovo launched the Moto Z series, which proves that even partial modularity is still alive and kicking.

And yet, the latest announcement from Google I/O 2016 was more than just about a potential date and a sweet new trailer for Project Ara. Google was finally going to release a smart device that’s truly theirs – free of any partnership from the likes of Huawei or HTC in their long-running Nexus program.

The company’s previous attempt at controlling the hardware process came when it acquired Motorola in 2012. Google then became a competitor for a long list of smartphone brands that rely on Android as their sole operating system. This didn’t fly well with major players such as LG and Samsung, who subsequently secured backups in WebOS and Tizen, respectively, in case Google would suddenly favor its own manufacturing process for the latest Android updates, ultimately discriminating against loyal associates.

It’s uncertain how Project Ara would have impacted the search giant’s relationship with hardware partners as an indirect competitor, since modular phones might create a category of their own some day.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves

Ironically, the highly customizable Project Ara proved that you didn’t have total control over the aesthetics and feel. While the dimensions and weight of the device vary depending on the components equipped, you’re going to end up with a bulky, blocky handset no matter what. LG saw through the weaknesses of a largely modular phone to produce the G5 we’re enjoying today. By allowing only partial modularity from the bottom end of its current flagship, the primary build remains largely intact, so there’s no need to worry about assembling a hideous product.

Our recent unboxing and hands-on review of the G5 and its add-ons showcased how much promise there is in upgrading your handset before committing to a completely different phone the following year or two. Lenovo followed shortly after with the Moto Z and its growing lineup, but it’s too early to gauge its success.

lg-g5-mwc-20160328-02

We’ve been wanting these possibilities for a while now. Smartphone technology in general has stagnated in the past years, with every manufacturer heavily focusing on simply improving on the touchscreen-optimized formula Apple established nearly a decade ago with the original iPhone. If your current smartphone already has a high-resolution display, fast-acting camera, accurate fingerprint scanner, and either a glass or metal physique, there isn’t much more you can ask for outside the realm of modularity. Well, probably better battery life, but we’ll never be satisfied with that, right?

Speaking of batteries, with news of entire Samsung Galaxy Note 7 units being recalled because of a single part, swappable components might be the solution to new-age manufacturing woes.

Or maybe, we simply aren’t ready yet for the complexity of a fully modular smartphone. Consumers have finally moved past DIY solutions for PCs in exchange for the simplicity of owning a razor-thin notebook or all-in-one laptop with as much, if not more, power. Complicating the everyday smartphone could just as easily backfire, and discriminate against users who aren’t that tech-savvy.

It’s not just about the modules anymore

Going back to Google I/O 2014, one of the presenters posed this question: Why choose a phone for its camera, when you could choose a camera for your phone? Project Ara’s vision remained the same until its demise, but we now have a more daunting question to ask: Since we’ve already reached the pinnacle of touchscreen-smartphone convenience, when will we be ready to embrace a more complex form factor?

Project Ara’s Twitter account once wondered if fans were still around after one of its long hiatuses. We, the consumers, haven’t left yet, and taking a look at the official website shows how the developers themselves haven’t let go of the project either.

Image Credit: Maurizio Pesce

Hands-On

Honor 10 Unboxing and Hands-on

Huawei P20 with a cheaper price tag

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Huawei’s sub-brand is making a name for itself with the launch of its flagship phone to the world, the Honor 10.

The phone sports the same features as the pricier Huawei P20: Kirin 970 with neural processing chip enabled, the latest EMUI 8.1 software based on Android 8.1 Oreo, a fingerprint sensor in front, and dual cameras. Two of the biggest differences are the lack of Leica branding and inclusion of a headphone jack — all in a cheaper price tag.

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Features

Vivo unwraps X21 World Cup Edition

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It’s less than a month until the 2018 World Cup in Russia and FIFA’s official smartphone sponsor is pulling out all the stops before kickoff. After announcing the much-awaited launch of the retail model of the Vivo APEX concept phone, Vivo is treating fans to what the company dubs the Extraordinaire Edition of the X21. And as expected, it has World Cup extravaganza written all over it.

Based on the box alone you can already tell that this edition of the X21 is not just any other smartphone from Vivo. Unlike the less appealing white boxes we’ve encountered recently, this one is adorned with the 2018 World Cup pattern and an embossed silhouette of the X21 with the World Cup and Vivo logos front and center. There’s also a hint of the in-display fingerprint sensor, a feature pioneered by Vivo that hasn’t rolled out to any other smartphone but the X21.

The special edition X21 comes in two variants — painted with Russia’s colors, either blue or red. The World Cup pattern is a little bit more pronounced in these glass backs and it’s making me sing “Waka Waka” in my head. Wrong song, I know. 😂

Does it not make you go zamina mina éh éh? As far as specs go, it’s the same X21 that launched earlier this year: 6.28-inch AMOLED display, Snapdragon 660, 3,200 mAh battery, 6GB of memory, and 128GB of internal storage, a pair of 12MP and 5MP main shooters, and a 12MP camera up front for selfies.

Flipping the phone around, you get a Russia 2018 wallpaper and a custom Dusha typeface throughout the entire interface. Notice that the phone has a smaller chin bezel thanks to the futuristic under-display fingerprint sensor.

What’s a special edition smartphone without a custom icon pack? I love how the settings icon in this theme looks like a football! It’s subtle design choices like this that makes special edition phones more premium; it’s well thought out and is not just a gimmick.

Speaking of design choices, boy am I ready to see these squads on the pitch! Vivo is also offering custom shells and I’m definitely copping that Argentina case (the blue one) to match my kit. The designs are based on popular teams’ colors, clockwise from bottom left: Brazil, Argentina, Portugal, and what looks like Egypt but is supposed to be Germany — we’ll save the discussion for why it should have had a gold trim instead of white for another time.

The most important question that needs an answer is, did Vivo just predict the Top 4? We’ll find out soon enough. There are also custom themes based on the four teams so it matches your case and your team spirit. They will be available for download on the Vivo theme store.

The best part: Unlike Samsung’s Olympic edition phones, both variants of the X21 will not be exclusive to athletes and officials only. The X21 Extraordinaire Edition will retail for CNY 3,698 (US$ 579), and the blue variant will be on sale starting May 26, and red on June 1.

SEE ALSO: Vivo to launch all-display phone on June 12

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Hands-On

Samsung Galaxy A6 Hands-on: Repackaging the older series

A combination of the Galaxy J7 Pro and Galaxy A8

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The latest midrange phones of Samsung are finally hitting the stores, but they got us a little confused. Since the introduction of the Galaxy A series, it has always been the family of upper-midrange Samsung phones with a premium design. In 2018 though, Samsung is blending the Galaxy A and Galaxy J’s designs; the result is the new Galaxy A6 phones. There’s a regular and a better plus variant, but let’s check out the former first.

This is the Galaxy A6: A phone with a 5.6-inch Super AMOLED display and an 18.5:9 aspect ratio or Infinity Display, as Samsung calls it. The resolution of the display is underwhelming at just 1480 x 720 pixels or 294ppi, but it’s still pretty sharp. The Infinity Display of the Galaxy A6 doesn’t curve to the sides unlike with the Galaxy S9 flagship, yet the bezels are minimal.

The vibrant Super AMOLED display is a common Samsung trait

We have the usual sight in the front including the 16-megapixel f/1.9 selfie camera paired with its own LED flash, earpiece, and sensors. There’s no branding on the face of the phone so when the display is turned off, it looks sleek and clean on the table.

Too bad it doesn’t have the Always On Display feature, even though it has an AMOLED screen.

It’s an Infinity Display but not edge-to-edge

Having the loudspeaker at the side has now been a staple among Samsung midrange phones. It’s a much better placement than on the bottom since you don’t cover or muffle it when viewing in landscape orientation. This is ideal for watching videos or playing mobile games.

Both the loudspeaker and power button are on the right side of the phone

The volume buttons are on the right

Those who dislike making a choice between a microSD card or secondary SIM card will be glad to see the triple card slots of the Galaxy A6. There are two card trays inside the phone: one for the main nano-SIM card and another for the second nano-SIM and the microSD card.

You have to take out two trays to get all your cards inside

The body of the phone is mainly made up of aluminum with U-shaped antennas similar to the Galaxy J7 Pro’s frame. To be honest, the Galaxy A6 can easily be mistaken for the Galaxy J7 Pro if not for the rear camera. Speaking of, the Galaxy A6 has a 16-megapixel f/1.7 rear sensor inside an area shared with the fingerprint sensor. Thankfully, it’s identical to the Galaxy A8’s and Galaxy S9’s placement.

There should be fewer smudges on the camera lens

Going further into the internals of the Galaxy A6, it’s powered by an Exynos 7870 processor — the same silicon the popular Galaxy J7 Prime had back in 2016. The processor is getting old, so we’re hoping Samsung will use a newer one in their next release.

Good thing the bigger Galaxy A6+ has the latest Snapdragon 450, or else it’ll be just an under-powered midrange phone.

The variant we have here has 3GB of memory and 32GB of storage, but there’s also a 4GB/64GB combo available in select markets.

The Samsung Galaxy A6 with the 3GB/32GB configuration retails for PhP 16,490 in the Philippines while in India, it goes from INR 21,990 up to INR 22,990 depending on the variant.

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