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Project Ara Hands-on: Meet Google's Future-Proof Phone

Imagine being able to create a phone featuring a Super AMOLED display from Samsung, the camera from Apple’s iPhone 6 and the front-facing Boom sound speakers from HTC’s One M8. That dream may become a reality sooner than you think.

Google's modular smartphone concept, Project Ara, is intended to eliminate the problem of having to replace your entire smartphone just to upgrade a single component. You would have the freedom to mix and match components as you like. In a visit to Google's New York City office, I got up close and personal with two of only five prototypes of the latest iteration in the world. After my time with the Spiral 2 prototype, I'd say Google is much closer to achieving its goal.

How Project Ara Works

Project Ara is meant to allow consumers to replace individual components without the need for any technical know-how. Things such as cameras, speakers, heart sensors and even displays can be added or replaced as easily as putting Legos together.

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To reduce a smartphone to its simplest parts, Google developed an endoskeleton, or endo for short, which acts as a base to which every other component — modules in Google lingo — is connected. Modules can be developed by anyone, not just Google, with the goal of creating a diverse components ecosystem for consumers to choose from.

The endo is divvied up into sections with standardized sizes so developers can ensure their modules will fit onto any Project Ara device. Google has developed a bridge that allows each module to communicate with the other modules on the phone.

The Magnet Factor

Each module is attached to the endo using an EPM (electro permanent magnet) which can be turned on to establish a strong connection to the phone, or turned off so you can remove a module and swap in a different one. The real trick is that the magnets will hold a charge even without power, so you won’t have to worry about losing modules if you turn your phone off or run out of battery. You can even replace modules while the phone is on.

What You Can Do with Project Ara

The true power of the Project Ara platform is its ability to adapt to each user's individual needs. That means being able to add additional battery modules for extended operating time, for example, or to replace the CPU for more horsepower. 

Upgrading individual modules not only gives a Project Ara phone a much longer lifespan, but also allows developers to create modules for even the most niche situations. Google’s Ara Development Conference 2 featured a sample module that included a tiny vacuum paired with pollution sensors to analyze surrounding air quality.

Design and How Everything Fits Together

Google showed off a Spiral 2 prototype that booted into the Android lock screen.

Google showed off a Spiral 2 prototype that booted into the Android lock screen.

The Spiral 2 prototype appeared very solid and polished. The milled aluminum endoskeleton was quite stiff, forming a strong base for attaching the modules. The magnetic connecters on the demo unit weren’t working; but even so, modules remained quite secure in their slots, while still being able to slide in and out from the endo with ease.

One of the two models powered on, showing the Android home screen, but since the touch aspect of the 1280 x 720 display wasn’t supported, I wasn't able to navigate deeper into the OS. Google was forced to move away from 3D printing, used for its first prototype, because the method was too imprecise. Instead, Google opted for a method called dye-sublimation, which can transfer ink onto pre-fabricated parts for a personalized look.

A prototype camera module for the Spiral 2

A prototype camera module for the Spiral 2

The endo on the Spiral 2 connects with its modules using the gold-colored electrical contacts in each section; but on a future module, they will be replaced by a contactless media receiver that uses magnetic fields to send data through the air between the endo and the module.This creates better reliability and durability, Google says, especially important for a platform that should outlast the typical two-year life cycle of modern smartphones.

Backside of the camera module showing the electrical contacts.

Backside of the camera module showing the electrical contacts.

When Can You Get It?

While there's no official date for a consumer release, Google has planned a market pilot in Puerto Rico for later this year so it can gather data on how the Project Ara platform will work in the real world. Google has also partnered with other tech giants such as Toshiba, which showed off multiple prototype camera modules, to create a diverse module marketplace.

Users will even be able to select and modify both the endo and modules from their phone directly from an app. For the Puerto Rican market pilot, Google will use mobile shops similar to food trucks for on-the-spot customization.

Sam Rutherford is a Staff Writer at Tom’s Guide. Follow him @SamRutherford on Twitter, and Tom’s Guide on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.