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Circuit Breaker

NuAns's Neo Reloaded is a modular smartphone that puts form over function

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The smartphone industry has changed dramatically over the last few years, and companies are learning that it’s not quite enough to get by on raw firepower alone. The designs of today’s devices have become just as important as what they can do in the eyes of many, and no company embodies that approach like NuAns. Its customizable smartphones could be the ultimate fashion accessory.

The Neo Reloaded is NuAns’ latest attempt to get its customizable phones to take off. But is it any good? Read on:

What is it?

Last year, a Japanese company called NuAns tried to reinvent smartphone design with the Neo, a smartphone with a wide range of interchangeable, customizable backs that would make changing the look on your smartphone easy. The problem? It ran the now-defunct Windows 10 Mobile, which meant that no matter how good-looking the NuAns was, it was more or less doomed to fail, much like most other modern Windows 10 Mobile devices.

But NuAns is back this year with the Neo Reloaded, a follow-up to the original Neo that improves specs across the board and, more importantly, switches the operating system from Windows 10 Mobile to Android Nougat, making it a far more usable device, all while maintaining the same modular design.

The good

The Neo Reloaded still looks great. I’ve been playing around with it for a couple days, and plenty of people have stopped me to ask about the phone. The two-tone color schemes that you can pull off are really striking, especially in a world where most smartphone designs are flat, monotone metal that then gets hidden away in a case.

The different materials that the Neo Reloaded’s backplates come in are also great. I had a few different options from NuAns: a remarkably comfortable-to-hold plastic, a magnificently soft suede, and — my personal favorite — a wood-backed panel that adds a touch of retro charm to the device. The cases all wrap around the sides of the Neo Reloaded, too, as opposed to other modular phones which just have swappable backplates. You end up noticing a tangible difference between materials whenever you pick up the phone. The Neo also has a concealed card slot hidden behind the cases, which is great for anyone in Japan, London, or anywhere else that uses contactless transit cards, but not so useful for me here in NYC.

Of course, none of that actually matters if the Neo Reloaded isn’t a good phone. As long as you know what to expect going in, the Neo Reloaded is fine. It’s running last year’s Qualcomm Snapdragon 625 processor, which is the same processor from Motorola’s Z Play, and the combination of the lower-power processor and enormous 3,540mAh battery means that battery life is pretty great. It’s not the blistering speed of, say, a Galaxy S8, but it’s not sluggish in day-to-day use, either.

The bad

NuAns hasn’t changed the design much from the origin Neo, which was built in the image of Windows Phones like the Lumia 800. Even with the interchangeable backs taking the place of a case, the Neo Reloaded is still a big, chunky device no matter how you slice it. Additionally, the Neo Reloaded adds a fingerprint sensor to the bottom bezel, which is a great addition, but like the Windows Phone version before it, it still exclusively uses software buttons for navigation. This leaves you with a big, home button-looking thing that doesn’t actually work as a home button.

The interchangeable backs also are kind of tough to get off sometimes, and don’t alway fit flush together, which is a little disappointing to see.

Should you buy it?

The Neo Reloaded is only available to purchase in Japan right now, after a canceled Indiegogo campaign, where it costs 46,111 Japanese yen (or around $409) for the base phone. The two-tone backplates are sold separately, and cost around $15 each, with the exception of some pricey leather options. It’s not a bad phone for the price, but Neo Reloaded’s roughly $440 price tag means that the $399 Moto Z Play — which is similarly if not better specced, thinner, cheaper, and offers more functionally modular pieces through the Moto Mod system — is probably a better buy. And that’s not even considering the more recent Z Play 2 or OnePlus 5, both of which are in the same rough price bracket and offer even more improved specs.

That said, if you’re sick of having to hide your phone in a case, or care more about design than raw firepower — and can find someone to get you one from Japan — the Neo Reloaded might be the phone for you.