Skip to main content

A closer look at Google’s modular phone prototype

It's just an early prototype, but it works!

Share this story

I just sat down with Rafa Camargo and several members of his Project Ara team to learn more about the modular smartphone — because there's a lot going on with this thing. The project, which many had assumed was on its way to being Spring Cleaned by Google is instead coming out in almost the biggest way possible: it's the first phone ever that Google is manufacturing itself, and it's going to be available to consumers next year.

We talked about a lot in our discussion, but for now I'll just share some quick thoughts and quick photos. One note on these photos: this device is very much still a prototype. Not only will the eventual consumer version look and feel way better, even the developer version that's coming out later this year is going to be a step up from the photos of what you're seeing here.

Ara is mechanically simpler and more complex than earlier versions. That's a weird phrase to write, but it's actually true. Camargo isn't trying to pull off some of the crazier ideas that we saw in earlier versions, like magnetic locking mechanisms and wireless capacitive communication from module to body, but in their place it's a system that will allow more space for modules and uses come clever hardware magic to protect the contact points for the connection.

Snapping a module in and ejecting it is crazy fun. Swapping in little hardware bits is just plain cool in a physical, geeky way. They let me try saying "Okay Google, eject the camera module" and it straight-up worked: a tiny latch inside the phone body moved when I set the phone on the table (face down) and the module released. And watching the camera pop up with a little jump was really satisfying somehow — you don't expect moving parts on a phone.

The battery on this prototype is hot swappable, too. Yup! Camargo opened up the bottom, pulled out the battery, and there was enough juice in the frame to just keep the phone running. It probably wouldn't last very long, but definitely long enough to put in a fresh battery, all without rebooting.

Putting the processor in the frame makes sense — for now. I'll have more to say about this later, but color me convinced that Google made the right decision in putting the main brains of the device on the frame itself instead of in a module. Yes, that means you can't upgrade it later, but for a first version it simplifies so many things that would otherwise be too complicated for the relatively aggressive launch schedule they've set for themselves.

The developer hardware kit is called "Springboard." Springboard isn't the name of a module, but of the early development kits Ara is using. I know this won't matter to anybody but me, but the original truly modular PDA was the Handspring Visor and its modules were called Springboards. There was another Handspring fan in the room when they told me about this, and we locked eyes and smiled.

It really works. As excited as I've been about this concept, I've always been equally dubious that Google could pull it off. And there's still work to do here — Google needs to ship, it needs to get module partners on board, it needs to make the whole thing a little thinner and nicer looking (but it'll never be thin so don't get your hopes up). Even so, if you had asked me yesterday if what I saw today would be this close to being ready to ship to developers at a large scale, I would have told you "No." It's nice to be surprised.

More on Monday — but for now, enjoy some photos from a conference room. And again — this is a very early prototype, so leaven any judgments you might make about the final product from this with a little charity.

Correction: an earlier version of this story misidentified Springboard. The author regrets the error.

Read more: Google is building its own consumer Android phone


Verge Reviews: LG's modular phone, the G5

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 12:00 AM UTC Dimorphos didn’t even see it coming

R
Twitter
Richard Lawler12:00 AM UTC
A direct strike at 14,000 mph.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) scored a hit on the asteroid Dimorphos, but as Mary Beth Griggs explains, the real science work is just beginning.

Now planetary scientists will wait to see how the impact changed the asteroid’s orbit, and to download pictures from DART’s LICIACube satellite which had a front-row seat to the crash.


M
The Verge
We’re about an hour away from a space crash.

At 7:14PM ET, a NASA spacecraft is going to smash into an asteroid! Coverage of the collision — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — is now live.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
There’s a surprise in the sky tonight.

Jupiter will be about 367 million miles away from Earth this evening. While that may seem like a long way, it’s the closest it’s been to our home planet since 1963.

During this time, Jupiter will be visible to the naked eye (but binoculars can help). You can check where and when you can get a glimpse of the gas giant from this website.


Asian America learns how to hit back

The desperate, confused, righteous campaign to stop Asian hate

Esther WangSep 26
E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
Missing classic Mario?

One fan, who goes by the name Metroid Mike 64 on Twitter, just built a full-on 2D Mario game inside Super Mario Maker 2 complete with 40 levels and eight worlds.

Looking at the gameplay shared on Twitter is enough to make me want to break out my SNES, or at least buy Super Mario Maker 2 so I can play this epic retro revamp.


R
External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
The US might still force TikTok into a data security deal with Oracle.

The New York Times says the White House is still working on TikTok’s Trump-era data security deal, which has been in a weird limbo for nearly two years now. The terms are basically the same: Oracle plays babysitter but the app doesn’t get banned. Maybe it will happen now, though?


R
Youtube
Richard LawlerSep 26
Don’t miss this dive into Guillermo del Toro’s stop-motion Pinocchio flick.

Andrew Webster and Charles Pulliam-Moore covered Netflix’s Tudum reveals (yes, it’s going to keep using that brand name) over the weekend as the streamer showed off things that haven’t been canceled yet.

Beyond The Way of the Househusband season two news and timing information about two The Witcher projects, you should make time for this incredible behind-the-scenes video showing the process of making Pinocchio.


R
External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 9 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.


E
External Link
Emma RothSep 26
Netflix’s gaming bet gets even bigger.

Even though fewer than one percent of Netflix subscribers have tried its mobile games, Netflix just opened up another studio in Finland after acquiring the Helsinki-based Next Games earlier this year.

The former vice president of Zynga Games, Marko Lastikka, will serve as the studio director. His track record includes working on SimCity BuildIt for EA and FarmVille 3.


A
External Link
Vietnam’s EV aspirant is giving big Potemkin village vibes

Idle equipment, absent workers, deserted villages, an empty swimming pool. VinFast is Vietnam’s answer to Tesla, with the goal of making 1 million EVs in the next 5-6 years to sell to customers US, Canada and Europe. With these lofty goals, the company invited a bunch of social media influencers, as well as some auto journalists, on a “a four-day, multicity extravaganza” that seemed more weird than convincing, according to Bloomberg.


J
James VincentSep 26
Today, 39 years ago, the world didn’t end.

And it’s thanks to one man: Stanislav Petrov, a USSR military officer who, on September 26th, 1983, took the decision not to launch a retaliatory nuclear attack against the US. Petrov correctly guessed that satellite readings showing inbound nukes were faulty, and so likely saved the world from nuclear war. As journalist Tom Chivers put it on Twitter, “Happy Stanislav Petrov Day to those who celebrate!” Read more about Petrov’s life here.


Soviet Colonel who prevented 1983 nuclear response
Photo by Scott Peterson/Getty Images
J
The Verge
James VincentSep 26
Deepfakes were made for Disney.

You might have seen the news this weekend that the voice of James Earl Jones is being cloned using AI so his performance as Darth Vader in Star Wars can live on forever.

Reading the story, it struck me how perfect deepfakes are for Disney — a company that profits from original characters, fans' nostalgia, and an uncanny ability to twist copyright law to its liking. And now, with deepfakes, Disney’s most iconic performances will live on forever, ensuring the magic never dies.


E
External Link
Hurricane Fiona ratcheted up tensions about crypto bros in Puerto Rico.

“An official emergency has been declared, which means in the tax program, your physical presence time is suspended,” a crypto investor posted on TikTok. “So I am headed out of the island.” Perhaps predictably, locals are furious.


R
The Verge
Richard LawlerSep 26
Teen hacking suspect linked to GTA 6 leak and Uber security breach charged in London.

City of London police tweeted Saturday that the teenager arrested on suspicion of hacking has been charged with “two counts of breach of bail conditions and two counts of computer misuse.”

They haven’t confirmed any connection with the GTA 6 leak or Uber hack, but the details line up with those incidents, as well as a suspect arrested this spring for the Lapsus$ breaches.