Hardware designers could fall in love with LG G5?

The reviewers who dismissed the G5’s modularity may be shortsighted.

LG G5

First impressions of the LG G5 recollected Google’s project Ara, one of the Google ATAP team’s projects led by former DARPA chief Regina Dugan to prove the viability of building a modular mobile hardware ecosystem. The goal of the project is to enable users to create a modular smartphone that is precisely tailored to their functional and aesthetic preferences.

Before dismissing the G5’s modularity take a fresh look at it. For the moment just suspend your disbelief about modularity or pretend that modularity wasn’t announced. It is a beautifully executed flagship phone designed and produced by one of the best mobile shops in the world.

The specifications look like the requirements set by a consumer that wants to spend an estimated $650 to $750 that flagships like this cost. (LG’s announcement did not include an exact price or release date.)

  • 5.6 inch IPS LCD 1440 X 2560 pixels screen at 525 ppi
  • 4GB RAM and 64GB ROM
  • Android v6.0 (Marshmallow)
  • Storage4GB RAM, 64GB Internal
  • External MicroSD support (up to 200GB)
  • 64bit Qualcomm Snapdragon 820 SoC
  • Adreno 520 GPU
  • 20 MP Primary camera with 4k Video Support, Optical Image Stabilisation, Laser Autofocus,
  • HDR, Panorama
  • 2800 mAh Li-ion removable battery with Quick Charge 3.0

Vivid colorful screen, fast processor and graphics, great camera and the two features that consumers howled about losing in many recent smartphone designs, a removable battery and MicroSD slots. There will never be a battery large enough nor enough internal ROM storage for every user’s needs.

In a nutshell the G5 can be described as superior components housed in a polished metal unibody. Taken together the G5 stands up to other flagships like the iPhone 6s or Samsung Galaxy S7.

Returning to the G5’s modularity, LG introduced two swappable modules. Pull down on the bottom to release the battery drawer and slide in the LG Cam Pro or the LG Hi-Fi Pro to customize the G5. The LG Cam Pro expands the battery to 4000mAh for all-day shooting and adds a focus wheel and separate point-and-shoot types of buttons for video and photos. The module’s shape produces a comfortable and natural grip. The LG Hi-Fi Pro was developed in partnership with B&O Play, offering a 32-bit DAC and amp, designed to produce an audiophile experience from a smartphone.

Without hands-on testing of the Cam Pro and Hi-Fi Pro and knowing the prices it’s hard to predict how consumers will respond to these modules. But depending on how LG has designed the hardware and software interfaces it could be the first company to create an ecosystem of partners that build on its platform. Google’s project Ara proved that a smartphone can be built with modules independently designed using a published software reference design. If the G5 is engineered using a similar structured approach – systems designers could be attracted to build new modules. And the more G5s and similarly modular LG phones that ship the more system designers that will be attracted.

Building an Android module for the G5 eliminates building all but the proprietary software components that differentiate the module and reduces project risk because many custom products were already engineered with this operating system. The Android operating system has been applied to many applications other than smartphones, smartwatches and tablets. Android automates treadmills, thermostats and vending machines to mention a few. It can be recompiled for new hardware systems and it fits almost any application where a touch interface and communications with other devices and cloud based systems needs to be added to a product like log into a treadmill to track exercise.

Like familiarity with Android software reduces time-to-market and risk, so does designing a module with G5 hardware because so many design engineers have experience working with the underlying hardware components. Qualcomm, MediaTek and other mobile chip makers deliver reference designs with CPUs and GPUs and send their own system engineers to teach customers in order to accelerate their customers’ time-to-market.

What might be built with the G5 modular platform is anyone’s guess. LG might just give customers more choices to change the price performance of its phones by replacing a camera module or screen with one that’s better or less expensive. But there are many mundane and exotic possibilities. A very low cost EKG used to monitor a patient at home springs immediately to mind. There is a rich variety of microsensors and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) that can control projectors, switch optical signals, identify chemical and biological substances using mass spectrometry that could be built as a module.

If LG has built the G5 as the first in a product line of modular mobile devices and is committed to making systems companies that design for its modular platform successful, LG could gain the first mover advantage in modular mobile devices.

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