Skip to main content

CES 2014: ZTE experimenting with modular smartphones

Motorola isn't the only company with a modular phone here at CES. ZTE showed off Eco-Mobius, a competitor to Motorola's Project Ara/Phonebloks idea with gorgeous industrial design.

"You can replace the components yourself; the idea is to reuse as many components as possible," said Waiman Lam, ZTE USA's senior. "We've modularised the device in four categories: display, core, battery, and memory. You can upgrade the CPU to a higher-performance CPU just by taking out the module and sliding it in."

Eco-Mobius has appeal beyond geeks who like to upgrade their gadgets, Lam noted. ZTE's approach is all about a "green solution for mobile phones" - if people can upgrade their phones easily bit by bit, devices won't end up in landfills.

ZTE Shows Off Modular Phonebloks Competitor, Eco-Mobius

Eco-Mobius is just a research project so far; ZTE hasn't committed to commercialising it. But I got a look at an early prototype, and it's pretty elegant. The phone has a clear back to show off its modular components, which are a uniform black with bold lettering. It could also come with a solid silver back.

The camera module slots into the corner. Below it are the CPU, RAM, GPU and SD modules, all of which are easily replaceable. They don't really plug in; they use magnetic connectors, and a product manager showed me how with the back off, you can easily lever one out of the phone and snap the replacement into place.

Below those modules, there's the battery, which is, of course, replaceable, and ZTE said it'll offer various differently sized batteries. One of ZTE's prototypes even had two batteries stacked on top of each other.

Unlike Project Ara, where Motorola CEO Dennis Woodside told me the company may be leveraging the open-source community to have lots of startups create modules, Lam said that right now ZTE is considering making all of the modules on its own.

That could still change, he said.