Upgradeable tablet concept: will it reach markets?

Those looking for a faster desktop can easily upgrade their machine by simply replacing the internal components with a faster processor, graphics card, RAM memory and so on. Basically, those looking for a performance boost don’t have to scrap the entire system and buy a new one. However, this isn’t the case with tablets. Within months of you spending big bucks on a tablet, its upgraded version will be available for a slightly higher price and you find yourself stuck with the older model. In such a case, if you desire better performance or specs you have no option but to buy the newer tablet. Now, imagine if you could simply upgrade your tablet, just like your PC by just replacing the older processor and other components with newer ones. We came across Navarre Bartz, a Graduate Research Assistant at Virginia Tech, who has already set the wheel in motion and begun working on the upgradeable tablet concept. He has been toying with this idea since 2009 when the rumours of the iPad had started surfacing. Though still in its early stage, Navarre Bartz explains what the concept is all about, its upgradeable components, benefits and why he thinks it has the potential to be viable.

Upgradeable tablet concept and its benefits
After toying with the idea for some time, Navarre finally found that there was a company using a multi-core ARM processor in an industrial computing module and thought he’d try making a prototype. “Essentially, I wanted to build a tablet that has a processor, wireless network module, and other components that are can be replaced when newer versions of the chips are released. Every time a new tablet comes out, I have put off buying one because I know something better will be out in less than a year. It just isn't feasible for me to keep buying a new tablet, and I think other people feel the same way,” Navarre said. 

Talking about upgradeability, the main components that he wants to be upgradeable are the processor module and the wireless networking components (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth etc). “I am able to get processor modules from an industrial computing supplier and am hoping to be able to integrate mini-PCI Express wireless modules that are used in laptop computers. Screens and batteries are simply a matter of using the right connector, and the motherboard will be attached with screws so it can be replaced as well,” he adds.

If you are ready to live with the same tablet design, then we think this concept brings in loads of benefits. Navarre points out that if the upgradeable tablet concept takes off, then there could be benefits from economic and environmental angles. He further explains it by saying, “As the number of components being changed is smaller, the overall cost of an upgrade should be smaller than the cost of a new tablet. Also, as fewer new components are needed, the amount of e-waste should be reduced. This is also helped by the fact that you don't have to throw out the tablet if you burn up a processor; you can just replace it. The amount of fuel used for shipping and packaging materials would be reduced as well since you are only shipping a portion of the total device for upgrades.”

Further, he talks about customisation benefits as well. “Since not everyone needs the same exact components, one person could have a sunlight readable display while another has a super high resolution display for photo editing. I hope to leave some internal ports available (GPIO, I2C, etc.) as well for people who want to design their own peripherals,” he adds.

Navarre plans to change the motherboard. Below is a video wherein Navarre is demonstrating the upgradeable tablet concept. 


Challenges and roadblocks
Though the concept seems cool and convenient, it hasn’t been able to take off easily. Navarre has been facing several challenges and, of course, a lot has changed in the mobile space since 2009. Today, manufacturers have been bringing out a dime a dozen Android tablets at dirt cheap prices. Moreover, he is a hobbyist working on this concept in his spare time. Telling us about what has been stopping him so far, he adds, “The main challenge facing me at the moment is getting chip manufacturers to give me access to their components. Many component manufacturers only want to deal with large companies that sell many units per year so getting the components together for a prototype is challenging. Also, I am a hobbyist doing this in my spare time, so I don't have as much time to devote to the project as I would like.”

Is it practically possible?
We loved the upgradeable tablet concept, but is it practically possible? We asked Navarre if he thinks the concept is viable and this is what he said, “I think the concept has the potential to be viable, but it will depend on consumer interest. If enough people are interested then it will be possible to drop the cost of the tablet to something competitive, but if only 10 people want one it won't be able to survive on the market.”

Assuming that the prototype performs well upon completion, Navarre hopes to get support from the maker and environmental communities. He also thinks that makers will appreciate being able to open up the tablet themselves, and that environmentalists will like the reduction of e-waste and fuel consumption from shipping.

Navarre Barz, designer of the upgradeable tablet concept

Navarre Bartz, designer of the upgradeable tablet concept


Would people buy it?
Even if the tablet materialises, the question is – whether the consumers would buy the tablet? Now, not everyone is interested in DIY. Moreover, upgradeability is something unheard of when it comes to portable devices. Navarre believes that there is at least a small segment of the tablet market that would be interested in having upgradeable tablets, if not all. “I have received a fair amount of interest on the internet after posting my video to Instructables, so although I don't think it will be the next iPad, I think there may be a market niche for it,” he feels.

Currently, the only upgradeable hardware of your tablet is the SD card. So, a tablet that lets you upgrade its processor and some other components seems like a great idea.This tablet may not be something that every other person is looking for, but it could definitely attract a fair share of market segment. Tech enthusiasts who wouldn’t want to keep buying a newer tablet every year, would get the flexibility to power their tablet with desired specs. Also, it needs to be less bulky and priced competitively.

If this concept ever reaches the market, would you buy the upgradeable tablet?

Published Date: Oct 09, 2012 09:46 am | Updated Date: Oct 09, 2012 09:46 am