Shift 5.1 smartphone
Review

Teardown: Shift 5.1 smartphone

The Shift 5.1 smartphone comes from a German family company with a very different business model from the big-name manufacturers, combining sustainability with crowdfunding.

At first glance, the Shift 5 looks like many other tier-two 5in-screen offerings in the smartphone market. So, what makes this device – considered here in its 5.1 generation – of interest for a teardown?

Well, first, Shift is something very rare in today’s electronics design market: a family business and brand. It is run and owned by the Waldeck family and based in the Hesse village of Falkenberg.

Then there’s the fact that the company uses crowdfunding to develop and launch its products. It proposes designs and features on sites such as the German-speaking Startnext, and moves to production once it has enough backers. The company then maintains a feedback loop with its supporters through online forums as well as the Startnext infrastructure.

If those things aren’t intriguing enough, Shift also subscribes to a broad sustainability model, manufacturing its products under audited conditions and seeking to avoid the use of components that use ‘conflict’ minerals. That annual audit is made available for public review on the company’s website.

Finally, Shift actively supports device repairability. It has established a YouTube channel (‘Shiftphones Supporter’) that shows how to set up its phones and how to repair them if, for example, heavily trafficked USB ports or other connectors fail.

Of course, Shift is not the only ‘sustainable’ mobile phone company. Fairphone offers modular, sustainably designed-and-sourced handsets. However, Shift is becoming ‘one to watch’ because of how it is trying to extend the business model.

Having launched a range of smartphones and phablets, its latest crowdfunder is for a Surface-like ‘tablop’ with detachable screen and keyboard. At time of going to press, the company had raised €165,000 (£144,000) towards a €500,000 target (though it says that once it passed the €100,000 mark it was capable of starting the project).

Shift is not currently a mass-market player. The company is not seeking as high a business profile as even Fairphone. Indeed, because it can leverage the publicity it builds over Startnext to generate a significant portion of its sales and profits, Shift says it can work viably within a zero advertising budget (although it does exhibit at major German electronics shows such as IFA and Cebit).

Another trade-off here is that by reducing marketing expenses, Shift says it can deliver a reasonably strong technical specification at a reasonable retail price (€205 excl VAT for the Shift 5.1 unlocked).

The 5.1’s engine is a quadcore Mediatek applications processor, based on the ARM Cortex A7. On-board memory is 16GB, DRAM is 2GB and there are dual SIM ports. The display measures 1280x720px at 294ppi, respectable if not eye-popping.

Along with the apps processor, Mediatek also dominates across a number of key silicon slots, suggesting potential economies of scale even on a smaller production run.

How, then, have Shift’s objectives been translated into the physical design of the 5.1?

An iFixit teardown found that the design is not as explicitly modular in this generation as the Fairphone 2.

There are several user-friendly aspects. An easily removable back cover conceals the replaceable battery. The Shift 5.1 is held together almost entirely with non-proprietary Phillips screws, though there are a few pieces of sticky tape. Heavily-used connectors are easy enough to access, though there is a devil here also.

Many of the motherboard’s elements are soldered in place (including the headphone socket, for example), so unless you have some experience with a soldering iron, it would be unwise to go poking around too much. Meanwhile, the display is a fused unit, and is accessible only after removing virtually everything else from the device.

Therefore, iFixit scores the Shift 5.1 at a middling 6-out-of-10 for repairability despite the YouTube and manual support offered by the company. It is a somewhat disappointing result.

But it is also one that Shift can address relatively easily. It may already have done so.

You can no longer buy a new Shift 5.1 (although reconditioned second-hand phones are available on the company’s website). That product generation has already sold out. Shift has moved on to the Shift 5.2 and is taking pre-orders for the Shift 5 Pro within its 5in family (there are also Shift 4 and Shift 7 families, similarly branded by screen size).

The relatively small runs implied by Shift’s low-key, crowdfunding-led sales strategy appear to make it easier for the company to revise designs. As each phone emerges, it has a guaranteed customer base to take it to break even. By engaging with that community over not only YouTube but also discussion forums, Shift gets quick feedback on what to fix or add to future generations.

How far will this model scale? It’s a good question, though one that Shift as a company appears not in a hurry to answer. One other important point to make is that it has so far confined promotion to German-speaking territories: slowly, steadily and sustainably seem to be watchwords that go beyond its approach to product design.

Then there is the motto Shift adds to its phones; it suggests a worldview that is sanguine about growth:

“Smartphones can be time killers. There is no greater gift for you today than the next 24 hours. Use them wisely. People are more important than machines.”

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