Crowdfunding Spotlight: The MAKERphone

By Ryan Whitwam

You've probably bought plenty of phones, so why not build one, too?

Mobile phones have changed the way people live their lives, but how much do you know about how they work? If you're like most people, the answer to that is "not much." You can change that with the MAKERphone, a new project on Kickstarter from the people who brought you the MAKERbuino DIY game console. The MAKERphone is an unlocked GSM phone you can build yourself.

The MAKERphone looks like a DIY project, and I mean that in the best way. The frame is composed of two pieces of laser-cut acrylic sandwiching the PCB in the middle. A small 1.8-inch LCD sits at the top of the device, and below that, you have a handful of buttons to control the phone's UI. Below that, you have a good old-fashioned number pad. Despite the odd form factor, the MAKERphone probably qualifies as a smartphone of sorts, but it's rudimentary.

At the heart of the MAKERphone is the ESP32 microcontroller, which sports a dual-core CPU at 160MHz, 4MB of storage, and 520KB of RAM. An iPhone X, this is not. Hey, the audio module has a headphone jack, though. That's something you can't say about a lot of modern phones. The GSM module is a SIM800L, which runs on 850/900/1800/1900MHz bands. In the US, this will work on T-Mobile's 2G network. It's not intended to pull down mobile data, but it can do calls and SMS just fine. It also has WiFi b/g/n and Bluetooth 4.2.

Of course, all that hardware comes unassembled in the box. As a DIY phone, you need to assemble the MAKERphone yourself. The creators plan to roll out tutorial videos and web pages to help even inexperienced tinkerers build their own phone. You'll need a soldering iron, pliers, a screwdriver, and some insulating tape to get the job done. Oh, and a healthy appetite for making something with your hands.

Building the MAKERphone is only the start. The ROM comes pre-loaded with some apps and games you can play on the device, but you can make your own with either Python or the Scratch visual programming tool. If you have any games designed for the group's previous MAKERbuino handheld game console, those titles will run just fine on the MAKERphone.

The MAKERphone blew through its $15,000 funding goal almost immediately, and it well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars with several weeks left in the campaign. The MAKERphone kit costs $94 and will ship in March 2019. There is an assembled version for a few dollars more, but what fun is that?