This Teracube Phone you can repair yourself will win hearts, minds — and wallets

Ian F. Darwin
Mar 8 · 15 min read

There are people who delight in buying each year’s newest, most diamond-encrusted, expensive, two-hand-sized screen, super-speedy, tailfin-flaunting smartphone as soon as it comes out. Not me. Maybe such people seeing this article will say: Ho hum. Another Android phone project. Big deal. Right? But they’d be wrong! This one is different. Here’s a few of the differentiators that caught my eye and led me to back this project on IndieGoGo:

  • Low cost (MSRP US$199), unlocked, full-size phone with four-year hardware warranty
  • Current Android support for three years (AOSP supported).
  • Dual SIM plus separate Micro SD slot
  • 4GB RAM with 64GB storage (plus up to 128GB more with Micro SD)
  • 4G LTE, 3G, GSM (no 5G)
  • removable battery(!)
  • repairable by end-users (parts available)
  • ships without yet another charger and cable to add to the stack in the corner of your office
  • Decent front & rear cameras
  • Made from recyclable materials; external case is biodegradable
  • Screen: 6.1" HD+ IPS Display (720X1560)
  • Security unlock: PIN, pattern, fingerprint, or face unlock
  • Headphone jack!

I admit I am spoiled by having used a Google Pixel 2 since it was introduced. Since Google both runs the Android software project and designs the hardware for their phones, Pixel devices are among the best fit for each other. And Pixel phones have few extras that are not found in the “stock Android” that Teracube delivers. However, Google really does drop support for devices only a few years old, meaning, no more security updates, ever, from Google. I could have stayed with the Pixel by loading up a third-party Android build like lineageOS. In fact I have that on another test device. But it just seemed like a good time to move to a more sustainable marque.

When I got the Teracube phone in February 2021, I set it up as my daily driver. It works with Telus Canada (through their budget subsidiary Public Mobile), so it should work with almost all modern carriers. My second SIM is from a European carrier that uses Bell Canada here for roaming, and that works too. Verizon doesn’t currently list the Teracube on their BYOD program, but I suspect that’s a marketing problem rather than a technical issue.

This is Teracube’s second phone project; the original Teracube featured many of the same design goals and was well-received, but is now sold out; they only sell the Teracube 2E on their web site.

Not a “flagship” phone, this still has many mid-flagship-level features, including 4 GB of RAM, 64GB of storage, an octo-core CPU and the four-year warranty. The CPU is a non-flagship but still respectable MediaTek Helio A25 Octa-core processor running at 1.8Ghz; the link has much more information on the CPU and how it compares with similar CPUs. Full specs on the phone are at the company’s website. And, this phone is intended to “Reduce the amount of waste created by replacing phones often”, by not replacing phones often — it’s designed to be a “daily driver” for four years or more. I have every reason to believe it will do so.

Getting Going; First Impressions

During a trivial unboxing (youtube video pending), it took just minutes to pry off the back cover, drop in a SIM card from my Pixel 2, replace the back cover, and power up. The unboxing revealed that the phones shipped with very little wasted shipping material, per their claim to promote sustainability.

Bucking trends all around, the TeraCube 2e ships with a plastic screen protector already installed and a biodegradable back case already in place. This case “feels good” in the hand; e.g., it’s grippy not slippy. If you remove the protective case, you’ll find that the plastic back of the phone ships with a peel-off insert showing some features such as the obvious two cameras and a flash, fingerprint sensor, volume and power buttons. The sticker is useful, though: it shows you which corners to pry the back cover off (for those of us who never read manuals), which you have to do to install SIM cards and/or a microSD card.

The phone feels almost, but not quite, as “slick” as my Pixel 2, but it is as functional. Stylistic slickness is hard to define and impossible to quantify, but you know it when you see it, touch it, feel it. The Teracube 2e is professionally designed and manufactured, and it is just as functional. And it’s about half the price of the lowest-end currently-sold Pixel, the 4A.

Biodegradable rubber-like case, included

During a trivial unboxing (youtube video pending), it took just minutes to pry off the back cover, drop in a SIM card from my Pixel 2, replace the back cover, and power up. The unboxing revealed that the phones shipped with very little wasted shipping material, per their claim to promote sustainability.

Bucking trends all around, the TeraCube 2e ships with a plastic screen protector already installed and a biodegradable back case already in place. This case “feels good” in the hand; e.g., it’s grippy not slippy. If you remove the protective case, you’ll find that the plastic back of the phone ships with a peel-off insert showing some features such as the obvious two cameras and a flash, fingerprint sensor, volume and power buttons. The sticker is useful, though: it shows you which corners to pry the back cover off (for those of us who never read manuals), which you have to do to install SIM cards and/or a microSD card.

Back Cover throwaway guide

The phone feels almost, but not quite, as “slick” as my Pixel 2, but it is as functional. Stylistic slickness is hard to define and impossible to quantify, but you know it when you see it, touch it, feel it. The Teracube 2e is professionally designed and manufactured, and it is just as functional. And it’s about half the price of the lowest-end currently-sold Pixel, the 4A.

Speaking of SIM cards, “Dual SIM card” is a nice feature. As you probably know, a SIM card is the microscopic computer-on-a-card that provides a unique number which identifies you as a cell service subscriber (hence the name SIM: Subscriber Identity Module). Most phones sold in North America have a single SIM slot, though a few like Apple are starting to use an “eSIM” that can be reprogrammed without opening the phone. Most of the world still uses SIM cards. Having two SIM slots is anti-monopolistic in that it lets the consumer switch to whichever of two phone companies is cheaper/better for a given phone call. Or, when travelling internationally (remember that, pre-pandemic?), to avoid often-exorbitant roaming charges by using a phone provider local to the country you’re visiting. Accordingly, in North America at least, the big, bloated oligarchical phone companies generally don’t sell phones with two slots. Dual SIM phones are common in most of the rest of the world, and are a boon to consumers everywhere.

As well, the Teracube is one of the few dual-SIM phones with a non-shared microSD slot. Many budget phones that are advertised as “dual SIM + microSD” actually use one of the SIM slots for the microSD slot, or locate the microSD slot in the same place as one SIM slot, so it’s one or the other. Teracube gives us both (that is, three separate slots).

Oh, and there’s a standard headphone jack so you don’t need one of those annoying USB-to-headphone dongles. Like any phone, you have to be careful when closing the phone and putting the case on, to squeeze it all the way (it will click), or else the headphone jack may be blocked.

For the three readers out there who don’t already have a handful of USB chargers and some USB-C cables for them, you can buy them at your corner store, or Teracube can sell you the pair at cost with your phone purchase.

I’m not alone in touting the sustainability of this phone. LeafScore.com calls Teracube 2e “the Most Sustainable Phone in the US”.

Look Can Be Deceiving

The display is a 6.1" “HD+” IPS Display running at 720X1560; not 1024x1980 but adequate. The larger display lets me have 6 rows of home page icons (the Pixel 2 only has room for five, since its display doesn’t actually use the full size of the front panel and because it has a redundant date at the top and a search bar (which I never use) at the bottom.

Three Phones Compared: iPhone SE for comparison, Pixel 2, and the Teracube 2e (with case)

Any serious photographer will tell you that camera ‘MP’ (megapixel) count is far less important than the sensor’s physical size. However, phone manufacturers generall don’t reveal this, so we’ll stick with the published figures, and show some samples.

The main camera is actually two cameras, a 13MP main shooter and an 8MP for wide angle shots. The Front or “selfie” camera is 8MP. These are respectable numbers, neither flagship nor undersized for most uses.

Photos and videos.

The 16MP main camera takes decent shots. The wide-angle camera is 8 MP. Here are some shots from it.

Barn on a hill, taken with Normal Lens
Same view, wide-angle lens
Same barn, main lens, zoomed in
Frozen Pond in a Quarry, main lens
Same pond, wide-angle lens
Obligatory Cat Picture, normal lens

But can it talk the talk?

The mobile phone hardware is pretty normal. Sound quality is comparable to other phones; that sort of thing is pretty well standard these days. I talked for half an hour the first morning and still had plenty of battery (the provided battery is 4,000 mAh; many phones including some more expensive ones are in the 3,000 mAh range). Most of the time it tells me I have two days’ worth of battery life.

To check compatibility with your local provider, use this list of frequency bands supported:

  • LTE(4g) — B1/B2/B3/B4/B5/B7/B12/B17/B20
  • 3G — B1/B2/B4/B5/B8
  • GSM (legacy) 850/900/1800/1900

Like all modern devices, the 2e supports WiFi for local wireless network. Connectivity modes for WiFi include A/B/G/N/AC, that is, it’s up to date.

Bluetooth hardware support is version 5.0, which, again, is up to date. The 2E’s Bluetooth talks to audio devices and my car, though it’s not as quick to wake up the car as my Pixel 2 was.

There’s Near Field Connectivity (NFC), and Google Pay works on the device.

Finally, GPS is there, like any modern device. Navigation just works; tested with Google Maps and with JPSTrack, a trip-logging app I wrote.

Go ahead, crack it open

Adding a second SIM and a microSD card are both simple. Just power off the phone and pry off the back case. Sometimes the external case will come off with the case back. No worries; you can either separate them, or just leave them together until you’re ready to reassemble.

Don’t be frightened by seeing a bit of the phone’s innards; it’s built that way to make repairs easier. Actually you can change SIM cards without powering off, and Android phones will usually (but not always) start using them without even rebooting. But since the phone can boot up in a minute, why would you even do that? You do have to pop the battery out to access the microSD slot, and you should do a “clean shutdown” for that (long-press power button and select Power Off in the pop-up).

For jollies I put in a microSD that had been formatted with several partitions on another operating system. I went into Settings→Storage, tapped on the SD, and in the three-dots menu, selected Storage Settings and Format, then approved it. Presto — formatted quickly and easily. It’s documented that you can use up to a 128GB microSD card; I didn’t have one more capacious than that to try.

Warranty details

Teracube comes with an industry-leading four-year warranty against defects. Apart from the term, it’s a pretty standard consumer electronics warranty with the usual list of exclusions to prevent rewarding stupidity or malice. They also offer low-cost repairs (US$59 for a cracked screen) with express shipping.

Freedom to Repair, Tinker, etc.

Teracube has made it easy to repair the phone yourself, without sending it back or taking it to a repair shop. You will be able to buy replacement circuit boards, cases, even a new screen if you crack it. And certainly a new battery if the provided one no longer holds a full charge. All these will be up on MyTeracube.com in the next few weeks. At least, that’s what the company tells me.

For your total freedom, the “Bootloader” can be unlocked. Without voiding the warranty. The bootloader is the low-level code in most computing devices that loads the operating system. We speak of a phone’s bootloader as being “locked” when it will only load OS images that are digitally signed by the device manufacturer. This is to prevent malware from completely replacing the phone’s OS, but it causes problems when the manufacturer ceases to update the phone and you want to install another OS like the free lineageOS (a major free source of replacement OSes or “ROMs” for Android). By analogy, that would be like if you bought a computer with MS-Windows pre-installed and the computer refused to let you install Linux or BSD or any other operating system on it. (Actually, that’s not so far fetched; some computers with “Trusted” modules behave rather like that). Unlocking the bootloader on a TeraCube (or any Android phone) could be useful in the following scenarios, and when supported is just an entry in Settings.

  • You are a geek who prefers to build your own OS images based on the freely-downloadable Android Open Source Project or the above-mentioned LineageOS;
  • You get tired of waiting for the manufacturer to upgrade to the next release of Android and so you build your own image anyway;
  • The company goes out of business (does not seem likely at present!) and you want to use system upgrades from another organization (again, lineageos).

Note that most commercial smartphones do not allow unlocking the bootloader, to prevent accidental or malicious alteration of the system software (good-guy hackers usually find ways around the restrictions, in the name of letting you use your purchased phone the way you want). I tend to keep my phones’ bootloaders locked, except when I’m actually installing LineageOS or reinstalling the manufacturer’s system image. Note that that unlocking the bootloader will permanently and irrevocably erase all data, accounts, apps, etc, i.e., everything you’ve done to the phone since you got it.

Competing Offerings

This is neither the first nor the only sustainable, user-repairable phone. Others that are designed for, and encourage, DIY repairs include the following two:

HowStuffWorks also takes a look at ‘green-ish’ phones from the mainstream manufacturers.

As my Pixel 2 got close to end of its (manufacturer-supported) life, I’d also looked at some commercial offerings that don’t provide the user repairable feature. Both Ulefone and Unihertz have something that few Android phones offer: DMR Walkie-Talkie support. Two DMR-capable devices can talk to each other (but not the outside world) when they are out of range of the cell networks. So these are useful for outback travelling/expeditions or any other scenario where you might be out of cell coverage and still need contact with others who are out of shouting range. Unfortunately, neither of these offerings provides any guarantee of long-term Android support, nor the ability to build your own ROM from AOSP.

Any Downsides?

No phone is perfect, no matter how the fanbois call it. This phone has a couple of issues.

  • It won’t charge, even slowly, on a “fast charge”-capable USB Charger. I found this out the hard way when I woke up with 20% charge after assuming “all USBs are interchangeable” and plugging it into my Google Pixel 2 charger before hitting the hay. Next morning? No charge. Teracube confirms the 2e will not work with “PD” (USB “Power Distribution” standard chargers/cables. These are generally identifiable by having a USB C to USB C cable) or larger. Our Acer Chromebook has a laptop-sized power supply with a fixed-in cable ending in USB C; this is almost certainly PD, and my 2E won’t charge from it either. On the other hand the 2E will work on USB-A to USB-C cable with most USB chargers. The maximum current it can handle is 2 Amps (2,000 mA). Fortunately, as I’ve said, I have lots of “regular” USB chargers around. In the plus column, the 20% from that failed first fireup of charging was estimated to get me through until 7 PM on the second day of use, and did. This phone has about two days of battery life in light usage.
  • Google Pixel phones always have some “extras” that aren’t in stock Android. One feature I miss from the Pixel 2 is what I call the “lockscreen dim clock”. I am one of those Darwinian throwbacks who needs real darkness to sleep. Heck, I suspect everyone needs that. Having trouble sleeping? Anyway, having a phone screen illuminating the charging-table side of the room is a show stopper. I mean a sleep stopper. Whatever. The Pixel 2 displays the time very subtly when locked, and so dim that after three years the screen shows no sign of burn-in from that clock (which is always in the center of the screen). The Teracube has what I presume is a “standard” Android lock screen clock, and it’s way too bright. Enabled under Settings→Display→Advanced-Screen Saver, this offers a choice of Clock, Colors, News & Weather, or Photos. There is also a when To Start option, which offers any combination of Charging, Docked, or None. Since the TeraCube has no Docking Station connector, this feature sounds like it’s a bit of generic Android.
  • Not to fault Teracube, but Pixel phones have lots of other nice features, like call number blocking, incoming call screening (voice to text), and more. It would take a much larger company than Teracube to re-implement all that; those that are large enough are unfortunately also large enough to add their own adware/bloatware apps which are difficult to remove. I wish Google would make these call features available to all reputable system vendors, though.
  • Until Teracube sells more than a few thousand of this phone, accessory makers won’t start making exact-fit cases like they do for major brands. If you need a belt clip, for example, you might try this universal, stick-on clip, though I don’t know how secure the adhesive is (read the directions; you’d likely want to stick it on the phone rather than the biodegradable case). Use at own risk! Dropping your phone is way different than a “mic drop”. I instead opted for this generic belt case (which works fine but the velcro is pretty noisy); my next choice would be this belt case with magnetic closure.
  • The “SAR” (absorbed radiation measure) is a bit higher than some competing phones; the above-cited leafscore.com states that “The main downside to Teracube is their relatively high SAR, compared to the lowest radiation cellphones. Still, the body rating is far lower than for iPhones and most other common cellphones.”
  • As of March, 2021, The phone ships with Android 10, with the Android Security patch level back at November 5, 2020 (just days short of four months!). Android 11 will be coming “soon” to the Teracube, but it seems like they have a fairly small software team, and may be waiting on MediaTek to port the system. Or it may be that they’re just getting over having shipped all the first batch of orders from the crowdfunding campaign. At any rate, Android 12 is already in preview, so if they don’t get a hustle on, they’re going to be two full releases behind. That said, Teracube does promise three years of “Android support”.

Summary

The Teracube 2E offers a good phone at a great price. Neither the fastest, nor the most pixel numbers on-screen or in-camera, it nevertheless works fine for a daily driver. User-replaceable battery. No diamonds or tail fins. No support for USB PD (“fast”) charging. Long warranty and software support. Rating: 9 out of 10 overall. Longevity prediction: Excellent, unless CPU speed ramps up more than Moore’s Law predicts. If so, there’s no reason Teracube couldn’t produce a CPU upgrade module. I expect ifxit.com to rate it 9/10 or 10/10 for fixability when they get round to evaluating it.

Web Resources:

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Ian F. Darwin

Written by

Thoughts on everything: art, politics, tech, ... IT Guy: Java, Android, Flutter. Parent of 3 (2 living). Humanist. EV guy. Photog. Nice guy.

I Tried That

When we come across a product that is interesting, or very good or very bad, we write up what it’s about and what we liked/disliked about it. No paid “influencer” reviews, just the honest truth.

Ian F. Darwin

Written by

Thoughts on everything: art, politics, tech, ... IT Guy: Java, Android, Flutter. Parent of 3 (2 living). Humanist. EV guy. Photog. Nice guy.

I Tried That

When we come across a product that is interesting, or very good or very bad, we write up what it’s about and what we liked/disliked about it. No paid “influencer” reviews, just the honest truth.

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