Fairphone 3 review: the most ethical and repairable phone you can buy

Guardian Technology 18 Sep 2019 06:01
Are you prepared to pay to help create a more ethical and sustainable smartphone business. Fairphone hopes so. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

What if you could buy a phone that will last five years, can be easily repaired and is made as ethically as possible? That’s the aim of the latest Fairphone 3 – and on many counts it succeeds.

Ethically creating a phone is a lot harder than it may sound, but you have to start somewhere. Amsterdam-based Fairphone turned from an awareness campaign about conflict minerals into a phone company in 2013, and aims to source as many materials as possible in both human and environmentally kind ways.

Now in its third iteration, the £420 Fairphone 3 is making progress, not only in responsible sourcing of materials, but in manufacturing and longevity, with a modular, repairable design. It even comes with its own screwdriver.

Chunky, translucent plastic

fairphone 3 review
‘Change is in your hands’ proclaims Fairphone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The translucent black plastic body feels well made and hard-wearing. Being able to see the usually hidden components through the plastic makes it all the more interesting. There’s very little flex or give anywhere on the phone, which is all the more impressive give you can take the back off and remove modules.


Middle of the road

The Fairphone 3 won’t win any prizes for performance. It has Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 632 chip from last year, which is a lower-performance mid-range processor, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage, plus a microSD card slot for adding more.

The Fairphone 3 ships with its own Fairphone OS, which is a standard version of Android, free of bloat or duplicated apps and all the better for it. The only minor disappointment is that it ships on Android 9, not the new Android 10, although Fairphone aims to provide security and software updates for five years from release.

The Fairphone 3 has a fairly standard 12-megapixel camera on the back, which is technically the same as that fitted to Google’s Pixel 3a, but doesn’t come anywhere close, lacking the software magic that makes Google’s camera so good.

Other than efforts from the company to source materials ethically, and to pay the factory workers who put together the phone a top-up to a living wage, the most exciting thing about the Fairphone 3 is its modular nature. It’s not some Google Ara reinvention of the wheel, but rather the ability to take out and replace or repair parts when they go wrong.

  • Fairphone includes a bumper case in the box that wraps the sides of the phone while leaving the back open

  • The vibration motor is strong but imprecise, feeling like one from four years ago

  • Bluetooth performance is poor, causing hiccups with headphones that are rock-solid with other devices

  • The Fairphone 3 is not water-resistant

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