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

Guardian Technology 18 Sep 2019 06:01

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

There’s no two ways about it: the Fairphone 3 has a dated design. Big chunks of body at the top and bottom of the screen are reminiscent of smartphones from five years ago. The LCD display is fairly small by today’s standards at 5.7in, but is reasonable with pretty good colours and excellent viewing angles, and is just about bright enough – most of the time you’ll see the brightness cranked up to maximum. It’s covered by Gorilla Glass 5, which isn’t the latest, but at least should make it fairly scratch-resistant.

fairphone 3 review
All the buttons and the speaker are in the left side of the phone. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The volume buttons and power button are all on the left side of the phone, which took some getting used to. The speaker, too, is mounted in the left side of the phone, which means you’re more likely to block it with an errant finger.

A USB-C socket in the bottom handles charging, while there is a (now rare) headphone socket in the top. There’s also a fingerprint scanner on the back, which works fairly well but is a bit high up the back to be easily reachable without moving the phone down your hand a little each time you need to touch it.

Specifications

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.

Battery life is equally middle of the road at about 26 hours between charges, meaning it lasts from 7am on day one until 9am on day two. That is while using the Fairphone 3 as my primary device with a total screen time of just over four hours, lots of email and messages, browsing in Chrome, four hours of Spotify via Bluetooth headphones, 40 minutes of offline Amazon Prime Video and a few photos.

Fairphone OS

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.

Camera

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.

Overall, the Fairphone 3’s camera performance is similar to today’s budget phones: fine on a sunny day, but poor indoors.

fairphone 3 review
All the various modules push fit into place and are secured by simple screws. Photograph: Fairphone

Starting from the removable back and battery, the rest of the phone can be pulled apart with standard screws. Fairphone even includes the correct screwdriver in the box. If a part breaks, buy a replacement module, screw it in place and away you go. That’s the idea, anyway, and repair guide masters iFixit gave it a big thumbs up recently.

Observations

  • 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

The Fairphone 3 costs €450 direct, or £420 from the Phone Co-op, and is available for pre-order now delivering in mid-September. The Fairphone 3 is also available on Sky Mobile on contracts starting at £21 per month.

Verdict

The design is a bit more interesting thanks to its translucent finish, but it’s chunky and dated-looking. The 5.7in screen is pretty good, but the big chin and bezels make the phone considerably larger and harder to use than it could be. It has USB-C and a headphone socket, both of which are welcome, but the odd speaker placement makes it easy to block.

If you were to look at the Fairphone 3 simply as a £420 smartphone, you’d say it costs about £200 too much and isn’t even a great £220 phone at that. You can buy a phone with more modern design, similar specifications, performance and software for around £220 such as the Motorola Moto G7, or phones that are infinitely better at £420.

You can genuinely repair this phone yourself with modular components you simply unscrew and replace. If the battery is worn out, swap it out for a new one in less than 10 seconds. The Fairphone 3 is arguably the most sustainable phone you can buy, and that’s without even looking at the firm’s efforts to source all materials and manufacture the phone in as ethical manner as possible.

Until now it’s not been possible to put a real price on the ethical side of a smartphone in the same way you can with a Fairtrade chocolate bar. Thanks to the Fairphone 3, we now know it’s about £200. So the question is whether people are prepared to pay £200 extra to support a worthy movement. I hope they are.

fairphone 3 review
The Fairphone branding is strong, showing the in-the-know world that you’re an ethical smartphone buyer. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

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