Imagine 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.
There are no two ways about it: the Fairphone 3 has a dated design. Big chunks of the 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.
The rest of the body is utilitarian and boxy. At almost 1cm thick, the Fairphone 3 is certainly a chunky beast. The big chin and forehead, as well as fairly thick bezels each side of the screen, make the phone a lot larger than its small screen dimensions might suggest too. It’s closer in size to a phone with a screen over 6.4in, and so requires similar hand-stretching to use it.
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.
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.
- Screen: 5.7in FHD+ LCD (427ppi)
- Processor: Qualcomm Snapdragon 632
- RAM: 4GB of RAM
- Storage: 64GB + microSD card
- Operating system: Fairphone OS based on Android 9 Pie
- Camera: 12MP rear, 8MP selfie-camera
- Connectivity: dual sim, LTE, wifi, NFC, Bluetooth 5 and GPS
- Dimensions: 158 x 71.8 x 9.9mm
- Weight: 189g
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. This is great for average mobile phone usage.
Battery life is equally middle of the road at about 26 hours between charges, meaning it lasts from 7 am on day one until 9 am 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.
The Fairphone 3 doesn’t ship with a charger or cable. It charges in about 2 hours 10 minutes using a standard 30W USB-C charger, or faster using one that supports Qualcomm’s QuickCharge 3 (€19.95 from Fairphone). But there’s also the possibility of just swapping in another charged battery, given you can remove it in less than five seconds.
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 this sounds like forever in phone usage years.
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.
In good lighting, the Fairphone 3 shoots reasonable pictures with a solid amount of detail and colour. The same goes for selfies and portraits. Unfortunately, that’s not the case in middling to low light conditions. Shots taken indoors at night with a mixture of overhead and lamp lighting produced dark, grainy and indistinct images.
Overall, the Fairphone 3’s camera performance is similar to today’s budget phones: fine on a sunny day, but poor indoors.
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.
The individual parts aren’t that cheap, of course, but given you can place them yourself without breaking everything else in the process it seems like a fair trade-off. A replacement camera costs €49.95 (N20,000), the speaker €19.95 (N8,000), the bottom module with the USB-C socket in it costs €19.95 (N8,000) and the top module with the selfie camera, headphone socket and other bits costs €29.95 (N12,000). Probably more widely used parts are the screen for €89.95 (N36,000), the battery for €29.95 (N12,000) or the back cover for €24.95 (N10,000).
The Fairphone 3 isn’t just another smartphone: it’s an entirely different way of thinking about how a phone and its creation fits into the world.
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 an ethical manner as possible.
Also, read 8 Affordable phones to consider this 2019.