Let’s start with the most important statement of all. Some phones come with chargers in the box. Some phones come with headphones. Others come with glossy packing and origami art.
The Fairphone 3 comes with a screwdriver.
In a world of sealed smartphones, glued in batteries, and tightly packed electronics, the FairPhone 3 not only allows you to take it apart, it positively encourages you to do so, messages on the battery and the internal chassis encouraging you along the way.
I suspect for most users this will go as far as the modern novelty of taking the rear cover off the handset and replacing the battery (or even, radical idea this, carrying a spare battery that provides a 0 to 100 percent charge ‘top up’ in about five seconds). But when the unit suffers damage, then ordering a new screen from the FairPhone website (currently priced around 90 Euros) needs you to simply unscrew 12 screws to pop out the old screen, clip in the new one, and you are off and running again. Repairing your handset and switching out a small number of components is far better for the environment than replacing a totally sealed unit.
Being a repairable phone is good as long as the parts are available. Although I don’t have a crystal ball to look into the future, the fact that Fairphone continues to sell parts for the Fairphone 2, launched in 2015), and supported 2013’s Fairphone 1 for four years (until it was impossible to source the components) it is fair to suggest that the Amsterdam-based company will be able to provide replacement modules for many years to come.
It’s also worth nothing that while the Fairphone is not a ‘modular’ phone where you can switch out processors, memory, and other core elements (the unit works through the four available modules in the Fairphone spare parts store, as well as the screen, battery and rear cover), the Fairphone 2 camera module was upgraded during the life cycle of the device to jump from an 8 MP rear camera (with a 2 MP selfie camera) to a 12 MP / 3 MP module.
There’s no promise or guarantee that this will happen with the Fairphone 3 – switching out one module for a similar module on a like for like basis is about having accessible connectors and fixtures; updating hardware in any of the modules is a much larger support issues – but it has happened in the past with the camera. Nevertheless the long support window offered to users of the Fairphone and the Fairphone 2 is an important precedent when considering a purchase of Fairphone’s third handset.
The other ‘fair’ part of the Fairphone 3 is in how the company deals with its suppliers and the materials used in the handset.
Fairphone has worked with a number of partners and organisations to increase the fairness in the supply chain, both with improved worker representation, health and safety, wages and bonuses. It has also worked to obtain as much recycled material as possible – and where that’s not the case the company is looking to obtain responsible raw materials. It’s probably best to let Fairphone explain this part:
“Fairphone is collaborating with the final assembly partner Arima to improve employee satisfaction by improving worker representation and participation, health, and safety and by paying a bonus to workers with the aim to bridge the gap between minimum and living wages in the factory. From a materials perspective, the phone is made with responsibly sourced and conflict-free tin and tungsten, recycled copper and plastics, and sources Fairtrade gold. Fairphone is also in the process of setting up an initiative for better sourcing of cobalt, the key mineral for the energy transition.”
The ‘Fair’ in Fairphone goes a long way to explaining the mission of the self-titled social enterprise company.
But this all, ahem, falls apart if the Fairphone 3 is not a good smartphone. Thankfully it’s more than up to the job, although it’s not trying to win out with the highest specifications. Instead the Fairphone 3 is looking to be a good mid-range handset that can act as your mobile companion, with the benefits of repairability, sustainability, and a responsible attitude to the people and the parts in the supply chain.
This doesn’t come thinly. Much of the design of the Fairphone 3 is derived from the need to keep the handset repairable. A little bit more internal volume is needed for extra shielding, screws, screw holes, and pop connectors. That means fewer curves and a more boxy design. It actually feels like a larger iPhone SE, albeit one running Android that allows you to get inside. Plus there’s the bonus that the smokey translucent plastic lets you look inside the handset to the circuitry and components is cool!
There is another side effect to the design, and that is the physical ports and buttons around the handset. Their location and size have been tweaked to allow for better integration into the modules. For example the fingerprint sensor is higher than where you would hope it would when holding the phone naturally, but placing it any lower would leave less space for the battery. Given the battery is easily removable, it can’t afford to be a weird L-shape or glued into an awkward space. You also have the volume and power buttons clustered on the left side, as is the speaker.
The camera is perhaps the weakest part of the chain. Sporting a 12 megapixel single-lens camera offers similar results in good lighting to other mid-range handsets, but once light starts to become an issue. I suspect that the camera software needs more optimisation to get the most out of the system.
The images are clear and usable, but those looking for strong optics are going to disappointed. There’a tendency to push up the pinks and reds in software processing, the autofocus is not particularly fast, and there is a tendency for the software to over process images leading to a little more visual noise than you would normally expect.
It’s clear that the Fairphone 3 is not aiming to be the best camera phone in the market, but if Fairphone is looking to grow the audience and awareness of its third handset, then it needs to be able to match the competition. It’s going to be compared to phones of a similar price, and in that respect it’s going to fall short.
If you’re looking for a smartphone that is going to win ‘Specification Top Trumps’ by having the biggest number in every single area, the Fairphone 3 is not going to match that ambition. It’s a mid-range handset, equipped with a SnapDragon 632 backed up by 4 GB of RAM and 64 GB of internal storage. That’s roughly comparable to the Moto G7 or the Nokia 6.2, although that handset comes with the slightly newer SnapDraon 636 and is around £100-£150 cheaper in the unlocked SIM market here in the UK.
In the short term, the Fairphone 3 is going to suffer if you try to do a direct comparisons. It is either under-specced for its price, or over-priced for its specs. But the core point of the Fairphone 3 is that it is not something that you should be doing a direct comparison on. It is designed to be repairable at home with a simple online form to order parts at a reasonable price; it is working to improve the conditions of those who manufacture our consumer electronics; and it is looking to change people’s approach to the current run of sealed and nearly disposable smartphones.
I suspect that in the long run this is going to be much better value that the specifications suggest.