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Fairphone 3 hands-on: Modular, repairable, five years of support. What gives?
The new Fairphone 3 launched this week in Berlin and we went hands-on to find out how far the third edition of the most repairable and sustainable smartphone in the industry has come. More importantly, should you buy it?
The Fairphone 3 is a modern throwback. It’s mid-2019, and I found myself holding an all-plastic, modular, repairable device in my hands. It has a headphone jack. I could open up the back of device and replace the battery without any tools. Just a few screws stand between me and swapping out the display in just minutes.
Fairphone 3: What you get
The Fairphone 3 is no svelte, slippery glass thing. It’s chunky, with sturdy plastic, and with the old-style removable back like a device from 2014 or 2015. But the Fairphone 3 has late-2018 specs, starting with a tall 5.7-inch LCD IPS display (18:9 ratio, Full HD+, Gorilla Glass 5), a Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 processor, and a 3,000mAh battery. There’s a 12MP rear camera, using a Sony IMX363 sensor, which is the same as the Pixel 3a, and an 8MP selfie camera on the front.
There's a headphone jack at the top, because of course an ethical company would include a headphone jack
The Fairphone 3 has 4GB RAM with 64GB of internal memory, using eMMC 5.1, plus a microSD card slot for up to 400GB more storage. There’s a headphone jack at the top, because of course an ethical company would include a headphone jack, and the phone is IP54 rated. It also packs NFC, and USB-C charging with Quick Charge 3.0 support. In terms of band support for 4G and LTE, the phone is designed for European carriers. Elsewhere, including the U.S., there are limitations.
There’s a rear-fingerprint sensor at the top, and the volume rocker and power button on the side, to round out it all out.
It’s a big jump in looks over the Fairphone 2, though it sticks with the semi-translucent back cover to see the internals. The battery has printed text on both sides, outwardly stating “Change is in your hands.” It’s a bold, fun detail that works. Fairphone stick to their ideals with no charger or cable included in the box, to cut down on e-waste, but do sell accessories. I’m torn on this one: the idea is you’ll have this stuff already, somewhere, but USB-C cables might still be necessary for transitioning from older iPhones or Androids. I get it but I don’t like it.
Update: I asked Fairphone about “ecocharge”, a term the team used without a full explanation regarding extending battery life. Here’s Fairphone’s response in clarifying what ecocharge actually is:
“Fairphone created a charging mechanism that charges the Fairphone 3 to 85 % in 90 mins and then completes the full charge. This mechanism will help keep the Fairphone 3 battery in service for longer – typical fast charging systems can reduce the battery capacity by up to 60-70 % after 500 cycles (approximately 18 months of usage) Fairphone 3’s charging methods will extend the life of the battery well beyond the expected capacity. A FP3 battery will still be over 90% using the same 500 cycles – 18 month timescales.”
In terms of performance, that Snapdragon 632 SoC means octa-core functionality and extended battery life, although it’s not exactly a workhorse. For comparison, our Moto G7 review (which has the same SoC) found that gaming was a little slow. Calling it mid-range is probably slightly generous, but budget is probably underselling it.
The reality is anyone buying the Fairphone 3 for Fortnite/PUBG-style gaming is out of their minds. But that isn’t the point. Nor was it the point for the original Fairphone, released in December 2013, or the Fairphone 2, released in December 2015. But the Fairphone 3 seems far closer to the wider market, this time around.
The Fairphone 3 may no longer be just a niche device
Based on specs and our time with the device, the Fairphone 3 has become just about good enough for a wider audience. It’s no longer just for those who shop for organic produce and who are more willing to take a chance on an ethical device that might lag competitors by some margin. It feels solid and it isn’t slippery, and, while it’s a touch thicker than normal, it feels fine. The speaker at the front of the phone sticks out far more than I’m used to in a modern device, but that’s part of the modularity.
In terms of software, it’s snappy. It performed usual Android 9.0 actions snappily, with fast animations, the camera fired without any kind of painful delays, and changing orientations didn’t cause stuttering that you sometimes get. It felt undiluted, and perhaps even a little too raw if you don’t know your way around Android. The bootloader will also be unlockable in the future, which is good news for LineageOS fans.
Other manufacturers could take a cue from Fairphone in terms of repairability and sustainability
I’ve talked to a few people who were interested in the concept of the Fairphone, but found what they’d heard about the previous iterations concerning, especially the camera. From my initial impressions, the camera with the IMX363 sensor has improved substantially, and I trust Fairphone when they say they’re continuing to refine it with updates. I’d love to see how it performs if some clever Android hackers get the Google Camera app ported across as they have already with many other devices.
We’ll know more about its real performance in time, including testing battery life, camera quality, and how it handles our usual everyday tasks. But just to be clear: what we did see indicates that the new Fairphone is good enough that other manufacturers could take a cue from it in terms of repairability and sustainability.
But of course, you’re an Android Authority reader, and I’m an Android Authority writer. What we think about most days is what the industry does frighteningly well: new devices with new features, big-time flagships that can do everything with overloaded specs, along with value-packed devices that are churned out in a never-ending race to eke out market share. Back in April, Bogdan Petrovan calculated that 60+ Android phones had already been released in just four months, with some brands in double-figures.
Fairphone doesn’t play like that. As a small example, at the phone launch, specs weren’t really discussed. I couldn’t get answers to technical questions as to the type of RAM or exactly what “advanced software optimization” for the camera really means, because engineers weren’t available. Instead, the team was made up of specialists in ethical supply chains, and more focused on detailing how they built a competent device with “fair specs”.
You get five years of support for Fairphones, including spare and replacement parts and software updates.
That includes offering five years of support for Fairphones, including spare and replacement parts and software updates. It means Fairphone went to great lengths to ethically sourced minerals including cobalt and gold. And the company worked to offer workers at its assembler Arima special bonuses for living wages, among other initiatives to treat factory staff better.
Fairphone 3 modularity: Replacements, but not necessarily for upgrades
Inevitably, going hands-on with a Fairphone means cracking it open, to discover how it can be pulled apart and put back together. The Fairphone 2 was particularly easily opened: given 10/10 by iFixit, with no tools required. The new Fairphone 3 retains a modular architecture, but now its six modules are held in place with screws to provide better reliability – evidence of some lessons learned from the Fairphone 2 before it. And the screwdriver is actually in the box with the phone as well, which is a really fun, useful idea. In contrast, Apple and other brands are using so-called security screws designed to make it harder for users to open their own devices.
- Top module €29.95
- Camera €49.95
- Screen €89.95
- Speaker €19.95
- Bottom €19.95
- Back cover €24.95
- Battery €29.95
That all adds up to €290, less than the cost of the phone. I’ve asked Fairphone what’s missing from this potential cheaper way to build your own Fairphone 3. I’ll update when I hear back.
Update – September 19: Fairphone responded to this question: “The missing part is the main board (motherboard with SoC and fingerprint sensor). This part is not replaceable because it contains the modem, that is the one that identifies the device on the network.”
Finally, Fairphone isn’t yet at the stage where these modules are designed to be optional upgrades. There’s no 24 or 48MP camera hot-swap option if you happen to want an upgrade. But it’s not completely out of the question: Fairphone told me they’re willing to consider any new technology required to keep its phones relevant to the market. The company has history here too, improving the Fairphone 2 camera with a new module.
Fairphone 3 pricing and availability
Fairphone 3 will be released on September 3, for €450, cheaper than the Fairphone 2 before it. It’s available online or in-store with some carriers, with a focus on Germany, France, Netherlands, UK, and the Nordics. It’s not available in the U.S. or places like Australia just yet, and using it there might be hit and miss due to the cellular bands.
For a discount, you can also recycle your old phone back to Fairphone for a refund on your purchase, with Fairphone including a return shipping label in the Fairphone 3 box.
Fairphone 3: Who should buy it?
For Android fans, the Fairphone 3 is nothing like the shiny new device we usually see. It’s about a completely open and fixable modular phone, it’s about freedom to repair your own product, actual spare parts, and fair, ethically-sourced components. The specs are good enough, but definitely not great.
Is it a bargain? No. Think of it this way: Have you been to shops where they sell goods made locally and decided you should support people, not big business? Maybe you have, even if you only bought soap. It’s the same concept.
Is the Fairphone 3 a viable phone for anyone thinking about changing their habits around smartphones and electronics as a whole? We think so. We’ll find out more after we put it through our full review in the coming weeks.
Before then, you can also pre-order and check out the Fairphone 3 product page via the button below.