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Fairphone 5 hands-on: Feels like the best phone for a small group of people
Every year, we see the newest and best smartphones from the big brands, such as Samsung, Apple, Google, etc. Regardless of your preferred brand, the messaging is always crystal clear: “Your old phone is not as good as this new phone, so out with the old and in with the new!” While this is usually great for a company’s revenue, it’s not so great for the environment — or the usually underpaid folks who actually produce those phones on the factory line. These are trends the just-launched Fairphone 5 aims to disrupt.
In this sense, the Fairphone 5 is the anti-smartphone. It’s designed to be kept for a very long time by being easily repairable, easily upgradeable, and kept up-to-date with software for an ambitious ten years. In other words, Fairphone wants you to buy this phone and then not buy another until well into 2030. That’s not the message we get from pretty much any other brand.
At IFA 2023, we had a chance to go hands-on with the new Fairphone 5. Here are our thoughts!
Fairphone 5 hands-on: Lots of design changes you might not see
If you just glanced at it, you might mistake the Fairphone 5 for 2021’s Fairphone 4. The devices are very similar, with even the distinctive triangular camera module looking pretty much unchanged.
However, there are a lot of differences here. For example, the camera module on the Fairphone 4 could only be replaced as one full unit, while the Fairphone 5 allows you to swap out each lens individually. The device is a little thinner overall (Fairphone says 9% thinner) with more symmetrical display bezels. The display is also very different (more on that in the next section).
Another notable upgrade is that the Fairphone 5 is now IP55-certified. This is a bump from the IP54 rating of the Fairphone 4 and now the strongest IP rating of any Fairphone. Granted, an IP55 rating is not as good as the IP68 rating we expect on flagship smartphones. But the fact that Fairphone has achieved this without needing to sacrifice repairability and modularity is incredibly impressive.
Overall, the Fairphone 5 feels a lot like a recent Galaxy A device or a cheaper Galaxy S23. It has similar siding and a flat display. It does have a slightly curved back, though, and is bigger and heavier, but the similarities are certainly there.
Fairphone 5 display: Out with LCD, in with OLED
The display received a ton of love in this generation. Fairphone went with an OLED panel instead of an LCD, which should make for better images overall. The company also dropped the waterdrop notch design of the previous model and used a centered display cutout for the selfie camera. When you combine these changes with some trimmed bezels, you have a phone that looks much more modern than any previous Fairphone.
The display also, for the first time, supports a 90Hz refresh rate. We would have loved to have seen the 120Hz refresh rate we see on major Android flagships, but 90Hz ain’t bad.
While I was swiping around Android on the Fairphone 5, I thought the display looked great. The 90Hz refresh rate does wonders for making the phone feel more premium, and the colors looked fine. The brightness wasn’t too impressive and it’s locked to a 1080p resolution, though, so it’s certainly not going to win any awards. But it gets the job done.
Fairphone 5 cameras: Not for shutterbugs
The primary lens of the Fairphone 5 is a 50MP Sony IMX800. This is a good sensor and will likely produce great shots under ideal lighting conditions. It’s paired with a 50MP Sony IMX858 ultrawide (also a pretty good model) and a time-of-flight (ToF) sensor. As mentioned earlier, you can swap out each individual lens should one of them break or receive an upgrade over the years. Meanwhile, the selfie camera is an undisclosed 50MP model. It is also easily replaceable.
Fairphone told us that it’s possible it could update the hardware somewhere down the line. It did this previously with the Fairphone 4. This would mean you could swap out the existing hardware for better hardware for better camera results. However, there was no commitment or timeline mentioned.
If you know the ins and outs of phone cameras, you'll be able to get a lot out of the Fairphone 5's system.
Unfortunately, the big imaging deficiency I noticed during my time with the Fairphone 5 wasn’t the hardware. The software is essentially stock Android, so the camera software is nowhere near competitive with Samsung’s, Apple’s, or Google’s systems. In other words, if you’re a good photographer who understands the fundamentals of framing, light, manual controls, etc., you’ll probably be able to pull some great stuff from this phone. If you rely on AI smarts and software rendering to make your mediocre photos and videos look better, you will be very disappointed with the Fairphone 5.
Of course, the company will issue updates to the software over time. The camera will only get better the longer you hold onto it. It’s even possible that, if I had had more time with the phone, I could have found some shortcuts to make things really pop. However, you should know going in that this camera is not going to be a point-and-shoot powerhouse.
Modularity and repairability of the Fairphone 5
One of the most integral aspects of any Fairphone is its modularity. You can take the Fairphone 5 apart with one 00 screwdriver, which you can buy for just a few dollars (one does not come with the phone). You can access these screws by popping off the plastic back of the phone, which has an enormous groove on the side for your fingernail. I had no problem taking it off, and my hands aren’t super dextrous.
Here are the things you can replace in the new Fairphone:
- All cameras, including selfie
- USB-C port
- One unit that contains the ToF sensor, the SIM tray, and the microSD card slot
Of all these items, the display is the most expensive at €99 (~$107). That’s significantly cheaper than display replacements for your Samsung, Google, or Apple phones.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time during my hands-on period with the Fairphone 5 to screw/unscrew any components. However, everything was effortless to understand and prominently labeled, so if you have even a modicum of a DIY attitude, I’m sure the process would be straightforward.
Fairphone 5 software, performance, and updates
Like on other Fairphones, the software on the Fairphone 5 is essentially stock Android. It comes with Android 13 out of the box, so it has all the Android 13 features one would expect — but not much else. For a select group of people, this will be terrific news. For most Android users, though, stock Android will feel positively anemic compared to the most popular Android skins. Samsung fans, especially, will find stock Android to be a barren wasteland when compared to the feature-rich One UI.
One distinct advantage to stock Android is the lack of bloatware. It was a delight to open up the app drawer on the Fairphone 5 and find just the core Android and Google apps. The only extra app was a Fairphone app that gives you help with the phone, but you can easily uninstall it.
Another major benefit of stock Android is how fast it is. Since it’s not weighed down by all the extra stuff brands throw into their skins, I was able to zip around the Fairphone 5’s software with zero lag. I didn’t have time to run any benchmarks or anything, but I was flying around the operating system with ease.
The Fairphone 5 will get five Android OS upgrades and eight years of security updates...minimum. That's insane.
That speed is partially attributable to the unique processor included with the Fairphone 5. It uses a Qualcomm QCM6490 system on a chip (SoC). This chip is essentially a modified version of the Snapdragon 782G. However, since the QCM6490 is designed for industrial applications, it will get a much longer update commitment from Qualcomm (roughly five years) when compared to the consumer-focused SD782G (usually just two years). This will help Fairphone continuously update the Fairphone 5 for its stated promise of eight years and its hopeful goal of a solid ten years.
Ten years of updates is an out-of-this-world commitment for an Android phone. The best commitment from the major brands is Samsung, which has only four years of Android upgrades and five years of security patches. Do note, however, that Fairphone is not committing to a new Android version every year during that ten-year span. Instead, the Fairphone 5 should get a new version of Android every two years or so while receiving continuous security patches.
Fairphone 5 specs
90Hz refresh rate
300Hz touch sampling rate
Corning Gorilla Glass 5
microSD card support (up to 2TB)
4,200mAh removable battery
30W charging support
- 50MP Sony IMX800 wide (1/1.49-inch sensor, ƒ/1.88, AF, OIS)
- 50MP Sony IMX858 ultrawide (1/2.51-inch sensor, ƒ/2.2, AF, macro mode, 121-degree FoV)
- ToF sensor
- 50MP wide (90-degree FoV)
5G (Sub6GHz only)
Dual-SIM (1x physical SIM and 1x eSIM)
Wi-Fi 6E support
Bluetooth 5.2 LE support
USB-C 3.0 port
microSD card slot
No 3.5mm headphone jack
Capacitive fingerprint scanner on power button
Face Unlock supported (insecure)
8 years of software support
5 Android upgrade commitments
No penalty for installing custom ROMs
Black, blue, and transparent
Fairphone 5 price and availability
The Fairphone 5 has one configuration and costs €699 (~$758). It comes in three colors: black, blue, and transparent. The transparent model has some prominent branding on it that you might love or hate, but the black and blue models are more subtle.
A $750 smartphone with the specs table you see above might seem ludicrous. However, remember that you won’t need to buy another smartphone for years after purchasing this one. Also, your money is going towards supporting the environment, ethical business practices, and providing fair wages to workers. If those things are important to you, this phone will seem like a bargain.
As far as availability goes, the company is not bringing the Fairphone 5 to the United States…yet. The Fairphone 4 came to the US almost two years after its launch with a custom de-Googled operating system, and Fairphone told me the Fairphone 5 would see a similar release. So we don’t know when it’s coming to the US, but it will, eventually.
I asked a Fairphone rep why it won’t launch immediately in the US, and he said the company is trying to grow into the market. Essentially, Fairphone wants to be big enough in its European home that coming to the US is an obvious next step.
Fairphone 5 hands-on verdict: A winner in its very specific niche
During my brief time with the Fairphone 5, I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly what the company’s audience wants. It’s a well-designed, easily repairable, fully-featured Android smartphone that keeps the environment in mind and fairly supports the people who created it. There’s even stock Android onboard! It’s everything the Fairphone 4 was, but better in tangible and vital ways.
The problem, of course, is how small Fairphone’s audience is. I asked a Fairphone rep about whether or not he thinks current Fairphone 4 users will upgrade to this (which would, of course, kind of go against the whole idea of owning a Fairphone). The rep said the company doesn’t design phones with current users in mind. It focuses instead on enticing new users who might not be on board with buying a phone in 2023 that was launched in 2021 (and looks like it came from the 2017 design room). In other words, just how many Fairphone 5 devices can the company really move?
For the people who want a phone like this, it is a dream machine. I just wish there were more people out there who actually want a phone like this because what Fairphone is trying to do is important and laudable.