The Fairphone was quietly put on pre-order last year for an initial European-only run of 25,000 units. It promised to break the cycle of exploitative manufacturing processes, make pricing transparent, and focus on user features rather than planned obsolescence of most consumer electronics. At €325 (around $450) off-plan, it’s about the same price as a Nexus 5 in the UK (we have silly taxes, remember). Is it any good though?
To find out, we paid for one. Now that we’re done with our review, we’re giving it away to a lucky reader!
Putting Social Values First
I must admit, this post-CES time of year is both exciting and depressing for me. On the one hand, we hear about a huge range of exciting new technology that probably won’t ever be made. And on the other, it makes me look back on all the worthless devices that did make it to market last year – yet more convertible tablets and technological tat that no one really needs nor wants – the majority is which is now sitting unused in a closet or sent to landfill.
It’s depressing because I think about all the resources that went into building those worthless devices. The lives that were exploited to mine the precious metals. The overworked Chinese labourer paid 5 dollars a day, fighting to keep their job because there’s a queue of ten more people desperate to take it from them. The children who live in the village that breaks down old electronics, now sick from the toxic fumes and polluted water supply. All we see is the shiny shrink-wrapped box at the end: the actual production costs are externalised and hidden. It’s a disgusting, shameful industry, and I’m as guilty of over-consumption as the next. If anything, I’m more guilty since I’m the one sitting here telling you to buy this crap. For that, I apologise.
But the Fairphone promises to break that cycle, or at least offer a significant improvement. “Putting social values first”, its mission statement decrees. What exactly is “fair” about the Fairphone then?
- Conflict resources.
- Fair wages.
- E-waste solutions.
- Open and future ready design
- Transparent pricing.
Before we begin, a little disclaimer: my Android experience is thus far limited to an HTC One X. I hated the thing and quickly switched back to an iPhone 4, but have since destroyed the screen on that, so I’m back with the HTC for now. I’ve rooted it and tried all manner of replacement mods, settling on Cyanogen. It’s not particularly bad performance-wise – the interface is snappy enough – but bear that in mind during this review if I make some heinous mistake when talking about the Android OS.
The Fairness Of It All
The Fairphone costs €325 — €257 of which is the actual sales price minus various taxes. €185 of that goes on the manufacturing of the product, €45 on operations, and €22 on so-called “interventions”. Interventions is a list of social care programs and initiatives, like the e-waste recycling program. You can read a complete breakdown of the costs here.
While I appreciate the transparency, digging into the report, it seems clear that actually the production process itself is much the same as any other phone:
As we’re working with Changhong on a very outsourced model (i.e. they handle a lot of the work), it makes sense to have a fully blended price per phone for the initial production. However, this way we do not have a detailed breakdown, for example how much is the labor cost for the actual production.
Without sounding pessimistic, you’re paying for the usual Chinese manufactured handset under dubious conditions, plus a premium for social equality programs. Fairphone claims to be in the process of running an investigation into workers wages, but it seems like this is something they really should have done first. Especially given how they later claim “At Fairphone, we put social values first“. A Facebook post also claimed that the workers actually get less than the widely criticised Foxconn, but this may be unsubstantiated.
€4 of the intervention money is also diverted toward “open source development” on the operating system and Fairphone software, so only 18 of the 22 Euros is actually being spent on social initiatives – I feel this is a little misleading, inflating the value with a cost which might otherwise have been included under operations. It’s still more transparent than any other phone out there though, for which I can only applaud the Fairphone team. I suspect we would be appalled if we saw what percentage of an iPhone sale is pure profit.
Design and First Impressions
The box is adorned with stamps from various part of the world – conceived in The Netherlands, made in China, with resources from Congo, and software from Portugal. The plain “carton box” packing gives the impression of an unabashedly natural product. The packaging looks recycled, appealing to a generation of hipsters for whom white plastic is almost toxic.
This is Marketing 101 – and you know what? It works. I already feel a little better inside for owning this thing – I must be doing something good for the world.
In terms of hardware, only the phone is included in the box. There is no charger (since everyone probably already owns a micro USB cable), and no headphones. The only other items in the box are a number of postcards (including one for a Chongqing hotpot recipe); and a thick getting-started manual.
The Fairphone’s design is nothing innovative, just simple: it has a white rim, with a metallic black body and aluminium backing plate. The 4.3-inch screen is neither too small nor too large.
On the front and rear is a simple Fairphone logo; the rear is also adorned by “First Edition”. At 170 grams, the Fairphone is firmly on the side of heavy.
The battery cover is simple to pull off, revealing the two SIM slots (standard “mini” SIMs, so you’ll need an adaptor if you have the more common micro or nano sizes in recent phones); a replaceable battery; and an SD card slot for external storage.
- 540 x 960 pixel resolution screen, 240 dpi
- 8 megapixel rear camera
- 1.3 megapixel front camera
- 16 gigabytes of internal storage
- MT6589M 1.2 GHz quad-core CPU
- PowerVR SGX354 GPU
- 4.3″ Dragontrail glass screen
- 2000 mAh battery
The Fairphone is dual-SIM, enabling you to use more than one carrier without the annoyance of carrying another separate phone or switching SIMs when you go abroad. You can configure either for use as the data network, and assign specific contacts to each SIM – helpful if you’re a frugal type with free minutes to certain networks.
The screen is a new technology called Dragontrail – similar to Gorilla Glass, it’s engineered to be lightweight and scratch resistant. After lying face down on a stone table, and testing light scratching with a key, only superficial marks occurred which went away with a through cleaning. It also appears to be fairly smudge resistant: my greasy fingers resulted in a noticeable smudge on my HTC One X, and only a small mark on the Fairphone. I don’t have a Gorilla Glass device to compare to, but if your current phone is prone to smudges you’ll certainly notice a difference with this device.
It’s worth noting that the Fairphone is not 4G/LTE-capable. Though this doesn’t present a huge issue for me right now since there’s only a few overpriced carriers capable of it, further roll-outs are expected later this year. If I had a 4G-capable phone, I would be automatically upgraded (along with unlimited internet) to 4G speeds. Ao as a phone designed to be somewhat future-proofed, this is disappointing to say the least. This may be a huge factor in your decision.
The rear camera is decent enough but nothing to write home about; the front camera is fine for video chat. Here’s a sample image scaled down:
Operating System and Performance
From what I can tell, there’s very little difference from a standard Android OS – and that’s a good thing. It’s immediately familiar without any overly heavy UI change as some manufacturers are guilty of. On the second home screen, there’s a UI widget for last used and most used apps; and dragging in from either side of the screen reveals a quick launch bar.
The only real complaint I have is the software keyboard and touch sensitivity of the screen – it seems almost too sensitive, such that hovering over a letter causes double or triple entry. This is probably something you can adapt through prolonged use.
Due to licensing terms, Google Apps needs to be installed separately. Curious, but not a huge issue – there’s a huge button to do that right on the home screen, though you will need to grant super user access to the Fairphone app.
There are a few unique apps that come pre-installed. Peace of Mind is an timer that kills all notifications and enters airplane mode until the countdown finishes. It’s designed to give you a break from the world, and it’s a nice little app I think you’ll like. iFixit is also included, a gateway to the catalogue of instructions on how to fix various devices.
Refreshingly,the phone comes pre-rooted with no lock to the OS – you’re free to hack away and install whatever you want. It’s not clear at this point how frequent updates will be, but their blog gave some indication:
Realistically at the moment we can’t give firm dates but it’s a good estimate that Kwame hopes to get an Android release something like a month after Android’s own update.
In terms of performance, the Fairphone appears reasonably snappy enough that I’d be quite happy to use it on a daily basis. Antutu benchmarking gave a different story though: despite the upmarket price, raw performance is decidedly low end to mediocre, ranking at 13,500 – just between Galaxy S2 and Nexus 4. For comparison sake, my two-year old HTC One X running Cyanogen gets 17000. I think this is fault of the GPU: Fairphone is equipped with a PowerVR SGX, compared to the high performance Nvidia Tegra; but I’m not an expert in Android hardware performance so if you think otherwise, do let us know in the comments.
The generous 2000 mAh combined with some power saving OS tweaks apparently – gives fairly good battery life. While my 1800 mHa HTC One X needs recharging at least once a day, the same usage pattern lasted the entire day with a little left by bedtime. The OS also features a live background which changes colour depending on battery usage, blue being the lowest, orange being the highest – so you can see at-a-glance whether you should kill some apps. Though the battery is replaceable, it seems you can’t actually buy a replacement yet – the online shop is expected to open later this month.
If things go wrong, there’s a support forum and European phone number you can call, but since this is such a small production run don’t expect to find hundreds of other phone users with tutorials or advice.
Should you buy the Fairphone?
It’s easy to be skeptical about the Fairphone – performance is mediocre considering the price, and it feels more like a charitable donation than a manufacturing revolution I was hoping for; the “fair” aspect may just be largely marketing. The lack of 4G/LTE support is also quite disappointing, limiting it’s lifespan.
On the other hand, dual-SIM slots and a removable battery alone make this one of a rare breed; combined with a relatively standard UI and unlocked system should you wish to hack away, and you’re onto a winner. It’s early days yet, and the Fairphone team ought to be applauded for their work.
If you’re looking to buy one, you may register your interest for a second production run. Otherwise, you may get your hands on one right now through our giveaway.
How do I win the Fairphone?
You may enter by submitting your name and email address. You’ll receive one entry simply by doing so.
After that, you’ll also be offered various methods to earn additional entries. They range from sharing a link to this giveaway on social networks; to commenting or visiting a specific page. The more you participate, the higher your chances of winning! You will receive 5 additional entries into the giveaway for every successful referral via your shared links.
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This giveaway begins now and ends Friday, February 14. The winner will be selected at random and informed via email. View the list of winners here.
Send your products to be reviewed. Contact Jackson Chung for further details.