The creators behind the Fairphone tout a special mission that contrasts sharply with the rest of the industry: They want to create repairable, long-lasting devices sourced from the fairest possible resources. Of course, this means compromises you won't see in other modern phones. The advantage of the removable back and the replaceable parts makes the Fairphone 3 bigger, less efficient, and more "old-fashioned" than other phones. Plus, some performance sacrifices had to be made to keep the price reasonable.
If you appreciate iFixit's 10/10 repairability score and Fairphone's "Made with care for people and planet" catchphrase, this might just be the perfect device. Because it's so easily repairable, this phone can almost certainly outlast many others that get tossed because of a broken screen or dying battery. Despite the resilient hardware, performance could turn out to be a dealbreaker in the long run.
|Display||5.65-inch Full HD+ 18:9 LCD, 2160 x 1080, 427ppi|
|Software||Android 9 Pie|
|CPU||Qualcomm Snapdragon 632|
|Storage||64GB (expandable via microSD)|
|Rear camera||12MP f/1.8 1/2.55" IMX363 sensor|
|Front camera||8MP f/2.0 1/4" sensor|
|Connectivity||2.4 & 5GHz 802.11 a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5 & LE|
|Carrier compatibility||2x nano SIM, 4G/LTE frequencies: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 8, 13, 20, 26|
|Miscellaneous||3.5mm headphone jack, NFC|
|Dimensions||158 x 71.8 x 9.89mm, 189g|
|Modularity||This phone gives you peace of mind concerning longevity. Dropped it? Replace the display yourself. Battery wearing out? Just pop in a new one. USB port or speaker broken? Get a new bottom module.|
|Battery endurance||The combination of a rather weak processor and a comparatively big battery make this thing last. I could easily get through a full day of use with far more than 5 hours of screen-on time.|
|Plastic fantastic||Even though it's modular, the Fairphone doesn't squeak or creak, and feels very sturdy in the hand. The plastic feels good, reminiscent of the translucent Game Boy Color of old.|
|Big and chunky||Compared to the similarly equipped Pixel 3a, it's a chonk boy.|
|Performance||The processor is slow and stutters on not-too-heavy websites, which bodes badly for the long-term.|
|Speaker||Due to its placement on the left side of the phone, you can easily obscure it when you're watching landscape content.|
|Design, hardware||Its repairability shines through: There are considerable gaps and seams all over the device, button placement is weird, and the front looks like it's straight from 2012, sans 18:9 display. But this is a matter of taste and trend.|
|Camera||It has the same sensor as the Pixel 3a, but its onboard software doesn't utilize the hardware the way Google's does.|
Design, hardware, what's in the box
Oh hi, headphone jack!
The Fairphone 3 screams "I'm repairable" as soon as you see or touch it. It sports a "Change is in your hands" slogan on the battery that you can see through its transparent back and a "Designed to open" relief on the side. Once you accept this, the phone does come with its own sense of beauty—I enjoy the classic plastic look and feel of the device. The build quality itself is great, too. The device doesn't creak, and despite its clunkiness compared to similarly equipped phones, it doesn't feel oversized in my hand.
You can fully disassemble the Fairphone thanks to an included screwdriver/prying tool.
The repairable design does have some negative consequences. The fingerprint sensor inconveniently high on the back, making way for the replaceable battery. In addition, the sensor just doesn't work sometimes, claiming the surface is dirty. The placement of the power and volume button to the left of the device isn't ideal, and they're a bit mushy. The sideways-facing mono speaker is also weird and can be obstructed by your hand. While the vibration motor is strong enough to be noticeable in your pockets, it is abhorrently bad at providing tight feedback when typing. Considering the phone is a centimeter thick, the battery capacity seems rather small at 3060mAh, which is barely more than you can find in the much denser Pixel 3—that's the price of modularity.
The USB port is off-center to better utilize the internal space.
The Full-HD+ LCD screen gets bright enough for most situations, has okay-ish viewing angles, and colors seem mostly fine, but it isn't the most responsive to touch and reacts rather slowly. It sits a little deep inside the chassis, which is probably because it's not laminated to the glass so it's more easily replaceable.
The Fairphone 3 is much larger than other modern phones like the Pixel 3.
The box is as minimal as it can get. To avoid unnecessary electronic waste, Fairphone only ships the device itself, a manual, and a screwdriver to help you disassemble the phone. If you don't have a USB-C cable and charger already, you'll have to purchase one separately. We'd usually complain about a missing charger, but this is consistent with the Fairphone's mission.
Software, performance, and battery
Android 9 Pie on this phone is almost a fully stock version of the OS. Minor annoyances like the extremely big default display size and the always-visible carrier name in the status bar can be alleviated in the phone's settings. There's no bloatware to speak of—you'll find even fewer pre-installed apps here than on the Pixel, and most of them are Google apps.
Performance is the only department where the phone falls short, in my opinion. The phone doesn't feel very well-optimized for the Snapdragon 632, and similarly priced products have the much better SD670 chip. Websites tend to stutter when you scroll, and it takes a bit too long to open apps—it generally feels like you're driving this phone with the handbrake engaged. At least applications tend to stay in memory long enough, even with just 4GB of RAM.
The battery life is stellar for me.
While it's not the fastest phone out there, the modest hardware will at least give you good battery life. In my two weeks of testing, I never once managed to run the battery all the way down over the course of a day. That was the case even during my trip to Hamburg, when I used the device much more than I normally would. On any given 16-hour-day, it easily achieves a screen-on time of more than 5 hours, and I imagine if I pushed it, it could go beyond 6 or 7 hours. To give you a frame of reference, my Pixel 3 tends to die after 3 or 4 hours of SOT.
The Fairphone has the same IMX363 sensor you can find in the Pixel 3 and 3a, but pictures taken with the pre-installed camera app are not on par with Google's stellar results. The software is buggy and slow, routinely freezing when you start it or after you've hit the shutter. At times, I wasn't sure if the phone even captured what I meant to capture because of these problems.
The images themselves tend to be just a tiny bit underexposed, which led to way too many "fix lighting" prompts in Google Photos. The dynamic range could be better, and colors tend to look duller than real life. Low-light performance is where the Fairphone's simpler camera software shows the most. Pictures have unnatural colors and look grainy and underexposed. They can't compare to night modes available on other phones.
The front-facing camera has a decent wide-angle lens, and its images are similarly fine in bright conditions.
Luckily, you can give the Fairphone's IMX363 a push. A Google Camera port actually not meant for it works surprisingly well and significantly improves the results.
Should you buy it?
It depends. Even though I'm a sucker for modularity and I love the message behind Fairphone, it's hard to recommend to anyone who isn't a repairability nut. Performance is the biggest issue here — the Fairphone is already underpowered, and it will only get worse over the next few years. Coming versions of Android will probably require more power, so this mid-range SoC might not be very future-proof regardless of how long the company pushes updates (it aims for five years). It's also comparatively pretty expensive, so you'd have to keep it for a long time to get your money's worth.
The Fairphone is trying to do an important thing, but a Pixel 3a could probably last many people almost as long as the Fairphone thanks to three years of Google updates. It also offers much better performance and photo quality. If you're truly concerned about the environmental impact of smartphones, consider using your current device as long as possible. The best product for the planet is one that isn't produced newly at all.
Buy it if:
- You care about the environment and are positive that you can keep this phone for a couple of years.
- You want to be able to easily repair your device yourself.
Don't buy it if:
- You want cutting-edge specs right now so you don't have to worry about being left in the cold over the next few years.
- You prefer smaller, more densely packed hardware.
Where to buy:
The phone and its spare parts are not available in the US. In Continental Europe and the UK, the Fairphone can be purchased through the manufacturer's website for €450, where you'll also find a selection of local stores carrying the device.