The most repairable Android phone

The Fairphone 4 is an Android smartphone that begs to be dismantled.

Peel off the again cowl together with your fingernail, and also you’ll discover colourful patterns and shapes across the inside together with a slogan: “Yours to open. Yours to maintain.” Look nearer, and also you’ll see that every element is held down with solely small Phillips screws, facilitating easy repairs. Fairphone says it should cowl these elements with a five-year guarantee and supply fundamental software program updates by way of 2025.

This can be a radical approach to construct a smartphone, and the Fairphone 4, which prices 579 kilos (about $653), is the corporate’s highest-end mannequin but. (Fairphone has no plans to launch it within the U.S.) However whereas the phone succeeds as a press release on sustainability, it’s stuffed with trade-offs as a product, with too many little points you received’t expertise with different telephones at comparable costs.

[Photo: Jared Newman]

Nonetheless, these points have much less to do with the Fairphone 4’s repairable nature than with Fairphone’s standing as a small phone maker with restricted assets and shopping for energy. The Fairphoone 4 proves that easy-to-repair telephones are attainable, however they received’t be actually nice till greater firms begin taking the thought critically.

Truthful trade-offs

The Fairphone 4’s most apparent repair-related concession is its dimension. Its 6.3-inch show is just not uncommon for a smartphone, however at 0.41 inches thick, it’s about 30% thicker than each an iPhone 13 and my Pixel 4A 5G, and it feels hefty if you decide it up. Eradicating and reattaching the display is shockingly easy—it took me about 5 minutes—however the show’s mounting plate and lack of adhesive add bulk.

The phone’s aesthetic compromises appeared like a good trade-off to me. I’m additionally prepared to simply accept an easy-to-repair phone that’s merely splash resistant as a substitute of absolutely waterproof. I can’t bear in mind ever dropping my phone right into a physique of water, and even waterproof telephones can lose their protective seals, endangering them within the pool.

Nonetheless, I had a tough time dealing with different downsides that don’t stem immediately from the repairable design.

Take into account, as an illustration, the digicam, which is meant to be the Fairphone 4’s greatest enchancment over earlier fashions. The rear digicam system features a pair of 48-megapixel sensors—one large, one ultrawide—plus a 3D time-of-flight sensor to help with autofocus. Whereas which will sound aggressive with different midrange smartphones, in observe the digicam has a laggy shutter and is liable to producing mediocre photographs.

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[Photo: courtesy of Fairphone]

After I took photos of myself by way of the rear digicam, gentle by way of a close-by window gave one facet of my face a washed-out look, and the stubble on my face got here out blurry. With outside photographs on an overcast day, the Fairphone 4 did not seize any of the cloud element picked up by my Pixel 4a 5G, displaying a white sky as a substitute. The laggy shutter additionally prompted me to overlook capturing some moments of my youngsters, because the digicam didn’t hearth quick sufficient.

Fairphone has little likelihood of ever competing with Apple, Google, or Samsung on the computational pictures entrance.

Fairphone says it’s engaged on digicam enhancements by way of software program and firmware updates, however therein lies the problem: Constructing an Android phone isn’t merely about throwing a bunch of elements right into a case and loading an working system. Phone makers should put appreciable effort into refining and optimizing the software program, usually along side element makers similar to Qualcomm. That’s a tall order for a small firm like Fairphone, which has little likelihood of ever competing with Apple, Google, or Samsung on the computational photography front.

The digicam wasn’t the one space in want of enchancment. The phone’s balky palm rejection made one-handed typing almost inconceivable, and haptic suggestions was so laggy and unsatisfying I made a decision to show it off fully. Even the easy act of scrolling by way of apps felt barely extra sluggish than each the Pixel 4a 5G and just about each iPhone I’ve ever used.

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[Photo: courtesy of Fairphone]

By way of {hardware}, I additionally wasn’t a fan of the side-mounted fingerprint reader, which requires urgent the facility button to activate and is neither as quick nor handy as rear or in-display readers. The LCD show, in the meantime, is a step down from the OLED screens which are more and more widespread on midrange and high-end telephones. It doesn’t present the best viewing angles, and it appears to fade out barely across the edges of the display.

The entire expertise jogged my memory of my time with one other boutique phone, the keyboard-equipped Fxtec Professional 1. Whereas that phone didn’t have the identical sustainable focus, it confronted comparable challenges with digicam and software program optimization, and it couldn’t get state-of-the-art elements resulting from its standing as a small-time phone maker. In each instances, I used to be desirous to get again to utilizing my common iPhone or Android phone.

A phone to comply with

Regardless of all of my complaints, I recognize what Fairphone is doing and imagine of us who worth sustainable design above all else might be able to tolerate its compromises. Fairphone additionally deserves reward for its work in utilizing recycled supplies and pushing for truthful working circumstances within the provide chain.

However utilizing the Fairphone 4 largely made me want different firms—ones with extra assets to throw at constructing higher telephones—have been extra dedicated to straightforward repairs.

Earlier this month, Apple introduced that it’s going to promote alternative screens, batteries, and different elements on to customers, beginning with the iPhone and finally transferring to different merchandise. It’s a pleasant gesture, but it surely doesn’t make the restore process any simpler given the adhesive and specialized screws holding everything together.

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[Photo: courtesy of Fairphone]

In the meantime, on the Android facet, main phone makers have largely deserted the detachable rear panels that after made battery replacements straightforward, even on telephones with plastic backs just like the Pixel 4a 5G.

Strikes just like the one Apple made this week present that the business is beginning to take repairability extra critically as customers and regulators demand it. However the Fairphone 4, for all its faults, reveals how a lot additional they must go.