This is the third feature in a series of articles focusing on environmental issues related to mobile technology. In the first post, we looked at the rarely discussed negative side effects of our mobile addiction, from the poor working conditions of workers in Asian factories, to the impact of blood minerals on developing countries in Africa. In the second feature, we interviewed the folks at Fairphone, the company – and movement – that’s trying to make mobile phones fairer for everyone involved.
Today, we’re bringing you our impressions of the Fairphone 2, an environmentally-friendly smartphone with a modular design. Fairphone, the company behind it, focuses on reducing the environmental and social footprint of the smartphone manufacturing industry, aiming to aspire other OEMs to create fairer and more transparent electronics. Without further ado, let’s dive into the details!
The Fairphone 2 comes in a box with rounded corners, made from recycled paper foam, emphasizing its focus on reducing its environmental footprint whenever possible. Inside, we have the Fairphone 2 itself, with a black soft rubber back cover and some documents, as with any other smartphone.
One thing you won’t find in the box is a charger or even a microUSB cable. This is to reduce cost and cut on the clutter from chargers from every new device – you probably have a few extra cables or chargers laying around yourself.
As a nice little touch, when you charge the Fairphone 2 with the power turned off, the screen lights up with an X-ray style image showing the phone’s innards, which complements its modular design.
Specifications and features
The Fairphone 2 sports:
- a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 chipset with Adreno 330 GPU
- a 5-inch Full HD LCD screen
- 2 GB RAM
- 32GB of storage with a microSD expansion slot for extra storage
- dual-SIM card slot
- 8MP rear camera with f 2.2 aperture and a 2MP front facing camera
- a 2420 mAh Li-ion battery
- Android 5.1 Lollipop.
Thanks to these specs, the Fairphone 2 feels quite similar to LG’s Nexus 5, which I used until August 2015 (though it’s slightly larger than the Nexus 5). Although some people liked the rubber back of the Nexus 5, it was one of the main reasons why I wanted to replace it. I simply did not like the feeling of rubber after a while, and to me, the Fairphone 2 suffers from the same issue. Of course, the Fairphone 2’s removable rubber back cover serves a purpose – it gives access to the internal components for upgrading modules (although this has not been fully scheduled by Fairphone) and replacing parts.
Some may argue that benchmarking this device has no relevancy in the era of Snapdragon 820, but I think it’s still useful to make a reference point and to understand how the Fairphone 2 compares to other smartphones. With that said, the Fairphone 2 is largely on-par with mid-range devices from 2014, mostly running similar Snapdragon 801/805 chipsets.
User interface: Onion UI
The Fairphone 2 runs Android 5.1 Lollipop with Fairphone’s own user inteface, Onion UI, on top. Onion UI is painless and quite smooth and it has shortcuts to most frequently used apps and contacts on the right and left side of the home screen, respectively. You get a few well designed, visually attractive thematic wallpapers to choose from, but Fairphone did not alter the appearance of apps as some of the skins from other OEMs do.
In my daily use, the Onion UI did not give me any problems. I ran into no hiccups whatsoever (never experienced noticeable lags or apps shutting down), and that convinced me that it can reliably meet the needs of moderate, regular users. Note that, in our earlier interview with Fairphone, they informed us that Onion UI will remain an open source platform for developers.
One downside I have to mention is that, during my testing period, I downloaded a readily available update for the Onion UI, but it was simply impossible to install it: the device got stuck on the installation page a number of times until I decided to quit.
For power users, there’s the option to run stock Android. I did not explore this path further, because I thought that it’s hard to see Fairphone 2 as a viable option for those power users.
We don’t have any information as to when the Fairphone 2 would get the Marshmallow update, but considering its modest battery size (just shy of 2500 mAh), I think Doze mode would be very helpful for keeping enough juice for the end of the day.
For anyone who is not too worried about the quality of the photos they capture with their smartphone, the 8 MP rear camera on the Fairphone 2 is adequate for daily use and sharing pictures on various forms of social media. Obviously, it would not be fair to compare its aperture or the pixel size with the likes of Nexus 6P and LG G4/G5, but more active users could inevitably make these comparisons and think about the value for money they can get from using the Fairphone 2 instead (we will discuss these issues down below).
As expected, the HDR in the Google’s stock camera app improves the quality of the pictures in sub-optimal lighting conditions, but reflecting ligths looked a little bit flary.
Close-ups and pictures taken under more favourable lighting conditions look much better and the colours appear to be quite vibrant.
Modular Design: Could it change the Android landscape?
Fairphone 2 is one of the first fully commercial examples of a modular smartphone, another candidate being Google’s own Ara phone which is chronically delayed. In 2016, we saw LG also making a move in this direction by offering modular add-ons to their G5, allowing the battery; camera and the audio equipment to be swapped with more specialised versions.
But it is important to make this distinction: Fairphone 2 is a modular smartphone from the grassroots, whereas G5 only offers modular add-ons.
The Android ecosystem is immensely populated and to a certain degree cluttered relative to iOS, and, in my humble opinion, the modular approach is one of the ways to save it. If only more OEMs would join this movement by offering a few different bodies with respect to screen real estate, and giving users the power to configure internals (for example different screen resolutions, SoC, RAM, storage, etc.) depending on their needs. If we agree that the whole philosophy of Android is to give users flexibility (and I think we really deserve this beyond MotoMaker-type personalization), the idea of a modular phone is the first serious step towards this direction.
As of now, Fairphone provides replacement parts for the battery, the screen, the camera, the module housing the speakers and the vibration system and the top module housing the antenna. According to their website, the prices range between $22 for the battery and $95 for the screen module.
How is this different from sending your phone to the repair shop? Fairphone lets you remove the parts that you want to replace yourself, and they have step-by-step instructions for each available module. This is covered by the warranty which is very good especially for DIY enthusiasts. It is noteworthy that iFixit gives the Fairphone 2 a 10/10 repairability rating!
So far the main problem is the upgrading issue.
it’s quite uncertain whether Fairphone will ever make parts with upgraded specs available
For now, it’s quite uncertain whether Fairphone will ever make parts with upgraded specs available. From the lineup above, it may be possible to upgrade the IPS HD screen with QHD AMOLED, the camera with a better one, and perhaps get a larger battery. But it is important to point out that the components with upgraded specs need to have the same footprint with the replaced parts to fit into the sockets in the motherboard which may turn out to be a design challenge down the line. And without any doubt it will be nearly possible to upgrade the SoC and RAM, at least in the current generation.
Considering that the phone comes with a Snapdragon 801 chipset and 2 GB RAM, I’m not too confident that the Fairphone 2 can be considered future-proof for the next five years, like its makers wanted it to be. The improvement from Snapdragon 801 to Snapdragon 820 is quite substantial, and if this device was based on a more up-to-date chipset, it would’ve been much better for its longevity.
Regardless of these shortcomings, the modular aspect of the Fairphone2 is highly appreciated. We expect that LG will have no trouble in getting the attention of third-party hardware developers for the G5, but if Fairphone can also establish partnerships with trusted hardware companies, the modular approach could become a new trend much sooner than we anticipate. History tells us that being the first in the market always provides leverage and Fairphone could use this to promote their eco-friendly devices to a greater audience.
A thing to consider: the price
It’s very easy to find likable things about the Fairphone 2. That is, if you’re someone who is reviewing the device or if you have a lot of hands-on time before making a purchasing decision. But majority of potential consumers will not have this opportunity, so they will face one of two options:
purchase the device based on the information available from Fairphone and from reviews such as this one,
buy one of the many alternatives that have greater visibility and inevitably provides better value for money (actually depending on how one defines “value”).
The Fairphone 2 costs €525 + shipping charges depending on where you live the world. That’s just under $600 at the current exchange rate. In this price bracket, after a little bit of searching on eBay, one can get phones like Sony Xperia Z5, Samsung Galaxy S6, Huawei Mate 8, and Nexus 6P, to name a few.
In our earlier interview, Fairphone representatives said that they initially wanted to set the price to €450 ($500), but they simply couldn’t achieve it without compromising on supplying from ecologically-friendly and conflict-free resources.
Even in this price bracket, any potential consumer would need to make a purchasing decision over competitors including the Moto X 2015, Galaxy A9, Galaxy J5, Xperia M4 Aqua, or the Nexus 5X. The list goes on and on and most of these devices are actually much cheaper than $500. For comparison, the phone that I’m currently using, the Nexus 6, costs around $360 or even cheaper, depending on where you look and how much you search.
Fairphone is producing around 150,000 units annually and the company sold around 15,000 units of the Fairphone 2 so far (all 60,000 phones from the first generation Fairphone were sold out). In our interview, Fairphone acknowledged that, although selling phones is needed for a sustainable business, sales are not their sole focus; they also want to set an example of a business model for fairer electronics and remind us that Fairphone 2 is more than just a smartphone.
This modular phone represents a social movement which prioritizes environmental awareness. Inevitably, this implies higher costs, because making it requires selecting only trusted sources that meet environmental footprint standards. And this is exactly what Fairphone’s core audience will “value” over the list of specs or raw performance.
Fairphone is not playing the same game in the same league with all the other OEMs that try to pack the highest specs for the lowest price to stay competitive
Fairphone is not playing the same game in the same league with all the other OEMs that try to pack the highest specs for the lowest price to stay competitive. It’s goals are completely different.
Now let us go a few steps back and assume that the price of Fairphone 2 was in fact $250 (a somewhat reasonable price for a smartphone with these specs) and that Fairphone was asking customers to make a one-off donation for $350 (so it covers the current $600 price tag) to support their environmental causes.
I have been thinking about this since I talked to the people at Fairphone, and I might be overlooking certain legal issues – maybe it’s simply not possible to implement such a donation model. Nevertheless, if it is possible, the donation model could be successful particularly in countries where donations could be deducted from taxes. Switching to a donation-based model could help the fairer electronics movement gain momentum, and that would be highly beneficial for the mobile technology industry, from a broader perspective. After all, Fairphone’s new business model needs to go through a number of stress tests before other OEMs even consider adopting it.
Final thoughts and wrap up
I’ve argued several times before that features like 3D Touch screens don’t generate enough additional utility to justify the rise in the phone’s price (especially if the hardware improvements are not accompanied by software improvements which can utilize their full potential). This is one of the key reasons why the mobile technology business is slowing down and profit margins are shrinking.
In this environment, Fairphone’s modest performance would not be a problem for most consumers. For anyone who prioritizes the environmental footprint of their consumer behavior, Fairphone 2 is perhaps the only option. But due to its high price tag, it will never be everyone’s cup of tea and we have to acknowledge that openly.
In my opinion, the most important aspect here is the modular design. The percentage of modular smartphones could explode if/when Google joins finally releases its modular Ara phone. Imagine the flexibility of combining components made by different companies. Let’s say a screen from LG, a camera from Sony, a CPU from Qualcomm and a GPU from Nvidia in your preferred combination, just like you can put together a gaming PC. If we all agree that Android is all about flexibility and giving power to the customers, I think this direction could take off pretty strongly if done properly.
Fairphone 2 is the first real life example of a modular smartphone and let’s hope that it will get enough attention from the Android community and help to make the mobile industry more environmentally friendly!