Review: Fairphone 2 – What Price a Conscience?

BY Steve Litchfield

Published 1 May 2016

Fairphone 2 Review

For the true geek, especially one who values the planet we all exist on, the Fairphone 2 is perhaps the ultimate smartphone. That it’s demonstrably not the best ‘bang per buck’ or indeed the prettiest phone out there, is almost irrelevant in light of the game changing Unique Selling Point here – you can take the Fairphone apart. Officially.

In a couple of minutes, with full approval of the manufacturer, right down to replacing individual blocks of components. Ostensibly to replace something that’s been damaged or has failed but, in theory, also (in the future) to put in a higher specified component.

Fairphone 2 - Designed to open!

The back bucket shell of the Fairphone 2, neatly inscribed with “Designed to open”, is tough rubber – so you’ll never need a case for this phone. Prise it off with your fingernails and you’ll see a couple of slightly fiddly blue clips.

Fairphone 2 - Release clips

Move these inwards though and the whole screen slides off – surely the quickest ever way to replace a smashed smartphone screen?

Fairphone 2 - The screen off and no tools needed!

Moreover, this then exposes the underside of the innards, revealing an extra three separate replaceable modules, for earpiece, front facing camera/sensors and 3.5mm jack; for camera and LED flash; and for speaker, USB port, main microphone and vibrator. Each of these is released with just a small cross-head screwdriver. Fairphone even mark the screws you’re supposed to remove in blue!

Fairphone 2 - The screws you're supposed to use are marked in blue!

What’s really, really impressive is that these three modules, plus the screen itself, are all connected up to the motherboard with arrays of relatively expensive pogo-pins, spring loaded and designed to withstand repeated depression and release. In other words, you can take this thing apart as much as you want and you won’t wear anything out.

Fairphone 2 - showing the pogo pins that mate up with the back of the screen assembly

Fairphone 2 - showing the contacts that mate up with the pogo pins

The modules, plus screen, are all available online at Fairphone’s site, ranging from $22 for the bottom speaker/mike module to just under $100 for a new screen. So if you’re forever dropping and damaging smartphones then at least you can effect a DIY repair with zero risk of breaking anything.

Also worth mentioning is a special expansion array of pogo-pins on the back, under the cover, opening the way to third party replacement backs with extra capabilities – all very reminiscent of the old Jolla phones, for which replacement other ‘halves’ never really showed up. Always an interesting idea though!

Fairphone 2 - showing the pogo pins of the 'expansion port'

The other unique selling point, as hinted in the name, is that Fairphone sources as much as possible of the raw materials for its devices from fairly-traded, sustainable, and conflict-free sources. Add in the green factor of not having to throw away the smartphone soon because it can be repaired and even improved over time, and you have a very interesting proposition.

Fairphone 2 - front view

Of course, the next question is whether the Fairphone 2 is good enough to warrant keeping and repairing it for a long time – and here the jury’s out. The specifications are ‘Nexus 5’ level – a 5” 1080p IPS LCD screen, a Snapdragon 801 chipset, 2GB of RAM, and 32GB storage, though plus microSD.

There’s a capable but ultimately unspectacular 8MP stills camera with LED flash – as usual with the stock Android camera, you’ll be making a lot of use of the Auto HDR+ facility in order to get photos that really stand out, but I had no complaints overall. There’s also a decent 2MP front facing camera.

Here are a couple of samples from the no-frills camera, together with 1:1 crops:

Sample photo, see below for 1:1 crop

1:1 crop, showing colours and detail, one of my better snaps on the Fairphone 2

1:1 crop, showing colours and detail, one of my better snaps on the Fairphone 2

Sample photo, see below for 1:1 crop

1:1 crop, showing decent detail and contrast again, but you really do have to rely on the HDR facility to get impressive results...

1:1 crop, showing decent detail and contrast again, but you really do have to rely on the HDR facility to get impressive results…

You do also get an FM radio and dual SIM capability as standard, and with all the parts swapping facility it’s easy to see that the Fairphone 2 is not only kind to developing countries, it’s also aimed at them too.

Android 5.1 with virtually stock interface and apps rounds out a very competent smartphone – if the build and design were standard then I’d estimate this phone to need to be priced well below 300 Euros in the 2016 smartphone climate. Now, the Fairphone 2 is currently 525 Euros. Which means that you’re paying over 200 Euros (about £150 in UK money) for the repairability and conflict-free credentials. Gulp. They say you can’t put a price on integrity or conscience, but I think Fairphone just has. Comments welcome – how important are the Fairphone 2’s unique selling points to you?

The 'Recency' launcher, a nice idea - anything not used for more than a month drops off the big list!

The ‘Recency’ launcher, a nice idea – anything not used for more than a month drops off the big list!

Although the interface is essentially stock Android, there are some additions worth noting. The launcher is new, with frequent contacts off to one side and recently and commonly used applications off to the other, but you can put on whatever launcher you fancy, of course, including Google’s own. Plus there’s a ‘Privacy Impact’ intermediate dialog which pops up when first starting a third party application, pointing out what it has permission to do and double-checking with the newbie user whether this is OK. There’s also the chance to block notifications at this stage. All very handy and a nice idea.

Privacy Impact

Although all applications should behave as on a Nexus, in fact Photos – for one, bizarrely – kept misbehaving when trying to zoom and generally manipulate images, so there are clearly some stability issues for Fairphone to fix. Everything’s based on the Android Open Source Project, though with the Google apps all licensed. In addition to the launcher, you’ll probably also want to put on the Swype-aware Google keyboard, since the AOSP version doesn’t go far enough or have the full range of bells and whistles.

The iFixit app is supplied out of the box...

The only third party application shipped is iFixit, somewhat bizarrely, though I guess an app dedicated to helping you tear down and repair stuff is actually a pretty good fit here, so why the heck not? And, if you’re interested, iFixit gave the Fairphone 2 an unprecedented 10/10 repairability score. By comparison, most of today’s sealed flagships are down in the 3/10 region.

Part of the bottom replaceable module....

Aside from the price, I do have one complaint about the Fairphone 2 – the rubber shell/back is a right pain to get back on cleanly – there’s always a little corner that’s not quite on and then you have to lever the rubber lip over with something small. It’s… annoying, considering how easy everything else is here. Maybe it’s something that can be fixed by adjusting tolerances at Fairphone’s end? Oh, and stick a few spare screws in the box – it’s insanely easy to lose them when taking the modules out!

Fairphone 2 in hand

The ‘2’ is a competent 5” screened Android smartphone, albeit with specs from a couple of years ago. You have to really, really fancy the idea of the easy repairs and modularity though, since at the time of writing this is more than 100 Euros more than a Nexus 5X or a LG G4, to name but two phones which are far, far higher specced.

Personally, I’d love to support the Fairphone vision by buying into their device line but they’ve got to either a) bring the price down, b) offer a range of premium modules with higher capabilities, or c) offer something extra in line with their ethics, e.g. Buy the Fairphone 2 and you’re also paying for a drinking well in the third world. Or a combination of the three!

[Review phone kindly supplied by The Phone Co-op in the UK.]