Wednesday 5 February 2020

Fairphone 3

Fairphone say that they care for people and the earth and so want to stop being unFair to both by being Fairer and making changes to the smartphone industry. This, by making components replaceable - and thereby, phones sustainable rather than replaceable. Longer lasting products equals reduction in the waste-mountain.

Fairphone have had two previous shots at this, with Fairphone 1 and 2, which seems a bit ironic in a sense to me, though to be fair, the replacement components remain available for those first two generations. I can't help thinking though that if this vision was sound, it should negate the need for new models. Surely we'd all be updating the first one. Anyway, laying that inconsistency aside, this Fairphone 3 has landed here and I was keen to take a look, following Steve Litchfield's video review of the same in The Phone Show 386.

The phone is presented in a long-box (which I assume is made from recyclable card) and inside is just a lever/screwdriver and a start-guide. (There should be a 'bumper' in the box too, but this was missing from our review unit.) So none of the usual support hardware to get the user going. If you don't have a USB-C cable, you need to get one or pay Fairphone €20 for one. If you don't have a USB-C charger, you need to get one or pay Fairphone €20 for one. If you don't have earphones, you're getting the idea by now - nothing added, eco-friendly, most of us already have them. Earphones from Fairphone incidentally are another €35.

It's a very 'boxy' shell, has some heft at 189g and is slightly smaller in all dimensions than the Moto G8 Plus, which I reviewed last week. The hard-plastic back is pretty slippery in the hand, so maybe the missing bumper would have assisted with grip. The back is a dark grey and opaque, so the components inside can be seen in relief. Central, but very close to the top is a capacitive fingerprint scanner and in the corner next to it is a cut-out for the camera component to peek through. When the back is snapped closed, there's a very slight raised line around the camera component so it's protected with reason when laying on a desk. On the left, we have a knurled power and up/down volume buttons. All three of these are a little 'shallow' and could do with sticking out from the side a bit more for easier location and execution. Not the end of the world, though. Below these, there's a strangely-placed mono speaker and a cut-out for levering the back off. Up the top there's a 3.5mm audio-out socket, down the bottom an off-centre USB-C port - and the left side is clean. On the front, there's the screen of course which although having sizeable chin (logo) and forehead (phone-speaker, sensors and Selfie-cam) they are at least (all but) symmetrical. The bezel down the sides is slim enough and (presumably) with the bumper in place, accidental screen-touches avoided.

The phone feels solid and weighty in the hand, industrial-blocky (like a Razer Phone) but for me, anyway, a very neat size - a tad bigger than the Pixel 4, a tad smaller than the Pixel 4XL. Which is where my mythical Pixel 4L would fit in! It's good for pockets, without feeling too big, for media consumption, not feeling too small and likewise good enough width for standard GBoard pecking.

Could be Better
The screen is a 5.65" LCD unit, 1080p, 18:9 ratio with 427ppi protected with Gorilla Glass 5. The panel is not very bright. I'm finding that for comfortable indoor use I need it on about 75% brightness where others, particularly AMOLED versions, I am able to set it much lower than that. Outside in bright daylight it's really not great, compared to many others, when trying to take photos, for example and still see what you're taking! I would expect, for the price-point here, a better screen.

Half Decade Confidence
The phone is powered under Android 9 and amazingly, has already been offered the January 2020 Google Security Patch. As I write, it is the first week of February, but compared to many others, that's a great effort. In his review, Steve reported that Fairphone are, furthermore, guaranteeing 5 (yes, five) years of updates for those committing to the venture. Even AndroidOne devices only offer 3 years, so this is quite a boast - and kudos to them, ahead of us seeing the fruit of the claim, for their confidence and intention.

The USP of course, is the modular nature of the phone and so, let's dive in, supplied screwdriver in hand. Clip the back off, take out the battery, SIM and memory cards, then rove around undoing any screws you can see. Eventually, this allows you to lever the screen free from the shell, turn over and you have access to each of the components by removing other screws for each. So yes, it does look like it's as simple as that. A bit of kick doing it, to be honest, too, memories of Mechano, aged 5! But the serious point being that any one of these components (as long as they keep making/supplying them) can replace bits which break, wear out, or even (with a Mod system better than Motorola's) creating updated and new ones as technology moves forward - more RAM, faster chipset, better speaker or camera. The reality of that happening we don't know, but it's a good theoretical system and one which deserves support and investment. The sceptic might question the eco-motivation over something 'different in the crowded marketplace' one, but kudos to someone trying something different.

Incidentally, current component prices are as follows from Fairphone - Display €89.95, Battery €29.95, Camera €49.95, Top Module €29.95, Bottom Module €19.95, Speaker Module €19.95, Back Cover €24.95 and Earphones Cable €12.95. A Samsung AMOLED display unit could be interesting, Anker battery (Qi Back) maybe, JBL speaker perhaps or Leica Camera module - and so on. The support for Motorola was not great from 3rd parties. It would be great to see this doing better. For now, the replacement parts and options just feel limited to what comes with the phone in case they go wrong - not greater development options and powerful choices which you'd get for a bare-bones PC for example.

Here and Now
How about the phone as-is, then. How the purchaser would pretty much have to use it just now. The chipset supplied is a SnapDragon 632. We've seen plenty of 600-series SD powered devices and many of them are good on battery and for day-to-day tasks not involving very demanding work, serious gaming or DeX-type work-extension. They do just fine. 4GB RAM has been shown to be plenty for now, though with Google playing with a desktop-extension for Android 11, that might change. A perfect opportunity for Fairphone to produce an 8GB unit, for example. The big one for me would be replacing that 64GB storage for something bigger. Again, why not. There is a microSD Card slot of course, but just imagine that, coupled with 512GB on-board!

Modest Power
The modest chipset, as I say, will no doubt help in the battery department, this supplied with an equally modest (these days) 3000mAh cell. I have come to comment that 4000mAh should really be the standard now, though having said that, Google have sprinkled some magic-dust on the Pixel 4 enabling the modest battery there to be super-powered for intensive driving and longevity with Android 10 and the first Feature Drop. The battery is no fast-charger, though it did charge pretty fast with my Pixel-supplied plug and cable. Officially it's 3.5hrs from dead to full, but with the option of carrying a spare, who needs more! My usual 10% reading test returned almost exactly 2 hours. This is pretty good. More than double that of the Pixel 3 and 20 minutes short of the current leader, Moto G8 Plus. In terms of average use over the day for me, the unit is returning a solid day of use, getting to lunch on Day 2 if you forget to charge overnight. But then you can carry a spare! It really does feel good to be able to keep saying that in 2020!

A Sound Choice
The speaker's biggest problem is where it is! If the phone is in the hand, the speaker outlet invariably is located under a palm (for the right-hander) or finger (for the left-hander), rejiggling one's grip in order to not muffle the sound. If the phone is placed down on a table or in a cradle/stand, it's no problem and the user can enjoy the very reasonable output. There's no fancy system-wide equalisation but armed with my trust Equalizer+Pro app and VLC for Android I can happily adjust the quality of the output to my taste and genre of music/video/film. There's always that slight payoff in volume when doing this but, and again depending on the quality of the file in question, the sound is pretty loud to begin with. I was actually surprised following Steve's demo on The Phones Show, but as always, perception varies so much between tracks and how they've been encoded. I could very happily live with this speaker, coupled with my chosen software. It's a bit more tricky with podcasts, unless your podcatcher has an equaliser, but spoken word tested here is just fine. Tricky again with the likes of YouTube, but there are plenty of apps out there to help with sound. Give me a JBL replacement component and I'll screw it in!

All Round Sound
There's also a 3.5mm audio-out socket which I tested with my usual reference headphones and all is well. There's no award here for quality and volume, but for 95% of people the output is rich and loud enough. Audiophiles look elsewhere but it's perfectly good for the rest. The stereo output is very good, good separation and even surround with Dolby test video on YouTube renders a broad soundstage and all-round effects. Likewise the Bluetooth 5 connectivity in my tests here produces a quick and reliable connection with various devices and excellent sound reproduction.

Connectivity options seem sound too. I don't usually mention GPS and NFC these days as I assume they are standards, but with the influx of Chinese OEM phones and now, component-based units, who knows what's included or not! GPS connects well via Google Maps getting a lock on my position swiftly and with style! I can't test Google Pay via NFC with every phone I review as it rings bells at my bank and gets me into trouble, so I can only report that the dialogue invites me to use the software, looks for me to add my card and other people have said that it works. Cellular and WiFi seem strong enough, locking onto various networks tested here, with voice calls pretty strong and reliably held. In the old fashioned way, the two Nano SIM Card Slots are under the battery along with the microSD Card. This means of course, just like the old days, no hot-swapping! The battery has to be taken out and the cards slide in sideways underneath. My usual connectivity to data tests are done at this point and no surprises to discover that HDMI-Out doesn't work, but on a positive note the 2TB Extreme SSD test passes. It takes its time to process but once there reads/writes perfectly adequately and similarly microSD Cards of various sizes up to 512GB.

You will have noted by now, no doubt, that Steve has declared that the camera module, 12MP f1.8 with HDR and 8MP f2 Selfie are far from special, but it's worth looking at the test shots in the show to see what an amazing difference was created by the installation and use of the GCam Port effectively grabbing Google's clever software to make huge improvements over the camera's hardware. Works a treat and it should certainly be a must-do install for all users of, not only this phone, but many others. Clever stuff! I'll leave you to check out his other comments and observations regarding the camera over there.

Design Compromise
The Rear Fingerprint Scanner works really quickly and the registration process is fast and not annoying. The only issue really is that, maybe unavoidably like the speaker position, it's so high up on the back. Now, to be fair, there's got to be room for the battery there which takes up quite a lot of the back, so if the scanner is going to be on the back, where else can it go! Down the left-side (looking on the back) there's all sorts of other components (and we'd soon moan if it was over there anyway)! The place it should be is slap-bang in the middle of the battery, which really can't be moved. Perhaps on the side of the device instead, like Sony used to and Samsung have now tried to, Razer Phone and a few others. Wherever it goes it's going to be in the way of something else. There has to be a price for this modular design, and it seems that the speaker and fingerprint scanner are the payoff. Until Face Unlock (Google/Apple style) is widespread and cheap to implement, this is probably all they could do. When you start to consider these angles, you begin to realise why there was more than one generation of Fairphone - because stuff gets invented!

There's a really clean version of Android on this phone. There is absolutely nothing added to the stock experience. Pure vanilla! There's no added apps or bloat or really any software that isn't needed by the system and/or supplied by GMS. Much of the UI is Dark Themed and the usual switches are present for that. Google Assistant Cards are off to the left of Home if you want them to be and there are not even little added touches like swipe-up from anywhere for App Tray or swipe-down from anywhere for Notifications Panel. Speaking of which, this is again totally stock as you'd expect to see. All this, even cleaner than Moto! There's no added touches like double-tap-to-wake or Always On Display (though Always on AMOLED works perfectly to fill the gap for these features, yes - even with an LCD). The vibration motor is a very odd one, as Steve said. Very 2007 Nokia style, which feels like it's also got a speaker attached! Can be shut off.

The bottom line is that I could very easily live with this phone as my main device. It's just the right size, has reassuring weight and build, the additional 'play' factor for the Lego fan - or maybe more seriously those who really think that this effort could have a small impact on the planet and people living here. It's a valiant attempt to offer an eco-friendly option for people to think about as they are casually happy to ditch their old phone for another, to 'upgrade'. If Fairphone can develop the idea and provide not only a range of replacement parts, as listed above, but also better parts so that the user can really focus on what they want from their phone, then it could make a difference in a small way. For me, for example, I'd want a fabulous speaker but wouldn't be so bothered about a camera. So I could buy a super-speaker component but stick with the supplied camera. For the next person, they might not be bothered by sound but really want the best camera. And so on. They're only going to achieve this truly modular approach through the kind of development that stunted the potential growth of the Moto Mod system. And lastly, I wonder who is actually going to pay £400 to buy into the system. It's not an outrageous price, but for similar spec'd phones at the outset, laying aside modularity, you can get more, cheaper. I'd buy in, if there were more readily available parts. Gauntlet thrown down!

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