Tuesday, 4 January 2022

Fairphone 4 Review

The Fairphone 4 is a difficult one to review in any traditional way because I think you first have to get past the price issue. What you're paying for, apart from smartphone hardware. The phone (at time of writing) costs £499 (128GB) and £569 (256GB). On paper, you can do much better for specs elsewhere. But hold on!

This is an environmentally-friendly phone. A phone which Fairphone wants you to keep for 5+ years. A phone which is made of many recyclable materials. A phone which allows the user to 'upgrade' modular components so as to future-proof it. A phone company that thinks about the planet and not just the usual 2-year turnaround of hardware, much of it ending up in landfill or on ocean beds.

The buyer has to work this one out before considering those specs and thinking that they can do better elsewhere for significantly less money. This, of course, assumes that people have the ready-cash to spend and can afford to take a longer-term view - that £500 is at most £100 per year, so £8 a month. Try to take this into account before reading on - and in turn, I'll try not to compare specs throughout with cheaper phones with more/better specs!

In February 2020 I reviewed the Fairphone 3 and concluded that it needed more user-replaceable parts and a shift in mindset to appreciate the planetary benefits and pricing at £399. In October of the same year, I revisited the phone and was able to add some of the parts which were included in the Fairphone 3+ launch (but not all). The camera module was central to this 'upgrade' but the rest was much the same - apart from the only part I couldn't replace (which would have meant more to me), the speaker.

This was a great shame as the speaker had apparently been enhanced over the original but wasn't user-replaceable as it was too tightly integrated into other non-removable parts. Fairphone PR is supposed to be in the process of sending out a 3+ unit so I can, at last, make that comparison. Watch this space! In the meantime, I shall turn back to the new phone in-hand, the Fairphone 4.

One of the aforementioned great aspects of the concept here is the modularity. In The Phones Show 432, my Phones Show Chat Co-Host Steve Litchfield grabs his screwdriver, goes time-lapse, takes it all apart and reassembles it. It's great to watch and demonstrates all the user-replaceable parts and components. The Fairphone 3 and 3+ come with that little screwdriver to make it all happen, but with the 4 you'll need to find your own #00 Phillips. More planet-saving I guess, but probably not a given that all users will have one!

Something else trendily missing from the box is a charger, though ironically, much cardboard has been wasted in the box design, making it much taller than it needed to be with double-flaps and further covered with another card sleeve. Again, not needed - and for a firm who is claiming to do their bit to save the planet, seems like a mixed message - though to be fair, cardboard is trivial to recycle. Otherwise, the box is simple and no SIM Card Tool needed as you just pull the back off like it's 2009!

The back is made with 100% recycled plastic and looks suspiciously like an iPhone clone with a triangular corner-set camera cluster. That's OK - it's neat and tidy, looks stylish enough - and certainly a design triumph over previous Fairphone models. It feels like this is probably the first unit from the firm that doesn't look like a modular outdated unit. Steve said that he thought the back to be grippy and rubberised in his review, but I disagree as I find it as slippery as any other plastic, though not glass. I'd certainly want a TPU as soon as possible so it didn't plummet to the ground. There's a big FAIRPHONE logo towards the bottom, but it's alright - indented and not garishly coloured. The edges are made with aluminium from eco-friendly firms too and feel lovely and smooth, curving slightly towards the front and back all-round.

On the right there are two volume buttons, capacitive fingerprint scanner/power button and a couple of antenna cut-outs, the top, a microphone, left, some more cut-outs and another microphone, on the bottom there's a USB-C port, another microphone and the right speaker (of the stereo pair) bottom-firing. The bezels on the front around the screen are not insignificant and the chin, deeper than the forehead. Bezels are OK with me though, especially for those using gesture navigation. The right speaker of the stereo pair is doubled up as the earpiece one in the usual way these days and sits at the top of the screen, front-firing, above the tear-drop notch housing the selfie-cam.

The modularity is just great! Takes me back to another era. Carry a spare battery (or two), swap out microSD Card for another (this, with the SIM Card slot are under the battery, incidentally, so you have to power-off to do so), look out for updated camera units or even add an OLED screen (maybe, hopefully, somewhere down the line)! It's a different world from the all-sealed units these days. They've somehow made the phone IP54 dust/splash resistant and it even has a MIL-STD-810G compliance! They're very proud that it got a 100% iFixit Teardown rating on YouTube of course!

This is Fairphone's first 5G phone and is substantial in the hand. It's 225g heavy and comparable in size (height, width) to the Sony Xperia 1 Mk.III (though fatter). The back cover is really tough to peel away (presumably due to that IP54) but there is a hole for a nail (or whatever) for people to get the 'peel' going. It feels solid, sturdy and though not quite Nokia XR20 (hammer nails in with it) it does indeed feel like it will survive to see the promised extended support and warranty.

The front panel is an LCD. I mentioned OLED earlier - and it would be nice to see this as an option. I'm no engineer, and that might not be possible, but I'd personally leap at that - even though I guess the thinking was that an LCD will last longer with this extended support window. Fairphone have used Gorilla Glass 5 on the front, which I've had mixed experience with - seems to do well with shatter-resistance but not so well for micro-scratches, and it's 6.3" diagonally. That's a good size, but as with the Nokia XR20, it feels bigger because of the bezels and housing.

The screen is 1080p with a ratio of 19.5:9 returning 409ppi and a basic 60Hz refresh rate. It seems just about bright and colourful enough on manual and auto for use outdoors and balances the level well enough. Held against the Nokia XR20, it's certainly brighter and more colourful. This is no OLED though, so users shouldn't expect that level of saturation and deep blacks synonymous with the latter. In the settings there is a toggle for 'Visual Enhancement' which allegedly makes contrast, sharpness and dark details more pronounced, but I can't really tell the difference. You can also drill down into colour temperature, gamut with presets or adjust RGB yourself. I do find these kinds of settings a little miniscule in terms of effect - again, working better and with more impact on an OLED panel.

Talking of settings, this is a very clean, stock, Vanilla implementation of Android 11 here, with no bloatware at all and the only sign that it's not a Pixel (in terms of what's been added) is their camera software/app. There's not even a Fairphone support app and only a couple of questions following the Fairphone splash-screen at startup/setup about whether or not you want feedback etc. Good job Fairphone - everyone else look!

Yes, Android 11 out of the box and the promise of updates to Android 12 (autumn 2021) and 13 (autumn 2022) and the aim of 14 (autumn 2023) and 15 (autumn 2024) - depending on their development success and Qualcomm's support with the chipset. So, the 5 years spoken about is rather dependent on other factors going forward. They have been good on promises for previous devices with updates (if some, very late) so we'll have to see. Google Security is currently December 2021, so not far behind Pixels - and, at time of writing, ahead of the Pixel 6!

In many ways the implementation of Android is even more basic than a Nokia AndroidOne device (and certainly a Motorola one). There's no always on display, no Lift to Wake nor Double Tap to Wake even. You can set the screen to wake up with incoming Notifications, but that's about it. Thankfully the Always on AMOLED app comes to the rescue, filling in the gaps - at the expense of battery of course with this LCD. Otherwise, gesture control is here with this up-to-date version of Android, (removable) Google Feed to the left of Home, forced At a Glance and Google Search on the Home screen, system-wide Dark mode and so forth. It feels very much like an AndroidOne device, so not so far removed from a dumbed-down Pixel.

That Qualcomm chipset I referred to above is the SnapDragon 750G (8nm) which is pretty widely used in other phones (including some Samsung, OnePlus, Motorola and Xiaomi mid-rangers) and brings that 5G support for those who can get it. I am finding that the phone is fast enough executing anything I want to do, but I'm no gamer. People pushing the unit in terms of gaming have been pleasantly surprised but you'll need to scour the other reviews on YouTube to get the full low-down.

In this 128GB Storage review unit there's 6GB RAM, which again, seems perfectly adequate in terms of multi-tasking and keeping apps running in the background, but if you buy the 256GB unit, you will get 8GB. It would be nice to think that users could buy and fit RAM if they wanted to, like we have been all used to doing in desktop/laptop PCs since 1842! There is microSD card support, as I said, under the battery, which is playing nicely with my 512GB example and read/write times seem to be adequate, if not as fast as the aforementioned Sony and others. A lot of factors come into play here of course - even the fastest cards' performance is impacted by the other hardware available. Anyway, great that it's there for those who need it.

A quick mention for the side-mounted capacitive Fingerprint Scanner/Power Button which until the December Update arrived forced the user to press the button in to wake the screen, then in a second action 'touch' the scanner to get past the lockscreen. But they fixed it and there's now a setting in Security settings to throw a switch for touch-unlock without the first stage. That makes it much more usable and user-friendly. It's not the fastest capacity fingerprint scanner I've used (there is a very slight delay) but it's still better than any under-glass unit!

In the same position under the battery is a NanoSIM Card slot and although the blurb claims that the phone is "Dual SIM" it should be made clear that one of them is an e-SIM facility. I think that's a bit misleading still in 2021 where people would expect the term to mean two physical slots. But no doubt times are changing! Anyway, you can get 2 x 5G for voice and data.

Sadly for some, the 3.5mm Audio-Out socket has not made it from the Fairphone 3. We speak about this often on our podcast and rue the facility going away, but when it boils down to it, we also acknowledge that Bluetooth has become so amazing these days that we're mostly using it anyway. 3.5mm is a feature that it's nice to have for that odd occasion, but OK - perhaps we should give up now! The Bluetooth output is, as I say, very, very good - 5.1 supported here with various modern codecs.

What we do have for the first time in a Fairphone is stereo built-in speakers. I have found these to be pretty good really. They're not in the same class as my Motorola Edge+ or Steve's iPhone 12 Pro Max but they're more than usable, especially when teamed up with a Music app with some control over output. I use Poweramp and tweak the output via their plethora of settings, more bass can be achieved and less treble, albeit at the expense of some volume - the usual payoff. It's decently loud enough for personal use and certainly for podcasts and spoken word. The stereo separation isn't the best but if you place the phone in front of the head within about 18" you can enjoy the effect well enough. So, no - speakers are not winning any awards, but the sound output is going to be certainly good enough for most users.

Connectivity seems to be solid enough in my tests here. The 5G I can't test but on my 4G locally I can get good enough and stable enough speeds/connection. Similarly the bluetooth seems good with quick-pairing and decent enough range, depending, as always, on the quality of the connected gear. NFC seems to do a good job too, connecting me as it should with other enabled equipment, though I have still not been able to test Google Pay. Others report no issue. WiFi also seems stable enough with a good signal connected, though note that this is not WiFi6. Google Maps and other apps relying on a GPS fix seem to be doing well also - it seems that it's hard to find a phone these days where any connectivity is poor, and as we have found with the release of the Pixel 6, it seems to be a fault when bad, rather than poor components or 'normal' functionality.

I had to take a step back at this point when I read in the specs that DisplayPort is included. I didn't think for a minute that HDMI-Out would have been licensed and included so I cabled-up to my TV to test and yes - sure enough, it does indeed! That's a real boon (for some of us who make use of this facility) and significantly rare these days - so good for Fairphone! Well done indeed. Furthermore, the sound is routed out nicely and background-play seems to work so that the phone can be used at the same time. Armed with an HDMI-Out/USB-C-Out/USB-C-In adapter (or in my case, powered Hub), charging is also possible at the same time. Amazing!

The user-replaceable battery is just shy of 4,000mAh and on testing here it looks like it's good for a day and a half of my 'normal' use. My 10% Reading Test (on multiple tests at different points on the 'depleted' scale) returned about 1 hr and 30 mins which is not too bad, but far from best - just a bit better than the Samsung Galaxy S10 (which I often complain about)! A spare battery to buy changes the equation here enormously and you can pick one up from Fairphone for about £26 at time of reviewing. If this was mine, I'd certainly do that. The charging port offers 20W input and they claim that you can get a 50% charge in 30 minutes. That claim looks to be good on initial testing here, and about an hour and a half for a full charge. Shame there's no way to charge the battery outside of the phone. Accessory needed Fairphone! There is no wireless charging, which I guess would have been a step too far for the modular design but it would have been nice to see a replacement back, with it included. A third-party Qi Receiver is cheap enough but you can't get it connected without a case as the back fits so tightly and cases are few and far between (£33 from Fairphone).

Talking of replacement parts, at time of writing, the available parts from Fairphone are that case and a 30W Charger for £21, along with a bunch of dongles, screen protectors, screwdriver etc. No sign of replacement screens yet, nor camera modules or replacement speakers - or anything else really. I guess it's early days and they will build stocks over time to match the parts which the 3-series ended up getting.

As usual, I'm going to point you to Steve's thoughts on the camera performance in the above-linked edition of The Phones Show but the unit is equipped with a 48MP f/1.6 main shooter with OIS, a secondary 48MP f/2.2 wide-angle unit, a TOF 3D depth sensor and a 25MP f/2.2 Selfie. All specs upped from the previous generation and it takes decent enough shots for the vast majority of users. It feels pretty basic, much like the aforementioned implementations of AndroidOne devices with associated limitations on, for example, optical zoom and a decent night mode. I was able to port the Google Camera app to the phone which rendered better outcomes of course, but that’s a side-load APK which I’m not recommending to people.

I'm going to have to say it, you'll get more phone elsewhere for less money! But hold on, because, as I said at the outset, that's not the point. Consider the extra money a contribution to the planet and rationalise part of that extra as the long-term support and OS updates over 5 years (up there with Apple) and you will be free to think about this phone on it's own merits. I tried to review it as if it were £399 instead of £499 - and that puts it right in there with the Nokia XR20. The two phones are significantly robust and (to some degree) similar sizes.

The great thing about the Fairphone 4 is of course, the modularity which you don't get with any other phone on the planet (in anywhere near the same way). User-replaceable parts (when they become available) and at reasonable cost (going by the price of a replacement battery) armed with a simple screwdriver (for parts other than the battery). It's clean Android (which can be boosted by adding a Launcher if you prefer) as Fairphone have not added any bloat - or even their own software (outside of the camera app). The camera is perfectly adequate for most folk and Fairphone have, for the first time, brought a style, fit and finish to a phone that feels like it belongs in 2021 and not 2009.

Bottom line is that it's no flagship, but it is more than adequate in almost every way for almost all users - and if you can afford the outlay, it might be an option - thinking about the £499 over 5 years at £8 per month. In that time, you might well have spent that on two phones. I shall be very keen to see the rollout of replacement parts in the coming months and assess how far Fairphone are going to push the envelope. You can get this in Grey, Green or Speckled Green and for the eco-aware and/or Android purist, I'd recommend it - in some surprising ways, even over a Pixel.

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