Fairphone 3 is the ‘ethical’ smartphone you might actually buy

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Fairphone is a Dutch social enterprise that builds phones that are, in the words of CEO Eva Gouwens, “kinder to people and to the Earth.” It aims to create devices that aim to push the mobile industry forward by showing that it’s possible to do better. Gouwens cites Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, who said “if you think you’re too small to make an impact, try going to bed with a mosquito.”

The company has produced two devices already, both of which were designed to last longer than your average phone. It also works with NGOs and manufacturers in China to offer better pay and working conditions for the people assembling the phones. Fairphone also negotiates for improved pay and working conditions for those sourcing the raw materials that go into making a smartphone.

Today, the company announced the Fairphone 3, and it may be the first ethical phone that’s truly ready for the big time.

Fairphone 3

It’s tempting to pull my punches, because I don’t want to be snarky about people who are trying to do the right thing, but it would be unethical of me to suggest that the Fairphone 2 was a great-looking device. It wasn’t.

The opposite is true of the Fairphone 3. I think it’s utterly gorgeous, and the sort of device I’d be happy to use, and show off, as my primary phone. It looks stark and strong, but sits comfortably in the hand, with that soft plastic going gently onto your skin. The semi-transparent back cover lets you peep at the internals, with the battery declaring that “Change is in your hands.” It’s neat.

Fairphone 3

Running down the left-hand side are just three buttons: two for the volume, and one for power, and that’s it. Up top, there’s a 3.5mm headphone jack, rejoice!, although there’s no headphones bundled (or a wall wart, or a charging cable). At the bottom, there’s a side-facing stereo speaker and a little cut-out to jam your finger in to pull off the cover. You don’t even need to use the spudger included in the packaging to pull off the back, either, making battery, SIM and microSD-card swaps a breeze.

The Fairphone 3 has a notch running along the top edge, but it’s for the earpiece, not the camera. Moving the selfie lens over may break the symmetry, but it’s a smart choice to avoid everything being sited in a weird line. That asymmetry continues to the USB-C port, which is to the left of center (the microphone is on the right). The camera and fingerprint reader are in the places you would expect, too. Fairphone 3 is a millimeter or two thicker (and boxier) than the iPhones and Galaxies we’re used to, but I think that’s a benefit, not a downside.

Fairphone 3

Because the technology itself is so refined, and so mature, you would have to make an effort to produce a bad LCD display in 2019. That means there’s little else to say about the 3’s 5.7-inch, 18:9 full-HD screen, because it’s perfectly fine. Colours are a little muted, but then I find that on a lot of Android devices without OLED screens. Viewing angles are great, as are the black levels.

I have fewer nice things to say about the side-firing stereo speakers which rattle at higher volumes and even at max, are a tad weak. Nobody wants to be the asshole on public transport playing music without headphones but, if you’re in a pinch at home, you want to be able to play tunes on your phone. On this? It’ll be fine if you’re close by, but it’s not going to fill a room. Thankfully, there’s that 3.5mm headphone jack, for those of us still clinging to the most valuable of input methods — and Bluetooth (5.0).

Fairphone 3

Inside the Fairphone 3, there’s a Snapdragon 632 paired with Adreno 506 graphics and 4GB RAM. That’s a spec that screams “lower mid-range,” but honestly, many of us don’t need the sort of power on offer on a flagship these days. If you’re doing nothing more than texting, browsing the internet, using social media and watching video, this is a perfectly fine specification. And you would hope that it’ll still have the power to keep doing those same things in five years’ time.

The 3,000mAh battery is removable, naturally, and will be dirt-cheap to replace when it gives up the ghost. For context, the 2,400mAh cell in the Fairphone 2 can be replaced for just €20 ($22), around a quarter of what Apple will charge to do the same job. In a surprising move, there’s 64GB storage inside, a strong statement given the need for Fairphone to keep its costs down. Should you require more, you can still bolster that with the built-in microSD card slot.

The Fairphone 3 is running stock Android 9 / Pie, and I had absolutely no gripes about its performance. Animations are snappy and responsive, and I’ve spotted no lags with the camera or any other app. Switching orientations in YouTube when running HD video often trips up lesser devices, but it’s smooth as anything here. Fingerprint sensor, too, is smooth and fast, ticking the meat and potatoes boxes you would expect from a device like this.

During testing, I wasn’t able to test the handset’s performance with Fortnite, the mobile game du jour. According to the company, that’s because the prototype hasn’t been certificated but I doubt it’ll run well on that low-end Adreno 506.

Fairphone 3

On the imaging front, the Fairphone 3 has a 12-megapixel primary camera with a f/1.8 aperture and Sony’s Exmor IMX363 sensor. It may not be as showy as the imaging gear knocked out by Huawei, but it’s not an embarrassment. Colours and detail pop, and even at the 8x digital zoom, you can pick out details — albeit with a lot of grain and muddiness. The night-time modes aren’t up to, say, that of Google’s own phones, but they’re not bad if there’s some light in the room.

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