YOU KNOW HOW things usually happen: You look away for one second, or get distracted, send your phone hurling to the floor, and watch it smash. If this has happened to you, then you also know the temptation of using non-official replacement parts to cut the damage to a fraction of the cost. Lately, Apple users are learning the difference the hard way, with an Error 53 killing iPhones previously fixed by independent repairers. But what if you could easily repair it by yourself, pay a fair price for the spare parts, and cut out the visit a service center?
It can happen with Fairphone 2, the first modular phone on the market, and the first to earn a 10/10 for repairability on iFixit. Once the back cover of the phone is lifted, the guts can be disassembled to replace the screen by just opening a couple of simple plastic clips and by sliding the panel out. Grand total of tools required: One. You’ll need just a small screwdriver if you need to strip one of the three modules off the phone’s core: one module for the receiver, headphone jack, earpiece, and front-facing camera, one for the main camera and flash, and another one for the speaker, vibration motor, USB connector, and primary microphone. Spare parts are already in stock in the online shop; new batteries and USB modules are priced at $22 each, a new camera with LED flash will run you $38, a new display costs $95, and the core module is $350.
Today, those modules are meant to repair broken parts, but in the future they are also likely to offer upgrades to updated technologies, like cameras with different lenses or sensors with more megapixels. Tearing into the phone even more, you can imagine replacing the 32 GB internal memory or the 2 GB RAM, upgrading the processor or adding a modern Type-C connector in place of the current micro USB—so long as third party companies start jumping on the project, like Toshiba did with Google’s modular Project Ara smartphone program.
Overall, the Fairphone 2 is a decent phone with an exciting internal design and a boring exterior design. With a price tag of 529 euro ($590) it is quite expensive, especially considering how much mid-range Android phones have improved lately, offering high-end specs at much cheaper prices. Fairphone offers the older Qualcomm 32-bit Snapdragon 801 quad-core processor that has already been outdated by the 810 model. And while the display is crisp and bright, it’s nearly impossible to clean dust and fingerprints that show up in the corners. Framed by a rubber rim that wraps around the edges of the glass, it doesn’t dazzle, at least not at first sight. The spec sheet is still totally acceptable, though: The 5-inch screen is covered with Gorilla Glass 3 and measures 1080×1920 pixels with a solid pixel density of 446 ppi—less than Droid Turbo 2, Nexus 6Pand Galaxy S6, but still more than Nexus 5X, OnePlus 2,iPhone 6s, and 6s Plus. Despite the choice of a panel with TFT IPS technology, it also offers good color reproduction, decent contrast, and surprising viewing angles. I only noticed some annoying light flickering when brightness is set at a lower level, or fading to shut the screen off.
The main camera is an 8-megapixel OmniVision sensor, more likely to be found in low and mid-range smartphones. The camera app offers the standard Android feature set with Photo Sphere, Panorama, and Lens Blur shooting modes, all with HDR and a useful manual exposure option. It also allows up to 1080p HD video recording. Fairphone offers dual-SIM dual-4G connectivity and a microSD slot for up to 128 GB additional memory. Also, it adds unique ingredients to the mix: conflict free minerals. In fact, every smartphone contains about 40 different minerals, all entering the supply chain from the mining sector that sometimes funds armed militias, human rights abusers, and rebel groups. With the first Fairphone, the organization succeeded in sourcing tin and tantalum from conflict-free mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now, after almost two years of research, Fairphone just announced the creation of the first-ever Fairtrade gold supply chain for consumer electronics.
The intention of the company is to shake up the industry, but also to change how people interact with their devices. The customized operating system aims to improve the awareness on how using a smartphone impacts our privacy, providing alerts on app permissions that have direct access to personal data. For instance, Twitter and Facebook have a “medium” impact, Telegram’s is “low,” while Facebook Messenger has a “high” impact. Another nice feature is the interactive clock on the phone’s lock screen: Tapping on it will repeatedly reveal how long you’ve owned your Fairphone, how much the battery will last, and how long it’s been since the last time you’ve unlocked the phone itself. Other than that, Fairphone OS offers just a small redesign of Android’s user interface, throwing in a shortcut to the last added and most used contacts and to the more frequently used applications.
Unfortunately, Fairphone OS is based on the outdated Android 5.1 Lollipop instead of Marshmallow. But since this phone is an open platform, the Jolla community is currently working on Sailfish OS for the Fairphone 2, exploiting the advanced mode that allows users to install any other operating system of their choosing.