A few weeks ago, I found myself in need of a repair for a borked camera lens on my iPhone 11. I do everything in my power to essentially encase my Apple products in bubble wrap, but a nearly imperceptible fracture in one lens had greatly impacted the functionality of my phone’s camera. I hadn’t anticipated that repairing it was going to be a whole thing, but finding a way to get it repaired quickly in my area turned out to be futile. And repairing it myself? Pfft, forget it.
This inability to quickly remedy such a small issue stuck with me as I was demoing the Fairphone 3+, a £425.00 (roughly $550) modular phone currently only available overseas. I desperately wish it or something like it were available in the United States because it makes it so easy to repair that just about anyone can fix their own phone—a rarity in this gadget repair dystopia we’re living in. Right now, most Apple stores in my region are closed because of the pandemic. In contacting Apple about a repair, I asked repeatedly if I could keep my current phone. There was nothing functionally wrong with it and it was still fairly new, but I really wanted to cut the turnaround time down because I use my phone so frequently for work. The problem, an Apple repair representative explained, is that an open-for-business repair partner might still have to send the device into Apple anyway, a process that could have left me without a phone for well over a week and possibly longer.
Ultimately, I opted for a replacement device—but that meant I was getting a whole new phone rather than a single repair part. Luckily I was still within warranty, but getting an entirely new phone over a camera lens felt very silly.
In many ways, a Fairphone is the antithesis of the iPhone. It doesn’t benefit most retailers to allow you to easily repair your own stuff, meaning that a lot of gizmos these days—particularly higher-end electronics—are packed with proprietary parts and sometimes even software locks to dissuade consumers from attempting to perform repairs themselves. Apple is especially aggressive about this. These barriers do give us thinner and more compact devices that look like dreams, but they also work to pad the pockets of gadget makers by allowing them to charge out the ears for repairs and engineer in planned obsolescence.
Without access to parts for a device that’s no longer in production, or when the cost of a repair on an older device is only a hair cheaper than just buying a newer one, most consumers are driven to purchasing a new product, possibly before they really need one. This is especially true of smart devices, for which software updates generally phase out products after just a couple of years.
Fairphone makes gadgets that attempt to get around some of these problems by allowing for modular components or parts that can easily be swapped out by users themselves. That cracked camera lens I mentioned? Had it been on the Fairphone I’ve been testing for the last couple of weeks, I’d have been able to order and swap in a new one for about $70. Cracked screen? That can be easily repaired too, as can the battery, speaker, as well as other key parts. Best of all were I a Fairphone 3 owner, I’d be able to simply upgrade my camera to the one that comes standard in the Fairphone 3+, no new phone required.
Some other quick specs for those interested: Fairphone 3+ has 64GB of memory but can be upgraded to 400GB with a MicroSD card. It has a Qualcomm 632 processor, a 5.65-inch display, Bluetooth 5, a 3000mAh battery that supports Qualcomm QuickCharge, and six total modules to swap out for easy repair. A thing I didn’t expect to love as much as I did was fingerprint ID on the backside of the phone—particularly as Face ID on my iPhone 11 has become a massive pain in the butt in these mask-on times. At present, Fairphone doesn’t support 4G connectivity in the U.S., my biggest gripe with the phone second only to the fact that the phones only ship within Europe. The difference in performance between a 3G and 4G network connection will absolutely be noticeable—particularly if you’ve had a newer smartphone in the last decade. But a Fairphone spokesperson told Gizmodo last month that it’s “looking at possibilities for the future” for extending its market to the U.S. as well.
Fairphone runs on Android—the Fairphone 3+ comes with Android 10 pre-installed and ready to go—and even as an Apple user, Android is exceptionally intuitive and easy to use. In fact, in many ways, getting my Fairphone 3+ set up was easier than organizing an out-of-box iPhone if for no other reason than Apple’s proprietary apps often aren’t the ones I typically use day-to-day. But I do use Google’s apps for a lot of stuff, and that made getting my phone up and running a breeze.
As for its camera, I was happy enough with the photograph with the newer lens. Photo nerds may be more sensitive to the trade-offs when compared with, say, the iPhone 11 Pro, but for the average person, I think Fairphone’s cameras would work beautifully. I especially loved the portrait mode on the front camera, which worked in even exceptionally low-light environments for me.
Software likely isn’t the primary reason that anyone is looking at getting a Fairphone device, but shipping pre-installed with a lot of familiar apps means making the switch will likely be relatively painless, though so far my iPhone is a bit snappier overall in terms of performance. Again, the tradeoff is a commitment to repairability that you simply won’t get with an Apple device unless the company radically overhauls its entire business model or unless it’s forced, neither of which seems remotely likely for the foreseeable future.
From an environmental standpoint, it can be argued that the best thing you can do for the planet is simply not buy electronics. But that doesn’t really comport with reality. We use our phones, computers, and TVs for everything from performing our jobs to educating our children—especially during this particular moment in history. They capture our happiest moments and connect us with those we love, and barring some exceptionally narrow personal and professional circumstances, they’re a necessary part of our modern world.
Gadget makers know this, and “sustainability” has become a bigger part of electronics branding than ever (even if that marketing is often misleading). In reality, creating an “ethical” gadget is a flawed and imperfect process. But Fairphone actively engages with many of the problems that other manufactures would otherwise happily continue to ignore. Chief among these is e-waste produced by gadgets we’re merely replacing rather than repairing. One of the ways that Fairphone attempts to curb our snowballing e-waste problem is by making a phone that consumers won’t have to replace nearly as often as they might another device from a major manufacturer.
Fairphone hopes that its phones can stretch that length of time to between five and seven years, in part by making phones that aren’t disposable by design. During its annual September event, Apple made a lot of noise about its goal of being carbon neutral by 2030, but that’s another decade away—a decade during which its users may have cycled through three or more of its smartphones. And while Apple says it’s using 100% recycled materials for some components in its products, that means nothing if the company is actively thwarting right to repair efforts with lobbying as well as phasing out products every couple of years.
Ultimately, we all want a beautiful pocket computer that performs well and takes lovely images. You’ll get that with the Fairphone 3+, but you’ll also have the freedom to truly repair your device on your own terms, as many times as you’d like, for far, far longer than you’d be able to with some of the leading smartphones on the market. No more repair headaches or in-the-shop wait times during which you’re without a device. And wouldn’t that be nice?