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The Fairphone 4 could teach Apple a thing or two

Our product reviews, like most, are scored out of 10. If you were testing out a smartphone, how would you allocate your ten points right now? Two for design, three for camera, one for battery life, screen, price, etcetera. Here are some much more interesting scores out of 10. The new iPhone 13 series received 6.1s and 6.2s on the French Repairability Index. One of our favourite additions to the tech world this year, it determines how easy and affordable it is to fix your devices. The Fairphone 4 scored a 9.3. 

Is it as nice or as capable as an iPhone? Put it this way, the Fairphone 4 is a ‘modular’ 5G phone that comes in two models, starting at £499, and it’s supposed to last you five years. Spare parts start at less than £20 to replace the USB-C port, speaker, earpiece or the 100 per cent recycled polycarbonate back cover. It’s £25 for a replacement 3,900mAh battery or a selfie camera, £70 for a new 6.3inch Full HD Gorilla Glass 5 screen or dual 48MP cameras. They’re all designed to be done as DIY home repairs – there’s a Fairphone screwdriver for a reason – and the parts will all be available until 2027. You get software updates including support for Android 12 and 13… and even Android 14 and 15 if Fairphone can swing it, despite the fact that chip makers won’t stretch that far. (It’s a Snapdragon 750G here.) There’s also a five-year warranty. In other words, they really mean it. 

So, no, the Fairphone 4 is not quite as nice or capable as an iPhone 13. It’s polished and ergonomic but with an old-fashioned screen-to-body ratio, at 10.5mm thick and, particularly, weighing 225g, it does feel like a real chunk of phone. On first impressions, there are a couple of finicky tech reviewer grumbles too: a pink tint to the display when viewed from an angle, a slow flash indoors, slightly tinny speakers. If you get on with the size, though, this could be a very workmanlike purchase. 

The battery life is decent, with 20W fast charging, performance is zippy so far and, flash off, the main and ultrawide lenses are both very usable. It’s beaten by the similarly priced Xiaomi 11T Pro on almost every spec. As with the Fairphone 3, you just need to have your eyes open to the fact that yes, you are paying around a £200 premium here, again, for a phone that should last you three to five years. With the futureproof 5G onboard, that does shift the price equation. 

And think about your ten points. We haven’t started on the screws in our first couple of days with the Fairphone 4 – look out for the full review – but one of the most delightful moments with it so far arrived when I popped the back cover off to see the colourful graphics and numbers encouraging me to do my own repairs. "We completely redid the stack-up because we wanted to make it more accessible," says CEO Eva Gouwens. "With the Fairphone 3, if you wanted to replace the camera, the first module you needed to take off was the display, so you had to start by unscrewing 13 screws. So we swapped that around." 

Fairphone’s CEO estimates that around 10 per cent of its 300,000+ customers – it sold 95,000 devices in 2020 – have actually repaired their device to date. That might be lower than you’d expect, which Gouwens attributes to the struggles and stability issues on the Fairphone 2, and the fact that the now-discontinued, but still supported, Fairphone 3 only launched two years ago. With the stop-gap Fairphone 3+ still on sale, though suffering from global component shortages, it may appear that the scrappy, 100-person Amsterdam-based company isn’t far off the mainstream annual launch cycle that is blocking smartphone manufacturers from moving away from built-in obsolescence and electronic waste. 

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"If you’re promising people that they can use the phone for five years, then for the ones buying it in year four or five, that’s nine to ten years of spare parts, which isn’t feasible," Gouwens explains. "We’re trying to beat these rapid life cycles but that is too big of a stretch right now. We want to keep our promise to users that we can provide software support and spare parts, plus a five-year warranty is unique." 

Incidentally, if Gouwens was a character on Succession, you’d worry that she wouldn’t last the episode. She actually answers the questions put to her and admits when she doesn't have the answer to hand. But Fairphone’s CEO is fully aware that a big part of her job, in addition to making the now-profitable company financially sustainable, isn’t beating the competition but staying ahead of the rest of the tech industry, showing them up – albeit on a smaller scale. 

On top of joining Right To Repair as an official member, and championing the updated EU Ecodesign Directive, Fairphone is now actively recycling and refurbishing smartphones with its partners in Europe, not simply encouraging recycling while the overall numbers stay low, around 15 per cent. This concept of making the Fairphone 4 ‘electronic waste neutral’, by recycling or refurbishing one phone for every Fairphone sold, could also be a clue to its future business model, one that doesn’t rely on yearly upgrades. 

Then there’s the nitty gritty of how smartphones are produced. In its reports and events, Fairphone talks about its progress regarding many materials that Apple has researched in its own future-gazing Material Impact Profiles but has yet to make any tangible announcements around. On sustainable materials, most of the major tech companies still focus on one product, series or component such as the recycled rare earth metals in Apple’s Taptic Engine, which accounts for 25 per cent of their use in iPhones. Apple and Google have made progress here but Fairphone is unusual in its willingness to give the whole, messy picture. In 2018, 25 per cent of Fairphone’s list of eight key materials were ‘fairly sourced’ according to its own detailed, transparent criteria around sustainability and working conditions in the supply chain. This jumped to 32 per cent in 2019 and again to 56 per cent in 2020. 

With six more materials added to the list, this now includes not just recycled tin and rare earth elements but ASI-certified aluminium, Fairtrade gold and ‘fair’, conflict-free tungsten from Rwanda. Fairphone is now working to improve supply chains for cobalt, copper, indium, lithium, magnesium, nickel and zinc; the team acknowledges that 100 per cent circular use and reuse of these materials is unlikely but each time it scales, as with the Fairphone 3, it’s taken more seriously. 

On the people side, factory workers producing Fairphone devices in China were given a living wage bonus that's the equivalent of an extra four months salary in 2020. Though Gouwens says it’s trickier to make similar calculations earlier in the supply chain, as many miners are essentially entrepreneurs, it estimates that 10,717 people benefitted from its social enterprise interventions in total last year. 

Two years after Apple’s AirPods got a lot of unwanted attention around their life cycle, Fairphone is launching a pair of True Wireless Earbuds, which will be followed by more smartphone-adjacent accessory announcements in future. The £90 Bluetooth in-ears will include active noise cancelling with a water-resistant design made from 30 per cent recycled plastics and Fairtrade Gold. It's a start. 

The kicker, though, according to Gouwens, is the lifespan of the buds. “We’re still in testing, it takes a long time,” she says. “The average [earbud] battery lasts for 200 cycles. We’re now on 500 and we're aiming for them to last for 800 cycles. These are our first steps to extend the lifetime.” Ten points for battery life? 

The Fairphone 4 will be available via Fairphone for £499 (6GB/128GB) and £569 (8GB/256GB) from October 25 and via EE, Sky Mobile, Virgin Media and more. 

This article was originally published by WIRED UK

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