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The Fairphone 4 is easy to repair. Too bad it’s not a better phone

This smartphone’s designers made parts replacement easy. But like most upstart phone makers, they struggled to give it big-company polish.

The Fairphone 4 is easy to repair. Too bad it’s not a better phone
[Photo: courtesy of Fairphone]

The Fairphone 4 is an Android smartphone that begs to be dismantled.

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Peel off the back cover with your fingernail, and you’ll find colorful patterns and shapes around the interior along with a slogan: “Yours to open. Yours to keep.” Look closer, and you’ll see that each component is held down with only small Phillips screws, facilitating simple repairs. Fairphone says it will cover those components with a five-year warranty and provide basic software updates through 2025.

This is a radical way to build a smartphone, and the Fairphone 4, which costs 579 pounds (about $653), is the company’s highest-end model yet. (Fairphone has no plans to release it in the U.S.) But while the phone succeeds as a statement on sustainability, it’s full of trade-offs as a product, with too many little issues you won’t experience with other phones at similar prices.

[Photo: Jared Newman]
Still, those issues have less to do with the Fairphone 4’s repairable nature than with Fairphone’s status as a small phone maker with limited resources and buying power. The Fairphoone 4 proves that easy-to-repair phones are possible, but they won’t be truly great until bigger companies start taking the idea seriously.

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Fair trade-offs

The Fairphone 4’s most obvious repair-related concession is its size. Its 6.3-inch display is not unusual for a smartphone, but at 0.41 inches thick, it’s about 30% thicker than both an iPhone 13 and my Pixel 4A 5G, and it feels hefty when you pick it up. Removing and reattaching the screen is shockingly easy—it took me about five minutes—but the display’s mounting plate and lack of adhesive add bulk.

The phone’s aesthetic compromises seemed like a fair trade-off to me. I’m also willing to accept an easy-to-repair phone that’s merely splash resistant instead of fully waterproof. I can’t remember ever dropping my phone into a body of water, and even waterproof phones can lose their protective seals, endangering them in the pool.

Still, I had a hard time coping with other downsides that don’t stem directly from the repairable design.

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Consider, for instance, the camera, which is supposed to be the Fairphone 4’s biggest improvement over previous models. The rear camera system includes a pair of 48-megapixel sensors—one wide, one ultrawide—plus a 3D time-of-flight sensor to assist with autofocus. While that may sound competitive with other midrange smartphones, in practice the camera has a laggy shutter and is prone to producing mediocre photos.

[Photo: courtesy of Fairphone]
When I took pictures of myself through the rear camera, light through a nearby window gave one side of my face a washed-out appearance, and the stubble on my face came out blurry. With outdoor photos on an overcast day, the Fairphone 4 failed to capture any of the cloud detail picked up by my Pixel 4a 5G, showing a white sky instead. The laggy shutter also caused me to miss capturing some moments of my kids, as the camera didn’t fire fast enough.

Fairphone has little chance of ever competing with Apple, Google, or Samsung on the computational photography front.

Fairphone says it’s working on camera improvements through software and firmware updates, but therein lies the issue: Building an Android phone isn’t simply about throwing a bunch of components into a case and loading an operating system. Phone makers must put considerable effort into refining and optimizing the software, often in conjunction with component makers such as Qualcomm. That’s a tall order for a small company like Fairphone, which has little chance of ever competing with Apple, Google, or Samsung on the computational photography front.

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The camera wasn’t the only area in need of improvement. The phone’s balky palm rejection made one-handed typing nearly impossible, and haptic feedback was so laggy and unsatisfying I decided to turn it off entirely. Even the simple act of scrolling through apps felt slightly more sluggish than both the Pixel 4a 5G and pretty much every iPhone I’ve ever used.

[Photo: courtesy of Fairphone]
In terms of hardware, I also wasn’t a fan of the side-mounted fingerprint reader, which requires pressing the power button to activate and is neither as fast nor convenient as rear or in-display readers. The LCD display, meanwhile, is a step down from the OLED screens that are increasingly common on midrange and high-end phones. It doesn’t provide the greatest viewing angles, and it seems to fade out slightly around the edges of the screen.

The whole experience reminded me of my time with another boutique phone, the keyboard-equipped Fxtec Pro 1. While that phone didn’t have the same sustainable focus, it faced similar challenges with camera and software optimization, and it couldn’t get state-of-the-art components due to its status as a small-time phone maker. In both cases, I was eager to get back to using my regular iPhone or Android phone.

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A phone to follow

Despite all of my complaints, I appreciate what Fairphone is doing and believe folks who value sustainable design above all else may be able to tolerate its compromises. Fairphone also deserves praise for its work in using recycled materials and pushing for fair working conditions in the supply chain.

But using the Fairphone 4 mostly made me wish other companies—ones with more resources to throw at building better phones—were more committed to easy repairs.

Earlier this month, Apple announced that it will sell replacement screens, batteries, and other parts directly to consumers, starting with the iPhone and eventually moving to other products. It’s a nice gesture, but it doesn’t make the repair procedure any easier given the adhesive and specialized screws holding everything together.

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[Photo: courtesy of Fairphone]
Meanwhile, on the Android side, major phone makers have largely abandoned the removable rear panels that once made battery replacements easy, even on phones with plastic backs like the Pixel 4a 5G.

Moves like the one Apple made this week show that the industry is starting to take repairability more seriously as consumers and regulators demand it. But the Fairphone 4, for all its faults, shows how much further they have to go.

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