Fairphone probably isn’t the first name anyone will think of when thinking of smartphones, but the company based in the Netherlands has actually been around for a while. The first Fairphone was released in 2013, and with the Fairphone 3+, we’re now up to the company’s fourth device.

Given that it’s been seven years since the first one, that doesn’t sound like a lot, and that has a lot to do with the company’s philosophy. As the company’s name suggests, Fairphone’s goal is to be as sustainable, environmentally and otherwise, as possible. Since the Fairphone 2 in 2015, the company has offered modular smartphones, which means you can easily repair and upgrade most of its components yourself, and the Fairphone 3 (and 3+) builds on that idea. Fairphone also aquires its material from responsible sources, including 40% recycled plastics on the Fairphone 3, and it’s the only smartphone company currently using Fairtrade certified gold.

This philosophy is what drew me to the Fairphone 3+. Every year, new smartphones come out with the latest and greatest, and while it’s pretty cool to see how far we can push the performance of these little devices, this sustainable approach is exciting in a whole different way, and I’d say that almost makes it more exciting than reviewing a typical flagship smartphone. The Fairphone 3+ is its own phone, but if you bought a Fairphone 3, you can simply buy the new camera modules and get pretty much the same experience, as the rest of the hardware is almost all the same.

Specs

CPU Qualcomm Snapdragon 632, four Kryo 250 Gold (1.8GHz), four Kryo 250 Silver (1.8GHz)
GPU Adreno 506
Display 5.65 inches IPS LCD, 2160x1080, 427ppi
Body 159.07 x 74.06 x 9.04mm, 185g
Camera 48MP main; Front - 16MP
Aperture f/1.79; Front - f/2.0
Video capture 4K 30fps, 1080p 120fps; Front - 1080p 30fps
Battery 3,040mAh
RAM 4GB
Storage 64GB
Colors Black
OS Android 10
Price €469

Day one

Design

Looking at the Fairphone 3+ from the outside, you immediately get the idea that it’s not a regular modern smartphone. The phone is thick considering its mid-range specs and the small-ish 3,040mAh battery. The phone’s design is also all plastic (with 40% of it being recycled, as I mentioned above), and the back cover is removable.

Removing the cover, you start to see what makes this phone special. The battery is also removable, which is increasingly rare, especially in anything that’s not an entry-level phone. But it gets even better. All around the phone, there are 13 screws that you can remove with a Phillips #00 screwdriver, and Fairphone goes as far as including one in the box, giving you all the tools you need to open it up. Once you remove the screws, you can use your bare hands to push out the display, which is its own module, and that gives you access to all the modules in the smartphone.

There’s a total of five modules you can replace. The display module, the top module (containing the front-facing camera and a microphone), the camera module (for the rear-camera), the bottom module with the USB Type-C port, and the speaker module. You can also buy a spare battery and back cover. The phone’s motherboard, along with the processor, storage, and RAM, isn’t as easily replaceable, though. You need a Torx T5 screwdriver to access it and Fairphone doesn’t just sell spare motherboards, but if you’ve accidentally disconnected a ribbon cable while replacing a module like I did, you can reconnect it yourself.

I do wonder if Fairphone plans to eventually come up with a new design with an easily replaceable motherboard, maybe even selling hardware upgrades for the same overall design. Of course, things like storage are attached to the motherboard, so either a different interface would have to be used, or there could be an app that backs up the data on your internal storage to a microSD card or the cloud, allowing you to restore all your data after replacing the internals.

Putting the phone back together, the back houses the rear camera and the fingerprint sensor. This is one of the first issues I had with the Fairphone 3+, as the fingerprint sensor just isn't that great. It's very common for my fingerprint to not be recognized multiple times in a row, forcing me instead to enter my PIN.

The right side of the frame has nothing to show aside from a “Designed to open” tagline. On the left side, there’s the power button, volume rocker, the speaker grill, and the tab to help you remove the back cover. The buttons on this phone are acceptable, but I wish they were easier to actuate and a bit more clicky. They’re not terrible to use, but they’re a little too hard to press for my liking. At least the power button is textured, so you have no trouble knowing what you’re pressing.

At the top of the phone, there’s a headphone jack and a microphone.

And at the bottom, the USB Type-C port for charging is slightly off-center, and there’s another microphone.

Despite its unusual thickness and the plastic build, something about the Fairphone 3+ makes it feel quite nice in the hand. The plastic has a sort of roughness to it, which I honestly prefer over smooth plastic.

Display and sound

The display on the Fairphone 3+ is a 5.65-inch Full HD+ LCD panel with an 18:9 aspect ratio, which makes the total resolution 2160x1080. There are fairly large bezels at the top and bottom of the display, which forces the screen to be one of the smaller ones among modern smartphones. In fact, the whole front panel feels quite retro in its looks, but it’s a sacrifice you have to make in order to have the internal modular design.

Despite the arguably outdated look, the display on the Fairphone 3+ actually looks quite nice. Colors are lively and vibrant, and I never really had any problems with how it looks. You don’t get the true blacks of an OLED, but the LCD here does a better job of displaying black than I expected it to, and colors, in general, look pretty good out of the box. It doesn't get exceptionally bright, but I never really had a huge issue with it.

Where the display fell short for me was touch sensitivity. This may be just me, but I've gotten used to almost every phone I use to respond to the back of my hand. This can come in handy if I’m just trying to scroll and my hands are dirty because I’m cooking or something, so I was very disappointed to see that the Fairphone 3+ didn’t respond to it at all. Interestingly, I got an update during the review period, and while it only mentioned the October security patch for Android, it seems a bit better now, but still not ideal.

In terms of sound, after seeing the side placement of the loudspeaker, I got the idea that audio just wasn’t much of a priority, but I was pleasantly surprised by the Fairphone 3+. It’s what I’ve come to expect from a solid single speaker, it gets pretty loud and it doesn’t really sound tinny, though there is a bit of distortion if you go to the highest volumes. The placement makes it so that you’re actually less likely to block the speaker if you’re watching content in landscape orientation, though conversely, it makes it easier to block it in portrait orientation.

Regarding the microphone, I’ve had some complaints while I was on calls. In at least two calls I made using this phone, people on the other side told me they could barely hear me. For a Discord call, I had to end up using headphones to be able to participate, and in another situation, I just had to speak really slowly. Recording video sounds alright to me, though, and the Live Transcribe feature in Android doesn’t have major problems hearing me either.

Camera

The cameras on the Fairphone 3+ are pretty much the only thing that’s changed from the Fairphone 3. On the back, there’s a 48MP sensor with a dual-LED flash, while the front makes do with a 16MP camera. Opting for only one camera on the phone is something I’d honestly consider a positive. In the majority of devices, especially those that aren’t flagships, the inclusion of more cameras often boils down to 2MP cameras for either depth sensing or macro photography. It’s a cheap way to add a dumb selling point to a product description, and I’d much prefer if that investment goes into having a better main camera experience, so I had somewhat high hopes for the Fairphone 3+. I also like it because it makes it much easier to test the camera.

Looking at the results, the camera is alright, but there are some notable issues. The default photo mode doesn’t do a great job of determining the best white balance setting, especially in indoor environments. It seems like artificial light is a challenge for the phone, and you need to head into Pro mode to get the best results, as you can see in the first two pairs of pictures, where the second in each pair is using Pro mode. That’s not the worst thing in the world, but it certainly makes it less of a point-and-shoot experience.

What makes it worse is that it’s just not fast enough, particularly with the rear camera. I think this might be where you start to see some issues with Fairphone’s choice of processor, because it just takes too long to finalize an image after hitting the shutter button. Disabling HDR seems to alleviate this, but that can come at a pretty big cost in quality for many shots. It usually takes two or three seconds to process a shot, which doesn’t sound like much, but it makes it way easier to get a slightly blurry picture. There's also no night mode of any kind here, which I assume is due to the lackluster performance.

Recording video works fine, but the options you get are pretty weird. It supports 4K recording up to 30 frames per second and it also supports 1080p recording at 120 frames per second, however, it doesn't support 60 frames per second in any of the resolutions, which means if you want more than 30 frames per second, you’re going to get massive file sizes and much worse image quality.

Performance

The Fairphone 3+ keeps most of the same internals as the Fairphone 3 from last year, including the Snapdragon 632 and 4GB of RAM. In terms of day-to-day use, I’d say the 4GB of RAM isn't necessarily a weak point, you can still juggle multiple tasks relatively well with that. In fact, the overall experience was pretty smooth most of the time, barring the slow image processing I mentioned above.

Something I noticed that tends to be overlooked in reviews is how slower phones handle wireless connections. Whenever I review a slower phone, there’s some sort of caveat, like Bluetooth audio stuttering or cutting out more than usual. The Fairphone 3+ actually handled Bluetooth very well, even when I connected it to my smartwatch and earbuds at the same time, but Wi-Fi was a different story. Whenever I move out of the range of my 5GHz home Wi-Fi, it just seems to never automatically connect to the 2.4GHz network, even though it’s in range, and I have to do it manually. I’ve also experienced some random reboots on this phone, which isn’t a good sign.

As per my usual procedure, I ran AnTuTu, Geekbench 5, and GFXBench benchmarks to measure the performance of the phone. Starting with AnTuTu, which measures the overall performance:

The score is definitely lower than other similarly priced phones, and that's particularly evident in the GPU section. Next, Geekbench 5 measures CPU performance.

Finally, GFXBench tests the GPU, and you can see that the performance is pretty bad in this area.

I do believe Fairphone made a mistake with its choice of the chipset, and that’s not just this year, but last year as well. See, the Fairphone 2 released in late 2015 with a Snapdragon 801 inside. Truth be told, that chipset was already over a year old when the phone was released, and similarly, the Snapdragon 632 was over a year old when the Fairphone 3 released. The age isn’t necessarily a problem, but the Snapdragon 801 was a flagship processor when it came out, which made it a prime candidate to stay relevant for longer.

The Snapdragon 632 was old and relatively slow when the Fairphone 3 released, and it’s even more so now. Fairphone’s goal is sustainability, but going for a chipset that’s arguably in the lower end of the mid-range makes it harder to warrant using a phone for longer, and it oddly goes against the idea of modular upgrades. For all I know, the Snapdragon 632 might have handled pictures much better on the Fairphone 3 with its 12MP camera, but when you increase the sensor resolution to 48MP, the processing power now feels a bit more inadequate.

As for battery life, the 3,040mAh feels miniscule by modern standards, and it shows. If I go a bit heavier on my YouTube consumption, it’s pretty much impossible for it to last me through the day. With light to moderate usage, it’ll probably be good enough, but I like having the confidence that I can push my phone a little further if I need to.

Conclusion

Even before I started this review, I sort of knew that the title would end up being what it is. I do love what this phone stands for; the idea of a smartphone that’s designed and developed with the goal of being sustainable and responsible is something that’s definitely welcome in a market that relies heavily on frequent upgrade cycles and where upgrades pretty much result in old phones being thrown away completely. Between easy modular upgrades, recycled materials, the use of materials from responsible sources, and even paying living wage bonuses to factory workers, Fairphone seems to be doing great work.

But there are quite a few sacrifices you have to make to contribute to that goal. The €469 price tag is much higher than you’d expect to pay for the specs in this phone, and on top of that, some aspects of the experience fall a little short of what’s desirable. The camera experience has some performance issues, the display isn’t exactly at the top of its class, and the design is decidedly not in line with other modern smartphones.

Perhaps more relevant is how well Fairphone achieves what it set out to do with its smartphones, and I feel like the choice of processor holds it back from being ideal. For the most part, the Fairphone 3+ does a good job of being a “good enough” phone, but after the Fairphone 2 was on the market for four years without a true successor, I worry that the Fairphone 3’s base design doesn’t have the legs to walk that far. It already feels like it’s unable to keep up with the image processing tasks for the rear camera.

Like many other phones, it’s possible to overlook the flaws on the Fairphone 3+, and if you have a big interest in its modularity and the sustainable approach, it can still be worth the price tag. The flaws don’t make it unusable or an outright bad phone, but you really have to be all-in on the company’s philosophy to justify what you have to pay. If that’s the case for you, you can buy the Fairphone 3+ from Fairphone’s website, or opt for last year’s Fairphone 3 if you don’t need the upgraded cameras.

 

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