I’ve been dreaming of a modular smartphone since I first saw Google’s Project Ara. The concept made so much sense to me, a person who already made computers and isn’t afraid to attack the wire (as long as it’s not alive, of course). But despite the relative ease of use behind the idea of replaceable modules, Project Ara failed to reach the real world.
Other modular smartphones have come and gone, but the one with the most power so far is Fairphone, an almost modular and repairable smartphone from the Netherlands. Unfortunately, this is still limited to overseas availability, but the fact that we are now on Fairphone 4 is something to be commended given that many others have failed.
The Fairphone 4 has pretty impressive specs, which makes it a definite upgrade over Fairphone 3+. The Android phone has a larger 6.3-inch Full HD + screen. It runs on a Snapdragon 750G with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage. An extra piece of memory helps the device feel faster than a mid-range processor anticipates. Fairphone also boasts that this is the first modular smartphone to support 5G, although it only works in bands below 6 GHz and does not support the ultra-fast millimeter spectrum. I use Fairphone 4 with a SIM card from Mint Mobile, but I don’t get 5G service at home (not surprising).
The Fairphone 4 has a 3,905 mAh battery, which can be removed like the phone you once owned back in the day. At first I was worried about the battery life of the phone, but then I remembered that you could theoretically take a spare part with you in your bag and replace it if there is no way to charge it. Fairphone says the battery lasts up to 200 hours of standby time. It can also charge up to 50% in half an hour with at least a 20 W charger. There are no charging cables or power bricks in the box, so you will need to supply your own with adequate power to enable fast charging.
The Fairphone 4 has a dual 48-megapixel rear lens with an auxiliary sensor and a 25 MP selfie camera. The primary camera is a Sony IMX582 sensor with an aperture of f / 1.6 and color and flight time sensors. There is the option of 8x digital zoom, with up to 4K video recording at 30 fps and up to 240 fps slow motion. You can definitely create some content with this camera.
The Fairphone 4 does not have a headphone jack. While it may seem to contradict the company’s claims about sustainability, I think this makes the most sense given where we are at the moment. Bluetooth headsets are about ten kuna, as widespread as the wired headsets that came with our phones last year. The lack of an audio port could also make it easier for the Fairphone 4 to retain its modularity. The Fairphone does not include a USB-C adapter to add a headphone jack, so if you want a wired connection, you must purchase it separately.
Priced at £ 499 or just under $ 700, the Fairphone 4 offers some solid features at a price. But don’t expect the bells and whistles you’ll get for example with Samsung’s flagship, because that kind of exclusivity feature comes at a price: a phone you can’t fix yourself.
Still, the Fairphone included a fingerprint scanner built into the power button, NFC for contactless payment, and a microSD card for extra storage. The company is making another Fairphone 4 with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage for £ 569, or about $ 760. The fair offers an extended five-year warranty, including a spare parts warranty at least until 2027, as well as long-term software support.
Fairphone 4 runs on Android 11, and the company says it will receive software updates up to Android 13. Although the company intends to support Android 14 and 15 in a row, you may need to upgrade your chipset to make this possible. This of course shouldn’t be a problem, as the whole point of the Fairphone 4 is that it’s a long-lasting device.
How to use it
The design of the Fairphone 4 reminds me of Motorola’s line of budget smartphones, the Moto G series. The phone has a bit of a lock, which I haven’t had to deal with since thin smartphones became the standard. Honestly, this is a design problem that I see makes the Fairphone 4 difficult to sell. On the other hand, if you’re the type of person who appreciates messing with the inside of the device, you may not notice that the Fairphone 4 is two millimeters thicker than a device like the OnePlus 9.
I haven’t had enough time with the Fairphone 4 to really spend it, but I plan to use it for a while and see how it will behave in everyday use. But after a few days with the first modular smartphone I’ve used since that Project Ara developer conference I attended a long time ago, I can confirm that it’s good!
Fairphone 4 can use apps like Pokémon Go, Office 365 and Google Chrome. In the Geekbench 5 overall system performance test, the phone scored 638 in single-core and 1859 in multi-core tests. These aren’t the leading results of Samsung or Apple, but you won’t get top-notch here. Geekbench ranked Fairphone 4 performance better than Samsung’s solid Galaxy A71 mid-range, which runs on the Snapdragon 730 (and cost about $ 450 at last year’s launch).
I also played a bit with the camera settings. They’re set much differently from what you’d see in the Google Pixel camera app, for example, and I had to wait a few times for the app to finish taking a photo before moving on to the next scene. And while images taken with Auto HDR are vibrant enough to share online, you can easily see where the camera is struggling while indoors. The camera can also enlarge the image, but the result is too pixelated.
Clearly, we’re busy before the modular phone’s camera becomes as good as the flagship iPhone, for example. But maybe we can get there.
Removable, repairable parts
The Fairphone 4 is as modular as its predecessors. You can replace seven modules, from the USB-C port that charges and delivers audio, to the speakers and headphones. Cameras can also be replaced. You can also replace the screen for less than $ 100, and all it takes is removing and tracking eight tiny screws. In particular, the Fairphone 4 is one of the few devices you will see with a 10/10 iFixit repairability rating, and that’s because you can disassemble it yourself quickly. (The others that earned 10/10 are, of course, earlier phone fairs.)
I haven’t completely disassembled the Fairphone 4 yet, though I’ve taken out the speaker and USB-C module, which are offered as spare parts. This was absurdly easy to do with a Phillips 00 screwdriver, although I had built computers and mechanical keyboards so I was comfortable stinging and twitching in circles. At one point, I was worried that I had broken the connector between the USB-C and the rest of the device, but the Fairphone 4 turned on again after I re-installed it. It charges as I type.
Fairphone says his mission is to set an example to the technology industry, to show that it is ethical to produce electronics while also being commercially successful. Technology companies can easily step up their sustainability efforts, but they could do more to eliminate crowds e-waste contribute to climate change by making it easier for people to extend the life of their devices.
Although Fairphone 4 is not directly available in the US – it is only available in select European countries – it still comes at a time when Right to repair movement in the US is accelerating. Although no new laws have been passed yet, FTC has begun implementing new policies that will hopefully encourage companies to really fix their devices. And with Fairphone as a partner in the Right to Repair campaign, I guess Fairphone 4 will be used as an example of how a phone can be repaired.
But I can’t help but feel that humanity needs a philosophical change before modular devices that can be repaired become the norm. Smartphones are sold to us based on their new capabilities, and the whole point of the marketing machine is to make us want the latest, brightest thing. I could see how Fairphone 4 appeals to mid-range phone buyers who may not be interested in the latest and greatest, but want to upgrade or repair parts as they see fit. (It would be nice if you could upgrade the system on a chip as you can on a computer, but that’s not yet possible.) Fairphone 4 shows that it’s possible to make an affordable, modular phone. It remains to be seen if any other technology company will even try.
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