With its latest smartphone, Amsterdam-based Fairphone continues its push to show how the electronics industry can be fairer by demonstrating its principles with a range of smartphones. The latest is the Fairphone 5, which shows this through repairability and the use of sustainable materials.
Fairphone as a whole, and the Fairphone 5 in particular, it targets these areas with varying degrees of success. How you feel about the Fairphone 5 depends on how you think about the longevity of a device, the resources used in manufacturing and the phone itself.
Repairability and longevity
The right to repair movement should see the Fairphone as an example for all. Not only does Fairphone make parts readily available for purchase from its website (and other sites like iFixit), but has also designed the phone to allow someone at home with little tech knowledge to replace parts. A lot of this is due to the modular approach — you’re not replacing the camera sensor. you replace the camera module with the smaller circuit board that holds all the connectors, sensors and lenses. It’s a nice balance point, and not ridiculously expensive—a new camera unit costs $75, while a new screen costs $110.
Will parts still be available in five to ten years? This is hard to say, but looking at Fairphone’s online store, you can see parts for the 2015 Fairphone 2 still in stock. Along with a commitment to eight years of software support, the parts promise is backed by history.
Fair trade materials
Part of Fairphone’s approach is to use recycled and sustainable materials as much as possible. Recycled materials are found in the plastics, welding, steel and alloys used to make the phone. Fair trade gold is used where required and sources of cobalt and silver support working conditions.
Fairphone publishes impact reports to show her work with materials and projects around construction, such as using renewable energy, reducing CO2 emissions and recycling e-waste.
None of this matters if the phone doesn’t make an impact, both for individuals and the wider smartphone industry. As with previous models, one of Fairphone’s limiting factors is that they don’t have as much buying power as the more prominent manufacturers with smartphone production lines that are much longer than the Fairphone 5.
Combine that with the requirements for replaceable parts, limiting how “off the shelf” it can be, and the Fairphone 5 can be seen as a handset that’s a bit more expensive than those with comparable specs, or a handset that isn’t as powerful as competitors in similar price. This consumer premium is balanced by the key decisions made by the company. However, many will pass up the extra cost if the sustainability and fair trade elements are not clearly communicated.
The Fairphone 5’s design is relatively boxy due to the requirement to have user-replaceable components inside. Complex construction and component layering inside a modern curved smartphone is practically impossible. However, a box design replaces components with squared-off daughterboards and electrical components—it’s much easier to replace broken modules with this design.
From the looks of it, it’s still unusual to have a transparent case. The smoked nature of this review unit brings out the cosmetic colors on the internal components, as well as some clips and screws. It’s clear that there’s something going on that you’re allowed, but not too distracting.
The frame of the Fairphone 5 is aluminum and everything is attached to it. When you stack the phone against other mid-range handsets, the Fairphone 5’s 212g weight makes it one of the heaviest. Still, again, this is due to the extra material required around removable components – the plastic around the batter and the creation of a battery compartment is a prime example, as are the larger bezels around the display so it can be handled with fuse when found replaced.
The back is plastic and thanks to a slight cavity on the side of the device, it can come off in a short time. While this means the Fairphone 5 won’t survive 30 minutes underwater, it comes with IP55 rating which offers “Limited protection against dust and low pressure water jets from any direction.” Don’t look for dips; you should be fine with splash protection.
You have two power and volume buttons on the side. I found these to be in the wrong place to feel comfortable in my hand – the power button seems a little too low and the volume buttons are too high compared to other headphones. But it’s a personal preference. The fingerprint scanner is on the power button and I found it accurate once I repositioned my index finger.
At 4200 mAh, the Fairphone 5’s battery isn’t amazing. Of course it will be smaller due to the extra material used around the battery and in the battery bay to make it removable. While standby and talk times are comparable to the competition, in use, the Fairphone 5 could be more efficient. I wonder if the need to have software and physical protection to allow for a replaceable display unit has hindered the display’s effectiveness.
While it’s not a fast charging phone, it does support PD charging up to 30 watts. This offers a fairly respectable charging time, comparable to the Galaxy S23, but neither impressive nor disappointing.
Is the fact that it is replaceable any mitigation in all this? It certainly contributes to twenty percent less battery capacity (4200 mAh, compared to the popular 5000 mAh option at this price point). However, a second battery is available at an additional cost (about $45). Again, Fairphone made a compromise here: less capacity and durability to allow for user service.
The Fairphone 5 currently ships with Android 13, although I have no doubt it will be upgraded to Android 14 in the coming months. You also have the option to order Fairphone 5 with “de-Google” open source /e/OS; There’s something revolutionary about adding e/OS/ to your handset and taking more control of your device.
But back to Fairphone OS and Android. Fairphone has set a pretty big software commitment. The company has committed to five years of software and eight years of security updates. While Google has moved on seven years with the Pixel 8 and Pixel 8 Pro, it has more resources than Fairphone.
One reason Fairphone can offer support until 2031 is its system-on-chip option. Instead of the dominant Qualcomm Snapdragon family, it has decided on the Qualcomm QCM6490. Qualcomm provides a longer support window with this chipset to manufacturers, who can then offer their own support windows thanks to it.
Performance is generally similar to Snapdragon 7 Gen 1 chipsets. That’s more than enough for a phone that’s very much an everyday phone—one that doesn’t require power or graphics for gaming or is expected to perform incredibly complex tasks.
A more significant issue might be the 8GB of RAM. Will Android 18 run comfortably with 8GB of RAM? Will mainstream Android apps of the day face this limitation? I suspect that basic Google apps will be acceptable (and if not, maybe the lower requirements of Android Go apps will be fine). However, you can argue that the Fairphone 5 is already limited in specs and won’t improve.
When it comes to the camera, the Fairphone 5 is unbeatable. On the back is a 50-megapixel main lens, a 50-megapixel ultra-wide-angle lens, and a time-of-flight sensor for capturing depth. another 50-megapixel selfie camera lens.
In regular use, the Fairphone 5 can pick out fine detail and sharpness in good lighting, though the processing feels more software-y and relaxed than BRIC cameras that lean towards pop and liveliness.
Switch to low-light situations and the Fairphone 5 steps up more than I expected. It balances out varying lighting conditions to deliver more even visibility while preserving the brightest and darkest areas, even if images take a while to process.
If all you’re looking for is high specs at a price of 700 euros, the Fairphone 5 is not for you. That’s not the target market. This phone is for those who value long term software support, easily repairable hardware and want to support sustainable business practices, then this is the phone for you. I struggle to think of any phone on the wider market that hits most of these points, let alone the modest success of the Fairphone.
The short term value of this phone is not great. But the handset’s long-term view and proof of the importance of ethical shopping could be worth much more to you. It’s a different value proposition than any other pair on the market. This means it’s much easier to decide what’s most important to you in a phone.
Fairphone is challenging the industry and the consumer. I think it will be obvious if the Fairphone 5 is for you.