Fairphone 3+ review: Camera upgrades for the modular ethical smartphone

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Image: Fairphone

When you buy a handset from Amsterdam-based Fairphone, you’re not buying just another smartphone: you’re buying into ethical manufacturing, and supporting a company that ploughs money back into schemes that benefit workers at the coalface of the handset industry.

The latest £425 (inc. VAT) Fairphone 3+ is made from 40% recycled plastic, and has a modular design so that users can swap new parts for old, or replace anything that’s broken rather than simply buying an entirely new handset. A measure of the success of this upgradable model is the Fairphone 3’s 10/10 repairability score from iFixit.

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The 5.65-inch Fairphone 3+ runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 632 platform with 4GB of RAM and 64GB of internal storage, and accommodates two SIMs and a MicroSD card. The 3+ model comes with a 48MP main camera and a 16MP selfie camera, to which owners of the 12MP/8MP Fairphone 3 can upgrade.

Images: Fairphone

The key feature of the Fairphone 3+ compared to 2019’s Fairphone 3 is updated cameras at the front and rear. The main camera now has a 48MP sensor and an f/1.79 lens, while the selfie camera has a 16MP sensor and an f/2.0 lens. The other specifications are pretty much identical, except for a slightly louder speaker on the 3+ model, so Fairphone 3 owners can consider buying one or both of the updated cameras to self-install.

The cameras shoot reasonable point-and-click photos, but functionality is limited and if you’re really interested in smartphone photography, you’ll want to look elsewhere. No-one is going to buy the Fairphone 3+ because of its camera.

The stark black plastic backplate incorporates a fingerprint reader and the Fairphone branding as well as an NFC marker and a tiny lozenge that houses the single rear camera and its flash unit. The back has a matte finish, making it pleasingly grippy.

At 9.89mm thick, the Fairphone 3+ looks and feels chunky. On its left edge there’s a textured power button and a pair of volume rockers. They’re made from plastic, there’s no click when they’re used, and they feel a little unresponsive. Still, they do their jobs perfectly well.

The top edge has a 3.5mm headset jack, and there’s a USB-C charge/connection port on the bottom. You don’t get a headset, charge cable or mains plug with the Fairphone 3+. If you want these you can buy them separately, but many people already have these items and can simply repurpose them. There’s no fast-charging to accommodate here, so you can go with a standard charging setup, meaning that one more charging kit and headset has not had to be manufactured.

Flagship handset makers talk up their screens with features like bezel-free designs and high refresh rates, but Fairphone sticks to a more basic — but perfectly serviceable — display. The 5.65-inch IPS LCD has a resolution of 2,160 by 1,080 pixels (427ppi) and is perfectly good enough for displaying text and video. Gorilla Glass 5 gives it some protection against knocks, and while there isn’t a pre-fitted screen protector, if you want one it should be easy enough to obtain. The long edge bezels are a couple of millimetres wide, while the top and bottom bezels both exceed 10mm, resulting in a moderate screen-to-body ratio of 72.5%. The Fairphone branding disguises the bottom bezel to some extent, while the top bezel houses a notification light, the front camera and the front speaker.

This speaker acts as a second outlet for audio, with the main speaker on the bottom edge, to the left. Sound output is poor, with a minimal-bass, tinny quality.

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Fairphone 3+ disassembled (the phone comes with a screwdriver for the job). You can replace the main and selfie cameras, the display, the battery, the bottom module (vibration motor, USB-C port, primary mic) and the speaker module.

Image: Sandra Vogel / ZDNet

The other, more important, weak point is the battery. At 3,040mAh it’s pretty small, and has a claimed life of 20 hours. The Fairphone 3+ just about lasted a day for me and managed 12 hours 49 minutes on the PCMark for Android battery rundown test. In my standard three-hour YouTube streaming test it dropped 31% of a full charge. It’s slow to recharge, taking 3.5 hours to go from zero to 100%. The one saving grace is that the battery is easily accessed, so you could charge a spare and swap that in if needed, but for those with just one battery, charging will need to be planned.

Fairphone has worked hard to keep development costs down all round, and this is reflected in the core hardware. The Snapdragon 632 chipset with 4GB of RAM is the same as in last year’s Fairphone 3, but it still turned in reasonable Geekbench 5 scores: 269 (single core) and 1208 (multi core). For comparison, flagship-class handsets like the Snapdragon 865-based OnePlus 8 score around 900 and 3300 respectively.

There’s just 64GB of internal storage, of which 13.3GB was used out of the box on my review unit, leaving 50.7GB free. This is low by today’s standards, but you can add more storage via a MicroSD card. This isn’t a 5G handset, but it will accept two SIMs — and you don’t have to sacrifice MicroSD expansion to accommodate a second SIM.

The Fairphone 3+ runs Android 10, with no extras or bloatware apart from one tiny app, which is a small information resource about Fairphone. As I write, Android 11 has only just been released. Fairphone commits to five years of software updates, so Android 11 should come to it in due course.

Conclusions

I’m used to seeing the latest feature-packed smartphone phones with their fancy industrial design, or models that accentuate one specific feature, or try to deliver a great price/performance ratio, or have some other aspect to shout about. The Fairphone 3+ isn’t designed to keep up with the pack, and to compare it to other handsets in terms of ‘bang for buck’ rather misses the point.

Readers will either like Fairphone’s ethical business model and go with it, or they won’t. So if you’re intrigued, take a look at what Fairphone is doing.

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