Your next phone will be an amazing work of global collaboration.
Its chip will be created in Cambridge, its screen will be switched on in Seoul, its marketing will be made up in Manhattan. But first the materials that make it up - tantalum, tungsten, cobalt, gold and around 40 others - will need to be dug from the ground. It will need to be assembled in a factory.
This is the part of the story where a huge elephant wanders into the room. Complex devices need minerals from many countries, and at the far end of those long supply chains are people who get treated like dirt. The Fairphone 2 wants to do something about this last bit, while also offering you a great smartphone. We tested to see whether it could live up to laudable ideals.
A lesson in ethics
So what's in a smartphone? UNICEF estimates that over 40,000 children work in cobalt mines across the southern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the most recent report by Amnesty International found that 16 major multinational electronics brands buy battery components from suppliers who source their cobalt - used in the batteries of your phone, tablet, laptop and camera - from areas in which child labour is ‘rife’.
Meanwhile, a 2015 investigation by China Labour Watch found that the majority of workers making the most popular smartphone and tablet worked more than 60 hours a week, standing up, in factories where you can be fined five days’ wages for crossing your legs. This isn’t a lecture, intended to depress you or make you hate your phone. Because, while multinational companies aren’t known for their compassion, people - in general - are. Moral alternatives emerge and become mainstream.
That’s why most of the coffee and bananas in your local supermarket are Fairtrade. It’s why most of the eggs you eat are free-range. It’s also the reason over 17,000 people signed up to buy the Fairphone 2: the point of this phone is to show the world’s biggest corporations that you can build a decent blower without using conflict minerals, child labour or factories that treat people like components.
Okay, it’s good. But is it any good?
The best thing about the design, though, is that it’s modular
Design-wise, there’s no getting around the fact that the Fairphone 2 is chunky. In a market dominated by slender pieces of metal, the Fairphone 2 is resolutely plastic. With its heavy-duty case on, it’s 11mm thick - a little thinner than budget phones like the Moto G, but hefty next to an iPhone 6S or a OnePlus X. The hard plastic case is hard and plastic. It is durable, though, with that sturdy rear and a Gorilla Glass 3 screen.
At the launch event I saw one of Fairphone’s representatives drop it from ear height (a Dutch person’s ear height, a solid six feet) onto a tiled floor a couple of times, an ordeal it survived completely unscathed.
The Fairphone 2 also has a 5-inch 1080p display giving it a pixel density (or Crispitude, as we’ve decided to rebrand it) of 446ppi. Colours are bright without being too saturated. It doesn’t have the wide range and more natural colour you’ll find in some OLED panels, but it’s a very respectable screen.
Really, the best thing about the Fairphone's design, though, is that it’s modular. Even more so than the LG G5. In fact, it's the first modular phone ever to go on sale - something that many a hardware geek will relish.
A truly futureproof phone
A modular phone is essentially a phone that's built from completely replaceable parts. This means that if you do manage to crack the screen or break another component, you can order parts from Fairphone’s website and fix it yourself. Contrast that with the iPhone 6s, which auto-annihilates itself (albeit, arguably, for sound security reasons) if opened by any non-approved person, and you can immediately see the benefit.
The Fairphone 2's clear case shows all the parts, which are easy to take out and switch around. I’ve actually done this with a screwdriver, removing the screen and the camera module and putting them back, and again, it’s survived my tinkering.
Within this device's (open-source) hardware there are some interesting treats, particularly the five pins at the back: they’re connectors for an unused USB connection that you could use to add your own hardware, so you could 3D print a back that had wireless charging or NFC and add it yourself. That alone makes it the a dream phone for hardware hackers.
This being a modular phone, the camera module can be removed in moments
If you're not all that interested in tinkering with your smartphone, then you needn't worry. The Fairphone 2's componentry is solid: a Snapdragon 801 chip plus 2GB RAM, 32GB storage, two SIM slots and a microSD slot supporting SDXC (up to 200GB of extra storage, using currently available microSD cards). Eighteen months ago these would have been top-spec components, and accordingly Android 5.1 (Lollipop) runs very smoothly. It doesn’t get too warm while gaming.
That said, that is an older incarnation of Android you'll be running instead of 6.0 Marshmallow. It still contains a few pleasant surprises though, including some nicely designed gesture controls - swipe in from the right and you access a handy, customisable drawer of your most-used apps - and a function that automatically moves little-used software into an ‘Idle Apps’ area, quietly disabling them for more efficient use of power.
Battery life is respectable too, with the app management in the OS helping to give the Fairphone 2 up to a couple of days of intermittent use. You can also order another battery from Fairphone and swap it in very quickly, like you used to do with your Galaxy S2 in the Good Old Days. While we’re not usually that discriminating about charging screens, but the Fairphone 2 gives you a pretty cool display of the components, and the lock screen offers up some interesting stats on how much you’ve been using it.
While a lot of high-end phones use Sony modules, the Fairphone 2’s rear-facing 8MP camera uses an Omnivision module that’s more commonly found in lower-end Chinese phones. As such it’s okay in bright natural light, but as soon as you go anywhere vaguely dark you’ll find pictures become speckled with ‘noise’.
Of course, this being a modular phone, the camera module can be removed in moments, and it may be that Fairphone will issue an upgraded camera module that you can swap in. For now, though, it’s more the sort of camera you’d expect to see on a budget phone, and a long way behind the similarly-priced Nexus 5X.
Overall, the Fairphone 2 is well-equipped for everyday use, as well as being extraordinary in its own right. Unless you’re someone who likes to play a lot of YouTube out loud on the bus. Then you’ll be dismayed to hear that the rear speaker is both pretty terrible, and in the wrong place - on the back, facing out. This probably won’t make much difference unless you’re a keen mobile gamer with no headphones.
Fairphone 2 verdict
Fairphone puts its phone where its mouth is
You’ve seen companies sticking bits of wood to their products and bleating about how they use sustainable materials. You’ve watched airlines and car adverts talking up their eco-credentials while farting greenhouse gases into the sky in ever more unbelievable volumes. You’re right to be sceptical about any company that claims to be the good guy.
To be clear, the Fairphone 2 isn't morally perfect, but it does represent a way of introducing changes in areas from mining to manufacturing. While other companies exhort their mission to Not Be Evil and to Do The Right Thing™, Fairphone puts its phone where its mouth is. In doing so, it makes a very important statement about all the companies that claim that rights abuses and pollution are out of their hands.
By all the normal criteria by which we test mobiles, the Fairphone 2 isn’t all that great. Aside from its interesting modular design, it’s a bit of a brick and is a long way from being the greatest phone ever. But in another, very important sense, it’s the best phone you can buy.