Fairphone 3 full review
The hyper-consumerist society that we live in means we dispose of more and more electronic devices, and also replace them more regularly.
This means that whenever a new phone, pair or headphones or smartwatch comes out, the previous model is forgotten about, gathering dust in a drawer or becoming electronic waste (e-waste).
Given the extent of wasted resources, exploitation and pollution, some companies claim to be different from the rest in offering a product that is more sustainable. Respecting the environment and our society in general.
If we’re being 100% honest, we have to say there are smartphones that are cheaper or have better specs than the Fairphone 3. However, what we want to get across in this review is that you buy this phone in the knowledge that it has been fair to those who have participated in its manufacture and, above all, the environment.
If you’re sufficiently aware of the environment, you’ll know that sustainable, organic products manufactured without exploitation are more expensive. This is the case with the Fairphone 3.
Let’s now move on to our experience when using the Fairphone 3, the third smartphone launched by the ecological company in its existence.
Price and availability
You can buy the Fairphone 3 now for £420 in the UK from the Phone Co-op, a retailer with a similar focus on sustainability. They have partnered with the manufacturer since the first Fairphone was released in 2013.
Alternatively, if you’d like to buy direct from Fairphone, it’s €450 from the official website, but won't be shipping until mid-November.
It’s worth keeping in mind that a small screwdriver and case is included in the box.
Fairphone said they decided not to include a charger, considering most people already have one. This is intended to create less electronic waste, but you can add a charger for £20 if you don’t have one.
Full charging options are available on the Fairphone website.
Design and build
Without considering it from an ecological point of view, it feels like you’re taking a trip back in time when looking at this phone. This is back when we had the classic bezels on the top and bottom, so you can forget about any notch of infinite displays, as have become common on the latest smartphone models.
However, we understand that Fairphone is not trying to be pretentious: it offers what it has in a fair and sustainable way which will be sufficient for many users.
The top bezel (about a finger in thickness) houses the selfie camera and the speaker, both of which we will discuss more later. The lower bezel has the logo of the company in white lettering, something which also transports us back in time.
The straight edges of the phone blend into rounded corners. This is not a premium or luxurious phone, but we’re sure that users who are interested in eco-friendly products will be happy with a more modest experience in return.
If we turn the device over, the company again reminds us of its name in large white letters. This is on a semi-transparent cover which reveals the internals of the device, alongside a slogan to remember the positive impact of buying this phone: “Change is in your hands”.
On the upper part of this polycarbonate case, we see the fingerprint scanner, alongside a camera module housing a single lens and LED flash in a horizontal arrangement.
Like the majority of phones, the lower edge houses the charging port (in this case USB-C), while it’s nice to see the 3.5mm headphone jack.
As we’ll detail later, the Fairphone is a modular smartphone. This means you can disassemble and replace the major parts where necessary, with the idea being to have a device that lasts many years more than most and is therefore more sustainable.
It’s worth mentioning that the materials used to make this phone are recycled and of fair origin. Fairphone has reiterated the importance of knowing the origin of the materials used to make its mobile phones.
Anothing thing to note is the design breakthrough that the Fairphone 3 represents when compared to its two previous models.
However, as we mentioned earlier the Fairphone 3 continues to look somewhat outdated when compared with other 2019 phones. However, it’s clear that the latest phone has greatly improved the design and aesthetics when compared to the Fairphone 1 and 2.
From the results of our benchmark tests, we can say that the performance of the Fairphone is well below that of similarly-priced smartphones.
However, we must reiterate that the intention of the Fairphone 3 is not to offer an ultra-powerful phone with the best design and performance, but to provide a product that reminds you of the importance of sustainability and fair trade.
With that in mind, the results obtained (4885 in performance according to Geekbench 4) are quite consistent with our expectations. Like we said, this is worse than many similarly priced phones, but notably higher than new phones such as the Realme 5 Pro (4245) and Moto e6 Plus (3738).
The same modest specs are apparent with its processor: Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 632. However, when using the phone we didn’t notice any lag or excessive slowing at any time.
In fact, we think it’s a suitable chipset for less demanding tasks, such as using WhatsApp, surfing the internet or making calls (yes, you can still use a smartphone to make a call!). This does mean you can forget about playing graphic-intensive games, as the phone is intended for regular mobile gamers.
The phone also has 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage. Like the processor, this is fine for normal device usage, but can quickly feel outdated when we see many phones starting at 6GB/128GB.
While it comes with Android 9 installed, we have not found anything particularly noticeable, beyond everything that Pie offers: intuitive design, good interface and ease of use.
A modular smartphone
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Fairphone 3 is that it is a modular smartphone; it is built piece by piece, meaning you can disassemble and replace parts yourself as they break down.
A small screwdriver is included in the box to help you with this process. In our experience, this was pretty simple, so you won’t need specialised technical assistance if you need to repair your phone.
This means the Fairphone 3 will last many more years than most smartphones, as you can easily buy another battery when the original is damaged. This will essentially restore your battery life to what it was out of the box.
The prices of these replacement parts are also quite affordable, suggesting that the Fairphone 3 can be a good investment. While you pay over £400 with the initial purchase, the phone will last many more years than most other handsets.
We’d like to think that in the future Fairphone will manufacture a better camera or screen, which we can then add to our phone without having to buy a new phone. However, currently you can only buy the following replacement parts:
The screen is smaller than we are used to at 5.65in, and the large top and bottom bezels means it has a much lower screen-to-body ratio.
The 18:9 aspect ratio was quite popular in 2018 smartphones, and is gradually replacing the once-industry standard 16:9. However, more and more new models are switching to 19:9.
We have an IPS Full HD+ display here, which is fine as we were never expecting an OLED panel. Colours look vibrant and crisp, and our overall experience has been positive.
Viewing angles are also quite good, something characteristic of IPS screens, but the vast majority of the time you’ll be looking at it front-on. This is something characteristic of IPS panels, as the liquid crystals in the display are capable of moving horizontally.
In our indoor testing, the screen reached a maximum brightness of 447.43 nits. Even when using the phone outdoors, we were pleasantly surprised - the screen still looks pretty good even when there is a lot of light.
The screen comes with Gorilla Glass 5, which means there is excellent fall protection while maintaining good clarity and touch sensitivity. However, this is a standard feature we have seen on many phones.
Let’s start with the rear camera: the Fairphone 3 comes with a single 12Mp sensor with an f/1.8 aperture and adjacent LED flash. There’s only digital zoom here, with a maximum of 8x.
The Sony IMX 363 is a good sensor that we’ve seen on other smartphones with good cameras, such as the Asus Zenfone 5 Z or Xiaomi Mi 8. We are aware that there are newer sensors available, but from our own experience we know this is still a solid choice.
Despite having a relatively low megapixel count, the dual pixel sensor ensures better image quality and focuses faster.
Nothing here is innovative; in fact, this technology has been around for many years on smartphones. However, it is worth mentioning that we are pleased to see these things make their way onto a phone which is more difficult to manufacture.
The camera app itself has a relatively intuitive interface. You can toggle between the different modes at the bottom: ‘Photo’, ‘Portrait’, ‘Panorama’ and even a ‘Pro’ mode.
When zooming in normal mode photos are a lot less detailed, with the image looking somewhat blurred and with less vibrant colours. In the following photos you can see what we mean, first at a zoom of 3.8x and then 8x.
The pro mode allow you to tweak several options: ISO, type of focus, filters and contrast. It’s not particularly in-depth, as is the case on phone with really powerful cameras (like the Huawei P30 Pro), but it’s quite good considering the general specs of the phone.
In normal photos, image quality is good. The panorama mode, although typically not used much, manages to capture a good quality, while portrait shots with the now fashionable bokeh effect surprised us in how accurate it was able to separate the subject from the background.
It’s worth mentioning that you sometimes have to wait a few seconds for the camera to detect the subject and separate it from the background. However, it’s worth it for the end result, which as you can see below is better than expected.
On the front, we have an 8Mp selfie camera, with an f/2.0 aperture. As with the rear setup, the zoom is digital, allowing up to 8x magnification. We couldn’t find any beauty filter, as is available on most smartphones. Whether this is a good or bad thing depends on your personal preference, but a little filter never hurts!
It’s also noticeable that in regular and portrait modes with the front-facing camera, the lack of megapixels is obvious, as images have much less quality than we are used to in 2019.
Regarding video, the Fairphone 3 is capable of recording 4K video at 30fps, and also comes with digital stabilisation that helps stop the image from shaking while recording.
Connectivity and audio
While the dual speakers with stereo sound is located on the top of the phone, in truth it sounds pretty good, reaching 95 dB at max volume. Of course, this can’t compete with high-end speakers, but we enjoyed using it to play our music.
Levels of bass are good, albeit not as resounding as a dedicated speaker, while the treble can be heard with surprising sharpness.
We’re very happy to see a 3.5mm headphone jack, which as you’re probably aware is becoming much less common in modern smartphones.
Something else we’re glad to have (although many people might not find it useful) is the FM radio, something that has almost disappeared from many smartphones.
Another point in its favour is the built-in NFC, which allows you to pay with your phone as opposed to having to use your bank card. This is normally a premium feature, so we’re glad to see it here.
It’s also worth mentioning that the device supports dual SIM in addition to a micro SD card slot, meaning you can expand the on-device storage if necessary.
One of the main points to gain our attention is the battery, which as you can imagine is removable. This means you can buy a spare battery and take it with you for an instant top-up on the go.
There is only a 3000mAh cell on board, but thanks to the less demanding specs, we were pleasantly surprised with its performance. Our recording of 12 hours and 27 minutes in Geekbench 4’s battery test is among the best we’ve tested.
In this aspect, the Fairphone 3 is again a trip back in time, but in this case for good as it reminds us when we had simpler phones with extra-long battery life and high durability.
We quickly return to 2019 when we witness its fast charge 3.0. In testing, the phone was able to charge 29% in 30 minutes from off. This relatively modest performance is similar to what we see in phones such as the Honor 9X and Motorola One Action, but well behind the leading players, which include the Sony Xperia 5 (53% in 30), Oppo Reno 2 Z (48% in 30) and the Motorola One Zoom (42% in 30).
You’re not looking at the best value for money smartphone here, or one with the best design, or the best processor. But you are looking at one of the fairest smartphones on the market.
The Fairphone 3 will make people whose priority in life is to be sustainable and fair to the society in which we live feel good.
By this we don’t mean the Fairphone 3 is a bad phone, quite the opposite. It offers decent performance, with solid specs considering the way in which is has been manufactured (remember it’s more expensive to produce a phone sustainably).
You’ll also get good performance, decent cameras, excellent battery life and an improved design when compared to its predecessors. You might be paying more for modest internals, but we must reiterate you are getting something that very few smartphones are able to offer: sustainability.
Fairphone 3: Specs
- Android 9
- Snapdragon 632
- 4 GB RAM
- 64 GB storage (expandable with microSD)
- 3,000 mAH Li-ion battery removable
- 5.65 inch Full HD + 18: 9 screen
- Rear camera: 12MP, f / 1.8 + Dual Pixel PDAF
- Front camera: 8MP f / 2.0
- Wifi 2.4 & 5 GHz
- Bluetooth 5
- Dual Nano SIM
- USB Type C
- Fingerprint scanner
- 3.5 mm headphone jack