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Fairphone 5: Repairable Smartphone has Matured

It has been quite some time since the cutting edge of the smartphone world genuinely sparked excitement. Despite the industry's attempts to captivate us with the allure of its latest 5G, 108-megapixel, foldable marvels, I find myself curiously unimpressed. To me, the realm of possibilities seems to have remained relatively stagnant over the past four or five years, while the baseline capabilities have gradually inched upward. The recently unveiled Fairphone 5, on paper, possesses the specifications that one would anticipate from a mid-range device. However, this no longer feels like a compromise, as this phone offers modularity, sustainability, and potential upgradability—all crafted by individuals receiving a fair(er) wage. In essence, it's just another smartphone, which might make it seem unremarkable. Yet, from this perspective, unremarkable can be a welcome attribute.

Fairphone 5: Repairable Smartphone has Matured

A decade into its endeavor to forge a "better" smartphone, Fairphone's introduction might not be necessary anymore. For those unfamiliar, the Dutch social enterprise creates devices that are ethically superior to their counterparts. This encompasses fair wages for factory workers, responsible sourcing of materials, incorporation of recycled components, and a commitment to prolonging the device's life span. Every Fairphone device is modular, designed for easy repair, occasionally upgradable, and generally outlasts its competitors. While perhaps less glamorous than Google's long-awaited Project Ara, Fairphone's vision of a modular, upgradeable phone is tangibly real. It's not just a possibility here; it's a reality, where anyone can seamlessly use a Phillips 00-head screwdriver to replace a component in mere minutes. In terms of dimensions and aesthetics, the Fairphone 5 remains faithful to its immediate predecessor. The substantial chassis interwoven with antenna lines, the camera housing, the fingerprint-powered button—they all persist. Like many 2023 smartphones, the alterations reflect the current industry landscape. The battery's capacity has been bolstered, the display subtly enlarged, and the camera capabilities slightly enhanced. Fairphone has gone a step further by enabling individual camera replacement, simplifying and reducing costs associated with repairs or upgrades. The array of available spare parts is extensive, with almost everything except the primary chassis frame offered separately. This encompasses the 90Hz 6.46-inch LG-manufactured POLED display, the 4,200mAh battery, and all three cameras. There's also a range of other components, including the earpiece, loudspeaker, USB-C port, and a top unit housing the Time of Flight sensor, SIM card slot, and SD card slot. If any part malfunctions, acquiring a replacement won't break the bank. The display is the most expensive part at €99.95 (approximately $108)—about half of Samsung's price and just a third of Apple's. In pursuit of sustainability and longevity, the Fairphone 5 utilizes Qualcomm's octa-core QCM6490 SoC, an industrial-grade IoT chipset. This chipset is rare, appearing in only one other phone to my knowledge—the AGM G2 Guardian with a thermal camera. The Fairphone 5 comes in a single variant with 8GB of RAM and a generous 256GB of storage, expandable to 2TB via microSD. This choice is justified by the chipset's premium features, including 6G, WiFi 6E, and on-chip AI processing. Furthermore, Qualcomm pledges to support its industrial-grade silicon for a longer duration than its mobile chips. Fairphone has committed to providing support for the almost-stock Android 13 and a minimum of five subsequent OS upgrades. The company's software support is projected to last until at least 2028, with hopes of extending it to 2033. Fairphone's track record indicates its ability to maintain its devices over an extended period. The Fairphone 2, launched in 2015 with Android 5.1, received its final security patch in March 2023 alongside an Android 10 update. With around seven years of software support, the Fairphone 5 becomes a compelling choice—especially when compared to Samsung's pledge of four years of software and five years of security updates for select models. In my limited interaction with the new model, I noticed that the performance is notably snappier compared to older Fairphones. The operating system's animations and transitions appear smooth, and even Fortnite on Epic mode runs flawlessly at 30fps. The phone's unlocking process, both facial recognition and fingerprint scanning, is significantly quicker than its predecessor. At first glance, the Fairphone 5 seems more than capable of fulfilling expectations for standard phone usage, encompassing texting, emailing, social media, video streaming, and casual gaming. Regarding imaging, I would describe the Fairphone 5's camera capabilities as solid, although this description might not do it justice. The primary 50-megapixel camera equipped with an f/1.88 lens, optical image stabilization (OIS), and Sony's IMX800 sensor is more than sufficient for most users' photography needs. While it might lack some of the software enhancements found in competing devices, it holds its own, especially in video recording. Notably, a ToF sensor on the back enhances autofocus speed during video capture. Nonetheless, it's not all positive. The phone tends to heat up more than desirable during heavy usage, which has become somewhat customary in the 5G era. The built-in speakers are disappointingly tinny, making external audio sources a better choice. Additionally, I anticipate the solid black cover to be more resistant to smudges compared to the transparent edition. I'm also slightly disappointed by the color options; while black, transparent, and sky blue are available, I would have liked the addition of the striking green and orange seen on the Fairbuds XL. Regrettably, the Fairphone 5's availability in the US does not align with its European launch. The Fairphone 4 is available in the US with a "deGoogled" OS thanks to privacy-focused startup Murena. Although a similar journey is likely for the Fairphone 5, simultaneous release would be preferred, preventing customers from waiting a year or more for the updated hardware. I've previously mentioned that Fairphone often carried an air of being a compromise choice—a sustainable option to counterbalance the ethically questionable mainstream alternatives. However, thanks to Fairphone's product improvements and the overall stagnation in the mobile industry, the gap between what's trendy and what's ethical has significantly narrowed. For those seeking a mid-range device with a markedly extended lifespan, coupled with the opportunity to make a positive impact, the Fairphone 5 might be the ideal choice. Occupying the moral high ground has seldom been this comfortable. Pre-orders for the Fairphone 5 begin today, August 30, on the company's website and various major European carriers. The price is set at €699 (approximately $750), and shipping is slated to commence on September 14 through Fairphone and its carrier partners.

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