- One month later
Fairphone has always been a brand with a laser-focused mission. It’s among only a few companies in the industry lobbying for fairer supply chains and easily repairable devices. Many of its products excel at these points, but they’ve historically been plagued by compromises such as wonky build quality, bad battery life, and subpar performance. The company is looking to break that habit with the Fairphone 4, and I have to say, it has mostly succeeded.
A sustainable phone that could finally actually last you for five or more years.
- Brand: Fairphone
- SoC: Snapdragon 750G
- Display: Notched 6.3-inch 60Hz LCD screen, 2340x1080, 19.5:9
- RAM: 6GB, 8GB
- Storage: 128GB, 256GB, expandable via microSD
- Battery: 3,900mAh
- Ports: USB-C
- Operating System: Android 11
- Front camera: 25MP
- Rear cameras: 48MP telephoto, 48MP wide, laser autofocus
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.1, Wi-Fi AC, 5G, NFC
- Others: Side-mounted fingerprint scanner, IP54, 5-year warranty
- Dimensions: 162 x 75.5 x 10.5 mm, 225g
- Colors: Gray, Green, Speckled Green
- Price: 6GB+128GB: €579; 8GB+256GB: €649
- Easily repairable
- Replaceable battery
- Modern design (relatively speaking)
- Good performance that will last for a few years
- IP 54 water and dust resistance rating
- Android 13 guaranteed, Android 15 possible
- Uneven display
- Mushy vibration motor
- Unnecessary derivations from stock Android
- No headphone jack
- A few weird software decisions
Design, hardware, what's in the box
The Fairphone 4 is quite the departure from its predecessor’s transparent plastic body with the overly cheesy “Change is in your hands” slogan shining through from the battery. The new phone has a soft-touch plastic back cover in either green, gray, or green-speckled that makes for an understated but beautiful look, with an unobtrusive Fairphone branding at the bottom. Its protruding triple-camera array comes in a refreshing and unique triangular shape. The frame of the phone is made from fairly sourced aluminium, making the phone look premium and feel sturdy. An excellent fingerprint sensor is integrated into the indented power button on the right, with two volume buttons above it. All of them feel clicky and responsive.
When you pry off the back panel, you’ll find a color-coded interior that shows you which components can be found under which covers. To access the microSD and SIM card slots, you need to remove the battery, which is as simple as just lifting it up. A removable battery? How novel! Replacing other parts might mean fiddling with screws but you can replace the cameras, USB port, speaker, display, and basically everything with ease. While you won't see it, Fairphone also ensures that as many components as possible are extracted (or recycled) and produced under fair conditions.
Turning the phone around, the 6.3-inch 60Hz LCD on the front feels outdated. There’s a huge bezel at the bottom and a water drop notch at the top. Unfortunately, the screen doesn’t appear to be laminated to the glass, which makes for a slightly recessed look. The display itself is plagued with unsightly uneven brightness towards the edges, and I’d generally like it to get brighter than it does — those are both factors I stopped caring about too much once I used the phone for a while, though. The viewing angles are pretty stable, with only marginal brightness reductions when passing a certain threshold. These design decisions probably come down to both cost-cutting and retaining repairability. For what it’s worth, it looks a lot more modern than the Fairphone 3 and it’s a quantum leap beyond the Fairphone 2. There's even an IP 54 water and dust resistance rating on board this time around.
It’s just a bummer that the Fairphone 4 dropped the headphone jack. As a remedy, Fairphone offers an optional 3.5mm jack to USB-C adapter and its first pair of true wireless earbuds in its shop. Fairphone says it had to lose the headphone jack to make space for other components, but this still rubs me the wrong way — a company focusing on sustainability creates earbuds, a product that’s infamous for getting lost easily and being non-repairable. At least they’re made from 30% recycled plastic and have a certified supply chain.
The vibration motor is another disappointment — it feels mushy and lacking in punch. This might be due to its repairability again, which makes the placement and integration of a vibration motor more difficult.
Fairphone started the trend of not including chargers in its boxes for environmental reasons, and that’s not changing with its fourth phone. The box only contains the phone, a small manual, and a screwdriver for taking the device apart. All packaging consists of paper-based material, with no plastic wraps to be seen anywhere. There isn’t even a cable, which is something other manufacturers still usually include. You can add whatever accessories you need during checkout, coming with surcharges.
Software, performance, and battery
The Android 11 build is pretty close to stock Android. Some interface elements look boxier, but you’d be hard-pressed to spot these differences at a glance. A few changes are annoying, though. For one, there’s barely any padding around some UI elements—for example, the clock and the battery icons are all but kissing the rounded top corners. When you use gesture navigation, the Google Assistant hints almost completely disappear behind the bottom corners. It’s also frustrating that Fairphone insists on displaying your mobile network provider in the top left corner, and the company confirmed to me that you can’t turn it off. If you’re unfortunate enough to have a carrier like “mobilcom-debitel” (like me here in Germany), you won’t be able to see more than one notification icon before the notch cuts everything off. This is nitpicking, but these derivations from AOSP Android feel needless and bad.
Fairphone has also increased the animation speed, which looks particularly iffy with Android’s loading circle. Depending on your preferences, you might enjoy how this makes the phone feel faster than it is. The Fairphone 4 couples a Snapdragon 750G with 6GB of RAM and 128GB of storage for its base configuration, and the device pretty much flies on this hardware. I’ve hardly run into long loading times or hiccups, with apps opening fast, and multitasking keeping lots of things running at once. I’m still not 100% convinced that the hardware will hold up this well over the next five years, but it’s a much, much better starting position than what the Fairphone 3 had. On the software side, Fairphone guarantees updates to Android 12 and 13, and it promises to work hard on also getting 14 and 15 on it.
I’m very happy to see a complete lack of bloatware. Fairphone doesn’t needlessly duplicate any Google apps and only adds useful tools like a sound recorder and a user guide app, which is much appreciated.
Here in Germany, my LTE connection has been comparable to similarly priced phones, but my contract doesn’t include 5G, so I can’t report on that front. For anybody thinking about importing the Fairphone to an unsupported region, make sure your carrier offers compatible bands.
I found the 3,900 mAh battery impressive in the provided package. I haven’t managed to run down the phone in a single day during my time with it, usually ending the day with a third of a charge after around five hours of screen-on time. That includes days where I was out and about on mobile data and snapping photos.
The cameras look neat with the raised triangular module, but the results are, well, fair. Fairphone may have gone above and beyond with a 48MP telephoto, a 48MP wide, and laser autofocus, but it’s clear that the company doesn’t have the same resources to throw at computational photography as Google, Apple, and Samsung.
Photos generally turn out okay and social media-shareable at first glance, but there are some inconsistencies. The phone has a tendency to blow out highlights, sometimes opting for plain white where a Pixel would still find contours and details. This is particularly problematic when photographing people outside against bright backgrounds, or when trying to take a picture of a receipt. Less contrast-y shots turn out better, though.
Two of these photos were taken with Night Mode on, two of them weren't. Spot the difference.
In low light, the cameras can't compare with similarly priced competitors, even when using night mode. You can mostly forget about photographing people when just a little bit of movement is introduced in less than ideal lighting situations, and night mode doesn’t even help much with brightening scenes significantly. Fairphone's implementation of the feature doesn't allow you to access zoom and the wide-angle camera, either. It's also maddening that the shutter button is extremely slow to react, both in night mode and regular mode, to the point where you think that you didn't hit it properly.
I additionally ran into frequent autofocus issues. The camera sometimes completely ignores faces, instead focusing on the grass and trees behind subjects.
Face not detected.
All that said, the cameras are mostly okay if you just want to share them on social media or in chats, but don't expect the Fairphone 4 to come anywhere close to the Googles and Samsungs. You might be able to look forward to some imaging refinements, courtesy of third-party developers—as was the case with the Fairphone 3.
Should you buy it?
Yes. The Fairphone 4 is a significant step forward for the company, and it is its first that I can recommend unequivocally for those who care deeply about a repairable, fair, and long-lasting phone. While there are some issues like the camera, the display, and the vibration motor, none of these are real deal breakers. I’m just so glad that Fairphone has finally chosen a processor that won’t be hopelessly underpowered over the next few years.
However, I still stand by my conviction that iPhones are a close second. iPhones have historically been among the longest updated devices, with more than five years of software support being the norm. Apple also has a huge network of repair shops, both first-party and third-party, should something go wrong. Sure, fixing the iPhones is more cumbersome and will cost you more, and Apple doesn’t care as much about the fairness of its supply chain, but if the Fairphone isn’t available in your region or you want faster software updates, they’re the way to go.
In the Android world, the phones that come closest are the Pixels, now coming with five years of security updates. And we did like the Pixel 6 and 6 Pro a lot in our reviews. Google has moved to using more recycled materials, including the aluminum frames of its phones. However, repairability is nowhere near as good as the Fairphone 4.
Buy it if...
- You want a sustainable, fair smartphone from a company that cares about the environment and the workers in its supply chain.
- You want a phone with a replaceable battery.
Don't buy it if...
- You want the fastest software updates. Pixels, Galaxy phones, and iPhones are the way to go here.
- You live in North America, depending on your carrier. You might not have good reception due to missing bands.
Get the Fairphone 4
UPDATE: 2021/12/23 18:15 EST BY MANUEL VONAU
One month later
I've been using the Fairphone 4 on and off for a few weeks following the initial review, and my opinion on it has only solidified. Other than the minor quarrels I've found regarding the display, the software, and the cameras, the phone is a pleasure to use, even when comparing it to my brand-new Pixel 6. I actually enjoy holding its plastic back a lot more than the slippery glass on the Pixel 6.
Fairphone is also hard at work keeping its fourth handset up to date. The company recently updated the security patch from July 2021 to the one from September 2021. It would be great to see monthly updates here, but let’s be real: Fairphone is still a small company, and its resources are much more limited than Google’s or Samsung’s.
I've started missing a few software tweaks I take for granted on other phones, though. Double tap to wake the screen is a feature available on almost any Android phone these days, but not on the Fairphone. It also strikes me as increasingly odd that the Fairphone doesn’t vibrate when using the back navigation gesture (it only gives haptic feedback when swiping up to go home), especially as I switch back and forth from my Pixel 6. But in the big picture, those are minor nitpicks many might not even notice. And on the bright side, the Fairphone 4's speakers sound pleasantly loud and full. They’re really much better than the Pixel 6’s.
Another thing I’ve come to appreciate about the phone is that it uses Google Photos as its default gallery. On Android 11 and higher, many other phones run into a pesky “out of sync” notification in Google Photos, prompting users to manually approve changes made on other devices, but that isn’t a problem on the Fairphone thanks to Photos being the default gallery.
One last side note for those who firmly maintain a phone running Google software can’t be fair: Fairphone will partner with /e/OS to sell a de-Google-fied version of the phone. And if you’re brave enough, you can also install /e/OS on your existing Fairphone 4. If you’d like a glimpse at that Google-free life before making the jump, we recently reviewed a Fairphone 3 running /e/OS.