Fairphone delivers on its ethical, modular smartphone

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Fairphone delivers on its ethical, modular smartphone

Fairphone is a slightly different kind of smartphone manufacturer. It's not out to make the prettiest or the most powerful handsets, but the most ethically responsible. The company bankrolled its first device through a pre-order program, and went on to sell 60,000 of the things, affording it the capital to follow-up with a second-generation smartphone that pushes its agenda even further. Like its predecessor, the Fairphone 2 is built using as many conflict-free resources as possible, and a portion of the proceeds from every sale go to a worker welfare fund in China and an electronic waste recycling program in Ghana. The Fairphone 2 is more than just a hardware update with the same ethical angle, though. The company wants to tackle electronic waste at the source, by building a modular smartphone that's durable, repairable and upgradable.

Gallery: Fairphone 2 | 28 Photos


Showing off the final prototype of the Fairphone 2 in London today, the company only made a brief mention of the conflict-free minerals it sources, and the projects that money from hardware sales supports. In fact, they weren't promoting the new phone as much as they were an ideal: that the mere existence of "ethical" smartphones would get consumers thinking about what goes into everything they buy, from the materials to the people who put them together. Fairphone also wants you to think about where your discarded tech goes to die, and the environment impact of the annual smartphone update cycle many of us are entrenched in.

Thus, the Fairphone 2 is intended to be a smartphone you use for many years before even thinking about upgrading. But for that to be the case, it needs to be compelling and at least a little future-proof from the outset; and, ethical credentials aside, it ticks both those boxes. The Fairphone 2 has much of what you'd expect from any high-end smartphone: a quad-core 2.3GHz Snapdragon 801 processor, 2GB of RAM, 32GB of storage (expandable via microSD), a 5-inch 1080p display (with Gorilla Glass protection), a Cat 4 LTE-A radio, dual-SIM slots, dual-band WiFi (including 802.11ac support), and Android 5.1 Lollipop. The 8-megapixel main camera and lack of NFC are the only two things that push it more towards the mid-range.

It might have a pretty attractive spec sheet, but the device is definitely more beautiful on the inside than the out -- and that's OK. It's not the thinnest smartphone in the world, there's no brushed aluminum border, curved screen or rose gold option. Just a piece of glass and big ol' plastic case that covers the back, sides and protrudes out from the display slightly to protect it from falls. Good looks have been sacrificed in favor of functional design; the handset was developed from the inside-out not to be pretty, but to be easily repairable and upgradeable.

The Fairphone 2 is modular, but not in quite the same way Google's Project Ara envisions plug-and-play hardware. You can break it down into six parts: a 2,420mAh battery, the main PCB, a display module, and three other segments that include the main camera, selfie shooter/earpiece and microphone. Most importantly, the display is held in place with a simple clip mechanism, so should you break it, it takes no more than 30 seconds to replace. Other modules are held in place with a few small, standard screws, and you could easily take the whole thing apart and put it back together again in five minutes.

You probably get the idea by now: crack the screen or have a part fail on you, and it's extremely easy to replace. You don't need to buy a new phone, just a cheap spare part, and no technical expertise is required to get it shipshape again. Spare parts will be available right from the get-go, too, so there's no chance of repairability becoming an unfulfilled promise. But remember: Fairphone wants you to keep the device for as long as possible, so it's planning to introduce upgrade modules whenever they become more relevant to the consumer base (think better camera modules, or a USB-C upgrade). The company is also looking into hardware tweaks for specific use cases, like a super-secure build with an earpiece module lacking a front-facing camera and an iris scanner in place of the main shooter. A free expansion port on the PCB means Fairphone can also add functionality with special cases, and by making the hardware open-source, it'll be possible to install different operating systems, and have direct access to the modules.

The whole concept is honestly quite refreshing, and the Fairphone 2 itself is reasonably priced enough, considering the respectable spec sheet (there's also the feel-good factor of owning an ethically responsible device). The handset is available to pre-order now in Europe for €525 (roughly $587), or £395 outright/£25 per month in the UK through the customer-owned network The Phone Co-op, which also ranged the original Fairphone. Delivery of the handsets is expect in early November, and the more success the Fairphone 2 has in Europe, the quicker the company can bring it to the US in 2016.

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