c’t 3003: The Fairphone 4 in the long-term test

What good is the Fairphone 4? c’t 3003 has extensively tested the sustainable smartphone.

Transcript of the video:

For this video, I extensively tested the Fairphone 4 as an everyday phone. I will also tell you whether the Fairphone is really fairer, more environmentally friendly and more sustainable than other devices. And why.

I know, I know, I am a constant contradiction: I am really a gadget freak, I keep buying new technology toys, you can follow them right here in the channel.

And at the same time, of course, I don’t want the planet to break down and people to be exploited. That’s why I buy coffee, chocolate and clothes almost exclusively organic and Fairtrade. (Side note: Have you ever tried to buy underpants with an environmental and sustainability label that you can normally wash at 60 degrees? If you know something, feel free to write in the comments.)

Back to the topic of the video: “Little exploitative”, “environmentally friendly” and “technical stuff” go badly together. That is exactly what Fairphone wants to change. But now for a moment, first of all, where the problems actually lie. I divided it into two areas:

Problem 1: greenhouse gas emissions & duration of use

According to Apple, an iPhone 13 Pro Max causes 74 kg of CO2. This corresponds roughly to the amount that you blow into the air on a 600 km car journey.

Of the 74 kg iPhone CO2 80 percent arise during production, 15 percent during the usage phase (Apple assumes three years). The remaining four percent is accounted for by transport and around 1 percent for disposal or recycling.

That means: the fewer smartphones are bought and produced because they are used longer, the less CO2 becomes free. The environmental organization EEB has calculated this very clearly: an average smartphone usage time extended by one year would produce so much CO2 save like taking two million cars off the road.

But how long do you use your smartphone? To be honest, I haven’t come across that long time. With Android in particular, updates don’t last that long – and I don’t want to use a phone without security updates, and I’d really like to have the function updates too.

The Fairphone 4 shipped with Android 11 promises software updates by the end of 2025; Or to be more precise: An update to Android 12 should come in 2022, and there is also a guarantee for Android 13. Fairphone hopes to update to Android 14 and 15 as well, but they don’t guarantee that because they don’t know how things will work with the drivers from Qualcomm looks for the system on a chip.

The competition usually does not communicate this so transparently, update guarantees have only been available here for a short time: For example, Google, Samsung and Xiaomi, OnePlus guarantee three years of function updates for their current flagship devices, security updates are often one year longer. Apple does not give any guarantee on updates, even if they have delivered very well in the past: The iPhones of the last 10 years have been given between four years as with iPhones 5C to seven years (iPhone 6s / iPhone SE). That’s really good. By the way, there is also political turmoil around the update guarantees: The federal government is planning laws that oblige manufacturers to provide security updates for at least seven years. The manufacturers don’t think that’s great, of course, the industry association DigitalEurope suggests a ridiculous two years of function updates and three years of security updates.

What Fairphone definitely has ahead of all manufacturers I know: The Fairphone 4 offers a whopping five years warranty on the hardware. Otherwise 1 or 2 years are usual. Another big plus point with Fairphone: The battery is not glued and can be replaced by yourself. A new battery costs 30 euros. What is even more unusual is that you can also replace other parts yourself: for example the camera modules, the USB-C connection, the speakers. The screwdriver required for this is even included. I’m a bit clumsy and often have to think about what actually happens if I accidentally pull the charging cable and the socket out of the cell phone. With Fairphone that would cost me 14.95, because I can simply install a new USB-C port.

All in all, Fairphone can be attested that they do significantly more than other manufacturers to enable a long service life.

Problem number 2: Rare earths and components & exploitation

Another problem in the manufacture of smartphones is the necessary materials and rare earths. For example gold, cobalt, copper, tantalum, tungsten and tin. These are all substances that are often subject to unsafe working conditions, health risks and child labor during mining. For example at cobalt mines in the Congo: Children often toil without protective clothing or helmets and are exposed to radioactivity from the ores. In addition, the chemicals used in mining contaminate the soil and water. These raw materials can be extracted more sustainably or many of them can also be recycled from old devices. Fairphone itself is surprisingly open to the fact that not all of these materials can simply be bought fairly and organically.

At least when it comes to gold, Fairphone is the first manufacturer to have a Fairtrade-certified supply chain. Otherwise, Fairphone uses certified sustainable aluminum for the housing frame, recycled plastic for the housing cover and “works behind the scenes to integrate fairer cobalt and lithium”. That sounds like hot air at first, but on the Fairphone website you can see in detail what exactly they are working on. Incidentally, the Fairphone is manufactured in China by a contract manufacturer – and Fairphone pays the workers there a monthly bonus on top of the wages they regularly receive there. For every Fairphone sold, 1.50 euros are paid out.

So, and now finally to the test of the Fairphone 4. I have used the thing as my main mobile phone for several weeks and can therefore assess its suitability for everyday use quite well. Incidentally, I waited with the video until the final software version of the Fairphone 4 was released; the test was created with the October 26th version.

First of all: The Fairphone 4 did not make me white-hot, as was the case, for example, with the cheap Redmi 9a phone with its constant pauses. The Fairphone 4 does its job properly, apps start quickly, and there are no lags. The display is more than sufficiently sharp with a resolution of 1080 x 2340 pixels, the pixel density is 410 ppi. The brightness goes up to 483 cd per square meter, which is also sufficient for bright surroundings. There’s also Gorilla Glass 5. It’s an LC display, so you shouldn’t expect the color strength and contrast of OLEDs. I found the display ok, but a bit dependent on the viewing angle – it gets a bit dark if you look at it diagonally. The case is now not the thinnest in the world, but that’s what it looks like when the battery can be replaced.

Otherwise everything is inconspicuous: Charging is via USB-C, there is fortunately a microSD slot, and a headphone jack is missing, as is the case with many current devices. The Fairphone 4 is not waterproof, which probably has to do with the exchangeable battery. Yeah, there is a fingerprint sensor on the power button, which I think is the best authentication method along with in-display fingerprint sensors. The sensor reacts very quickly and reliably, which is a bit stupid: It is not enough to simply wake up the device with your finger, you have to lift your finger again after pressing and then put it back on, only then will the fingerprint be recognized.

A Snapdragon 750G is a System on a Chip in the Fairphone 4, which is solid middle class, completely sufficient for everything except games. This is also shown by the benchmarks: The Fairphone 4 is even faster than the Google Pixel 5, but significantly slower than the top models from Samsung and Apple, especially in terms of graphics performance. I also have to praise: Unlike many other Android phones, Fairphone 4 has zero pre-installed junk and advertising apps. That’s how it should be. What I found a bit of a shame: The battery life is below average. In the test, the Fairphone 4 switched off after 9.8 hours of watching YouTube via WiFi, other smartphones almost doubled. With the Fairphone 4, I usually got through the day on one battery charge, but barely.

And now to the most important point for many people: the cameras. There is a 25-megapixel selfie camera and two rear-facing 48-megapixel cameras, one normal wide and one ultra wide.

The cameras are really not bad at all. Here, for example, a portrait in diffuse light. The colors tend to be a bit cool, but I find that even positive with some motifs. The skin tone of the twice as expensive iPhone 13 Pro is a bit too red here in my opinion.

On the other hand, shots are not so great when the light is already in the blue, as with this tree just before sunset. Here is a prefabricated landscape photo of the Fairphone 4, once with the normal lens and once with a wide angle.

And here in comparison with the iPhone 13 Pro. Sharpness and detail are definitely clear. In really bad light, you can still get usable photos from the Fairphone 4, even if the details are more crumbly than with the iPhone.

The selfie camera has the same cold colors, but is otherwise ok. However, you have to do without calculated blurring in portraits with the Fairphone standard camera app.

Videos go up to 4K at 30 fps on Fairphone 4, the optical stabilizer does an okay job, even if the iPhone achieves a better result. You have to do without optical stabilization for videos with the selfie camera.

Conclusion: Clearly – the Fairphone is not a high-end smartphone. But there is solid technology in it that will enable many years of pleasant Android use. It is gratifying that with 6 GB of RAM you are reasonably future-proof. The basic version with 128 GB of internal memory costs 580 euros. For 650 euros there is also a variant with 8 GB of RAM and 256 GB of internal memory. Both models are definitely not bargains, all these environmental and sustainability things cost money.

In addition, it has to be clear to everyone that you don’t get the sleek Schwuppdigkeit of a 120 Hz display and also not the very best photos and videos. But it’s always enough for snapshots, since I’ve seen many significantly worse smartphone cameras.

But what does the Fairphone do a lot better than the competition: It is super-consistently designed for long-term use; not only because of the modular design, but also because of the 5-year guarantee and the promise to deliver very long updates. If you want to act sustainably, buying a used smartphone would otherwise be an option – for 580 euros, for example, you can easily get an iPhone 11 or, if you’re lucky, even an iPhone 12. You can also get a Samsung Galaxy S21 for the price. The purchase of a Fairphone is, however, also a signal to the market so that the other manufacturers will also notice: Hello, there is an interest in more environmentally friendly and sustainable technology! We don’t care! Bye!

c’t 3003 is the c’t YouTube channel. The videos on c’t 3003 are independent content and independent of the articles in c’t magazin. Editor Jan-Keno Janssen and video producers Johannes Börnsen and Şahin Erengil publish a video every week.

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