Fairphone 3, hands on: Ethically sourced and user-repairable

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In a world where handsets jostle with each other to have the best camera, screen, battery life or aesthetics, Fairphone stands out for its ethical approach. The Fairphone 3 is a handset that's designed to be taken apart and repaired by its owner. It comes with a little screwdriver that you can use to get inside the backplate. You can buy parts at the Fairphone website, and -- true to Fairphone's overriding ethos -- these are available for the Fairphone 1 and 2 as well as for the latest model. 

Fairphone tries to source parts responsibly, and to be a responsible employer. Nor is it interested in quick turnover of new kit. The Fairphone 3 has a two-year warranty and runs on Fairphone OS, which is based on Android 9, has the full set of Google apps on board, and will receive security patches and software updates for five years.

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The Fairphone 3 is a chunky beast measuring 71.8mm wide by 158mm deep by 9.89mm thick -- the latter accentuated by a rubber bumper that goes all the way around the edge but does not cover the phone's semi-translucent back. Recycled materials have been used in the build where possible, and the backplate is a case in point: there's no shiny, slippery etched glass in sight. The screen is protected by Gorilla Glass 5.

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The 5.65-inch Fairphone 3 is no minimal-bezel slab of glass, but a durable and repairable handset with moderate performance.

Images: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

Those looking for the latest specifications, the coolest design or the longest battery life can look away now. You can find those things elsewhere. This is definitely not a phone that you buy because you want the best value for money in terms of pure capability. The definition of best value here extends way beyond the handset itself, into those ethical matters I mentioned at the outset.

The Fairphone 3 has a 5.65-inch LCD which sits in unfashionably large bezels. There is dual SIM support with a slot for a MicroSD card that doesn't compromise one of those SIM slots, so you can bolster the rather meagre 64GB of internal storage. There is a fingerprint scanner on the back, NFC, a USB-C charge connector (a cable is not provided) and a 3.5mm headset jack. 

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There is just a single rear camera, shooting stills to 12 megapixels, and a front camera which shoots to 8 megapixels. Don't expect anything spectacular from either camera, and don't expect any of the fancy night-time shooting capability that some offer. But do expect perfectly usable snaps. The 3,000mAh battery doesn't have the greatest capacity, but it is serviceable, and I managed a day's use out of it. 

There is 4GB of RAM and the chipset is Qualcomm's Snapdragon 632, which is a long way from the leading edge. Benchmarks illustrate this with Geekbench 5 giving a three-pass average score of 272 (single core) and 1239 (multi core). For comparison, leading-edge handsets score over 700 (single core) and 2500 (multi core). PC Mark awarded a score of 5730 on its Work 2.0 benchmarks (again, a long way short of the top performers). 

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The Fairphone 3 gives access to internal components (screwdriver provided), with spare parts available on the company's website.

Image: Sandra Vogel/ZDNet

I had to get used to having the power and volume buttons on the left edge rather than the more usual right, but that doesn't take too long. What might rankle, especially if you're switching from a higher-spec handset, is a slight lag while you wait for web pages to render, or for apps to load. I can't tell whether this is a hardware or a software issue, but if it's the latter then maybe OTA updates will fix it.

Fairphone's aim to produce a handset based on ethically sourced materials and properly paid workers is laudable. But buyers will have to accept compromises beyond those of build and styling: anyone looking at purchases of equal monetary value -- €450/£400 -- will immediately see the difference in specification.

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