As someone who's been involved with primary and secondary smartphone research/experiences for about ten years now, I've noticed a pattern that has to do with my level of nerdiness.
Pre-PhoneArena times, I've had my fair share of nerdy periods, which could last months or even years. I'd do research on smartphones, watch tons of YouTube videos, and simply stay informed… OK, very informed. OK, more informed than Snow in "Informer". Why? Just because.
Like most people on the team, Martin, the tech enthusiast, is into phone comparisons, market analysis, Android, iPhone, foldables, rollables, smartphone photography, random accessories, and the list goes on…
Then, whenever I've had a little bit more going on in my life, for example, during my university years, I wasn't as naturally inclined to fall into the same rabbit holes. I could still tell you much more than you probably needed to know about your existing or future smartphone purchase, but my level of engagement wasn't breaking any records.
That's what happens when you "get a life", as some like to say. Then the new Snapdragon 8 Gen 1, the size of the bezels, or placement of the punch-hole, start to matter (significantly) less. As I've reminded myself during a recent weekend getaway to Berlin, "Regular Martin" still cares about phones. However, and I promise that's the last time I'll refer to myself in the third person, he cares most about:
- Battery life and charging speed and convenience
- Photo and video quality - I believe there's no need to explain why
- Quick access to my home screen and camera, because it doesn't matter how nice the scenery is if you miss the shot
- One-handed operation - highly underrated when one's on the go
- Durability - in case I dropped my shiny $900 Pixel 6 Pro or already cracked iPhone 8
As you might have figured from the title, this story isn't about all of the above. Rather, we'll focus mostly on the last point. The concept of repairable, modular, and sustainable smartphones and their role in important areas like battery life and longevity, charging, and most importantly, short and long-term durability. In other words, things that "regular" people like (some of) you, and (sometimes) me, care about.
Fairphone 4: The incredible benefits of a repairable smartphone
And of course, if we'll be talking about a certain type of smartphone, it helps if we have a case study. Well, thankfully, the perfect case study does exist, and it's called
Fairphone 4. Certified as "the world's most sustainable smartphone" by the German Ecolabel, Blue Angel, Fairphone 4 is the fourth generation device from a family of modular and repairable smartphones, designed to be environmentally friendly and easy to fix.
A positive impact on the environment
When it comes to sustainability, the Fairphone 4 delivers. It comes with a 100% recycled plastic back cover, and it's Fairtrade gold certified, meaning the phone's body is machined from aluminum from certified vendors. Fairphone - the Dutch company, also promises that it's working behind the scenes to integrate fairly-sourced cobalt and lithium into the Fairphone's batteries.
Fairphone's fairness policies promise to go beyond the devices themselves. The company dedicates a number of sections of its website to talk about the fair treatment of workers, condemning excessive overtime, low wages, and child labor. Let's hope my boss will finally do the same… You can read more about Fairphone's working conditions
А positive impact on the consumer's pocket
But of course, what you're here for is the modular/epairable part of the story. To cut to the chase, Fairphone 4 allows you to replace just about every part of it that's prone to damage, including:
The key advantage of the Fairphone 4 over any other slab smartphone is that replacement parts are made available for the user to buy directly from the company's website. Apart from that, since the Fairphone 4 is designed with repairability in mind, it doesn't have any glue or unnecessarily complex screws that aim to make fixing it difficult, which is incredible. The phone also comes with a 5-year warranty for spare parts.
It's not a surprise that
iFixit has given Fairphone 4 a perfect repairability score of 10/10. All you'll need to open up the phone is your fingernail since the back is removable (remember those?) and a set of screwdrivers to take it apart - those are widely available on places like Amazon.
Then, replacing your screen or swapping out your USB-C port (usually time-consuming and risky interventions for the average Joe) becomes a piece of cake. Fairphone also provides a selection of YouTube videos that will guide you in the process.
In case you're wondering, the phone still comes with a standard warranty, meaning you can send it to Fairphone for a repair, in case you didn't cause the damage.
Fairphone isn't perfect - just like any other phone
Of course, if the Fairphone was a
Galaxy S22 or
iPhone 13 equivalent in terms of any other aspect of what makes a good phone, everyone would have been rushing to buy one. But for a small company like Fairphone, making modular/repairable smartphones comes with a cost, meaning compromises had to be made.
For starters, as of now, the Fairphone 4 is only available in Europe, but we can be optimistic about global availability in case the trend of repairable phones catches up. Remember, supply tends to depend on demand.
Another noticeable downside of the Fairphone 4, compared to your familiar Android, is that despite the mid-range specs, it starts at €579, which converts into about $650 before import taxes. Price-wise, this puts the Fairphone 4 in
Google Pixel 6 territory, which some will find to be a hard pill to swallow.
Speaking of mid-range specs, the Fairphone 4 comes with a 6.3-inch LCD display, which refreshes at 60Hz, Android 11, an average-sized 3905 mAh battery, and a passable camera system, consisting of two 48MP shooters on the back, and a 25MP selfie camera. All of this is powered by the (again) mid-range Snapdragon 750G chipset, which will be no match to the Pixel 6's
Tensor, although it does come with 5G.
Fairphone 4 had to be a pricey mid-ranger
Company co-founder Miquel Salvá says that Fairphone had to go with parts that are more standard and easier to source. Remember, the company promises to sell you replacement parts for the next five years after your purchase. Therefore, prioritizing part availability over more powerful hardware was an important choice that had to be made.
For the record, I went through the list of
available spare parts for all Fairphone models, and I managed to find at least one part that's currently out of stock for each of them. I guess there's some room for improvement there.
As for the €579/$650 price tag, there are a few reasons Fairphone won't be exactly cheap, despite the mid-range specs. Just like any other sustainability-focused product, the device requires more attention to detail. For example, the battery is encased in a plastic shell for protection since you'll likely be handling it. Also, there are user-friendly stickers placed on key parts, which makes them easier to recognize by people with no experience in phone repair. Do you know what a smartphone earpiece looks like? Exactly.
Also, as mentioned in the beginning, Fairphone swears by its fair trade policies, so the company's labor costs must be significantly higher compared to other companies.
I want a repairable phone
Fairphone exists, and this is wonderful. I have to admit - both the phone itself and the company that makes it had me truly nostalgic for the times when I could just swap my phone battery for a new one in a pinch.
Screen replacements have never been simple, and if you're unfortunate enough to find yourself in a situation that requires it, you'd simply have to send your broken phone to the manufacturer, or a third-party repair shop, pay a ton of money, and move on with your life (this time around with a good screen protector).
However, the idea of an easily-replaceable screen now seems extremely appealing to me. I have an old Lenovo phone with a broken screen, which wouldn't turn on. There are a ton of pictures and videos that I'd love to recover, but to get a screen replacement, I must go to a repair shop.
I don't know about you, but I'd happily pay a bit more if my
Pixel 6 Pro allowed an easy screen replacement. Google charges about 240 EUR for one in Germany, but prices vary, depending on the country.
Not to mention, phones with glass on the back are just about the worst idea in terms of durability. If you've ever dropped your glass-back iPhone, I don't have to tell you how it feels. However, I can certainly tell you how much it costs in case you decide to down the
Apple service route:
- $ 599 – iPhone 13 Pro Max
- $ 549 – iPhone 13 Pro
- $ 449 – iPhone 13
- $ 399 – iPhone 13 mini
I wasn't able to find information about
Samsung’s rear panel replacement prices on the company's website. As for
Google, I had to contact support to find out that a rear panel replacement for a Pixel 6 Pro costs around 180 EUR in Europe.
How likely is it that big companies will start making repairable phones?
Unlikely. It's highly unlikely that the likes of Apple, Samsung,
Xiaomi, etc. will start making devices with removable batteries or easily repairable displays.
Although making slightly thinner, sleeker-looking devices could be part of the whole picture, the main reason for the lack of easily repairable devices appears to be control. Although you might think Apple (for example) will repair your iPhone and make a ton of money, a 2019 statement given in front of the US House Judiciary Committee claims that
"Apple loses money on iPhone repairs".
Unfortunately, there's no way to fact check Apple's accounting on repairs because of the vagaries of revenue reporting. Knowing how much we pay for parts and the general labor costs of the repair industry, it seems unbelievable that they're not making money from repair services.
Sure, we can't know for a fact whether Apple's claims are true, but what remains certain is the idea of control. For example, if you find a repair too complicated, Apple and especially Samsung are ready to offer you a trade-in for a new iPhone or Galaxy. They can also offer you Apple Care or Samsung Care+, so when your new gadget breaks (again), you'll pay significantly less to fix it.
Right to repair
However, there's light at the end of the tunnel. As you might know, Apple was somewhat forced to try harder when it came to customers' "right to repair" their own devices.
Available first for the iPhone 12 and iPhone 13 lineups and soon to be followed by Mac computers featuring M1 chips, Self Service Repair will be available early next year in the US and expand to additional countries throughout 2022. Customers join more than 5,000 Apple Authorized Service Providers (AASPs) and 2,800 Independent Repair Providers who have access to these parts, tools, and manuals.
The program's initial phase will focus on the most commonly serviced modules, such as the iPhone display, battery, and camera. The ability for additional repairs will be available later next year
This means that Apple will soon be ready to provide you with the parts and tools to repair your own iPhone (amongst other Apple products). This will include guides too. However, Apple hasn't said that the repair process itself would become easier. The company hasn't promised to remove the glue that makes a battery replacement more difficult or use more common screws for holding certain parts down.
This means that if you don't feel comfortable with performing surgery on your own iPhone, you'd probably still end up sending it to Apple or a third-party shop for a repair. The latter will soon have access to original Apple parts.
In the end
Knowing Apple, it's safe to say the dream of a repairable/modular iPhone is dead. In fact, it was never quite alive.
Luckily, we can't say the same for Android, and the Dutch company Fairphone is proof of that. Yes, at this point, Fairphone 4 is just a slightly overpriced mid-range phone that has one special trick, but it's a big one! And believe it or not, with the push for more sustainable gadgets and environmentally-conscious living in general, there's a market for such devices. The Fairphone 4 isn't sold on Amazon, but the Fairphone 3 was/is, and has a ton of positive reviews from people who've purchased it.
For the curious, the push for modular/repairable tech doesn't end with smartphones.
Framework - an almost fully modular and repairable laptop has been making rounds on the internet lately. In a nutshell, upon buying the Framework laptop, you're welcomed with two choices - get an already configured version that can absolutely be upgraded later or get the "DIY Edition", which in addition to adding memory and storage, allows you to choose the ports you want, customize the bezel color and keyboard language, and even upgrade your entire mainboard. Framework also allows you to bring your own memory, storage, WiFi, and operating system.
While I don't expect Android phones ever to go that far when it comes to modularity, all we need is some flagship phones to get to a Fairphone level. Or Fairphone to start making flagship-level repairable/modular devices - that's when we'd be witnessing a small revolution. Better late than never, right?