Thoughts on Fairphone 2’s Modularity and Unfair Price
The Fairphone 2 is a device unlike what you typically see announced each year. On the verge of modular phones hitting the market with Phonebloks and Project Ara, it is not unexpected to find that other OEMs are coming up with their own visions for modular smartphones. The Fairphone 2 is a brave new attempt at modularity with a noble cause, but is it worth the hefty price? How useful is its modularity?
The Fairphone 2’s main appeal is that its construction process is environmentally friendly, and it also attempts to better the lives of the workers behind the manufacturing. Both are noble causes, as smartphone production (like many other kinds of manufacturing) can have significant ecological impacts in the areas surrounding plants and the world at large through metal depletion, ocean toxicity, and global warming. The smartphone fabrication process sees its fair share of controversy as well, from the creation of components to the final steps on the assembly line. Every year we hear about a fresh Foxconn horror, and every year those on the other half of the world forget shortly after.
Going to the phone itself, the way it is presented on their (admittedly gorgeous) website focuses on two aspects to the exclusion of all else: the aforementioned environmental and social causes, and how the phone is designed and built to lessen those negative impacts. This is where the modularity begins: beyond the familiar removable and replaceable battery, many components can be stripped from the phone with varying (but generally low) degrees of effort. Ports and more can be replaced if/when the components break, and there is additional room for upgrades as well. But it is clear that the focus of the phone is in repairability for a number of reasons, mainly recycling and longevity. Before we go further, I must bring in the specs:
At What Cost?
The only standout specifications here is the Snapdragon 801 processor, but even this is old (though still adequate) by today’s standards. Everything else is not just under the current leading specs, but also behind its preceding high-end phones from mid 2014. The fact that the Fairphone 2 comes with Lollipop on board is a nice touch, and we’ll return to this point later. The biggest offender here is the battery: at 2420 mAh, this is on the low side, barely over the Moto X (2014)’s capacity that earned it bad battery life reputation. When you factor in that these are inexperienced phonemakers, the doubt begins settling in. The real problem comes when you see the price: €525 ($590).
It’s true that there are still costly Snapdragon 801 devices on the market, namely the Xperia Z3 and Z3 Compact that retailed for €550 at the time of its release. However, these phones arrived while the 801 chip was still in its prime, and pack , a premium design, a large battery that proves its might, and many of the commodities you can only expect out of a higher tier OEM. The Fairphone 2’s price is likely inflated due to the engineering feats behind achieving its modularity, and this shouldn’t be understated. But with its focus on repairability, that modularity is rather useless when you consider the package as a whole. Hear me out:
The OnePlus One will be our reference device, as this phone had amazing specifications for its time, including the same Snapdragon 801 processor. But then you must consider the bigger battery, higher MP (and well-reviewed) camera, the software, developer support, etc. I mention developer support because the company behind the Fairphone 2 is attempting to get developers behind their software through open source. Anyway, for the price of one Fairphone 2, you can get two of the base-model OnePlus One, and are only €25 shy of upgrading one of them to the 64GB version.
This is where I bring up why the modularity is not worth the extra price: it cannot allow for significant upgrades that enhance longevity. Its main benefits are repairability, and the eco-savings of not disposing of the phone if a component breaks. But the thing is that when a component breaks, most consumers already send it in or exchange it due to warranty or insurance. You can argue that not having to dispose of the whole device allows for a greener solution, but I’ll mention why this is not quite the case.
Even if you could upgrade the processor (which you can’t), for example, this would cost extra money for you, the user, and the processor itself would still need to be disposed. The battery, however, cannot be upgraded unless someone specifically designs a higher density unit that is compatible with this phone in particular. The company did not include an NFC chip either, a very common component in most smartphones, because it is not as widely used… instead, there is a possibility of obtaining NFC capabilities through an upgrade in the extension port. If the company focuses on longevity, it makes little sense to not include what will become a core component of Android Pay, which could easily become a huge selling point and commodity of the platform.
Which leads us to software: the company is looking to learn from its mistakes and open up the software. The first Fairphone was deemed “an unplanned obsolescence” due to its inability to (easily) run custom software, as it opted for a set of hardware technologies with a poor record of supporting FOSS apps. They used a MediaTek chip, unsurprisingly, and this also directly impacts part of their “social impact” cause – MediaTek, like Qualcomm, uses TSMC for manufacturing, and a quick list at their workers’ reviews reveal many keyphrases against the narrative, mainly things such as “long hours”, “high pressure”, “stress” and “overtime”. It’d be nice to get a breakdown of how and which subsets of workers get the benefits. While there is a shortage of green chipset manufacturing, and while TSMC has green developments, information about current improvement efforts is relatively important because it forms the basis of current marketing tactics, seen below.
Below are charts come courtesy of a Fairphone-sponsored study on the environmental impacts of device manufacture, and the circuitry and components relevant to chipsets make an important bit. But that’s not all: the gimmick of the Fairphone is its modularity, which helps with its longevity, and in turn this helps with the environment as users do not need to dispose of their devices as early.. However, we don’t know how long Fairphone will support their device, or how upgrades will work in the future, even though the stock components are mediocre at best and many (important ones) are simply unupgradable. Not only that, but focusing on the impact of the housing more so than in the processor is silly considering the housing impact percentages are so low. Then we touch on to another inconsistency:
“Throughout a 3-year usage scenario, based on the maximum charge cycle and average charging time per year, it is assumed that Fairphone owners will buy an additional battery” is what their site says, and it makes sense: in order for a device to last 3 years, you will most likely replace the battery at some point. They also claim that “nearly 50% of the greenhouse gas emissions come from the electricity used to charge the phone during the 3-year usage scenario”. This is funny, because so far nothing suggests (nor guarantees) that this phone will have exceptional battery life. Assuming that users want to minimize environmental damage, they’d need to reduce the electricity consumption from unnecessary charging. They would need to charge their phones more often, however, which easily leads to unnecessary charging. Battery life and battery longevity should be at the top of the list in their priorities, as (per their studies) batteries are damaging components, particularly in metal depletion, and this approach would most likely degrade the battery faster than usual.
Fair Phone, Fair Price?
An ethical phone is not a bad idea – in fact, it’s a great idea. But the way I see it, the modularity in this phone makes no sense. For its size, the phone packs a rather small battery, most likely due to the extra space the modular foundation requires. This may prove problematic to users not only due to the frequent need to charge, but because more charge cycles mean accelerated deterioration of the battery. On the modular front, it requires an additional purchase for future-proof mainstays like NFC that come standard in other handsets – if these are even produced.. Similarly, the 801 is plenty fast, but there are better options for the price. But the nail in the modular coffin comes from answering these fundamental questions:
“Assuming you are careful, how common are cases of phone components suddenly dying? How often do you need to send a phone in due to a randomly broken component? How many users prefer paying extra upfront for a modular phone rather than rely on warranty or insurance on the off-chance that they are in the minority that suffer from faulty hardware or drop?”
The way I see it, for one to choose for a modular repair system over a conventional phone’s frame, one must have little faith in the build quality, quality assurance, and company behind the phone’s construction. When I purchase a new device, I don’t walk into the store with fear and doubt of getting faulty hardware, or having a component die on me before it should, or breaking the phone myself due to shoddy quality or construction. This is not to say that modular devices are a bad idea – Ara and its piecemeal compatriots have entire component ecosystems that allow your phone to evolve with you as your needs change. The issue is that all the Fairphone can muster is promising to keep last year’s tech from succumbing to rare hardware faults that are already covered by most OEMs.
Ultimately, I see this modularity as a big gimmick. I am a big supporter of environmentally friendly processes, and I even go to eco-friendly conventions every now and then (mosty about fabrics and textiles, per my girlfriend). But when you consider the effort that goes into the repairability of this device in order to maximize its theoretical longevity, when everything else points towards reduced practical longevity, it just doesn’t add up. Not for this price. Not when warranties, insurances and services like HTC’s Uh-Oh make it easier to repair or exchange phones. Not when you can grab the huge amount of savings and either buy an extra phone, or donate it to charity or a non-profit organization of your choosing (which allows you to pick reputable and transparent ones as well).
Or, you know, you can also just donate the phone to someone that needs it. Focusing on modularity makes little sense when production is mostly the biggest offender when it comes to pollution and environmental damage, as shown by their own graphs, while recycling is not. The one place where it is not the most significant – climate change – would benefit from good battery life or innovate battery solutions. If you are an educated consumer, you can make better use of the additional money you are paying for modularity on undeserving specifications. You don’t need to pay extra for a company to handle it for you. Simply pick a non-profit or charity and dispose of your devices intelligently. I personally think that’s ultimately more fair to all of us.
I suggest you to read about the first Fairphone’s actual impact and the outcome of their project. It was an unfulfilled promise, to say the least, so it is worth looking into before deciding whether this phone is worthy of your wallet.
Would you buy a Fairphone 2? Let us know below.