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The Fairphone 5 is boring… how exciting!

The modular, repairable smartphone has matured.

Photo by Daniel Cooper / Engadget

It’s been years and years since the bleeding edge of the smartphone world was truly exciting. The industry may want us to salivate over its latest 5G, 108-megapixel, folding-screen masterpiece, but my mouth remains bone dry. To me, it’s because the ceiling of what’s possible hasn’t actually risen much in the last four or five years; it's more that the floor has maintained its slow creep northward. On paper, the just-announced Fairphone 5 has the specs you’d expect from a mid-range handset. But now that’s not really a penalty since you’re also getting a modular, sustainably-made and potentially upgradeable handset built by people paid a fair(er) wage for doing so. It’s just a smartphone, like any other. On one hand, that makes the new Fairphone 5 boring, but from this perspective, boring can be good.

Ten years into its mission to build a “better” smartphone, it’s not clear if Fairphone still needs a full introduction. For the unaware, the Dutch social enterprise makes devices that are “fairer” than the competition. That means paying factory workers a living wage, sourcing “ethical” raw materials, using recycled materials and keeping the hardware out of the trash for as long as possible. To that end, each device is modular, easy-to-repair, sometimes upgradeable and often far longer lasting than its competition. It’s less fancy than, say, Google’s long-mourned Project Ara, but it’s a damn sight more real than that imagined dream of a modular, upgradeable phone. Here, it’s not just possible, but easy, to pick up a Philips 00-head screwdriver and fit a new component in a matter of minutes.

The Fairphone 5 doesn’t stray far from the template laid down by its immediate predecessor in size and style. It has the same hefty chassis intercut with antenna lines, the same camera housing, the same fingerprint-sensing power button and the same easily removable backplate. Like a lot of phones released in 2023, the changes are nips and tucks to reflect where the industry is at. So, the battery is more capacious, the display a little bigger, and the cameras are a hair more powerful now than they were a generation ago. Fairphone has also made it possible to swap out each camera separately, making it easier and cheaper to fix or upgrade one down the line.

You’ll be able to grab plenty of spare parts, with only the main chassis frame not being available separately. The product list includes the 90Hz, 6.46-inch LG-made POLED display, 4,200mAh battery and all three cameras. You can also get a spare earpiece, loudspeaker, USB-C port and a top unit containing the Time of Flight sensor, as well as the SIM and SD-card slots. If a part on this phone breaks, you’ll be able to pick up almost everything you could need for not that much cash. The priciest component is the display, priced at €99.95 (around $108), which is about half what Samsung charges, and almost a third of what Apple asks for.

To make good on its promises of sustainability and longevity, Fairphone 5 uses Qualcomm’s octa-core QCM6490 SoC. It’s an industrial-grade IoT chipset that, far as I can tell, is used in only one other phone: AGM’s thermal-camera equipped G2 Guardian. There’s only one SKU here, with the Fairphone 5 coming with 8GB RAM and a very generous 256GB storage, expandable to 2TB with the right microSD card. Fairphone says the choice was dictated by the chipset’s blend of premium features like 6G, WiFi 6E and on-chip AI processing. Not to mention, Qualcomm promises to support its industrial grade silicon for longer than it does its mobile chips.

To that end, Fairphone is committing to support the (almost) stock install of Android 13 and “at least five operating system upgrades after.” (Given Android 14’s forthcoming launch, you should expect that to be heading to your phone in the near future.) The company says it expects to offer software support until 2028 at the very least, but hopes it’ll keep things running until 2033.

And Fairphone has now established a track record of being able to keep its phones going for a fair old while. The Fairphone 2 was launched in 2015 with Android 5.1 and got its final security patch in March 2023 with an Android 10 update. Seven or so years of software support is a good reason to switch, especially when Samsung pledges four years of software and five years of security updates for “select” handsets.

Image of the Fairphone 5 with its rear cover and battery open above a screwdriver.
Image of the Fairphone 5 with its rear cover and battery open above a screwdriver. (Photo by Daniel Cooper / Engadget)

In my limited time playing with the new model, I’ve found the performance to be a lot snappier than on older Fairphones. Animations and transitions in the OS itself don’t appear at this early stage to be laggy, and Fortnite on Epic mode played perfectly at 30fps. I certainly noticed how much faster it is to unlock this phone compared to the last one, both using my face and my fingerprint. At first blush, this appears to be more than capable of meeting your expectations for normal phone use. Well, if your idea of normal phone use is texting, emails, social media, YouTube, TikTok and the odd deathmatch.

I’d describe the Fairphone 5’s imaging as solid, although I’m worried that to do so is to damn it with faint praise. The primary 50-megapixel, f/1.88, OIS-equipped camera backed by Sony’s IMX800 sensor is more than enough for most people’s photography needs. It may not have the software smarts of some devices in its class, but it’s no slouch, especially with video. Glance at the Fairphone 5’s back and you’ll spot a circle the same size as the camera lenses, which is the ToF sensor. It’s this phone’s secret weapon, especially when it comes to the lightning-fast autofocus when you’re shooting video.

It’s not all good: The phone gets a little warmer than I’d like when running heavy load, but that feels par for the course in the 5G era. The built-in speakers, meanwhile, are so tinny I’d never recommend using this for audio if you have headphones to hand. I also think the solid black cover will be far better at resisting smears than the transparent edition in my loan unit. And I wish, as well as the black, transparent and sky blue colorways, the company had offered the same green and orange paint job that is so wonderful on the Fairbuds XL.

It’s also a shame we’re not yet seeing a wide release for the Fairphone 5 in the US, at least not at the same time as it comes to Europe. The Fairphone 4 is available to buy in the States with a “deGoogled” OS courtesy of privacy-focused startup Murena. I’m sure the 5 will make a similar journey in future, but it’d be nice to see a simultaneous release so people aren’t left waiting for a year or more to get the updated hardware.

I’ve said before that Fairphone has always carried the whiff of a compromise choice, the cork and hemp sneaker you buy to assuage your guilt over all the sweatshop-made kicks you own. But, both thanks to Fairphone’s efforts to improve its product, and the general stagnation in the mobile industry more generally, the delta between what’s hot and what’s not has closed by a lot. If you’re looking to pick up a mid-range handset that you can keep going for twice as long as any other phone on the market, and you want to do a bit of good in the process, this is probably the phone for you. It’s not often the view from the moral high ground is this comfortable.

The Fairphone 5 is available to pre-order today, August 30, from the company’s website and a number of major European carriers. It is priced at €699 (around $750), with shipping expected to commence September 14 from Fairphone and the majority of its carriers.