Fairphone 5 Review: The Phone That Wants to Save the World


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Jul 24, 2023

Fairphone 5 Review: The Phone That Wants to Save the World

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Our expert, award-winning staff selects the products we cover and rigorously researches and tests our top picks. If you buy through our links, we may get a commission. Reviews ethics statement

The Fairphone 5's eco credentials are impressive. But there are problems to be aware of.

Sustainable phone-maker Fairphone wants its new Fairphone 5 to save the planet. From its recycled materials, fair-trade components, easy repairability and epic security support, Fairphone has worked hard to minimize the environmental impact of its newest socially conscious phone. It's a noble cause and while I enthusiastically applaud the work that Fairphone has done here, as a phone, the Fairphone 5 itself is a bit of a letdown.

The battery life and the cameras are the two biggest problems here, with disappointing results from both. But that's made worse by a relatively high £620 price that puts it at least £200 more expensive than the Google Pixel 7A. And the Pixel 7A outperforms the Fairphone 5 in several ways. The Fairphone 5 is due to hit shelves in the UK and Europe in mid-September, but a US launch isn't on the cards, and its website doesn't ship to the US or Australia. (Its European price, 699 euros, converts to around $765 or AU$1,175.)

But the phone isn't all bad. Its eight years of software support is the best around, it's so easy to repair you can fix it yourself at home if you happen to smash your screen, and it has a microSD card slot to expand the built-in storage by up to 2TB. But still, while I love the eco credentials behind it, it's not the best phone you can buy for the money. Here's what you should know.

The technology industry is a dirty one. From the mining of rare earth materials to the chemicals in the batteries to the vast amount of electronic waste produced, the environmental impact of our phones is huge. And that's compounded by most companies' release schedule, as they continue to refresh their offerings at least once a year.

Fairphone aims to do things differently. It works with organizations that ensure that materials used in production are fair-trade, and Fairphone works with the factories that produce the products to ensure workers are properly treated and paid a fair living wage. And while companies including Apple, Samsung and Google use a limited amount of recycled parts in their products, Fairphone uses recycled materials throughout every component possible, including recycled tin and steel in the battery.

The phone itself is easily repairable by you (I took mine apart to test this) with 10 different components, including all the cameras, the display and the battery, available to buy directly from Fairphone so you can fix your phone at home and keep it going for longer. Because the best way to minimize the environmental impact of your phone is to keep using it for as long as possible before swapping it out for an entirely new device.

The Fairphone 5 is easily repairable at home and even the individual camera units can be bought from Fairphone and replaced at home.

To help that, Fairphone not only offers a five-year warranty on the phone but promises that the Fairphone 5 will receive at least five major Android updates and security updates for at least eight years -- meaning this phone should still be safe to use in 2031. That's a lot longer than any other company offers. Samsung is one of the next best here, offering five years of security updates, while RedMagic barely offers two years on its 8 Pro. Fairphone is way ahead of the competition here, and I hope it encourages other companies to up their game.

Remember that if your phone is out of its security support period, it's no longer safe to use. That's annoying, as the hardware on older phones is often still fine to use, at least for everyday tasks, but without security updates, you're putting yourself at risk using it.

It runs Android 13 now, but the Fairphone 5 will receive numerous version updates in its lifetime.

Physically the Fairphone 5 is not exactly the most beautiful thing around. Sure, it's slimmer and lighter than its predecessor, but it's still chunky and quite plain looking. The back is plastic, which does feel cheap, but it's removable, giving access to the battery, SIM slots and other components should you need to do any repairs. Sure, it could have a luxurious glass back, but then you wouldn't be able to open it up as easily.

Under that plastic back cover is a hidden gem though -- a microSD card slot that lets you expand the 256GB of internal storage with cards up to 2TB in size. Again, this will help the phone remain useful for longer as you should never run out of storage space. Despite the removable back, the Fairphone 5 is still IP55-rated for water resistance. It likely won't survive a dunk in the pool, but it provides peace of mind if you spill beer on it or need to take a phone call in the rain.

Its IP55 rating should help keep it safe from light rain.

The phone has a fingerprint scanner built into the power button on its side, which can be a bit awkward to reach, but it also has face unlock, which I found worked most of the time. The 6.46-inch display is vibrant and sharp enough to do justice to YouTube videos or mobile games and while it's not quite bright enough to counter direct sunlight outdoors, in most other conditions, it's fine.

The phone runs on a Qualcomm QCM 6490 processor -- an unusual choice as this chip is mostly made for industrial applications and Internet of Things devices, but Fairphone says it's precisely this chip that allows for much longer software support than a more typical mobile chip, like the Snapdragon line found in most other Android phones.

The processor isn't particularly powerful, but it handled light gaming well enough.

On benchmark tests, this processor doesn't particularly impress, but in general use it has enough power to handle any of your essential web browsing, Instagramming and video streaming, and it copes well enough with games like Alto's Odyssey and Asphalt 9. It handled the more demanding Genshin Impact too, but when I turned the quality settings up I did notice a drop in performance.

The battery is definitely a letdown though. It put in some of the worst performances I've seen on our CNET drain tests and I'd be concerned about getting through a day of mixed use. It dropped by 16% after 45 minutes of mixed use, including gaming and web browsing, so I'd definitely recommend keeping a spare external battery or portable charger handy if you enjoy streaming some YouTube videos on the bus home from work.

The Pixel 7A (right) offers much better performance at a much lower price.

The Fairphone 5 holds its charge quite well in standby though, so if you tend to casually glance at your phone throughout the work day to check notifications, you should still have juice left in the evening. I suspect that the unusual processor choice is at least partly to blame here -- with the QCM 6490 not being built with mobile devices in mind, it's unlikely to be optimized for power efficiency during demanding tasks like video streaming and gaming in the way that Snapdragon chips are. But that's just my theory.

On the back is a dual camera setup comprising of a 50-megapixel camera and a 50-megapixel ultrawide. I'm not impressed by either camera, with disappointing results from both lenses, including drab colors and a noticeable shift in color tone between the standard and ultrawide lenses.

Fairphone 5, main camera.

Fairphone 5, main camera.

Fairphone 5, main camera.

Fairphone 5, ultrawide camera.

The ultrawide lens also delivered extremely mushy details, particularly toward the edges of the frame. This wide shot of the Leith shore looks fine in full screen, but zooming in to the edge, it's clear to see the total lack of detail here. Compare that to the Pixel 7A and the difference is immense.

Pixel 7A, ultrawide camera.

Fairphone 5, ultrawide camera, 70% crop.

Pixel 7A, ultrawide camera, 70% crop.

In fact, the Pixel 7A's dual rear camera consistently delivered better shots, which is especially disappointing given the significantly lower price of the Pixel.

Fairphone 5, main camera.

Pixel 7A, main camera.

Fairphone 5, main camera.

Pixel 7A, main camera.

And unfortunately for Fairphone, the Google Pixel 7A is the elephant in the room here, offering not just superior camera skills, but better processor performance and battery life, along with wireless charging, better waterproofing and various Google software additions.

That leaves me feeling conflicted. The technology industry seriously needs to clean up its act and I applaud everything Fairphone is doing to show how things can be done better. The Fairphone 5 is the culmination of that good work and I fully appreciate that the more people who buy it, the more bigger companies will take notice and implement better policies of their own. But I have to stand by my principles of objective journalism in this review. The Fairphone 5 has problems. The battery life and the camera are extremely disappointing and you can get better performing phones for a lot less money.

Fairphone's mission is admirable. Sadly, this phone isn't.

But if you don't care about photography and you're not a power mobile gamer then you should still consider the Fairphone 5. Its long software support and easy repairability means this phone will still be useful years from now, so it may actually work out being extremely good value over time. And you can pat yourself on the back for making a more socially conscious decision.

Every phone tested by CNET's reviews team is actually used in the real world. We test a phone's features, play games and take photos. We examine the display to see if it's bright, sharp and vibrant. We analyze the design and build to see how it is to hold and whether it has an IP rating for water resistance. We push the processor's performance to the extremes using both standardized benchmark tools like Geekbench and 3DMark, along with our own anecdotal observations navigating the interface, recording high-resolution videos and playing graphically intense games at high refresh rates.

All the cameras are tested in a variety of conditions from bright sunlight to dark indoor scenes. We try out special features like night mode and portrait mode, and compare our findings against similarly priced competing phones. We also check out the battery life by using the phone daily as well as running a series of battery drain tests.

We take into account additional features that can be useful, like support for 5G; satellite connectivity; fingerprint and face sensors; stylus support; fast charging speeds; and foldable displays, among others. And we balance all this against the price to give you the verdict on whether that phone, whatever price it is, actually represents good value.


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