Fairphone 4 in test – can the sustainable smartphone keep up with iPhone and Co.

The Fairphone 4 promises great things: It is supposed to be the first smartphone that does not create any additional electronic waste. But what compromises do you have to make with a device like this?

The new Fairphone 4 is different from all other smartphones as soon as it is unpacked. It is protected from transport damage in the shipping box by compostable padding material. Apart from the modular smartphone and the enclosed screwdriver, everything is actually suitable for the compost.

You get into a tinkering mood even before the first start-up. A SIM card is not slid into the side of the case on a small slide like elsewhere. Instead, you have to take off the back cover and remove the battery – and then reach the SIM card slot inside. This is reminiscent of the old days when most smartphones had a SIM and memory card slot under the battery cover. Besides the physical nano-SIM card, the Fairphone 4 also supports an E-SIM.

Design requires compromises

The Fairphone 4’s casing with its stable aluminum frame feels good in the hand. At 10.5 millimeters, it turns out a bit thicker than other current smartphones. The Dutch manufacturer does not want to submit to the slimness craze of the industry.

In order not to have to make the case even thicker, compromises have been made anyway. Among other things, the jack socket has been omitted. In return, the device is now protected against splash water – despite the removable back.

Fairphone 4 in the field test
Small modules to replace: Camera, USB connector, battery and a few other components of the Fairphone 4 can be replaced quite easily. Photo: Fairphone/dpa-tmn

The Fairphone 4 also comes up against spatial limits when it comes to the battery and has to limit itself to a battery with 3905 milliamperes hours (mAh). However, the device lasted well for a day with moderate use in the test. Frequent users can buy a second battery for 30 Euros and change it when needed. An empty battery can be recharged to 50 percent in 30 minutes.

Mid-range technology with advantages and disadvantages

The display of the Fairphone 4 leaves an ambivalent impression. On the one hand, you no longer have to worry about the screen scratching easily. This is because the display is now protected by resistant special glass. On the other hand, the picture does not look as brilliant as in devices of the top class. Also, when scrolling web pages, the content on the LCD with a refresh rate of 60 hertz did not move as smoothly as on modern OLED screens.

Nevertheless, you do not have the feeling that you are holding a piece of outdated technology at the market launch. The used Qualcomm Snapdragon 750G chip makes the Fairphone 4 fit for the fifth mobile phone generation (5G). All common applications run smoothly. However, the device is less suitable as a mobile gaming console with this configuration.

What is most important to buyers when it comes to smartphones?

Improved camera with teething problems

The Fairphone 4 has a camera with two lenses. The main camera with a wide-angle has optical image stabilization, a laser autofocus and 48 megapixel resolution. In addition, there is an ultra-wide camera with macro function. Zoom is only available digitally. The pictures were not as brilliant as expected in the practical test. Fairphone promises a camera update for better picture quality in October.

However, the latest technology is not so much in the foreground of the Fairphone 4 anyway. The company can shine with its efforts to produce as environmentally friendly as possible. The Dutch company has focused on 14 key materials, all of which have to come from sustainable and fair sources in order to be used in the phone. These range from gold to aluminum, fair tungsten from Rwanda, recycled tin and rare earths, and recycled plastics.

Long warranty with question marks

The Fairphone 4 comes with a five-year warranty, but the battery is not covered as it is subject to wear. However, it can be replaced thanks to the modular design, as well as the display, the two cameras, the USB-C port, and the speakers and earpiece. A new display costs about 80 Euros, and you can replace it yourself without the help of a workshop. A top smartphone can cost 300 Euros and more for a display replacement.

The Fairphone warranty also covers the software: Updates to Android versions 12 and 13 are firmly promised, and the upgrade to versions 14 and 15 is at least promised. However, whether an update to these Android versions will actually succeed depends largely on Google. It is currently difficult to estimate what the minimum hardware requirements for Android 15 will be in the future.

Extensive recycling program

The provider touts the Fairphone 4 as “the world’s first electronic waste-neutral 5G cell phone”. That comes with a concrete promise: For every device sold, one cell phone – or the same amount of electronic waste – will be recycled responsibly, says company CEO Eva Gouwens.

It will be a Herculean task for Fairphone to actually deliver on this promise. Among other things, this has to do with the fact that people in Germany are also so reluctant to part with their old devices, even though they have long since just been lying in a drawer.

Therefore, Fairphone will alternatively refurbish old devices so they can be reused. Devices used for the recycling program would come from Fairphone’s European take-back campaigns or from countries without official recycling infrastructure. They would be brought from there to Europe for environmentally sound refurbishment.

That is what the Fairphone 4 costs

Fairphone 4 in the field test
The Fairphone 4 with several conflict-free raw materials is available from 549 euros. Photo: Fairphone/dpa-tmn

The great effort in avoiding electronic waste and in procuring fairly sourced raw materials is reflected in the price of the Fairphone 4, as is the comprehensive recycling program. The entry-level price is 579 Euros. For that, you get the version with 6 gigabytes (GB) of RAM and 128 GB of internal storage.

The variant with 8 GB RAM and 256 GB internal storage costs 649 euros. By comparison, other smartphones with the Snapdragon 750G chip, such as the OnePlus Nord CE 5G, are already available for 300 euros.

Conclusion: More expensive, but an exemplary concept

The Fairphone 4 is more expensive than the competition in the mid-range, but this price difference seems reasonable. After all, for that you get a device that you can use for years. With support for 5G and E-SIM, the Fairphone 4 is future-proof, also because it will be supplied with up-to-date software for a longer than average time. The fair extraction of the required resources, the easy reparability and the comprehensive recycling promise are exemplary and set a new standard.