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Fairphone 5: Keeping it 10/10?

When I started taking apart the Fairphone 5, I didn’t really expect any surprises. 

Having dis- and reassembled the previous model several times, I had some experience with Fairphone’s approach to building a smartphone: Modularity paired with easy access to all major components. 

It’s a winning formula for a repairable smartphone they have iterated on several times now. So, what’s actually different this time around—apart from a new and shiny OLED screen and beefed up cameras?

Opening Up

A Fairphone 5 with the back cover removed.
A hand removes the battery from a Fairphone 5.

The initial opening procedure is still the same: Just unclip the plastic back cover and you’re good to start your repair. 

The outer shape of the back cover is changed from the Fairphone 4 though, which, together with an increased thickness of nano coating, leads to a slightly improved IP55 rating. So while the Fairphone 5 has the same dust resistance as its predecessor, it’s now able to survive water jets instead of just splashes. 

This time around, the battery takes up noticeably more space than before and it shows in the capacity: 4200 mAh instead of 3905 mAh. It’s the centerpiece sandwiched in between the top and bottom modules.

Minor, But Thoughtful Improvements

Going deeper, there are some quality of life improvements for fixers that are very much appreciated. 

The connector cover of the top module is now connected to the module instead of being separate, so the small plastic piece can’t get lost during the repair.

A photo showing how the connector cover of the Fairphone 5's top module is connected to the module itself.

Below the top module, the individually replaceable cameras are directly accessible, so it’s not necessary to replace the complete camera module if one of them breaks like it was the case with the predecessor. The Time of Flight sensor, meanwhile, remains directly integrated with the top module.

On the bottom of the phone, USB-C port replacements have become a bit more straightforward. No more prodding using a small cutout, now a small metal lid on the left side lets you lift it out comfortably.

Fairphone 5 with cameras removed. Individual cameras are next to the phone.
Removal of the USB-C charging port using a spudger.

The Core Change

The major internal change, however, becomes visible as soon as all these surface level components are removed. 

Instead of a Fairphone 4 style Core Module that snakes around the casing similar to the logic boards of recent iPhones or Google Pixel phones, we are greeted with a view that is much more common in Android phones: a split between a motherboard and daughterboard.

We’ve asked Fairphone about this change and they stated that it was necessary to create more space for the bigger battery.

A view of the front and back of the Fairphone 5 after substantial disassembly.

The change explains the warning stickers that, at first glance, feel out of place in a Fairphone. Previously, securing the Core Module with a Torx screw sufficed in order to steer owners towards the correct path of repair. The new layout creates a whole array of additional areas for accidentally disconnecting something you really shouldn’t.

Detailed view of the antenna cable connector and cables.
Lettering on the board indicates whether the antenna cables are connected to the right connector.

The stickers create a stop sign to think about disconnecting the antenna cables or the interconnect cable between the motherboard and daughterboard, because both have the potential to break functionality.

But even if you decide to disconnect the antenna cables, the connectors are clearly marked to make sure you will reconnect the cables correctly afterwards.

That’s what intuitive repair design is all about: it should be easy to do the right thing and complicated to do the wrong thing.

Beyond Snapdragon

It’s not only on the hardware side where you see Fairphone’s commitment to durability. 

While the Fairphone 5 comes with a promise of 5 Android version upgrades and at least 8 years of security updates, 10 years is their stated goal. This means that Fairphone might actually make the decade-lasting phone a reality.

The SoC that powers this promise is from Qualcomm, but it is deliberately not a Snapdragon processor. Instead, Fairphone opted for the QCM6490 SoC, a chip that is, as Qualcomm puts it, “purpose-built for industrial and commercial IoT applications“.

It’s the fastest industrial chip Qualcomm makes, but certainly not the most cutting-edge technology the chipmaker has to offer. However, due to its industrial target audience, QCM6490 comes with a longer lifetime support than Qualcomm’s consumer products.

Considering initial benchmarking tests, time will tell whether the chip will still be able to handle Android and its apps a few years from now. Right now, it’s competitive with mid-range phones, but not high-end ones.

Keeping it 10/10

Overall, the Fairphone 5 keeps the aspects that were great about previous models and adds some well thought out improvements to the repair experience, like individually replaceable cameras. It features a modular design with easy access to critical parts and easily accessible, reasonably priced replacement parts. Furthermore, Fairphone provides the necessary repair information.

The new layout of motherboard and daughterboard may be more ‘conventional’ than previously, but that doesn’t mean that the phone’s overall repairability suffers. Even in the case of the Fairphone 4, the Core Module was not available for sale “due to the legal and logistical constraints regarding the administration of the IMEI numbers”.

What’s a bit more disappointing is that replacing the fingerprint sensor remains very tricky with no replacement part being sold, but looking at it from a standpoint of expected component failure rates and IP rating, it feels like a reasonable compromise.

The main repairability feature of the Fairphone 5 lies in its software longevity. Even if you can fix your phone six years after you bought it, it often just doesn’t make much sense because it would mean running an outdated, insecure version of Android. 

Big players like Samsung and Google have improved their update policy in recent years and now offer security updates for up to five or even seven years for their latest high-end models. Still, those market leaders keep lagging behind Fairphone. They already proved that they are capable of fulfilling seven years of security updates with the Fairphone 2.

All of this means that the Fairphone 5 is a 10 out of 10 in our books, hopefully for the next 10 years.

Graphic depicting 10 out of 10 on iFixit's Repairability Scale.

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