Titus Stahl

A brief review of the Fairphone 2

Since two days ago, I have a Fairphone 2. Among the main reasons why I bought it was – next to the obvious moral considerations of not supporting exploitative industrial practices – the promise of repairability and durability and the promise of openness. I had a Nexus 4 before that and one of the big disadvantages of that phone is that you cannot easily exchange the battery or upgrade the internal storage. The idea of a phone that does not become obsolete as quickly thus resonated with me. I also expected Fairphone to be more likely to protect its users against predatory data collection practices and release software that is as open as possible.

Some of these things came true, others not so much.

  • The phone looks indeed incredibly sturdy, and all the components are easily exchangeable. It does not feel too bulky, though, and has quite good performance (slightly better than the Nexus 4).
  • Unfortunately, the Android installation that comes with the phone has the usual Google spyware on it. Quite late in the process, Fairphone announced that they will not support attempts at rooting, citing licensing concerns. While Fairphone releases build instructions for a Google-free variant of its operating system, building these sources worked only with manual fiddling for me and took about 6 hours on my laptop – definitely out of the reach of non-technical users. Fairphone does not allow people to share pre-built images online, again due to licensing concerns. And even if you can built the open source variant of Android, the operating system is not rooted. Users need root, however, for all kinds of customizations that increase security, such as setting a reasonable password for the disk encryption, adding self-signed SSL certificates and removing unnecessary built-in applications.
  • Due to my own stupidity, I destroyed the system image of my Fairphone by accidentally flashing the system partition with a boot image. The situation as described above makes it very hard to find a system image online that one could use to restore functionality. However, by booting into recovery and flashing a system update that people found online, I was able to restore the original system.
  • I then flashed a boot loader image with root that is available online (this image does not contain closed source components and thus is legal to share) to get root, only to discover that setting up full disk encryption does not work with this image.
  • I finally resolved this issue by restoring the original system once more, with the system update as described above, booting into Android, setting up full disk encryption and only then flashing the rooted boot image, allowing me then to change the encryption password and do all kinds of other things, including removing all unnecessary Google apps (the market and GCM are, unfortunately still needed to run Signal).

Having resolved the software problems, the phone now runs Fairphone’s custom Android build. This is generally OK (not that different from stock Android), and has only a few bugs. The most annoying bug is that the display flickers considerably as soon as it is in the lower third of the brightness range. This makes automatic brightness adjustment quite unusable. Furthermore, the built-in LED only can display a red light. Both issues apparently are software bugs that will be fixed in an upcoming update (although that makes me worry that I cannot install it without going through the whole rooting dance again).

Hardware-wise, I quite like the camera and the sound which are more than sufficient for my purposes; the fact that it has two SIM card slots also is very useful for me. So far, I have not been successful in mounting a 64GB microSD card, but that might be resolvable with partitioning it correctly.

The phone seems to be quite sensitive about chargers – it does not load at all with two of my chargers (which work perfectly with LG and Samsung phones), and people report online that you cannot use the touchscreen properly as long as it is connected to some chargers. This is a bit annoying, especially when travelling.

Concluding:

  • the repairability and the ethical supply chain are a plus,
  • in terms of software openness, the Fairphone is ironically even worse than phones sold by Google (although the community might be able to fix this),
  • there are still a few quality issues, but the phone is quite nice to use (although the price tag is probably too steep if you don’t care about the other issues).