Due to the company's startup status, Fairphone's first handset was based on a reference design from its initial manufacturing partner. The design of the Fairphone 2, however, was more under the company's control, enabling it to bringin a new, modular design.
By allowing users to swap out components of their smartphone -- the screen or headphone jack, for example -- if they break or need an upgrade, Fairphone hopes that owners will be able to keep their phones for far longer than the traditional two-year upgrade cycle without feeling like they're suffering as a consequence. Result: fewer old handsets ending up in landfill.
"We came up with the original concept of [a phone] that you could disassemble, maintain, repair and eventually upgrade... We had a target in mind: the basic idea was we wanted to have people use it for about five years. It sounds long in this day and age, but if you go back about five years, that's the iPhone 4S, and there's still a lot of people using an iPhone 4S," Olivier Herbert, the company's CTO, told ZDNet.
Taking the modular idea from the drawing board to shop shelves has been no easy task. "A normal phone is one monolithic block with everything integrated and you have a couple of external surfaces, and that's it. We have seven different elements [the modules that make up the phone], and every single one of them is a product in itself. All that complexity you have to create a cosmetically correct product, you have that multiplied by seven."
Inside the Fairphone
So what's the phone like to use? It's a harder phone to review than many of its contemporaries as it manages to be both an average mid-range Android, and something rather special, at the same time.
On a basic level, it has a large, bright screen; at 32GB it has a goodly amount of memory; and it has a solid processor in the form of the Snapdragon 801. It's light to hold, but with a five-inch display and a half-inch of bezel, it's chunky in the hand. That sense of chunkiness is not dispelled by the phone's depth.
That's in part due to the Fairphone 2's built-in protective case that snaps on and off the handset -- options include a rather smart semi-translucent dark blue number. The cases have a rubber bumper that goes around the phone's edges and onto the front, to protect the handset from the drops and falls that can result in a smashed screen -- another way the company has come up with to keep handsets from an early exit.
The phone's hard buttons are integrated into the case and a little stiff to press the first time I tried, but a matte alternative didn't have the same problem.
The case/back of the phone can be a bit fiddly to get back on once you've removed it, which would be a pain if you're one of those folks that like to swap SIMs. But even if you're one of those people, you won't need to be removing the case too often, as the Fairphone 2 is dual-SIM to start with.
Once you have got the case off, that's when you start to see why the Fairphone is anything but an average Android. Inside you'll find a replaceable battery, which gladdens my heart no end. And, rather than the usual gruff 'opening your phone will void your warranty' you're used to seeing, there's the rather sweet message: 'yours to open, yours to keep'.
Fairphone's chief selling point is that the phone can be taken apart -- and components replaced -- by even those who wouldn't normally dream of tinkering with their handset.
Replacing the five-inch Full HD screen, for example, doesn't require any tools -- just take off the back, move two clips to one side to release the screen, and slide it off. Easy. Those used to being asked to provide tech support for friends' devices will be relieved to know that the screen repair here is the sort of job even the most tech-shy can accomplish without assistance.
Swapping out other modules requires a screwdriver, but by all accounts is a far-from-tricky business: iFixit has a teardown that goes through the process in more detail, and gives the device 10 out of 10 for repairability.
While the idea behind the modular design was inspired by that idea of repairability, it's not impossible that in the future it could be used to offer an upgrade path -- if you want a better processor, for instance, you can just replace the unit, not the whole phone. Hopefully, that's not a million years away: the only letdown is an underpowered camera, and it would be great to have the option to upgrade it in the future.
Similarly, a larger battery (the Fairphone 2's is currently 2420mAh) would be no bad thing: its current size serves to illustrate the difficulties of building a modular phone. "It was a challenge to get a decent sized battery into the phone, there's quite a lot of stuff in there. The battery was constrained by the space we had available. We had to redesign the chassis a couple of times to increase the battery capacity. That proved to be very complicated -- every time you move one thing, everything needs to shift. Moving something by 0.1mm has implications all over the place," said Fairphone's Herbert.
For all its innovation on the hardware front, Fairphone has chosen a far more standard path for software: the Fairphone 2 runs Android 5.1. It's a decision that was taken to give the handset the largest market possible.
"The basic idea was to have an OS that would be suitable for the vast majority of consumers so they wouldn't feel out of place and they could get what they wanted. It should be exactly as any other normal Android phone," he said.
For those that would like to do something different, there are other options on the way: Fairphone is going to release the full development environment for the phone and the company is working with Finnish software startup Jolla to port its OS, Sailfish, to the device. "We wanted to make the hardware as open as possible for software development so people can port what they want on it," Hebert said.
The price may also put some average phone buyers off: at €529, it's not cheap and, as it's sold directly through Fairphone, there aren't any operator 'subsidies' to soak up a bit of the cost.
However, Fairphone isn't really pitched at average buyers. Its market is likely to be those who are more environmentally minded or socially conscious, those who like tinkering with their handset, or an intersection of the two.
It may not be as pretty as a new iPhone or as highly-specced as the latest Galaxy S model, but there's something genuinely different about the Fairphone 2.