Replacing the Fairphone

3 minute read

I will soon need a new phone. My previous one was released in 2015 and I’ve been using it for three years. That doesn’t sound like a long time, but in the current phone-per-year era of planned obsolence that’s an eternity.

Because the phone is a Fairphone 2, I’ve upgraded the phone multiple times since getting it. It was running Android 5 when I got it, but now has Android 7. I’ve replaced the battery and the back cover. I’ve also upgraded the front and back cameras.

It’s a really great phone, but after three years, the touch screen is having problems, registering random input in different parts of the screen. Since touching the screen is the only way to use the phone, it can sometimes be maddening to use it. Things like typing take a lot of tapping, which is not great on a misbehaving screen. After multiple ugrades and years of use the software is also having some problems, apparently running out of memory in some cases that I haven’t quite figured out but managed to migitate.

I could buy a new screen module and replace it. I could even do it myself, since the phone is so easy to fix. I could also reinstall the operating system, perhaps replacing the stock Android with something better. But I feel like I already spend too much time on various tech upkeep tasks, so I’m not very eager to do this.

One of the reasons for this reluctance is that I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep using the phone. The screen module is pretty expensive, so it’s a big investment if I have to switch phones soon for some other reason. Investing in another battery replacement and reinstalling the operating system would probably extend the lifespan of the phone a bit, but I’m not sure for how long.

I’ve been looking at alternatives that could replace my Fairphone, but it’s not been easy. I originally thought my requirements weren’t very strict, but there don’t seem to be many phones that

  1. I can be reasonably sure aren’t made by child or slave labour or from conflict resources;
  2. Don’t spy on me;
  3. Would last me at least another three years, which means at least a reasonable chance of being repaired.

Apple phones are ruled out by 1 & 3, Android phones by 2 (and often also by 1 & 3). Since iOS and Android have what is effectively a duopoly that doesn’t leave a lot of options.

I’m currently looking into two options, both involving refurbished used phones. That doesn’t entirely remove the problem of using technology with child labour and conflict resources, but at least the manufacturer doesn’t get a cut from my purchase.

The first option is to get a used Sony Xperia XA2 and install Sailfish OS on it. Sailfish seems like a nice, usable mobile operating system that doesn’t spy on you. It supports running Android apps, which would make the transition easier. However, it doesn’t run all apps, missing for example Signal. I like this option also because it would support an alternative to the Google and Apple duopoly.

The second option is /e/. It’s an Android fork with all things related to Google removed and replaced by services that the E Foundation has developed or repackaged from open source alternatives. They are still in the early stages of development, but one of the first things they are offering is selling refurbished phones with /e/ preinstalled. Since buying a used phone seems to be currently the best available answer to problem 1, this seems like a promising option. They would also install the operating system for me, while I would have to do that myself with Sailfish. I would probably be able to do that, but I don’t particularly look forward to doing it.

There are other options available, like the Librem 5. It’s another alternative to Android and iOS, running PureOS, a version of Linux. However, Librem 5 has not yet been published and it’s hard to say how usable it will be. I’d like it to succeed, but I’m not eager to be a beta tester either. There are already many previous attempts, like the Ubuntu and Firefox mobile operating systems.

Did I miss some good alternative? Is there a way to figure out whether a phone is made by child labour or from conflict resources? You can tell me on Mastodon or Twitter.

Update: The most ecological technology is the one we use for a long time. I decided to order a replacement screen for my Fairphone and try to get some more years out of it. Hopefully there will be more options available by the time I finally have to give up on my current phone.