You can buy Fairphone’s new handset or just its cameras as an upgrade

Technology

New camera modules will fit into 2019’s Fairphone 3

Fairphone, the sustainable smartphone manufacturer that tries to make easily repairable devices using responsibly sourced materials, has announced its latest handset. The Fairphone 3 Plus is an upgraded version of last year’s Fairphone 3 with improved cameras and speakers. More interestingly, though, if you already bought last year’s phone and don’t want to upgrade to a whole new handset, then Fairphone’s modular design means you can purchase the new camera module on its own and install it into your existing phone.

The Fairphone 3 Plus will cost €469 (about $550) when it releases on September 14th, but buying the upgraded cameras on their own as a modular upgrade will cost €94.90 (about $111). (Fairphone is offering an introductory price of €70 (about $80) until the end of September.) Although buying the upgraded cameras on their own is cheaper, it’s not about saving money. Instead, it’s meant to stop people from replacing a perfectly functional phone just because a new model is available, creating unnecessary waste and putting strain on the Earth’s natural resources.

Anyone who chooses to upgrade to the new camera modules gets higher-resolution sensors packed with more camera functionality. The rear camera now has a 48-megapixel sensor rather than a 12-megapixel sensor, while the selfie camera has gone from 8 megapixels to 16 megapixels. The new lenses also feature faster autofocus, image stabilization, and better object tracking.

Fairphone says the average person replaces their phone every 2.7 years, but ideally it wants people to be able to hold on to their devices for as many as five to seven years. Being able to upgrade individual bits of a phone rather than the whole device each time is an attempt to encourage people to hold on to their phones for longer. According to Fairphone, less than 5 percent of materials in a phone can be recovered and reused. So even if you send a phone in for recycling, a lot of its materials are still going to end up in landfill.

This isn’t the first time Fairphone has offered upgraded camera hardware for its phones. In 2017, it also released upgraded rear and selfie camera hardware for 2015’s Fairphone 2. You could upgrade the phone’s original 8-megapixel rear camera with a 12-megapixel module or the original 2-megapixel selfie camera with a 5-megapixel model.

Outside of the new cameras, the Fairphone 3 Plus is functionally similar to the Fairphone 3. It’s still got a 5.7-inch, 1080p display, it’s still powered by a midrange Snapdragon 632 processor, and it’s still got a removable 3,000mAh battery. There are 4GB of RAM and 64GB of onboard storage, expandable to up to 400GB via microSD. It comes with Android 10 pre-installed, and the company says the operating system will roll out to the existing Fairphone 3 in September.

As well as the improved cameras, Fairphone says that the new 3 Plus has better audio performance with louder, crisper sound. Its construction also uses more recycled plastic. It now has 40 percent recycled plastic, up from 9 percent last year. Unfortunately, you can only get these upgrades by buying a whole new phone — they’re not available as standalone modules.

Outside of the phones themselves, Fairphone says it’s working on a number of other sustainability projects, including sourcing more ethically produced gold, cobalt, tin, tungsten, and copper, and it’s working to improve conditions in cobalt and gold mines. There are also programs in France and Germany that let customers send in their old or broken phone modules so they can be recycled or repaired, along with initiatives to help factory workers in China.

Fairphone’s relentless focus on sustainability means it doesn’t have an easy task on its hands. It needs to produce phones with modern enough specs that people want to buy and use them, but releasing a new device every year risks creating the same wasteful upgrade cycle as other phone manufacturers. With its modular construction, Fairphone has developed an interesting way around the problem.

The Fairphone 3 Plus will be available across Europe from select online retailers and operators, Fairphone says.