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For a conscientious consumer seeking a powerful smart-phone, there seem to be two options: Fairphone and and Samsung’s Galaxy S4. I will first assess the ethicality and sustainability of these devices then compare their technical specifications.

Samsung Galaxy S4 Versus Fairphone

Sustainability and Ethics

Last year, a number of articles were written comparing these two phones for sustainable and ethics, as the Galaxy was awarded TCO certification and Fairphone’s raison d’etre is ethicality. While Samsung need no introduction, Fairphone is a crowd-funded initiative to produce a recyclable smartphone manufactured in fair and safe condition, from ethically sourced (and ultimately completely recycled) materials.

One such article, on Triple Pundit went into some depth, comparing the two phones based on three major categories: Conflict minerals and working conditions, hazardous materials and disposal and e-waste.

Conflict minerals are precious metal ores such as gold, tin, tungsten and tantalum, originally purchased from violent and oppressive armed groups in places such as the resource-rich Democratic Republic of Congo. They are exported, smelted and used in many consumer electronics products. The war in the DRC as killed over 5 million people since 1998 and seen whole communities fractured by systematic rape and violence. For a brief history of this conflict and a first-hand account of the corruption and criminality, see this article by journalist Jeffrey Gettleman. Gettleman also tells of improvements in recent years, due to international pressure, which led the Congolese government to seize and regulate a number of mines. These changes may account for the certified conflict-free tin and tantalum used by Fairphone, who are still attempting to secure a conflict free supply of gold and tungsten; this may prove especially difficult as Congolese gold mines are still predominately controlled by armed groups.

The TCO offers no guarantee that certified products are free of conflict minerals. Additionally, The Triple Pundit review relies on TCO guidelines to assess the effort taken by Samsung to ensure the ethicality of their supply chains. This is problematic because there has since been some controversy regarding TCO’s certification. However, the TCO’s analysis found that the deficiencies in provision for workplace illness and accidents cited by critics, were based on evidence gathered before the certificate came into effect. Further, the analysis claims that the accusation of workers’ lack of rights to free association and collective bargaining (i.e unionisation) were unfounded. While the certification stills stands, it brings to light the fact that Samsung have historically failed, and in their supply chains and manufacturing processes for other products, may still fail to adhere to the TCO’s rules. Fairphone claims to promote the International Labor Organization’s requirements for working conditions and had its factory and China reviewed by a third party social assessment organisation. Assuming that both Smartphone’s manufacturers ensure adequate working conditions, Fairphone’s main advantage is the fact that they have never profited form doing otherwise.

In terms of hazardous materials, while Fairphone follows guidelines set out in European law, the TCO’s policies are in some areas more stringent, completely banning the use of mercury and phthalates. Both Samsung and Fairphone implement take-back programs to facilitate the proper disposal and recycling of their products. However, Fairphone goes further in both partnering with Closing the Loop who buy up mobile phone scrap from developing companies and ensure that is properly processed and setting aside 3 euros per unit sold for e-waste management projects in countries where these facilities don’t exist.

Fairphone has a clean rap sheet regarding past and contemporary unethical supply chains and manufacturing conditions. While Samsung markets the S4 as a ‘life companion’ and places much of their branding is aspirational and based on an idealised Western lifestyle, Fairphone’s entire presentation relates to their ethical goals. Samsung’s greater progress in terms of hazardous chemicals (in this case) may sway those of you who prioritise workers’ exposure to such chemicals over further curtailing the violence and exploitation that have ravaged the DRC.

Specs

Operating system

Both phones ship with Android 4.2.2 (Jelly bean) installed, though the look and feel of these operating system will be very different as both companies will install additional software. Fairphone are working with Kwamecorp to develop a clear an uncluttered user interface. Here is a video of someone unboxing one of previous (2013) batch of Fairphones.  The fact that the Fairophone user interface software will be open source scores a lot of points with me. While it comes with it’s own unique swiping functionality and menus, which may or may not be to your taste, you may appreciate the relative lack of pre-installed bloatwear, that I had to root my existing Samsung Galaxy S2 to remove, and complete absence of Google software to begin with.

Even this 9/10 review of the Galaxy S4 the author says the phone is more intuitive to use without Samsung’s TouchWiz swipe functionality.

All of this aside, with a little research, a few software downloads and some effort, both phones can be rooted and their software heavily customized, though Samsung don’t encourage this while Fairphone do.

Processor

All Faiphones come with a 1.2ghz quad core CPU. The various versions of the Galaxy S4 come with a range of quad core CPUs clocked at between 1.2 and 2.3Ghz. A more expensive S4 will get you more processing power. However, four cores clocked to 1.2Ghz should handle playing music and videos, web browsing, social networking and casual gaming, even simultaneously, without a stutter. The lower clock speed will likely also mean lower power consumption.

Memory and Storage

The Galaxy S4 comes with 2GB of RAM (random access memory) and between 16 and 64GB of internal storage augmentable using the microSDXC card slot that can take up to 64GB. While the Fairphone only comes with 1GB of RAM 16GB internal storage, some of which will be used for the operating system, it also has a microSFXC card slot, meaning that those seeking to store a greater volume of data can do so.

Display and GPU

With a 1920×1080 Super AMOLED display measuring 5 inches across, the S4 has a considerable advantage over the Faiphone’s 4.3 inch 960x540px TFT screen, both in terms of pixel density and image vibrancy.

Mobile device GPUs aren’t aren’t as heavily documented and compared as laptop and desktop graphics cards. However, I can tell you that the Fairphone comes with a PowerVR SGX544 clocked at 158 MHz. The S4 GT-i9500 features the same GPU, clocked at 533 MHz. Why the massive difference in clock speed? The S4 GPU has to process four times as many pixels. Later versions of the S4 come with the Adreno 430, which clocks at 450/578Mhz. Because of the smaller screen resolution, the Faiphone performed surprisingly well at outputting a visually complex 3D game.

Camera

Based on image resolution alone, the S4’s 13 megapixels trumps the Fairphone’s 8. However, it’s worth noting that while a higher resolution will lead to larger and possibly more detailed image files, the optics of a small mobile phone lens may not produce images worthy of such a high resolution. Not to mention the fact that the data from the CMOS sensor is interpolated to produce more pixel values than are technically sensed.

As far as video recording goes goes, the Fairphone can encode 1080p@30fps video using H.263 and 720p@30fps using the higher quality H.264 codec. Again, the S4 wins with 1080p @ 30fps encoded using  H.264. It also has support for the the new HEVC or H.265 codec, but I don’t know if this extends to recording.

As I cannot find an objective comparison of the image quality, I’ll say that the S4 has a superior camera due to the higher resolution sensor.

Networks

Both phones can connect to 2G and 3G networks. In some cases, the S4 cna also connect to 4G (LTE). Both support wireless 802.11 while the S4 has a greater range of features. Conveniently, the Fairphone has two SI card slots, the first 2G and the second 3G.

Conclusion

The Faiphone boasts dual SIM capabilities, which may cut the costs buying an maintaining a second phone if for some reason one needed to have two numbers. In my view, at least, the minimalistic open-source software that comes with the Fairphone is also superior. Out of the box, my old Galaxy SII was filled with bloatwear that would run in the background without my consent; it was so obtrusive that it felt like it was hard-coded, requiring a warranty-voiding rooting process to remove it. At least Faiphone seem to understand that software is one area where a great deal of freedom is possible.

The build-quality of the S4 has been criticised. People have said it looks and feels cheap. The front of the Fairphone is almost all glass and most of the back is metal. Personally, I prefer design of the Fairphone over the generously curved corners and lightly textured plastic of the S4.

The Fairphone is surpassed in all other major technical areas. As a general purpose camera, gaming and media playing/streaming device the S4 is far more feature rich.

Economic Convenience

Due to Fairphne’s lack of reliance on venture capital, one can only purchase by pre-ordering for the next production batch at approximately £254.91 . This can mean long waits and a lack of convenience and choice.

With the S4 there are is a plethora of contracts (Cheapest: £357.12 for 34 months) and pay as you go deals to choose from, as well as SIM free deals from £309.99.

The fairphone should work out cheaper, though as the S4 is superseded by the S5, the gap could close.

Last Word

Buying a Fairphone is more of a political act. The pragmatist in me may choose the powerful, convenient and reasonably ethical S4  but the idealist would like to support a start-up company that aims to raise awareness about consumer electronic manufacturing processes and supply chains, taking small steps toward changing them for the better.

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It is almost unthinkable that multinational software corporations like Adobe and Autodesk are not aware of all the keygens, cracks and other means of illegally licensing and using their software available online. They probably have the resources and technically skilled staff needed to effectively combat software piracy, but what would they gain from this investment?

Assuming they were successful (the pirates are always on step ahead): You might think that they would gain tighter control of their various software markets. What would hobbyists and early career artists/technicians do if software used by sizeable animation, visual effects, architecture and engineering firms was completely unavailable to them?

  • They might buy cheaper alternatives, and help give big corporations’ competitors a fighting chance.
  • They might look into free and open source alternatives like GIMP (raster graphics), Inkscape (Vector graphics) and Blender (3D modelling and animation.) In my experience, Blender seldom, if ever crashes; the same can’t be said for Maya.

Neither of these possible consequences help the big corporations. Without software piracy, there would be a smaller pool of unemployed (or employed in different industries) workers skilled in their software.

If you really want a career as a CAD technician, photo retoucher, graphic designer or 3d artist, the chances are, you’ll do better if you continue to pirate industry standard software sold by giant corporations.  As a university student, you could even get Autodesk software free on an educational licence.

However, if you’re a hobbyist or someone looking to set up a firm who do things a little differently, consider this:

  • You could learn your craft in a way that doesn’t strengthen the monopoly of companies who profit from the software they’ve bought up from multiple developers.
  • You could do so without the constant fear of litigation.
  • You could eventually contribute to the open source projects you’ve benefited from.
  • You won’t feel like a powerless wage labourer, so grateful for a chance to work for someone who can afford the means of production, or to be that someone.

A teenage me might have though it clever and  naughty to use pirate software, but in my twenties, I’m starting to see the bigger picture.

Who’s going to read my blog? What sort of blogs will I be exposed to? Our choice of blogging platform has some bearing on these questions.

(One caveat: I wrote this in October 2013; if you’re reading it in 2015 or later, most of this information will be useless.)

Rather than looking primarily at the quality of available blogging services and whether their features would suit my needs like a lot of reviewers, I’m focusing on the people that make up blogging communities. In my example, I’ll be assessing Alexa’s top three ranked free blogging services: WordPress, Blogger and Tumblr as candidates for a secondary blog. I’m doing this because like many artists, I already have a website where I can post all kinds of content. My site runs on the award-winning open source content management system Joomla; It is stable, customizable and functions well as blog. What it lacks, is ready access to millions of potentially similar blogs and the ability to comment on them using a single account that leads to my blog and website.

Alexa.com offers popularity rankings, user demographics and other stats that can help us gain a broad overview of a website’s visitors and how they behave. With a global rank of 13, Blogger is the most popular blogging service in the world. However, the majority of it’s traffic comes from America. WordPress is ranked 15th globally and while my native UK makes up 3.8% of visitors, it is still the 15th most popular site on this relatively small landmass. Tumblr is the least popular, with a global rank of 26, but similarly, because a mere 4.1% of its visitors are based in the UK it is the 18th most popular site here. Blogger is the most extreme example, being the most popular overall, but ranked 69th in the UK. The fact that blogger is the least popular in the UK could have some consequences: I’d find it less convenient read and interact with blogs of people I meet face-to-face in the UK and I’d be far less likely to network with people with links to UK universities, galleries and other institutions.

Another part of Alexa’s traffic analysis that may be useful is their audience engagement stats. WordPress.com has the highest Bounce Rate, meaning that a high percentage of visitors don’t continue browsing after viewing one page, and lowest Pageviews per Visitor and Daily Time Spent on Site – thought the site is currently improving, with the first statistic falling and the second two rising. While Tumblr has the best of these stats, they are moving in the opposite direction to WordPress’, meaning that the site may be deteriorating. Blogger’s Bounce Rate is the lowest, and is falling; Its Daily Time on Site is mediocre but rising. As I have little reason to think that current trends will continue, I think Tumblr performs best in this area.

While traffic analysis stats tell us a bit about who visits a site and how they do it, it’s possible to get some idea of the content of a website using search engines. Below is a table of the estimated numbers of results in each site for different search terms using Bing. I chose MS Bing because it’s unaffiliated – unlike Google, Microsoft doesn’t have the incentive or ability to immediately index all new Blogger blogs.

blogspot.com wordpress.com tumblr.com
art 17,400,000 8,740,000 17,400,000
“digital art” 361,000 132,000 383,000
fiction 2,910,000 2,460,000 1,120,000
philosophy 2,150,000 1,880,000 357,000
poetry 2,860,000 2,680,000 11,600,000
prose 711,000 445,000 5,710,000
“interactive prose” 9,290 2,860 30
“interactive poetry” 2,660 2,080 6
“digital poetry” 2,740 2,430 69
“digital fiction” 1,400 2,400 71
“interactive fiction” 16,200 12,600 4,070
“Games design” 79,000 7,420 6,330
“indie games design” 5,100 2,970 4,010
unity3d 33,800 12,500 7,260
“blender 3d” 41,900 12,100 7,030
GIMP 559,000 247,000 78,400
c# 1,000,000 534,000 8,250
TOTAL: 28,143,090 17,175,360 36,685,526

I chose the particular words based on my personal interests. I’m confident most of you could compile a similar list. Tumblr’s much higher total owes to the millions of results for the rather generic terms prose, poetry and art. For more specific phrases, and software-related terms, Tumblr doesn’t deliver. Blogspot certainly does better in this area, as well as yielding more results for the general terms. WordPress falls somewhere in the middle with no great flaws or strengths.

In my case, each of our three blogging services performs best in one category: WordPress in most popular in my native UK, Tumblr tends to have more engaged visitors and blogspot seems to have more content that is relevant to most of my interests. There are several other factors here. WordPress does better in terms of quality and features, as this ranking of blogging services indicates. I have past experience of both WordPress and Blogger, albeit four years ago, and I did enjoy the former more. I’m also fond of WordPress because it’s a quality open source project, which represents countless hours of work by highly skilled volunteers. If we were going on features alone, WordPress would be a winner, but I already use its more complex and powerful competitor Joomla. Blogger gets a decent review on TopTenREVIEWS, while Tumblr doesn’t appear in the ranking. This review from PC Magazine is hardly overflowing with praise. The very idea of emphasising images at the expense of text goes against many of my inclinations. Especially as, in practice, pornographic images end up circulating widely (Tumblr had the highest number of Bing results for the term “porn”.) Blogger, on the other hand, while not as high quality as WordPress, is geared toward more conventionally verbose blogs and is highly customisable – allowing you to edit the HTML directly.

I am torn between the quality of WordPress, and the fact it has a large share of the UK market and the greater relevance of Blogger. Regardless of how enjoyable wordpress might beto use, it’s audience engagement stats are underwhelming – it’s far more important that people enjoy reading enough to carry on doing so. Perhaps I can could use Twitter and Facebook as a link to UK based networks and Blogger to find a community of like-minded artists and writers. It is also worth remembering that google has a 67% share of the search engine market and will be guaranteed to index all of my content if I use Blogger. At this stage, I think it’s worth putting that theory to the test by running the test I ran earlier with Google search:

blogspot.com wordpress.com tumblr.com
art 226,000,000 55,200,000 87,100,000
“digital art” 742,000 369,000 364,000
fiction 38,500,000 18,500,000 5,130,000
philosophy 14,600,000 7,300,000 731,000
poetry 28,800,000 2,260,000 2,590,000
prose 4,090,000 445,000 308,000
“interactive prose” 43 93 2
“interactive poetry” 4,270 5,240 162
“digital poetry” 3,980 14,100 1,200
“digital fiction” 6,980 9,420 71
“interactive fiction” 23,100 18,300 974
“Games design” 31,000 17,600 4,500
“indie games design” 9 10 7
unity3d 61,900 203,000 24,900
“blender 3d” 53,500 16,500 10,900
GIMP 1,090,000 415,000 83,300
c# 1,570,000 828,000 13,600
TOTAL: 315,576,782 85,601,263 96,362,616

Even if my conjecture about Google indexing their own blogs very thoroughly is true, WordPress scores higher in a handful of quite specialised areas: Unity3d, digital poetry, interactive poetry and interactive prose. In sampling Blogger, I also discovered that it is possible to comment on others’ blogs using a WordPress account – WordPress doesn’t appear to have the reverse option. This means that if I could easily interact with both communities, as well as enjoying the quality and UK popularity of WordPress.