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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.