The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

The Fairest Phone of Them All

I spent eight delightful months without having a cell phone, but the condition was interrupted by the arrival of a Fairphone 2 in March. Since then, life is even better. It is the single best piece of electronics I ever owned and it has some quirks to give it a true character.

Fairphone is a Dutch startup that sources minerals from conflict-free mines and they are about as fair-trade with the components as it is possible. This aligns perfectly with my vegan, cruelty-free, organic, ecological world view. Fairphone 2 is their second attempt to create something that is both good and durable. It is fair to say that they succeeded, more or less.

The phone is charmingly ugly. Its back-cover doubles as a protective case, and it is made of some strange rubbery material that has a great grip. The bulk and heft, combined with the grip, makes it an ideal tool for settling domestic disputes. The crafty Dutch designers thought about this eventuality, and the phone can take a good deal of beating. The claim is that it can fall from 1.8 meters without damages. Applying the same force with the phone on your domestic opponent’s skull will surely settle any dispute in your favour. It is a fair advantage to have.

Despite the grip, the phone enjoys slipping off from any surface I happen to place it on. So far it holds up without as much as a scratch, which I find rather fair.

Indestructibility achieved by miracle back-cover. It is not only durable, it is also so ugly that it reduces the chance of having the phone stolen.

Indestructibility achieved by miracle back-cover. It is not only durable, it is also so ugly that it greatly reduces the chance of having the phone stolen.

The phone is theoretically modular and easy to disassemble. I can certify the latter. The modularity means the components can be ordered independently and fixes are easy. I doubt if meaningful upgrades to the components will ever materialize, but since it is already pretty good in all respect, this is fair enough.

The battery life is outstanding, provided you don’t do anything with the phone. It can sit around switched on for several days at a time. Using the GPS reduces that time to eight or nine hours, which adds a lot of thrill to multi-day trekking or to long days of driving. Browsing the horror that is contemporary internet, battery life reduces to a few hours at most. God bless Javascript and reactive design. It would only be fair to resurrect gopher.

Talking of GPS, using Osmand, the phone recalls some fond memories of programming a ZX Spectrum or a Commodore Plus/4. If I populate the map with the location of all vegan restaurants and shops, teahouses, running and hiking routes, the screen renders as slowly as the 1.7 MHz CPU used to fill a pattern I had dreamed up on the 320×200 canvass. Retrocomputing is fair.

A pleasant side-effect of the design principles of the phone is excess friendliness towards open source. The Google-free version of Android is officially supported, and I have been rejoicing with this variant. Actually, my user space only contains open source apps, and I don’t miss anything. Why would I miss anything if I have a terminal? People with plenty of time on their hand also ported alternative mobile operating systems to the phone, but since I already have my terminal, I can’t be bothered with trying them. Be fair to nerds.

Power to the people! If you need more than a bash terminal to achieve eternal bliss, you are not nerdy enough.

Power to the people! If you need more than a bash terminal to achieve eternal bliss, you are not nerdy enough.

At system level, many drivers are proprietary and so is the baseband chip’s operating system. This is the status quo of the mobile industry, and compared to the sheer amount of firmwares on my laptop, this is not too bad. Yes, my camera and my mic can be turned on at will by the powerful, fascist, warmonger police states that rule the world, and there is nothing I can do about it. One day this planet will be a fair place, but maybe not.

Unlike most smartphones, this one receives an official update about once in every two months. It is really exciting because something new will break with each update. With the latest update, I can no longer copy files to and from my laptop. There is also a fabulous new feature that prevents me from hanging up the phone: once I am in a call, the screen goes black, and that is that. Either the other side hangs up or we have to talk until the battery lasts. This improves social life. Endless calls are fair to human race.

The camera is a marvel of consumer electronics. It is incapable of taking even half-decent pictures in perfect light conditions, which spurs the creativity of the user. There is also a three-four second delay between instructing the camera to immortalize the composition in front of the lens, and the actual act of immortalization. This means that over half of the pictures I took depict the moment as I was shifting the cunning little black slab to a position that was hardly conducive to photography. Ultimately, the phone levels the ground between expert photographers and the next moron who only takes selfies and only with the front camera, which is only fair.

Landscape at angle: the unpredictable delay between pressing the shutter and actually taking the picture leads to pleasant stochastic surprises.

Landscape at angle: the unpredictable delay between pressing the shutter and actually taking the picture leads to pleasant stochastic surprises.

Travelling through the southern bits of Africa, I wondered how fair it would be if a native of the land robbed me of my precious Fairphone. The minerals were obtained from there via fair trade. The shabby ensemble of ore was mould into a phone in a factory in China that gives fair wages and conditions. I was fair to buy a European brand to slow the demise of the continent. In the end, the phone would go back to where it came from in the fairest manner, by theft, that is. Well, the phone is not that fair yet, as it is still in my possession, but, given that I am based in Barcelona, this condition is bound to change sooner rather than later. So all is fair, and if I am to buy a phone again, I would choose the same one.

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