The architecture of the Fairphone 2: Designing a competitive device that embodies our values
The big day is finally here! Nearly a year and a half after we started designing our new phone, we’ve released the first images and more details about the Fairphone 2.
Thanks to the 60,000 people who purchased our first Fairphone and all the support from our greater community, we were able to take the next step in our strategy and invest in an original design for our latest device. This design approach allows us to take our ambitions for fairness even further, paving the way to start gaining greater oversight of our supply chain, including improving our ability to select suppliers and increasing transparency. It also allowed us to focus on making a phone that lasts longer and gives users a stronger sense of ownership. We’re working on initiatives that we look forward to telling you more about in the coming months, but first we would like to introduce you to the Fairphone 2.
In a previous blog post, I gave you more insight into the process behind designing the next Fairphone from the inside out. Now I’m truly excited to finally share some of the results of this process, including some of the most important aspects of the architecture of the Fairphone 2 and the design choices that we’ve made along the way.
A robust phone that’s designed to last
One of our key objectives for the Fairphone 2 was to extend the longevity of the product, with the most sustainable smartphone being the one that you already have and that you can keep using.
We first examined the key drivers that push people to replace their devices on a regular basis and examined the fundamental features of conventional smartphone architectures that trigger those drivers. After compiling a range of improvement features, we selected a subset of items that could be addressed with clever engineering in a reasonable time frame, and explored the tradeoffs that were inherent with those various options.
The first item we wanted to address is immediately visible. Most modern smartphones are beautiful objects, often created and manufactured with great care and attention to detail. They are also inherently fragile, and that makes them not completely suited to survive the harsh environment that we subject them to. That’s why most (caring) users add an extra layer of protection to keep their phone safe from the elements and the accidental drops. We wanted to eliminate this basic flaw of fragility of the modern smartphone design and we therefore designed a replaceable outer shell, which acts as a protective case. It replaces the usual back cover or battery door, which then becomes redundant.
The Fairphone 2’s cover design enables us to add features such as a rubber rim that wraps around the edge of the glass, protecting the display from the most common causes of screen damage. By making the case an integral part of the phone, we could make the phone safer from accidents and drops without requiring an additional protective case. This was possible while maintaining an overall consistent industrial design that wouldn’t cause the phone to feel like a ruggedized device.
Besides the protective outer case, we engineered the entire phone from the beginning to be able to sustain as much as possible the usual treatment that we subject our phones to. For instance, we specified the drop requirement to be a full 1.85m (6 feet – i.e. an average-sized Dutch man! dropping the phone while talking) on concrete on all six surfaces, a number of times. This is a far more rigorous drop test than most modern smartphones must face, and is in fact closer to the tests done on ruggedized devices designed for professional use.
We took great care to keep water and dust ingress (a common cause of failures) to a minimum by employing careful construction and seals and gaskets. We chose not to make the phone completely sealed, as this type of architecture conflicted with our other design ambitions, especially in terms of the ability to open and repair the device.
Modular construction for easy dis/assembly
The Fairphone 2 was also designed to change the way smartphones are constructed. Due to the trend to reduce overall product thickness, designers often try to integrate the most functionality into the smallest possible volume, while eliminating as much mechanical overhead as possible. This means that a lot of modern smartphones end up pretty much sealed, making even the battery not easily accessible.
The mobile nature of smartphones exposes them to harsh environments and they end up suffering general accidents and failures. But because phones are tightly integrated and pretty much sealed, repairs are difficult and costly. A lot of users keep using their damaged phone (with a cracked display, for example) until their mobile service contract comes up for renewal and they can get a new device.
Our goal was to re-invent the phone’s architecture to make it easier to assemble and service. We wanted to make it fast and easy for anyone to do basic maintenance on his or her phone, bringing it back to full functionality without professional support. Our solution was to engineer the Fairphone 2 around an innovative modular architecture that would enable subsystems to be easily repaired and replaced.
One of the key difficulties in creating a modular architecture is defining the system boundaries and therefore the level of modularity that is possible. If you try to create a pure modular architecture, you would suffer from a significant amount of overhead with the mechanical construction and the electrical interfaces. The integration work required to provide equivalent functionality in a similar mechanical envelope is quite significant, and especially on the electrical interfaces it is a daunting task.
With the main purpose of the modularity within the Fairphone 2’s architecture being to enable easy assembly and replacement of subsystems (‘units’), the function definition of the resulting units was made fairly fixed. The standardized electrical interfaces and power distribution still enable for flexibility in replacing some components and functionality.
On the mechanical side, we decided to relax the thickness constraint to give us a bit more flexibility in the architecture. Nevertheless, the resulting thickness of the Fairphone 2 is comparable to similar smartphones with a protective case added, and comes in at 11mm measured from the back of the case to the top of the glass. We kept the weight, height and width similar to other popular smartphones currently on the market.
The Fairphone 2 is constructed around a number of building blocks:
1. The external case, of which multiple variations are possible
2. The replaceable battery pack
3. The transceiver (or core unit), which is the core of the system. It includes the main chipset, memory and flash storage, modem, radios and antennas, the SIMs and MicroSD card holders, motion sensors and power management. It contains most of the expensive electronics and networking functions.
4. The display unit, which includes the main LCD module, touch sensing driver and a 0.7mm-thick Gorilla® Glass 3 lens.
5. The receiver unit, which includes the receiver, headset connector, front-facing camera, noise-cancelling microphone, ambient light and proximity sensor and the notification LED.
6. The rear camera unit, which includes the rear camera and flash.
7. The speaker unit, which includes the speaker, vibration mechanism, main microphone and USB connector.
These subsystems (or units) have been split along functional lines, taking into account the complexity of engineering them, as well as the cost of replacement. For instance, we did not include any functionality in the display unit that was not part of the LCD. This way, if you need to replace your display, you won’t have to throw away any other components that are still functional.
It is important to note that all of the electromechanical components are easily replaceable – none are soldered, apart from the microphones (which need to be). The buttons, which are part of the transceiver, sit on flexible printed circuits (FPCs) that are spring-connected to the main board. The units themselves are also built in a modular way to enable refurbishment.
Easy for anyone to repair
The repair model integrated into the modular architecture of Fairphone 2 enables repairs of varying levels of complexity. The most commonly broken elements can be replaced by the owners themselves, without requiring any technical skills.
Cracked displays are the main cause of modern smartphone repairs. We focused on making the display unit itself very sturdy (the LCD is secured to a strong magnesium frame) and ensuring that repairs would be quick and easy. The display on the Fairphone 2 can be replaced in less than a minute. After removing the case and battery, the two clips that lock the display unit in place are slid towards each other, and then the entire unit can be taken off. The unit can be replaced with a new display by reversing the process. That’s all there is to it.
With a screwdriver
The receiver, rear camera and speaker units can also be repaired easily if one of their components has suffered a failure. These repairs require the owner to remove the battery and display unit as above. Each unit is connected to the chassis with a set of color-coded screws. The broken unit can be unscrewed and removed. A new one is then put in its place and screwed back on. Once the display and battery are put back in place, the repair is complete.
Most of the units have been designed with further modular construction techniques to be serviceable at a more granular level. Some of those repairs will be easier than others, and most will be completed by a qualified central refurbishment center. However, experienced repair facilities and advanced users should be able to manage these repairs as well, using instructions and tools that we will be making available.
A competitive, high performance phone
In addition to designing a product that reflected our ambitions for longevity, ownership and reparability, we needed to create a high-quality phone that was comparable to similar products on the market, and would provide a satisfying experience for years to come. We had to ensure that the choices on the phone’s architecture wouldn’t compromise its overall performance or provide a second-rate user experience.
We started by selecting the most powerful mature platform that was available from Qualcomm (see my previous blog post for more information). The added cost of using a more robust platform is easily offset by the fact that the user will not likely need additional computing capability in a near future, and will not have to upgrade the hardware for a much longer time. The product was built on a Snapdragon™ 801 platform, which provides a nice balance between functionality, performance, availability and cost.
After choosing the platform, we added the peripherals and functionality that users expect in a high-performance device. See the overview of the product’s functionality. A complete list of technical specifications and functionality will be available prior to the start of pre-orders. The more advanced technical specifications of the Fairphone 2 are a part of the reason why the new phone is more expensive than our previous Fairphone. This support article explains the elements that affect the total cost.
Potential for upgrades and expansion
As we made design choices about the feature set that was to be implemented, we deliberately left out some functions because they are either not yet widely adopted (e.g. NFC) or there are multiple non-compatible standards (e.g. wireless charging). However, to help our phone stand the test of time and the development of new features, we incorporated elements that enable upgrades and expansion without having to change the entire hardware.
First, we included an expansion port in the back of the transceiver. This expansion port gives us the option to build alternative back covers with integrated additional functionality – for example, adding NFC for payments. The port is designed to connect to additional circuitry in the specially designed outer case through a set of spring-loaded connector (pogo) pins. The port provides power sourcing and charging and also data connectivity through standard USB signaling.
In addition, all of the individual units can be replaced by ones with different functionality or properties, provided that they fit within the mechanical envelope of the original unit, and can use the defined electrical interfaces. Of course there are software-related complexities that also need to be addressed.
One example of how we could use this is replacing standard components with alternatives, like an IR camera instead of the normal rear-camera unit. We could also redesign some of the units to eliminate certain functionality while expanding other capabilities. We can also use future components to replace the original ones, in order to keep providing repair units long after the design of the original one. The possibilities are quite broad.
Materials and processing
As a final note, I’d also like to touch upon the materials and processing in the supply chain used to manufacture the Fairphone 2. We very actively evaluated the materials and steps required to produce our phone, especially the mechanical parts, in order to minimize the social and environmental impact of producing those parts. For instance, we’ve tried to limit composite materials, favoring homogenous materials. We’ve also tried to use as many recycled materials as possible. We designed the parts to reduce secondary operations and additional processing, and we’ve reduced the use of coatings to a bare minimum. We are working with some key suppliers to further improve on these, and we’ll explore this in further blog posts.
In the future, we will look into developing de-manufacturing processes in order to recover as much of the valuable materials in the product when the old units are to be recycled at the end of their lifespan.
Made to be yours
This was a high-level introduction in the architecture of Fairphone 2. In the months ahead we’ll be publishing more information about the phone, the development process and all the activities around the supply chains needed to build the product. We’re proud of what we have achieved so far, reinventing how our phone is designed and produced to make a longer lasting, more accessible device. We hope that buyers of the Fairphone 2 will feel a stronger connection to their phones and feel more empowered to keep them alive and well for a long time. If your current phone soon needs to be replaced and you’d like to buy a Fairphone 2, please sign up for our interest list. You’ll be the first to know when pre-orders start, sometime later this summer.