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Fairphone 3 is a normal smartphone with ethical shine

Judhajeet Das

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How long have you been using your current smartphone? The answer for an increasing number of consumers is years, plural. After all, why upgrade every year when next year’s model is almost exactly the same as the device you’re holding in your hand?

Dutch social enterprise Fairphone sees this as an opportunity to sell sustainability. A chance to turn a conversation about ‘stalled smartphone innovation’ on its head by encouraging consumers to think more critically about the costs involved in pumping out the next shiny thing. And sell them on the savings — individual and collective — of holding their staple gadget steady.

Its latest smartphone, the Fairphone 3 — just released this week in Europe — represents the startup’s best chance yet of shrinking the convenience gap between the next hotly anticipated touchscreen gizmo and a fairer proposition that requires an altogether cooler head to appreciate.

On the surface Fairphone 3 looks like a fairly standard, if slightly thick (1cm), Android smartphone. But that’s essentially the point. This 4G phone could be your smartphone, is the intended message.

Fp3j

Specs wise, you’re getting mostly middling, rather than stand out stuff. There’s a 5.7in full HD display, a Qualcomm Snapdragon 632 chipset, 4GB of RAM and 64GB of storage (expandable via microSD), a 12MP rear lens and 8MP front-facing camera. There’s also NFC on board, a fingerprint reader, dual nano-SIM slots and a 3,000mAh battery that can be removed for easy replacement when it wears out.

There’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack: The handy port that’s being erased at the premium smartphone tier,  killing off a bunch of wired accessories with it. So ‘slow replacement’ smartphone hardware demonstrably encourages less waste across the gadget ecosystem too.

But the real difference lies under the surface. Fairer here means supply chain innovation to source conflict-free minerals that go into making the devices; social incentive programs that top up the minimum wages of assembly workers who put the phones together; and repairable, modular handset design that’s intended to reduce environmental impact by supporting a longer lifespan. Repair, don’t replace is the mantra.

All the extra effort that goes into making a smartphone less ethically challenging to own is of course invisible to the naked eye. So the Fairphone 3 buyer largely has to take the company’s word on trust.

The only visual evidence is repairability. Flip the phone over and a semi-opaque plastic backing gives a glimpse of modular guts. A tiny screwdriver included in the box allows you take the phone to pieces so you can swap out individual modules (such as the display) in case they break or fail. Fairphone sells replacements via a spare parts section of its website.

Fp3sc

Despite this radically modular and novel design vs today’s hermetically sealed premium mobiles the Fairphone 3 feels extremely solid to hold.

It’s not designed to pop apart easily. Indeed, there’s a full thirteen screws holding the display module in place. Deconstruction takes work (and care not to lose any of the teeny screws). So this is modularity purely as occasional utility, not flashy party trick — as with Google’s doomed Ara Project.

For some that might be disappointing. Exactly because this modular phone feels so, well, boringly normal.

Visually the most stand out feature at a glance is the Fairphone logo picked out in metallic white lettering on the back. Those taking a second look will also spot a moralizing memo printed on the battery so it’s legible through the matte plastic — which reads: “Change is in your hands”. It may be a bit cringeworthy but if you’ve paid for an ethical premium you might as well flaunt it.

It’s fair to say design fans won’t be going wild over the Fairphone 3. But it feels almost intentionally dull. As if — in addition to shrinking manufacturing costs — the point is to impress on buyers that ethical internals are more than enough of a hipster fashion statement.

It’s also true that most smartphones are now much the same, hardware, features and performance wise. So — at this higher mid-tier price-point (€450/~$500) — why not flip the consumer smartphone sales pitch on its head to make it about shrinking rather than maximizing impact, via a dull but worthy standard?

That then pushes people to ask how sustainable is an expensive but valueless — and so, philosophically speaking, pointless — premium? That’s the question Fairphone 3 seems designed to pose.

Or, to put it another way, if normal can be ethical then shouldn’t ethical electronics be the norm?

Normal is what you get elsewhere with Fairphone 3. Purely judged as a smartphone its performance isn’t anything to write home about. It checks all the usual boxes of messaging, photos, apps and Internet browsing. You can say it gets the job done.

Sure, it’s not buttery smooth at every screen and app transition. And it can feel a little slow on the uptake at times. Notably the camera, while fairly responsive, isn’t lightning quick. Photo quality is not terrible — but not amazing either.

Testing the camera I found images prone to high acutance and over saturated colors. The software also struggles to handle mixed light and shade — meaning you may get a darker and less balanced shot that you hoped for. Low light performance isn’t great either.

That said, in good light the Fairphone 3 can take a perfectly acceptable selfie. Which is what most people will expect to be able to use the phone for.

Fairphone has said it’s done a lot of work to improve the camera vs the predecessor model. And it has succeeded in bringing photo performance up to workable standard — which is a great achievement at what’s also a slightly reduced handset price-point. Though, naturally, there’s still a big gap in photo quality vs the premium end of the smartphone market.

On the OS front, the phone runs a vanilla implementation of Android 9 out of the box — preloaded with the usual bundle of Google services and no added clutter so Android fans should feel right at home. (For those who want a Google-free alternative Fairphone says a future update will allow users to do a wipe and clean install of Android Open Source Project.)

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In short, purely as a smartphone, the Fairphone 3 offers very little to shout about — so no screaming lack either. Again, if the point is to shrink the size of the compromise Fairphone is asking consumers to make in order to buy an ethically superior brand of electronics they are slowly succeeding in closing the gap.

It’s a project that’s clearly benefiting from the maturity of the smartphone market. While, on the cellular front, the transformative claims being made for 5G are clearly many years out — so there’s no issue with asking buyers to stick with a 4G phone for years to come.

Given where the market has now marched to, a ‘fairer’ smartphone that offers benchmark basics at a perfectly acceptable median but with the promise of reduced costs over the longer term — individual, societal and environmental — does seem like a proposition that could expand from what has so far been an exceptional niche into something rather larger and more mainstream.

Zooming out for a second, the Fairphone certainly makes an interesting contrast with some of the expensive chimeras struggling to be unfolded at the top end of the smartphone market right now.

Foldables like the Samsung Galaxy Fold — which clocks in at around 4x the price of a Fairphone and offers ~2x the screen real estate (when unfolded), plus a power bump. Whether the Fold’s lux package translates into mobile utility squared is a whole other question, though.

And where foldables will need to demonstrate a compelling use-case that goes above and beyond the Swiss Army utility of a normal smartphone to justify such a whopping price bump, Fairphone need only prick the consumer conscience — as it asks you pay a bit more and settle for a little less.

Neither of these sales pitches is challenge free, of course. And, for now, both foldables and fairer electronics remain curious niches.

But with the Fairphone 3 demonstrating that ethical can feel so normal it doesn’t seem beyond the pale to imagine demand for electronics that are average in performance yet pack an ethical punch scaling up to challenge the mainstream parade of copycat gadgets.

Tech Passionate and Heavy Geek! Into Blogging world since 2014 and never looked back since then :) I am also a YouTube Video Producer and a Aspiring Entrepreneur. Founder, MyDroidDoes

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Android

Afore Capital raises second pre-seed venture capital fund

Judhajeet Das

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As expectations from seed investors intensify, a new stage of investment has established itself earlier in the venture-backed company life cycle.

Known as “pre-seed” investing, one of the first legitimate outfits to double down on the stage has refueled, closing its second fund on $77 million.

Afore Capital’s sophomore fund is likely the largest pool of venture capital yet to focus exclusively on pre-seed companies, or pre-product businesses seeking their first bout of institutional capital. In many cases, a pre-seed startup may even be “pre-idea,” yet to fully incorporate. While some funds are happy to invest that early, Afore seeks slightly more mature companies.

Afore invests between $500,000 and $1 million in nascent startups. As it kicks off its second fund, founding partners Anamitra Banerji and Gaurav Jain tell TechCrunch they plan to lead all of their investments.

We have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category. – Afore founding partner Anamitra Banerji

Standouts in Afore’s existing portfolio include the no-fee credit card company Petal — which has raised roughly $50 million to date — mobile executive coaching business BetterUp, childcare information platform Winnie and Modern Health, a B2B mental wellness platform.

Afore portfolio companies have raised more than $360 million in follow-on funding, with an aggregate market cap of $1.5 billion, Jain, the founding product manager at Android Nexus and former principal at Founder Collective, tells TechCrunch. “These are high-quality teams with high-quality projects and ideas.”

Jain and Banerji — a founding product manager at Twitter and former partner at Foundation Capital — began raising capital for Afore’s $47 million debut fund in 2016. Since then, the landscape for seed investing has shifted. Early-stage investors have begun funneling larger sums of capital to standout teams at the seed, while billion-dollar venture capital funds set aside capital for serial entrepreneurs working on their next big idea. As a result, deal sizes have swelled and deal count has shrunk simultaneously.

“Pre-seed has replaced seed in the venture ecosystem,” Banerji tells TechCrunch. “We saw this early as a result of both of us having been at funds. We knew that this was going to be a massive category just like seed was before it. Now we think it’s clearly here to stay and we have the opportunity to build a firm that defines a category.”

Since launching the firm, the pair explain they’ve noticed more and more founders explicitly stating that they are in the market for a pre-seed round, a statement you wouldn’t have heard as recently as two years ago.

This is a result of Afore’s efforts to legitimize the stage through investments and programming, including its annual Pre-Seed Summit. Though Afore is certainly not the only VC fund focused on the earliest stage of startup investing — other firms deploying capital at the stage include Hustle Fund, which closed an $11.8 million debut fund last year, plus the $20 million immigrant-focused pre-seed fund Unshackled Ventures and the predominant seed and pre-seed stage firm Precursor Ventures, which announced a $31 million second fund earlier this year.

In the past year alone, more than $200 million has been dedicated to the pre-seed stage, with at least nine new funds launching to nurture early-stage startups.

More and more firms are setting up shop at the pre-seed stage as competition at the seed stage reaches new heights. As we’ve previously reported, monster funds are becoming increasingly active at the seed stage, muscling seed funds out of top deals with less dilutive offers. While the pre-seed stage, for the most part, remains protected from competition at the later stage, these firms still have to compete.

“Nobody wants to lose sight of a deal, so they are willing to toss small amounts of capital very early behind interesting founders,” Jain said. “But frankly, we aren’t sure if it’s good for a company to raise that much capital that early in their life cycle.”

Working with a fund that isn’t passionate about what you are building or familiar with the plights of the stage of your business is terrible for founders, adds Jain. Pairing with a focused fund like Afore, on the other hand, allows for “incentive alignment.”

Afore invests across all industries, preferring to back startups in categories “before they are categories.”

“What we are looking for is deep authenticity and passion around the product they are building,” says Banerji. “Ideas on their own aren’t enough. Founder resumes on their own aren’t enough. While we do care about all of those aspects, we get crazy about their clarity of thought in the short term.”

“We don’t take the point of view of ‘here is some money, it’s OK to lose it,’ ” he adds. “For us to invest, the founder must be all in. And we generally don’t invest in celebrity founders; we are going after the underdog founder.”

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Get popcorn for iOS 13’s privacy pop-ups of creepy Facebook data grabs

Judhajeet Das

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Privacy-minded changes to smartphone operating systems which foreground the background activity of third party apps are helping to spotlight more of the surveillance infrastructure deployed by adtech giants to track and profile human eyeballs for profit.

To wit: iOS 13, which will be generally released later this week, has already been spotted catching Facebook’s app trying to use Bluetooth to track nearby users.

facebook BT

Why might Facebook want to do this? Matching Bluetooth (and wif-fi) IDs that share physical location could allow it to supplement the social graph it gleans by data-mining user-to-user activity on its platform.

Such location tracking provides a physical confirm that individuals were (at very least) in close proximity.

Combined with personal data Facebook also holds on people, and contextual data on the nature of the location itself — a bar, say, or a house — there’s a clear path for the company to make inferences about the nature of the relationship between the people who it’s repurposed short range wireless tech to determine are in close contact.

For a company that makes money by serving targeted ads at humans there are clear commercial reasons for Facebook to seek to intimately understand people’s friend networks.

Facebook piggybacking on people’s use of Bluetooth for benign purposes like pairing devices so that its ad business can ‘pair’ people is the sneaky modus operandi that iOS 13 has caught in the act here.

Ads are Facebook’s business, as CEO Mark Zuckerberg famously told the senate last year. But it’s worth noting the social network giant recently sought to push into the dating space — giving it a fresh, product-based incentive to pry into where and with whom humans are spending their time.

Algorithmic matchmaking based on cold signals like shared interests (in basic Facebook currency this might mean stuff like liking the same pages and events) is of course nothing new.

Yet mix in hot-blooded signals gathered by watching who actually mingles with whom, where and when — by repurposing Bluetooth to harvest interpersonal interactions via tracking people’s physical movements — and Facebook can take its curtain-twitching surveillance of human behavior to the next level.

The path of least resistance to tracking people’s movements is if Facebook app users are opting in to location tracking on their devices. Which means users enabling Location Services — a location tracking feature on smartphones that covers GPS, Bluetooth and crowd-sources wi-fi hotspots and mobile cell towers.

Unsurprisingly, then Facebook Dating requires Location Services to be enabled to function. The company confirmed to us that the Facebook app prompts dating users to enable Location Services if they haven’t already. Facebook also told us it doesn’t use wi-fi or Bluetooth to determine a person’s precise location if a user has Location Services turned off.

It also made a point of emphasizing that users can switch Location Services off at any time. Just not if they wish to use, er, Facebook Dating…

As per usual the company is tangling separate purposes for data processing in a way that denies people a meaningful choice over protecting their privacy. Hence Facebook dating users get to ‘choose’ between being able to use the service; or being able to blanket-deny Facebook the ability to track their physical movements. Like it or lump it.

iOS 13’s new privacy pop-ups to call out background app activity are a clear response to such disingenuous methods by an industry Apple CEO Tim Cook has dubbed the data industrial complex — putting a degree of control back in the hands of the user, who gets a third choice of manually disallowing Bluetooth proximity tracking (in the above example).

Android 10 has also recently expanded the location tracking controls it offers users — with the ability to only share location data with apps while you use them. Though Google’s OS lags far behind what Apple is now offering with these granular pop-ups.

Facebook has responded to awkward (for it) privacy changes incoming at the smartphone OS level by putting out an update on location services last week — where it seeks to get ahead of the deluge of data-grab warnings that iOS users of the Facebook app are likely to experience as they update to iOS 13.

Here it tries to spin Apple’s pro-active foregrounding of apps’ background tracking tactics via push notifications as “reminders” — in just one amusing rebrand.

But in a truly shameless contradiction Facebook also goes on to claim that: “You’re in control of who sees your location on Facebook” (because it says users can make use of the Location Services setting on a phone or tablet to deny tracking) — before admitting that switching off Location Services doesn’t actually mean Facebook will not track your location.

Just because you’re signalling very clearly to Facebook that you don’t want your location to be collected by Facebook doesn’t mean Facebook is going to respect that. Hell no!

“We may still understand your location using things like check-ins, events and information about your internet connection,” it writes. (For a clearer understanding of Facebook’s use of the word “understand” in that sentence we suggest you try substituting the word “steal”.)

In a final shameless kicker — in which Facebook almost appears to be trying to claim credit for smartphone OSes building more privacy features in response to its data grabs — the company seeks to finish on a forward-gazing note, per its preferred crisis PR custom, writing: “We’ll continue to make it easier for you to control how and when you share your location.”

Facebook dishing out misleading qualifications (e.g. “easier”) that whitewash the extent of its rampant data grabs is nothing new. But how much longer it can hope to rely on such flimsy figleaves to cover its privacy sins as the winds of change come rattling through remains to be seen…

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Samsung’s Galaxy Tab S6 combines creative flexibility with great design

Judhajeet Das

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The Android tablet market isn’t exactly a hotbed of excitement and activity, which makes it all the more impressive that Samsung continues to iterate its own tablet lineup in smart, meaningful ways that push the technology forward and deliver a stellar experience. Samsung’s new Galaxy Tab S6 (starting at $649.99) is no exception, and this latest offering expands the definition of what a tablet can be while retaining or refining everything that’s been its predecessors.

Thin, light and luxe design

Samsung has been delivering outstanding body design on its tablet lineup since the introduction of the all-metal and glass Tab S4, and the Tab S6 continues this tradition with a full metal back and glass front that’s lighter and thinner than its predecessor. The look and feel is more reminiscent of the Tab S5e, which was released after the S4 earlier this year and which acts as a more economical alternative to Samsung’s flagship lineup. The S6 manages to feel just a touch more premium than the S5e, though both are class-leading in terms of their industrial design.

The brushed finish of the back looks great, and feels nice in the hand, and if you have larger hands you can even one-hand this device when reading for limited periods of time. Samsung has also shrunk the bezels, giving you a more front face-filling screen than on any previous tablet, which does a very good job of putting the gorgeous sAMOLED display in focus. More than ever, this feels like one big sleek, metallic hand-held display — the future, in your hand, reduced to the essentials in an awesome way.

Display and cameras

The display on the Tab S6 isn’t much changed from the one used on the Tab S5e and the Tab S4 — but that’s actually great news, because Samsung has the best tablet display in the business when it comes to watching media. The 10.5-inch 2560 x 1600 pixel Super AMOLED display gives you true blacks that are outstanding, and impossible to replicate on any LED-based display, and Samsung offers a range of color options from which to choose, including “natural” settings for photo-accurate editing, and enhanced saturation modes for getting the most out of eye-popping movies and videos.

That display now comes with a neat new trick on the Tab S6: an integrated fingerprint reader. This authentication and unlock method is new for this generation, and replaces iris/face scanning as the only biometric unlock option on the Tab S4. It performs very well in my testing, and has the added cool factor of being just an amazing bit of whiz-bang tech magic, especially if this is your first time encountering an in-display fingerprint reader.

tab s6 screen fingerprint unlock

The great display makes a fantastic editing surface for photos and videos, and that’s why it’s super interesting that Samsung went out of their way to upgrade the cameras on the Tab S6 — adding dual camera options, in fact. There’s now a super-wide-angle lens in addition to the standard one, which gives you a lot of creative options when it comes to both still photography and videos.

While the Tab S6 is great for editing, I still wouldn’t lean too heavily on the built-in cameras for actually capturing content. They’re fine cameras, augmented by Samsung’s built-in software, but the super-wide has a fair amount of distortion and not the best resolution, and in general I still think you should avoid shooting too much with tablet cameras. Still, it’s nice to have the option in case you’re in a pinch.

Your pen pal

I mentioned editing above, but the Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 has an added advantage over other tablets in this area: The S Pen. Samsung’s stylus is updated in this version, with Bluetooth connectivity that gives it additional superpowers like the ability to act as a remote for the camera, presentations and other software.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 1The S Pen still performs best as an actual stylus, however, and it excels in this capacity. For pressure-sensitive applications, including sketching and painting, it’s fantastic, but where it really shines in my usage is in editing photos using software like Lightroom from Adobe. Stylus input means you can get super specific and accurate with your edits. This applies to editing video, too, where the stylus works well for making concise trims to video timelines.

You also can easily create handwritten notes with the S Pen, and if you do so using Samsung’s built-in Notes application, you get automatic OCR and search indexing. In my testing, I found that this worked really, really well — surprisingly so, considering how bad my handwriting is. For printed characters, the Samsung Notes app had no trouble at all identifying words accurately in my scrawl and retrieving the right results when searching by keyword.

Because this S Pen uses Bluetooth, it now has a built-in rechargeable battery. Like Apple’s Pencil, it charges wirelessly, attaching magnetically to the tablet to power up. Samsung has designed a groove in the back of the tablet to receive the S Pen for charging, and while this isn’t sturdy enough for you to trust it to hold the stylus when you throw them in your bag unprotected, the Tab S6 cover accessory nicely wraps the S Pen with a fold-down flap for easy storage.

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 6

A true workhorse

Samsung’s official case options include a back panel protector/detachable keyboard combo that are probably the best accessory of this style available on the market for any tablet. The back cover includes a reusable sticky surface to ensure a solid fit, which will be more reliably fixed than a magnetic attachment, and it has a multi-angle kickstand that works wonderfully to support the tablet on any table or even on your lap.

As mentioned, there’s a top flap that provides protection and easy access to the S Pen, which is a very clever way to keep that stored without complicating matters. The cover has a finely textured surface that increases grippiness, and it has proven resilient in terms of not picking up dirt or grime so far.

The keyboard attaches via magnets to one side of the tablet, folding up to protect the display when not in use. It’s slim, but it still had defined keys with actual travel that feel really good to type with, and there’s something you probably weren’t expecting to see on an Android tablet keyboard — a built-in trackpad.

All of this is designed primarily for use with DeX, Samsung’s desktop-like software experience that’s aimed at boosting productivity (though you can use the trackpad in the standard Android interface, too). When it works well, the DeX experience truly makes the Tab S6 feel like a mini desktop, giving you the power to tackle tasks in multiple windows — including in multiple windows for the same apps. It’s great for things like seeing Slack open and working in multiple browser windows, along with your email client, for instance.

That said, there are definite limitations to DeX, including the need to re-open all your windows when switching back from standard Android mode, for instance. Not every app behaves well in this novel mode, either, as third-party ones especially aren’t designed for it, and there are quirks to the windowing (like overflowing and weird-sized windows) that make it occasionally a little strange to work with. Still, all in all, it’s great to have the option, and can really increase your ability to do work on the road in the right circumstances.

Bottom line

Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 5

The Samsung Galaxy Tab S6 is, without a doubt, the best Android tablet available. It combines top-notch hardware with Samsung’s evolving DeX approach to mobile productivity, and while DeX isn’t perfect in all settings, it’s at the very least not doing any harm, and you’re better off having it available versus not. Meanwhile, the Tab S6 working in standard Android mode is an excellent, super-fast media consumption and photo-editing powerhouse. If you’re in the market for a tablet, the Tab S6 is an easy choice.

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