A year ago, I ditched my smartphone for a dumbphone. It was liberating to free myself from many of the pressures that come with carrying a device that’s designed to be addictive.
But after a year, I ultimately decided to switch back to a smartphone. Here are the reasons why and everything I learned throughout the experience.
1. Dumbphones Have Regressed
Fifteen years ago, there were some really slick feature phones available. Handset manufacturers tried to pair creative hardware with attractive software that was effective at placing calls, making texts, listening to music, and taking pictures.
Many of today’s feature phones are functional at best. These devices work, but they’ve lost many of the features they had in the past—plus much of the polish.
Over the past year and a half, I tried one Sprint phone (the Kyocera Verve), one from AT&T (the Cingular Flip), and one general GSM handset (BLU Diva Flex 2.4). I would have loved to have tried the Punkt phone, but thanks to its reliance on 2G, it wouldn’t pick up enough signal in my neck of the woods.
Each phone I tried felt janky in its own way: sloppy fonts, lazy design, bugs, and menu options that no longer work. To make matters worse, I had to deal with low talk volume and relatively quiet ringtones. The speakerphone was often barely audible.
I’m sure there are feature phone models that provide a better experience, but considering how few models there are in general, I’m surprised I’ve had to search this hard.
You can always use your current phone and dumb it down. Here’s how to turn your Android phone into a dumbphone.
2. We Don’t Talk the Way We Used To
Even before smartphones, it was already somewhat weird to place a call for someone my age. We generally preferred texting. Phone calls were for parents and the people we were dating.
Today, the options for messaging apps are even more segmented. Some people prefer Facebook Messenger. Others like WhatsApp. I have friends who use Discord, and I know of someone who uses Snapchat. There’s iMessage and Google Allo too. None of these platforms work on feature phones.
Many of my friends do happen to communicate via good old-fashioned SMS. But often, they send group MMS messages that my phone could not display in a threaded fashion. That meant I received messages individually, in separate threads, with no way to follow the conversation or respond back to the entire group.
3. A Dumbphone Means No Secure Messaging Apps
Not only have we changed the way we talked, but we’re also in the process of rethinking our concept of private and secure communication. After seeing just how much of our conversations companies and governments store, many of us have started to chat via encrypted messages.
WhatsApp, iMessage, Google Allo, and Skype have all adopted end-to-end encryption. Signal remains my personal preference.
While these apps offer varying degrees of privacy, they’re all more secure than SMS. But none of them are compatible with dumbphones. Relying on a phone that can only make regular calls and texts means you have no easy way to shield your conversations.
4. People Expect You to Have GPS Navigation
Finding people and places doesn’t take much effort these days. First you’re texting a friend, then they drop an address and you’re following on-screen prompts a moment later. When you’ve decided to meet with someone, it’s easy to find your way to where they are in the span of ten minutes.
What if you don’t have GPS navigation and instead ask your friend for directions? They might have no idea. My friends have no problem following a GPS to my house, but some aren’t knowledgeable enough about my part of town enough to connect where I am to where they are. And frankly, I don’t want to go back to writing instructions down.
This isn’t merely an issue with friends. People in general have come to assume that if they tell you where to go, you can quickly figure out how to get there.
I could have gotten around this by buying a dedicated GPS navigation unit, but I’ve never particularly liked those. I actually downloaded an offline maps app to an old smartphone and kept that in my car. Unfortunately, that app still needed an internet connection to pull up addresses, which my dumbphone couldn’t provide.
5. I Could No Longer Open Links
While many people I know prefer to use one chat app or another, I can still communicate with most of them via a traditional SMS message. Yet over the course of a conversation, they’re likely to share a link. They want me to check out an article, or watch a video. With a dumbphone, I couldn’t.
As a workaround, I forwarded text messages to my email account (I could also send texts via email). Then I would load them up on my computer. Afterward, I’d return back to that portion of the conversation.
I was surprised that this became an even bigger hindrance when shopping at a store. One time, there was a discount available if I registered for a coupon via text message. The problem was that the store sent me back a text with a link I had to click in order to confirm my registration. So much fail.
6. Smartphones Provide a Sense of Security
With a smartphone in my pocket, I feel secure to travel spontaneously. Wherever I go, I can find my way home. When visiting a new place, I can find food and exhibits to see. If I’m downtown with time to spare, I can easily find a place to chill. I can wander around with a decent sense that I haven’t wandered into an uncomfortable part of town. Mass transit systems start to make sense.
I often don’t need my phone for any of these tasks. Many times I won’t even take it out. But knowing it’s there as a fallback gives me the confidence to put myself out there.
7. It Was Harder to Get Work Done
For this past year, I’ve had to do everything on my laptop. That has been both a blessing and a curse.
On one hand, when I was away from my computer, I was free from email and work. But when I sat back down at my computer, it was my time to catch up on everything: personal and work email, news, and blogs alike. As you can imagine, this was quite distracting. Without another device, I could get online using my computer.
With a smartphone, I can now manage email and Slack notifications from my phone. I’ve also started using a writing app that I sync between my phone and my Pixelbook. This way I can write at times when my computer isn’t around, as I’m doing right now.
Having to do everything on a PC meant I was less productive when I sat down to work, and my options were limited when I was away from my computer.
8. Phones and Cameras Are Now One and the Same
Today, many of us use our phones more as cameras than as phones. Switching to a basic phone means committing to carry around a separate camera again.
Yes, technically my phone had a built-in camera. But the 2MP shooter on my dumbphone wasn’t worth using for anything other taking snapshots of item I wanted to remember to look up later. Trying to capture memories only left me frustrated I didn’t have a better camera around.
A dumbphone also made it harder to view images that people sent me. I typically had to zoom, and even then, the screen could only deliver pixelated results that hardly represented the picture’s actual quality. And trying to view screenshots was a non-starter.
I don’t take pictures most days, nor do I have any social media accounts to obsessively post photos to. But I still like having a decent camera phone in my pocket for those spontaneous moments I could not have planned ahead for.
I Still Like the Idea of Going Back to a Basic Phone
Unfortunately, the dumbphone options in my area aren’t that great. The flip phones at my local carrier store don’t just look like relics from the past; they function that way too. I like the idea of the Light Phone, but it’s currently sold out and costs more than I’m sure I want to spend.
For the time being, I’m using the Essential Phone—and I love it.
Smartphones have changed while I was using a dumbphone. They’re more secure than dumb phones. Many of the high-end devices no longer struggle to make it through a full day. Fast charging has also made it much less of an issue when they do. Fingerprint scanners make it easy to quickly check something on a phone without having to first enter a pattern or password one-handed. Android Pie has further reduced the amount of clutter on screen, and my phone now lets me uninstall or disable the overwhelming majority of the pre-installed apps.
Using a smartphone mindfully is still an exercise in self-restraint, but it’s becoming a little easier to do.