/ Rob Beschizza / 12 pm Fri, Dec 18 2015
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  • Six months with a dumbphone

    Six months with a dumbphone

    In yearning for simplicity, the question is its own answer. Or maybe just get something old from Nokia.

    A while back, I realized that something was amiss in my relationship with my telephone. Notifications, email, Facebook, Twitter… it all became a constant drain on on my attention, the internet following me around like a shadow. I just couldn't give it up! So I asked the readers of Boing Boing about the current situation with low-end dumbphones, in the hopes that something was out there that could do the things I needed to do (send texts and make calls) without having me permanently dripped to the great saline bag of bullshit in the cloud.

    And without being absolute junk.

    I once owned the legendary e-ink phone, the Moto F3, and hankered for those simple, halcyon days. But it, like some of the most minimal options touted (such as the grandmatastic Johns Phone and $15 cardphones from China), are so rudimentary as to be hostile to their purpose. If all I had to do was receive calls, fine. But these things don't even have functional address books.

    My search for a really nice dumbphone left me with three standout options: dumbphone4

    1. Get whatever standard entry-level candybar phone the carriers are giving away.

    2. Get one of the classy, high-end Nokia dumbphones (e.g. the 301 and the 515) from before it was eaten by Microsoft.

    3. … something else? A model aimed at seniors?

    1 is the sanest, eBay-free route of the 2015 dumbphone aficionado, but they're bland and chintzy and not well-designed. They work, but they aren't nice. If you're just looking to get a job done, though, here you go. Stop reading! You're done. Get a Blu Phone or a Samsung Chuckle or Kyocera Snazzy or whatever is lately $9.95 contact-free. However, guess what: most have the same problems as…

    dumbphone32, which I thought would be just the ticket, but let me tell you, classy Nokia models didn't work for me at all. Sure, Nokia's hardware is great. The devices are sturdy, well-designed, and it's really obvious they're the end of many years of hardware design evolution. The problem is Nokia's Series 40 software. It's a trash fire, and there's just no saving it. A slow, hinky, fiddly, crashy, stinky, rinky-dink trash fire. Take every UI metaphor ever, throw it in the blender of a mad Finn's stomach, then vomit it onto a tiny, non-touch LCD screen. This is every fancy late-era Nokia dumbphone.

    Worse: these models not only have Facebook apps, you aren't allowed to delete them! The ultimate betrayal from my escape-the-smartphone dumbphone.

    Now, the ultra-basic Nokia models, such as the Nokia 105/106, are in fact much better than the supposedly flagship dumbphone models, because their software (Series 30) is simpler: no apps, no nonsense. It's still not great, but it is what it is, the batteries last weeks on a charge, and they're better than contemporary carrier crapphones from Samsung and LG. Moreover, contemporary models are more likely to have various pointless additions and apps (i.e. Facebook) that muddy the nice useful simplicity of your dumbphone.

    So I kept looking. Which brings us to 3, and to…

    x 2015-12-18 at 2.54.09 PM

    this bizarre looking contraption, which comes all the way from the Baltics. Creator Just5 also offers a more modern-looking rounded version in black, but I like the Brick model--yes, it's called the Brick!--in wild colors like green and crimson. And it's pretty much exactly what I wanted.

    It's basic, easy to use, and the UI is completely straightforward. It's designed with intent, right down to the retro 80s font and the black and white UI. Everything about it adheres to a rather dramatic miniminal plan, which is quite appealing after the surprising mess that most dumbphones present. It's responsive and well thought out: once muscle memory sets in, you'll set a reminder faster than you can tell Siri to do the same thing, and there's no possibility she will think you want to pet a bookbinder.

    It has an address book and a few basic apps such as an alarm, a calendar, and text messaging.

    There are some minor shortcomings. It would be great if the calendar app let you set reminders or alarms. As it is it just lets you know what the date is, which seems incomplete: a nice plain UI without any functionality.

    The texting app doesn't understand some texts, too -- you just get the header. My guess is these contain multimedia (or are perhaps lingering iPhone conversations it can't understand). If it's MMS, it could surely be fixed, as the display is in fact full color.

    The musical ringtones are awful. Trashy dancey MIDI tunes, the looming specter of recent European Union integration. None of them can be replaced, but there are basic beeping and ringing tones to use instead.

    If you want a dumbphone that does the basics, this (or its less squared-off sister model) might be it. The key takehome: it is intentionally designed to the minimalist pixel without being a nearly-useless stunt gadget like Johns Phone.

    There's one big caveat, though, which means I'll be moving on after 6 months of use. It's only 2G, and 2G coverage is getting so spotty where I live that it's often impossible to make calls on it. Before you pick up a crazy 2G dumbphone, then, make sure 2G still works in your neck of the woods. 2G is also, according to intelligent-sounding people on the internet, so insecure that it lacks any significant privacy.

    Also, mysteriously, while it works on T-Mobile (at least where coverage exists) the AT&T sims I tried all made it crash. I had this problem with other 2G phones I tried, too, so maybe something's up with newer AT&T cards.

    You can get the Brick for $125-ish on eBay, unlocked.

    If I continue to have 2G trouble, the next step is the CAT Phone: durable, serviceable and 3G. Not exactly a design classic, but there seem to be few emerging alternatives.

    The question remains, then, whether the experience of being smartphone-free is worth it. Fortunately, no lengthy, vaguely-existential essay is required to explain that yes, yes it is. If you're still here, you know why, and all that's left is to do it.

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