Cloud Engineer living in Perth, Western Australia

I tried to use a feature phone in 2022

Posted on March 2, 2022
9 minute read

A yellow nokia mobile phone with a curved shape
Image - Nokia 8810 bananaphone

So it lasted a short 36 hours. TL;DR at the bottom of this post. A feature phone is a non-smart phone (in case you were wondering).

I bought this phone after searching for a long time since it’s no longer sold in Australia and eventually found someone on gumtree happy to ship it over to me from the Eastern States. The initial thought was that smartphones are distracting with the constant buzzing of notifications and the ability to focus and not be “always contactable” was a nice thought. I figured that if I can only call people then the conversations will be less frequent but more personal (voice v text) and that each conversation would be intentional rather than casual. Additionally the lack of notifications from other apps pulling you away from other things you’re doing meant that you’re really only picking up your phone for a specific intent, to communicate with someone.

Quite often I pick up my phone with the intent to do something, then when I unlock, something else grabs my attention, I deal with that and then put my phone back down only to realise I forgot to do what I initially intended to do and have to start all over again. I’ve read about this phenomenon before and laughed thinking that wouldn’t happen to me! But it’s totally a thing, and it totally happens to me. All the time.

The smartphone addiction

I think smartphones (are they even really phones anymore?) and their apps are intentionally designed to keep you using them as much as possible. I think the companies producing these devices realise this and have implemented tools to help us manage the addiction to them. There’s tools like screentime or focus modes (on iOS) where you can selectively allow or ban notifications through during certain focus modes. Like, driving, sleeping, working, etc. I personally use these all the time. Then there’s other tools like the weekly report saying how much you’ve spent on different apps throughout the week and even the ability to limit time to an app. They even developed a “monotone” screen mode where your phone becomes a greyscale and removes all colours. I read somewhere the bright, colourful applications are visually appealing to humans and make us want to look at them more. Thinking about this now, I guess this rings true. You see in supermarket aisles that the bad stuff for us like chips, chocolate, lollies, soft-drinks, etc. all come in colourful packaging. Give someone a bouquet of flowers? Colourful.

With this kind of addiction in mind what would a non-smartphone (feature phone?) do to the habit of using a phone all the time, checking for notifications and emails.

How does a non-smartphone change the modern phone?

Well, in my failed experiment of trying to use the phone for a week, I learned that I can just find alternatives to do the same task I was doing on a smartphone but now on another screen. For example, twitter and email. It was just as easy being a desk-jockey at work than out and about. However, the lack of notifications from some things like Google Photos showing me a nice memory (which I like) was good to get away from for a while, as distracting as they were.

For me the most challenging part of not using a smartphone was messaging. In 2022, most people use a messaging app, like Signal or Telegram or WhatsApp. And every popular messaging app I’ve ever come across has a group functionality. Group messages with friends and family are a necessity in my opinion. Groups have become so ubiquitous in modern messages that I would say I message groups more than I message people one on one. feature phones can’t do group messaging. Actually, technically this phone can, but it didn’t have the app I use available, so I’m calling it out as a problem here.

Pain points

Texting

Messaging on a keypad is a lot slower and is far more intentional. By that I mean, that when I’ve been sending texts with a smartphone, I often use two fingers and smash the keyboard quickly, making a lot of “ducking” errors at times but the auto correct feature is generally very good. Yesterday the nail in the coffin for using the banana phone as a texting device was when I was walking the dog and pushing the pram and I had to let my wife know I was a few minutes away from home. I had to stop, bash out a text which took more than 2 minutes (probably because I’m not used to it) and then send. By contrast, a dictated message in this fashion would have been around a 10 second job, one that I might not have even had to stop the pram for. With the dog leash in one hand and a toddler in the pram getting irritable this was a huge pain and it made me appreciate the dictation feature of smartphones which I use a lot. In fact, I would say about half my messages are typed and the other half are dictated.

Group Love

I also missed out of a number of messages and photos in group messages which I would have otherwise enjoyed seeing, which came through in my out of work hours. To see them, I had to get on the computer and see my messages there in a sync’ed app.

2FA

Most workers in a big enterprise or tech savvy company will use some form of email and calendars to meet and communicate. However, in order to do that you need to setup a thing called 2-factor authentication where you use a phone to check for a rotating 6 digit code or approve an authentication request. Don’t have one? Can’t work. Some workplaces do provide phone for those without a smart device, but this is an interesting problem that has evolved in the workplace from strengthening security at the same time as smartphones that can handle the capability have become commonplace.

Contacts/Calendar/Email

One thing that annoyed me was that the contact import from my Google account simply didn’t work. It got stuck on the screen which said “reading contacts from Gmail…” and made zero progress for hours. I simply couldn’t get my contacts on to my phone without copying them all over. Every time I went to send or receive a message I had to punch in the phone number of the person I was texting. I was able to sync my calendar and email however, which was a nice touch. The phone did give useful alerts saying I had a an appointment or that email had come in. Hilariously, reading HTML emails (which did load) on a tiny screen is not worth the trouble of using the directional pad to scroll around the message or zoom out so much that the text becomes impossible to read.

What can’t a feature phone do?

Apart from group messaging apps which we’ve discussed, there’s a number of other features in a modern phone which we take for granted. Some of those things include:

  • Banking.
  • Streaming music.
  • Touchscreens to easily navigate, choose options and use the phone. Instead there’s a directional pad and contextual button labels
  • Web browsing.
  • COVID-19 related apps, like proving your identity and checking in (this was an especially annoying one).
  • Current weather and the forecast.
  • Tracking steps and health-related things that the sensors can track and calculate, like calories burned from the steps taken.

My bank doesn’t have an internet banking website. They only have an app. So if you don’t have a smartphone, you’re essentially excluded from being a customer. Smartphone are SO ubiquitous that some companies don’t see customers without smartphones as ones worth having anymore.

Whilst the phone has a web browser. It does the job, but I wouldn’t want to use it for more than 5 seconds. Scrolling and clicking stuff is very annoying and after using a phone with a touchscreen, going back to using a directional pad is wildly different. It did remind me though how much the internet on mobile has changed. I recall using some websites, that we custom built and prefixed with m (for example http://m.example.com) to specifically send mobile-friendly content to the users device. There was even a TLD made specifically for sites developed for mobiles, the .mobi TLD. This included easy-to-navigate pages, and smaller web assets like images and css files. No longer. Everyone has a high speed connection now and everyone is using phones or computers with massive displays, negating the need for the mobile website.

The browser was just one example.

What did I love?

The design. Instead of seeing a massive black and (insert back of phone colour here) rectangle and a bump for the camera(s) on the back, we get a bright yellow curved banana-looking phone with a slide out frame to answer calls and just slam it back shut to hang up (still very satisfying, like a flip phone).

Photo of a Nokia 8810 in yellow lying back down

Image: Nokia 8810 Yellow Banana Phone.

The alert tones (weird, I know) were actually nice and not annoying to listen to. Possibly because they’re different to what we’re used to and so that was appealing.

Battery life is, as expected, very good. 2 full days of use, plus an overnight got me to 45%. I mean, it’s not like I was doing that much with it. I answered three calls, sent two messages and received several. My email was sync’ing every 30 minutes and I even listened to the radio once! Yes. Radio. I kinda wished we had an FM receiver in modern phones but (at least on iOS) it’s not a thing.

Hot take?

In case it’s not clear, it’s tough, but not impossible to get by without a smartphone. I have come to appreciate a smart phone a lot more than I did before I used this phone. I have also now setup some really thoughtful distraction free zone settings using the focus modes available on iOS.

Smartphones are definitely devices that can help us in modern day to day. From checking into places with COVID restrictions and proving identity, to shopping lists and getting directions to places. From taking photos of moments in life where you would otherwise need a dedicated camera, listening to music, communicating with our friends and family in groups to simply reading a book. But like everything else I personally think taking a step back and having a thoughtful look at what you’re doing and how often you’re doing it and thinking about intent of use of a smartphone can help with curbing an unnecessary constant “quick look at something” which turns into hours. We’ve all been there, mindlessly scrolling through to look for the next dopamine hit.

Gee that turned a bit philosophical didn’t it? Ah, well I did caption this section “hot take”.

I’ll leave you with this wonderful video.

TL;DR

The TL;DR is that smartphones are now a necessity in modern life. Sure you can get by without one but you’re only putting yourself at a disadvantage. Messaging which is the most common way to communicate in my experience, is probably the most difficult aspect of not using a smart phone.