Is there such a thing as a medium-intelligence phone?
January 11, 2019 1:51 PM   Subscribe

I'm at a bit of an impasse. I have a really old phone, an iPhone 4S that's probably from 2012 or so. It has a broken screen and the battery barely functions anymore. Hence, I'm in the market for a new phone. At the same time, though, one of the reasons my phone is so old is that I have an uneasy relationship with smartphones. I find myself in the position of needing to buy something that I do not want. Is there a compromise?

My wife has decided that my current phone is unreliable, and she's probably right. We have a two-year-old in daycare, and a second child on the way, and she's concerned that she won't be able to reach me if something happens. For a long time, I thought she was overreacting, but my phone's battery is dying quicker and quicker, and I'm losing whatever ground I once had to stand on. I'm also out of storage space, to the point where I sometimes can't take photos unless I delete old photos first. I can no longer deny that I should buy a new phone. I guess I could replace the battery, but there's not much marginal cost or hassle with just getting a whole new phone, so that's probably the better option.

But I already don't like how much time I spend on my crappy old phone. It's a problem. Pretty much anytime I'm not actively doing something, I pull out my phone and browse the web, even at the family dinner table or laying in bed. I'm aware of how much time I waste, and it bothers me.

One of the reasons I haven't upgraded before now is because I'm worried that if I have a fancy new phone where all apps are compatible with the OS and the battery lasts for more than 15 minutes of reading and all that jazz, I'll be even worse than I am now. My goal is to limit the time I spend on my phone, and having an obsolete model is one way I accomplish that. There are other things I don't like about smartphones as well, such as the location tracking stuff.

The only apps I really want to continue using are the camera, Spotify, email, and maybe FaceTime. With soon to be two children under the age of three, I need a good camera with video and the ability to send photos via text or email. FaceTime is nice because I can call my mom and she can see her grandkids. Also, I have an hour-plus commute each way, and I use Spotify to listen to music and podcasts. It would be nice to keep that. I read that Samsung was going to start preloading Spotify, but I don't know if that's just for their smartphones. It would also be kind of nice to have access to email, but that's not a dealbreaker. (The last two would require a data plan, I guess, and getting rid of that would save a little money each month, which is always helpful.) The biggest key is not having an internet browser, though.

Is there a dumbphone out there that meets those criteria? Maybe with a QWERTY keyboard and an iMessage-style text interface, too? If not, are there workarounds? What can you suggest?

(I have a Kindle Fire, a pretty old iPad, and a laptop, so it's not like I'd be cutting myself off completely.)

And if I do go the dumbphone route, what am I not thinking of? If you've gone back to dumbphones after having a smartphone, what do you wish you would have known?
posted by kevinbelt to Technology (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
"Dumbphone" generally means a phone with no apps, just phone + text + maybe camera -- and a quick Google shows that most carriers do still sell dumb flip phones if that's the route you want to go.

However, if you need a few, but not a lot, of apps: as a 'spare' we bought the cheapest Virgin Mobile pay-as-you go Android phone. It had a touchscreen and runs modern apps, but it has so little free space we were barely able to add any apps, even with an additional memory card (you can't install all apps to the memory card).

So, your best bet may be just to get the cheapest, least-available-memory Android phone you can find, which may have just enough power to do the things you need it to do, and add memory card for MP3s and camera photos as needed.
posted by AzraelBrown at 2:00 PM on January 11


FaceTime is iOS only, so if you mom is tied to that, you'll want to stick to iOS. The newest iOS has some nice features to make getting to other apps and the like a little harder if you want to set some limits.
posted by advicepig at 2:00 PM on January 11


I've also thought about a dumbphone at times, but GPS and maps are the dealbreaker apps for me.

There are many guides online about turning your smartphone into a dumbphone, through some combination of removing apps, disabling non-removable apps, and blocking specific (or all) websites. Maybe grab yourself a refurb iPhone from two generations ago, which should be cheap, and give that approach a shot?

As a bonus, if you absolutely needed to get on the internet to look something important up, you could do so with a little effort (reinstalling/re-enabling apps). For most folks, that barrier is enough to prevent them from going to their junk-food apps/websites.
posted by chrisamiller at 2:01 PM on January 11


I would look into an iPhone SE (modern processor, small iPhone 5 footprint). Within iOS 12 is a tool called Screen Time. In there you can set time limits for various apps. Or, just don't install them? You can remove most of the iOS apps to pare it down to what you want. And you'll have FaceTime and what you need.
posted by msbutah at 2:14 PM on January 11 [5 favorites]


Since you're familiar with iPhones, stay with an iPhone, and just get the cheapest one at your carrier. For example, an iPhone 6S at Verizon is $5 a month or $120 over the two year payoff. YMMV on other carriers. Alternatively, shop for one from a place that refurbishes them (Gazelle comes to mind, there are others) if you don't want to mess with the carrier.

Apple will help you limit how much time you're spending in apps you use with their new ScreenTime feature, so maybe use that to help yourself out with the mindlessness issue.
posted by deezil at 2:16 PM on January 11 [3 favorites]


I think a “medium intelligence” phone would probably be a very successful product with a lot of demand but I don’t think it exists today.
You could compromise by buying:
A gps for your car
A tablet for listening to Spotify in your car or maybe upgrading the entertainment unit to one with Spotify built in (if that exists)
FaceTime with grandma on your wife’s phone or get a tablet for that, make it the kids tablet with a special storage space so you don’t use it mindlessly
A real camera with WiFi for uploading
Then you could get by with a dumb phone for phone and text.
The things I use my phone for can’t be completely replaced with alternates though so you’d have to really think it through.
The best answer I’ve come up with is to just TRY to be mindful and stop when I can for however long I can. Every time you do it a little longer you get a little stronger. The new screen time controls on iOS help as does a timer app I have called Forest that kills a tree whenever you touch your phone during a timed break.
posted by bleep at 3:17 PM on January 11 [2 favorites]


I'd get a used iPhone, or new if that's an option, and disable notifications. Notifications are allowed on only a few apps that seldom notify. It's a useful tool and far less annoying when the distracting stuff is disabled. I'm happy with my Android phone, I'm sure an iPhone can be managed similarly.
posted by theora55 at 6:58 PM on January 11


No idea about iPhone but on Android I'd have my wife setup the phone as the primary user and then turn on parental controls to limit my account on the phone in whatever way i wanted.
posted by noloveforned at 7:06 PM on January 11 [1 favorite]


So I more or less did this by getting a texting-only dumbphone (ie it has a physical keyboard, and it's not a smartphone- something they called a 'feature phone' back in the day) and found it pretty hard to go back to 2012 or whenever that phone model was from.

I find that my biggest need is basically to disable a browser. I don't have a big problem with games or apps, but I need to be locked far away from the Web. I also still wanted a quality camera, GPS, etc, and all of that is hard with a dumbphone. They come with cameras and sorta-GPS but they're shitty low-quality models and you can't use Google Maps to look up phone numbers, for example, without a proper smartphone.

In my case I wasn't trying to save money because this was an experiment, and I'm in a different situation than you because I use Google Voice for everything (you can't do quite as much with it on iOS as on Android). I kept my regular Android phone for the experiment, kept it in my car but not in my pocket at times, and ported Google Voice to ring/text the dumbphone. The dumbphone was on a second phone account, a cheapo Tracfone account.

I'm currently thinking of doing the 'edit hosts file' thing to an Android phone and do a very very drastic pruning of what I can see on the browser as my next experiment. I think it requires rooting the phone and I'm not sure what the solution is if you are a person who has problems staying away from addictive apps- my problem lies mostly in browser use.


I also do things to make Facebook less attractive- I unfollowed EVERYONE. I moderate some groups and I have to receive messages, but I don't want tobe bothered by Messenger on my phone. So, I don't have the FB app on my phone and I use what's called a 'wrapper' app (I use Tinfoil For Facebook, pretty sure this doesn't exist for iOS). I have it set to force a 'basic site' view (something I think FB has for low-bandwidth connections) and thus it becomes jsut clunky enough to keep me mostly off of it but still lets me read messages without having to deal with Messenger.
posted by twoplussix at 11:12 PM on January 11


I recently downgraded to a flip phone for the exact reasons you’ve outlined, i.e. I spend way too much time surfing the web on my iphone. I thought that I could tackle my problem by doing things like deleting news apps, deleting games, deleting social media apps, then deleting social media accounts, etc. I stripped away as much as I could in an effort to reclaim my independence from the phone. I tried to switch off Safari but found that I would reenable it when I really needed to look something up in a pinch, then it would remain enabled and I’d just continue wasting time. I realized that I needed to take a more drastic step, which meant ditching the smartphone altogether.

I thought that it would be too hard to go without my iphone and had convinced myself that it was simply too essential a tool to do without. But when I really thought about the reasons why I kept telling myself that it would be too hard to live without, none of them really held up to scrutiny. I thought that I couldn’t do without the camera in my pocket. But I have bought a digital camera that I use when I need to take pictures. And I actually enjoy knowing that it’s not possible to take pictures of everything at all times - easier to just enjoy whatever's going on rather than thinking about how to get the best shot of it. And most of the pics I take of my kid are taken at home anyway, so it’s not like I’m really sacrificing much by not having a camera on my person at all times. I still have an older ipod touch that works great for music and I just listen to music I actually own. Sometimes I miss Spotify, but I found that I wasn’t really listening to music with intention on Spotify anyway. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do without Uber, but I can call a taxi on the phone. And I thought that I couldn’t do without Google Maps, but on a day-to-day basis, how often am I really using it?

And really, on a day-to-day basis, how often are any of these tools actually essential? We got along perfectly fine without smartphones I recently downgraded to a flip phone for the exact reasons you’ve outlined, i.e. I spend way too much time surfing the web on my iphone. I thought that I could tackle my problem by doing things like deleting news apps, deleting games, deleting social media apps, then deleting social media accounts, etc. I stripped away as much as I could in an effort to reclaim my independence from the phone. I tried to switch off Safari but found that I would reenable it when I really needed to look something up in a pinch, then it would remain enabled and I’d just continue wasting time. I realized that I needed to take a more drastic step, which meant ditching the smartphone altogether.

I thought that it would be too hard to go without my iphone and had convinced myself that it was simply too essential a tool to do without. But when I really thought about the reasons why I kept telling myself that it would be too hard to live without, none of them really held up to scrutiny. I thought that I couldn’t do without the camera in my pocket. But I have bought a digital camera that I use when I need to take pictures. And I actually enjoy knowing that it’s not possible to take pictures of everything at all times. And most of the pics I take of my kid are at home anyway, so it’s not like I’m really sacrificing much by not having a camera on my person at all times. I still have an older ipod touch that works great for music and just listen to music I actually own. Sometimes I miss Spotify, but I found that I wasn’t really listening to music with intention on Spotify anyway. I thought that I wouldn’t be able to do without Uber, but I can call a taxi on the phone as easily as I can hail an uber. And I thought that I couldn’t do without Google Maps, but on a day-to-day basis, how often am I really using it?

And really, on a day-to-day basis, how often are any of these tools actually essential? I think that we've managed to convince ourselves that we need these apps, but we got along perfectly fine without smartphones for ages, it should be easy enough to do so again, it just takes some adjusting. I can still call and text and stay in touch with my wife. I can still call a cab. I can still email my friends and stay in touch with them as easily as before. I can still take photos and listen to music. What I can no longer do is blindly cruise around online whenever I have a spare minute or two. Now when I’m out for dinner with my wife and she goes to the washroom, I simply sit in silence and look around and let my mind wander, which is far more fulfilling than spending two minutes reading the Washington Post or whatever. And while it was weirdly unnerving to not have an iphone on me whenever I went out at first, I quickly got used to it and I now feel lighter. If I need to get on the internet, I need to get up, go to my computer, and sit down at that specific place to get online. And I’m far less likely to waste an hour on my computer than I was on my iphone. I believe that the internet should be something we use now and then for specific tasks, not the conduit through which we live our lives.

This is all a longwinded way of saying that what you may find useful is to think about how you use your phone, what the conveniences of it are, and whether those conveniences are worth the anxiety you get from spending so much time on your browser.
posted by fso at 10:25 AM on January 12


For what it's worth, I found How to Break Up With Your Phone to be a good guide both in terms of walking you through the process of using your phone less and having technical solutions for blocking apps etc. The author's FAQ recommends the Freedom app for iOS, although it looks like it now only blocks websites, rather than blocking any app. That sounds like it might work for your usecase though. Or get an Android phone, which have more robust app-blockers.
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 10:54 AM on January 12


You could look at the Unihertz Atom. It is an Android smartphone that's pretty small.

Pro: Since it's so small, it's a pain to use, which means you won't spend too much time on it.
Con: Since it's Android, no FaceTime or iMessage. Also, the camera is not amazing.

Review
posted by actionstations at 3:16 PM on January 12


I was just popping in to recommend the Atom as well. I've had mine since the Kickstarter shipment in October. I wanted a flip phone that had GPS and podcasting. Since that doesn't exist, the Atom was the next best thing. The Camera is pretty "meh" but it's great for being just connected enough without getting roped in all the time. I think this is about as close to a hardware solution to your problems as you'll find.

I've been eyeing something like the DxO to take nicer photos, but I've no idea how compatible with the Atom it is.
posted by piedmont at 4:52 PM on January 12


The screen time app introduced last year in iOS has really helped me (and my kids) hew to self set goals for phone use. This is mentioned a few times by previous commenters. Basically— this problem of ‘I re-enable or re-download apps for a one time use, but then they stay on there and I’m back down the rabbit hole ‘ is handled well.
posted by u2604ab at 11:29 PM on January 12


Get a brand new iPhone, and disable all notifications that aren’t meaningful to you.
posted by oceanjesse at 4:31 AM on January 13


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