Garrett L. Ward

The (not-so-)Great Dumb Phone Experiment

Around two months ago, I successfully defended my Master’s thesis and received my M.S. in Engineering. As there was still some work to be done on the project I did, I agreed to stay in my lab over the summer and work on finishing the project as well as a few other small projects that needed my attention before I leave for good. However, this meant taking a fairly hefty cut in pay, as I would no longer be a fully funded teaching assistant, but instead merely a part-time lab technician.

I don’t carry a lot of monthly expenses1, but I took a look at the ones I do have and one in particular jumped out: my $140/month Verizon bill. This was for a single smart phone and two tablets, as I kept my old iPad 3 on my plan when I gave it to my mom. Around this time I was also becoming increasingly disaffected with my iPhone and smart phones in general. I became increasingly aware of my habit of using my iPhone whenever I was bored, be it waiting for food, walking to my car, or even when involved in a particularly uninteresting conversation with my friends. The same sentiment towards social media led me to delete my Facebook (and later, Instagram and Twitter) account. I attempted to curb this instinct by removing these distractions from my phone, only to find I instead resorted to pointlessly checking my email or browsing mobile websites instead.

A growing dissatisfaction with my reliance on my phone to keep my mind occupied coupled with a need to reduce my monthly expenses naturally lead to the idea of “downgrading” my smart phone. This would also allow me to switch my cell phone plan to one less comprehensive–and, therefore, much less expensive. After a brief bout of research, I came across some interesting contenders from Nokia. These were recently released phones, in the classic candybar style. They were also capable of basic web browsing and email, should the need arise. I settled on the Nokia 301, as it was available on Amazon for around $90 shipped. Paired with a Straight Talk Unlimited plan, I would save almost $95 a month. After 4 years of Android and then iOS, I was back to using a dumb phone. Thus began The (not-so-)Great Dumb Phone Experiment

Initial Thoughts

There was not a particularly difficult transition to using a dumb phone. It took some time to adjust to using T9 instead of a full keyboard. Rarely did I miss my iPhone, though. Occasionally I would find myself needing a password or TFA token, and it was mildly inconvenient to go get my iPad or laptop instead of having it right there, but I managed. Perhaps the most difficult part of the transition was explaining to my family and some of my friends that no, I’m not (that) crazy, I’m just poor.

I found myself being very productive over the next few weeks, although that’s certainly attributable to a greatly reduced stress level from having defended as much as anything else. I still caught myself using my dumb phone to check email and mindlessly scrolling through text messages to kill time. It was something I was more cognizant of and actively tried to combat, somewhat successfully. I find myself looking at my phone much less now. I’ve also started leaving it in my office at night instead of in the bedroom with me; and there are many times I leave it on my desk at work when going out for coffee or lunch.

The biggest gain for me has been that I don’t use it mindlessly whenever I’m waiting for something. Now when I have to wait for food or service alone, I just stare off and think. Sometimes I actually think about useful things–designing something for work–and sometimes I just space out for awhile. I’ve also stopped listening to music when walking around alone. I can’t claim to be any more observant than I was before. I still tend to zone out and focus on a problem with or without music when I’m walking long distances. Still, it’s usually focused thought, not thought distracted by music or podcasts.

Two Months in

It’s now been slightly more than two months since I switched phones, and I’m still chugging along just fine. That said, there are two major things that I miss about having a less-dumb phone:

  • Having a full QWERTY keyboard. This is probably the biggest point of friction with my phone right now. T9 tends to fall apart if you don’t stick to a pretty simple vocabulary, and adding symbols and numbers is a giant pain of D-pad navigation and self-loathing.
  • Having a decent camera with easy exporting. The camera in the 301 is passable, but there’s no good way to upload pictures from it. The least painful way is to use bluetooth from my laptop.

The former is probably a non-issue for a lot of people. But my friends are mostly introverts who tend to use texts instead of phone calls–and writing out a wall of text on T9 is painful, especially on the 301 when a fat-finger miss of the 3 button hits the “end call” button… which immediately closes the messaging app without saving the message to drafts first. Typing words not in the T9 dictionary is also annoying. Having to go through three menus to enable “number” mode, which is the only way to type a 0, is just awful.

The latter isn’t really annoying so much as unfortunate. I used to take a lot of pictures on my iPhone. I’m no photographer–these were instagram-quality pictures at best–but it’s fun to go back and look at the old pictures I’ve taken over the years. I haven’t taken any pictures in the two months since I got my dumb phone, though. Not one. It’s something I’m really starting to miss.

The Nokia 301 is pretty great as a phone. It’s fairly solid, gets a week of battery life, and unlike a lot of dumb phones, it has threaded conversations for text messages and a fairly large message memory. You can check email on it, although I wouldn’t recommend it. But for what I want, I feel like it’s falling short. The experiment has failed. Not a major failure, but several cumulative minor ones.

The Future

I’m now at a crossroads. I’m not particularly happy with my phone–there’s too much friction to do the things that I want to do with it. I’m not sure what the solution is. I would rather not go back to a smart phone. I’ve grown fond of the week-long battery life and small size of my 301. That said, a smart phone, used smartly, may well be the correct solution here–a phone without the unnecessary apps, without email accounts or shortcuts to irrelevant news sites. Something simple, that can text and call and take pictures, that I can actually type on easily and that makes it easy to actually use the pictures I take. For now, I still have the 301, but I’m looking for better options.


  1. Living at home does have it’s benefits