Why I Still Use A Dumb Phone (And Have No Plan To Change)

Why I Still Use A Dumb Phone (And Have No Plan To Change)

While home for the holidays last year, an old friend and I set out for a café. Thirty-five minutes into what should have been a fifteen-minute drive, we accepted that we needed help. “Just look it up on your phone,” my friend said from behind the wheel. “I can’t,” I replied, waving my flip phone, sans internet capabilities, above the dashboard. My friend sighed. We were lost.

Staying Dumb

I seem to be one of four people left on this planet (or at least in this country) who has yet to buy a smartphone. Or at least it can feel that way. In reality, about 50 per cent of Americans and 66 per cent of adults aged 18 to 29 own smartphones. My own reasons for abstaining are numerous, and range from the practical to the ideological.

On the practical side, I’m deterred by the cost of a monthly data plan (and the cost of the phone itself), my own lack of technological savvy, and the fact that I have a propensity for being, shall we say, a bit “uncoordinated” — meaning I drop my phone. A lot. And while my tank of a flip phone has thus far survived the violence, I’ve seen enough people’s shattered iPhone screens to know “smart” technology is not necessarily “durable” technology, particularly in the hands of a klutz.

Honestly, these are all things I could learn to live with. I could rearrange my budget (maybe) to include a data plan; I could learn how to use new tech pretty quickly; I could be extra, extra careful while using the phone (or smother it in bubble wrap). And certainly there are perks to having a smartphone; I’m sure it would make some aspects of my life exponentially more convenient.

But what it really comes down to, for me, is the ability to get lost.

Off The Grid

In a literal sense, what this means is that I don’t want to know where I am all the time. I don’t want to have a map app at my disposal. I think it builds self-reliance to have to navigate on one’s own, to read paper maps, observe street patterns, and rely on one’s intuition and (gasp) maybe the kindness of strangers.

It connects me to other people to have to ask where the park is, how to get to the intersection of streets X and Y, or where the nearest subway stop might be. Wandering cities and suburbs and sometimes forests, unassisted by smart technology, I am always a little afraid of getting lost — and excited by the challenge of finding my own way to wherever it is that I’m going.

But perhaps the greatest thing about occasionally getting lost is this: Sometimes, I find myself in an even more exciting place than the one I’d planned to visit. I’ve stumbled across a city café with the best tres leches cake to ever grace the planet, an old Maine cemetery packed with moss-covered statues, and a crumbling castle near the banks of a river in Ireland. These are all places I likely would not have seen (and stories I would not be able to tell) if I’d had a smartphone keeping me on track.

Hiding Out

The idea of “getting lost” has meaning beyond the literal. Without a smartphone outside of home or the office, I have the ability to get some much-needed alone time, to be “lost” from (read: out of contact with) friends and family for a while — and to escape my own online personae.

It’s so easy to get wrapped up in the social capital of it all: checking in to the hottest bar in town, touting one’s weekend plans or midday meals on Facebook, tweeting a friend’s funny comment the moment it’s uttered. This sharing overload isn’t necessarily “bad” — social media has its considerable benefits — but I’ve found that when it’s always at my fingertips, it starts to pull me out of myself. When it’s easy to share, it’s easy to share without thinking, to get caught up in sharing for its own sake and not because I truly have something to say.

In a similar sense, I value the fact that my “dumb” phone lets my friends drop out of constant contact with (read: “be lost from”) me as well. As a result, our time together feels that much more valuable when we connect in real life. I don’t want to know what my friends are up to because I’ve been following them hour by hour on Instagram; I want to know because we’ve had a conversation. And I don’t just want to know what my friends are doing; I want to know how they feel about whatever’s going on in their lives, how it’s challenging them and making them grow — a level of information that’s difficult to glean just by checking Facebook statuses during a commute.

In short, my dumb phone makes it harder for me to be a lazy friend. This is both a blessing and a curse: On busy days, it means I’m more likely to fail at making connections with the people I care most about. But it also makes the “good days”, when I reach out to friends and we share with each other in a more emotional way, even more important.

Finding My Smarts

Because I cannot connect with my friends through media while I’m out and about, because I cannot play Angry Birds or browse emails on the subway, I am stuck with myself, and no one else. Getting lost, both literally and figuratively, has forced me to cultivate my relationship with myself. It requires that I be present with where I am, what I’m doing, and who I’m with, even when it sucks. In the process, it has afforded me the opportunity to learn that I will always be OK on my own — and that regardless of the technology at my disposal, I will always find my way back home.

Off the Grid: Why I Still Use a Dumb Phone [Greatist]

Laura Newcomer is the Happiness Editor at Greatist. She’s particularly interested in the ways our mental and physical health intersect, as well as how to build healthy, vibrant relationships with ourselves and others.


  • Reading this on my phone on the bus lol.
    Idk though, I personally have an over curious mind, so when I think of something crazy I want to look it up on Wikipedia straight away.
    Also in a busy day being connected makes it feel a little less lonely.

  • Went back to a dumb phone after using a 3GS iphone. While the 3GS (which would be considered these days as really really old tech) is a great phone, I got S I C K TO D E A T H of the constant need to charge the battery almost daily. The old dumb nokia I have now literally goes for two weeks on a single charge as I only make the odd call. I got the 3gs from ebay and the battery would be ok as long as i didn’t use it much ( lol) for browsing, music etc etc. Though I would suffer from CSPW (chronic smart phone withdrawal) but no probs….. still use the iphone on the wifi at home.

    • I really don’t get this “I hate having to charge my phone every day!” argument. Bed time, plug the phone in, in the morning it’s fully charged, repeat the next night. Really, how hard is it?

      • It’s a valid response, but not everyone remembers to do that.
        My ex girlfriend threw away her iphone, because it would run out of juice so quickly, prior to that she had used a Sony Ericsson, and a Nokia, both of which would hold their charge for several days – so she never got into the habit of charging it every night.

        I still keep a Nokia 6310i for the times when I need a phone to last several days without charge. Today’s smartphones are all nice and fancy, but are very weak in the battery life department.

        Users shouldn’t have to adapt to the shortcomings of the device, the device should be made better.

      • Hi Dman – no argument at all . My phone was becoming a virtual “pet” . Feed it apps, music, updates etc etc etc. I spent years feeding the habit. The battery life drove me nuts. If I used the gps or something when out, I then needed a charger or external pack. I have enough real pets lol….. its just a personal view.

        • Surely that’s your problem, not your phone’s? Not having a super-convenient device just because you can’t use it appropriately seems absurd to me. For the record, I have a 4G smartphone and I only charge it two or three times a week, which is only incrementally more than any other phone I’ve had. I also “feed it” music regularly because I want to listen to music. i.e. A phone with lots of storage makes my life easier, not harder.

          • Hi MotorMouth – my first post says I still use the iphone, ie “…. still use the iphone on the wifi at home.” Have you heard the of term retrograding ?
            (from http://www.thefreedictionary.com/retrograding)

            ret·ro·grade (rtr-grd)

            1. Moving or tending backward.
            2. Opposite to the usual order; inverted or reversed.
            3. Reverting to an earlier or inferior condition.

            I just retrograded 🙂 and haven’t gone back. . . . . .

          • You mean you made a poor decision and use some hipster dufus term to justify it. There are plenty of smartphones out there with good battery life. I have my GPS on all the time and never bother with wi-fi, except to use the phone as a hotspot for my tablet and/or laptop. You just needed to find a smartphone that worked for you.

  • I still use a dumb phone. It’s so dumb it doesn’t even have predictive text (no dictionary installed). The battery lasts over a week, and the phone is damn indestructible. \o/

  • Best of both worlds: until recently I had a Nokia N97 mini. That phone lasted almost a week on a charge, was pretty indestructable (dropped that mofo so many times, even survived a run-in with a wall with only a dent in the aluminium) and it’s ‘smart’ capabilities were rudimentary compared to most smart phones. The navigation was great, the internet could get me out of a pinch if I really needed to look something up but was so terribly slow and unpleasant to use, it detracted me from using it too often.

      • Now, now. S60 was a solid and very feature-rich smartphone OS which was handled poorly by Nokia, the main mistake being underpowered hardware.

        My N97 Mini was running Opera Mobile in Desktop mode, connecting to bluetooth keyboards for uni note taking, navigating offline, organising apps into folders and editing videos long before these features were common, or available at all on other smartphones. Not only that it was tough as nails and had quite good battery life, although it was nowhere near a week for me :P.

        Yes, of course it’s inferior to the GS2, but that’s a difference of two years in one of the fastest-moving areas of consumer tech. However I still maintain that it’s more ergonomic – the most comfortable phone I’ve held!

        • Don’t get me wrong, I loved the N97 when I first got it. I didn’t buy it out-right but I did go on a $79 contract when a $19 contract would have covered my usage.

          I used more features on the N97 than I do on my GS2. I’ve not bothered setting up emails, or a VoIP account, on the GS2 although I used them frequently on the n97.

          But as soon as I got the GS2 the N97 became useless. The n97 does do everything that I would want it to, it just does it very slowly and is just unusable compared to the GS2. Also, the camera lense got a scratch on it which apparently is a common problem with the phone.

          I got the GS2 about a year after I got the N97 and for me it was like night and day. N97 was painful, whilst the GS2 is still a joy to use. And the GS2 is sexy. Super slim. It’s great.

          I don’t really feel a need to upgrade at the moment. Apart from the bigger screen the S3, S4, Xperia Z seem pretty much the same as the GS2. Of course the newer phones are better but it’s not as if it’s replacing something that’s broken.

          • haha yep, I know the feeling. I went from N97 Mini to an HTC Trophy – for $250 I thought I’d give Windows Phone a chance. It may not have actually done everything that the Nokia did, but it was much more enjoyable to use.

            Like I said, Nokia really stuffed up with S60, which tainted Symbian^3 and the rest is history. Shame, really.

    • Stick with it.. don’t fall into the trap of thinking you NEED anything that you don’t actually need. My Galaxy S3 was a mistake.. should have kept the flip-phone.. The only good thing I can say about the S3 is the camera.. everything else is just candy.. and I can live without candy.

  • While I view this article with scepticism as it has that kind of condescending pride that people have when they say “oh I don’t even own a TV”, I do have some affinity with it.

    Recently on an interstate trip I used my smartphone heavily when catching buses, looking up timetables, stop locations, tracking my movements with the map app so I knew where to press the button to change routes. “How did I ever get by without this?” I thought to myself. Then I remembered that I travelled the world and got by just fine without it for many years. How did I do it? I talked to people, it was a part of the adventure, although getting lost is not usually the funnest part of any adventure (it can occasionally lead to great discoveries though). I’m still undecided as to whether I want to take my smartphone on an upcoming international trip or just go old school and rely on my wits and the wisdom of strangers. I’m tending towards dumb phone at the moment but the camera on my smartphone is a big factor too.

    • Smartphone + travel = lost, stolen, or mugging victim. If it’s an iPhone, add difficulty in getting a standard SIM card.
      You DO buy a local prepaid SIM, don’t you? Or do you pay the massive roaming fees?

      • local prepaid sim all the way my friend, yeah good point about getting the right sim though, might just dust off one of my old nokias for this trip.

  • A counterpoint

    I’m not sure I agree with your premise. A smartphone is, for me at least, a tool to ensure I can remain effective, efficient and lean in my work and home life. A productive use of my phone, calendar and navigation can buy me an extra 10-20 minutes a day of productive time. Whether I spend that writing another 1000 words for the next release of my book, a new blog post, or playing with my daughter, it’s a benefit to me.

    Taking your point about getting lost. If I know where, when and how long it will take me to get somewhere, I can be efficient in my travel (I actually have a tasker event that takes my calendar entry and triggers navigation the minute I get in my car). It’s not perfect, sometimes traffic (or just general phone) issues cause delays, but it works most of the time. If I want to spend time exploring, I can plan for that; set aside a few hours of me. On a slight tangent, I also sometimes like getting lost in my smartphone; I’ve sometimes spent hours in the wiki trap, learning new information that I didn’t know before; making me a better manager and writer.

    RE: social media. Granted, I’m not as embedded in social media as other people, but connectivity is valuable to me. I move a lot, so keeping track (superficial though it may be) of old friends who I may not see very often is meaningful.

    The gist of my counterpoint is that, while it may have it’s downsides, a smartphone is, like any other piece of technology, a tool. I’ve made mine do what I need it to do, when I need it and how I need it. And if it’s out of charge and I need to find my own way home, well I can do that too. 🙂

    • Evan, you are correct. The article doesn’t talk about the benefits of a dumb phone (apart from battery life). It discusses the potential pitfalls of a Smart Phone. These can be mitigated through behaviour.

      It’s like saying you shouldn’t have an offset account attached to your home loan because you may be tempted to spend all your money. Well… sure… but you’re also getting heaps of benefit over not having an offset account.

      The only reasons for not getting a smart phone are:

      1. Battery life
      2. Your dumb phone works perfectly well
      3. You’ve lived without a smart phone and so aren’t missing anything
      4. Possibly financial. But a Nexus 4 or older generation phone is affordable. Then go pre-paid.

      Disclaimer: I jumped onto a smart phone only 6 months ago. The last in my office to do so. The phone has sweepingly changed my productivity for the better.

  • Well, I’m perfectly happy with my smart iPhone 4S. That said, my whole orientation to technology has shifted in the last year or so. I’m into “smart enough” technology. I’m no longer interested in being an early adopter or trying out the latest tech flavour of the month. I could seriously keep my current phone for years…because its just smart enough.

    • Yep, me too.

      The new phones have lost their sexy must have-ness. I’ve hardly looked twice at my wife’s Xperia Z. It’s undoubtedly better than my GS2 in probably every way, but yet my GS2 is still perfectly capable of performing very well at any task it’s asked to do.

      I don’t really see the need for a tablet either.

  • A couple of points,

    Plan cost mine is $19 for $450 calls and 2.25 gb of data. how much is a dumb phone plan with the same call content?

    I bought my phone outright for $180 I could have got a smart phone for $29 but wanted a massive screen.
    I have dropped it a few times, once onto the sharp edge of a concrete block only damage a tiny nick in the chrome edge. Choose a phone that isn’t all glass or fragile.

    With light use a week per charge will leave a good safety margin plus it came with 2 batteries.

    With careful choice there are very few down sides to a smart phone, how you use it is your choice as well.

  • I have to say I find the writers viewpoint a bit silly.

    In terms of cost of ownership of a smart phone I don’t view it as being particularly expensive. You can get Aldi, Boost, Amaysim, Kogan pre-paid systems which provide a good few gigabytes of downloads for a low cost.

    I think I get 500mb of downloads a month on my phone, and I used to be paranoid about exceeding that amount and being overly charged because of it, but i’ve not approached exceeding the amount once.

    I use the (3g) internet on the phone when I’m waiting at the doctors, or if I’m at a shop and want to compare prices – that kind of thing. I don’t use the phone for GPS whilst driving simply because I own a dedicated GPS that has become a trusted ally, but I do use the GPS if needs be when walking around. And why not? It’s a tool that helps me when I need help. If I wanted my life to be purposefully inconvenienced I could simply ask the GPS the best directions and choose to go another way.

    I own a Samsung Galaxy 2S which is now due to be replaced, but I probably won’t for a while because the 2S works so well (although I will need to buy a replacement battery). My wife had the Galaxy 3S which is nicer, but not in a revolutionary way and that died when it got dropped in the toilet – and if that’s a concern for you I would recommend the Sony Experia Z as it’s water proof – and I would say has a very good chance of performing brilliantly for a good 5 years or more.

    I’m no longer wowed by my smart phone, or anyone else’s, but I still have to give it props for being an awesome piece of technology that does everything I could possibly want a handheld device to do, and it does it so well.

  • I rue the day I upgraded my Nokia flip-phone with the Galaxy S3.. that little phone did everything I ever needed it to and it even worked with my in-car hands-free bluetooth system, which my S3 does not! My contract is almost up (September this year) and I will be ditching this phone.. I’m going to see what the budget iPhone is like and if it’s ok, I will get that.. but I might just end up going back to a dumb-phone instead.

  • I am an apple fan and have worked my way through from a 3GS, 4, 4S and now the 5. I could not live without it due to the fact that it is so “smart”. Timer, alarm clock, reminders, calc, maps, emails, calendars etc – and thats just the standard before downloading more apps. I don’t know how anyone could still own a “dumb” phone. In this day and age, mobility is key. “Dumb” phones have no mobility except for phone calls.

    P.S Since people are reminiscing over “dumb” phones – gone are the days of the old Nokia 3210 or 3310 that everyone used to own with their games of snake and space invaders

  • It’s nice sometimes to have a phone that you can put in a pocket and barely notice that it’s there.
    I have smartphones at both ends of the size spectrum. I bought a Samsung ‘Pocket’ when it first released – was the smallest phone I could find that had vaguely reasonable internal app storage.
    I still often prefer to carry my old Siemens dumbphone. Smaller, lighter, and – bizarrely – still has the best (as received) call
    quality of any phone I’ve ever used.

  • having a little gps in my phone while driving telling me where to turn rather than me worry about where i am, trying to read street signs and following a map, means i can keep my eyes on the road and be more aware of traffic around me.
    Its just safer if used correctly

  • Making and receiving calls is probably the least desired function of my smartphone.

    I think a large part of this article is based on an ignorance of what a relationship over technology can be. You can achieve many of the things the author desires in a friendship. This doesn’t replace face time but it’s far better than nothing. In my case the friendship probably would be come nothing with all of my friends other than my best friend.

    Without the ease of facebook etc, we’d probably drift apart.

  • I own a dumb phone. Not because of ideology, but because I’m poor and rarely leave the house. I’ll jump on the bandwagon once my life makes the purchase warranted, but I don’t know when that will be. Hell these modern smartphones might be relics by the time I’m ready to get on board.

  • I was a holdout until a couple of months ago. Had (have) a prepaid non-smart phone, an unlocked Nokia “101” bought for $37. Has the virtue other commenters have pointed out, the battery goes on and on without needing a charge. Also it’s a dual-SIM phone and originally I had my personal and work SIMs in it and that was great. I still use it as my work phone, as they issued me with a plain-vanilla phone, and could put another SIM in the second slot.

    However recently I dragged myself kicking and screaming into the 21st Century and bought a second-hand unlocked iPhone 4S. I went from prepaid on to the Telstra $60 “no-commitment” plan. So far that works well for me in terms of data, phone & TXT useage, and coverage.

    One device covers many needs. I have and iPod and a prepaid mobile broadband WiFI hot spot. I don’t use the hotspot now and use the iPod only occasionally.

    The iPhone is my iPod, my GPS, phone, camera, and Internet access. It’s also a boarding pass, and bike-ride logger, calendar, address book, etc. So it does a lot all in one device.

    I’m not big on social networking so that’s not a plus or minus for me.


    Shorter battery life. That takes a bit more diligence about charging the gizmo, and turning services such as Bluetooth off when I don’t need them.

    More worry about dropping it. But I got a Lifeproof case that seems to solve that problem.

    It’s bigger than my other phone so not as easy to discreetly slip into a pocket.

    I have to carry two phones, at least during work hours. A dual-SIM iPhone would be interesting …

  • It’s a trade-off. Shorter battery life for massively increased functionality, replacing sooo many other things that you might have needed or used before they came out. Phone, map-book, diary, calendar, mileage recording notebook, cassette/mp3 player, notepad, post-its, laptop (to some degree), camera, watch/alarm clock, photo album,library, newspaper/magazine, calculator, radio, bank passbook, chequebook, portable dvd player,compass, Gameboy,rolodex, sketchbook,sound recorder,ticker tape machine, stopwatch, document folder .. to name but a few of the actual objects they can replace. Not to mention all those things that are uniquely smart-phone/computer functions that have no useful non-phone equivalents. Try carrying all of those around with you every day, or even just half of them.

    Charger at home, charger at work, charger in the car. Problem solved.

    As for wanting to be “cut off ” or lost” – last time I looked, every smart phone out there has the ability to be shut-down ( you know, that thing that people won’t do in airplanes :-). A bit of self-discipline, and you have the best of both worlds. Don’t blame technology for your lack of self-control.

  • I hate smug self-satisfied articles about this sort of shit “I don’t have a smartphone” “I don’t use facebook” “I don’t own a TV”. Good for you, keep it to yourself. You either don’t understand the thing you don’t have, or you can’t control yourself, or you’re just using it wrong.

  • Wow,
    I wonder how many people there are like me that dont own any sort of phone even a home phone,
    Maybe that is whats stopping me from having friends,
    The only thing i have is a PC cause with a PC i can email/message/chat and do much more things for less then most smartphones all without having look at a tiny screen in the process.
    lol in logical thinking no one would need a phone the only people that would need one really are those that work out side away for a land line and really how often is that ever the case never.

  • I actually got a smartphone specifically for navigation – navigating on foot is all very well, but when you start driving it becomes very different (especially when you now have to consider what lane you need to be in, whether you can turn at this street or not, etc.) I got mine for free though, so I wasn’t too concerned. I will admit though that I’m not a fan of how expensive mobile data is, or of how a lot of cheaper plans offer pathetic amounts of it. I shouldn’t have to pay $40 or $60 a month to have a decent amount of data and a crapton of call and text credit that I’ll never use. (A couple of providers used to allow you to add data to your current plan for a small amount extra but as far as I know none of them are doing that now. Probably because people were dialing back their plans to what they actually use and buying data instead.)

    On the other hand, while my Dad would probably benefit from that fact that most smartphones do have large text options (while he does wear bifocals he still seems to have difficulty reading the text on most phones) they’re also too delicate. His phone gets dropped an average of 3-4 times a day, and it regularly gets stepped on or sat on too. A smartphone wouldn’t survive. (That, and he has no use for most of the features – he has a GPS so he doesn’t need maps, we have computers at home so as far as he’s concerned he has no need for browsing, and while he probably would be able to text on a smartphone with the keyboard all he wants is a phone that makes and receives calls, tells him what time it is and has an alarm. Pretty much every mobile phone can do that, smartphone or not.)

    It’s kind of a pity that there isn’t a ‘dumb’ smartphone though – one with the physical features (large screen, easy to use icons or a stylus, keyboard for texting) but without the software features (or allowing them to be optional) and with better durability. My Mum works for a provider and it’s often difficult for her to find suitable phones for older people with poor eyesight or mobility issues – while a smartphone offers physical features that can help, they’re just too expensive and too complicated. ‘Dumb’ phones may be simple enough and cheap, but they’re too hard for someone with failing eyesight or arthritic hands to use easily. And I’m surprised nobody has designed anything to fill that niche yet, because there’s a lot of countries with ageing populations where people are going to need phones that can be used by elderly people with ease.

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