I’ve been using the new Nokia 3310 3G as my primary phone for a full work week, and it’s been like living in a localised time distortion field where I was in 2000 and everybody else was 17 years ahead. As someone with an appreciation for retro technology I thought this might be an interesting — or even refreshing — experience, but it was borderline intolerable.
Now of course I wasn’t totally anachronistic — as I wasn’t wearing a tracksuit and I still had access to modern internet and other devices at home and at work — but with my usual hub of entertainment, productivity, personal admin and communication replaced by a device with no apps, a numerical keypad and internet connectivity so poor it frankly would have been better if it wasn’t there at all, I felt positively prehistoric.
The 3310 3G is a new, $90 phone from Finland’s HMD Global, and while it’s designed to look and act just like the famous brick phone of old it’s actually a fair bit nicer.
The screen is much bigger and in colour — although more than one person I’ve shown it to has tried to touch or swipe on it to no avail — and it’s a comfier shape overall. It’s cute, and I even got smiles from strangers while using it in public which is something most phones don’t elicit.
The software takes some cues from more modern devices, with functions displayed in an app-style layout and including stuff like a torch and voice recorder that you wouldn’t find on the actual old hardware. There’s even a pretty decent MP3 player that keeps your collection organised, shows your album art and even puts a control widget on the lock screen. You can just fill a MicroSD card with tunes and plug it in.
It also will last a couple of days without a charge, longer if you don’t use it much, and it happens to be competent at making and receiving calls, with support for standard wired headsets and the ability to sync contacts from your SIM or a nearby Android device via Bluetooth.
But that’s practically where the 3310’s list of abilities ends. I can’t really recommend it as a daily driver to anyone but the most devoted dumb phone devotee. Only if by chance you’re already using a phone from 2000, and the end of 2G looks like a cataclysm for you, might it be an option.
I know there are plenty of people who decry apps in all their forms and think all a phone needs to do is make calls (believe me, I read the comments), but giving up a smartphone added an extra layer of difficulty to basically everything in my life.
I ran out of money and had no way to move funds around my accounts. I got to the post office and realised I had no access to any of the addresses I needed to send stuff to. I missed getting instant access to new pictures of my kid as they were taken back at home. I missed taking pictures myself, having immediately given up on the terrible camera included on the 3310. I missed being able to write notes and stories wherever and have them sync to all my devices, read the news at a cafe or check Facebook and Twitter to see what everyone was up to while I was on the train.
My wife says she’s the one that suffered most as a result of my using this phone. While I’d dispute that, I can see her point. Much of our relationship, and much of my everyday life, benefits from my having an internet connection and modern device nearby at all times. Suddenly going back to the choice of either phone calls or slow, often toneless text-only communication made it feel like we were pen pals, which is not ideal for planning dinner or giving quick reactions to news.
And speaking of text, SMS messaging is of course supported and it works fine. My biggest issue, really, was making sure people knew to SMS me instead of using an app. You have the choice of either hitting each key multiple times to get the letters you want or just hitting them once and keeping an eye on the dictionary to make sure it doesn’t insert “gay” instead of “icy”. Punctuation’s also a pain, and forget about MMS. It takes hours and doesn’t look great.
Nostalgia aside we have to admit that a numerical keypad is not a handy way to operate a phone in 2017. It’s poor for navigation, shocking for typing and only good for entering phone numbers, which I did exactly once over the whole week (and that was only because someone tried to send me a vCard and it didn’t work). We have contact lists, copy-paste and links for phone numbers now, so having to do absolutely everything through a number pad seems like a cruel joke.
Most stuff, from ordering food or calling a cab to listening to music or a podcast, is technically possible on a phone like the 3310 3G, it just sucks. But a lot of basic things, like visual communication or running a quick web search to solve a question that had just occurred to you, isn’t possible.
The phone can connect to simple web services (mobile only, no Wi-Fi) and technically has a browser, but nine out of ten times when I tried to go online I just got a blank screen or a bit of text and interminable loading. Loading up the Sydney Morning Herald home page prompted a memory error. I did Google something successfully once, but unfortunately Google didn’t have 240×320 screens in mind when it designed its results pages.
The most damning thing about the 3310 3G isn’t that it’s a cheap phone with pared-back features, it’s that it’s a phone entirely out of time. You could get a basic 4G Android phone for the same price, and I think that would be a better call. The only advantage of the 3310 is that it’s supposed to look and feel like something old, and aside from the fact that this hasn’t been achieved — the new version of Snake is pointlessly modernised, for example, not fun enough for new players but with no nostalgia factor — it’s just not practical.
My first thought on seeing the new 3310 was that it would be handy to take camping on on other outdoor trips, a relatively disposable phone that wasn’t going to get its screen smashed or run out of juice. But now I think I’d rather pack a portable battery and take a cheap phone that can make calls plus take decent photos, tell me what the weather’s going to be like tomorrow and run whatever other apps I need.