Life without a Smartphone

OK, so the same thing happens to me about once a week. I sit down next to someone, take something out of my trousers and flop it onto the table – and the person I’m with will recoil in horror, shrieking, “What on earth is that?!”.

The reason for their disbelief is that I no longer own an iPhone. About eighteen months ago, I got rid of it, and bought a Nokia 105. A basic, no-frills, £15 phone, with only about three features and definitely no Internet access.

In some ways, this has changed my life. Not dramatically. It’s only a phone, after all. This isn’t a story about going “off the grid”, and I still spend a lot of time online. But it’s made a lot of little differences, and I wouldn’t go back.

Bored of the iPhone

In 2015, my iPhone 5 was knackered, in that way that old iPhones are. It was slow. It was running out of space. The screen was chipped and cracked. The iPhone 6 had just come out, and I assumed I’d upgrade.

Still, something held me back. The iPhone 6 was bigger, for a start, and I thought the iPhone was big enough. It was also expensive, and I resented paying £600 for basically a faster, bigger, not-knackered version of something I already had.

Really, though, I think I’d got bored of the iPhone. It didn’t excite me any more. I didn’t enjoy using it. In fact, quite often it just annoyed me.

This was partly the fault of the phone. 3G was unreliable; the phone would swear blind it had a signal, but then it couldn’t connect to the Internet. The battery lasted about ten hours at best. iOS had started to feel bloated and clunky, and the “locked down” approach was getting frustrating. That wasn’t the whole story though.

I loved the iPhone when it first came out. I played with one at the Apple Store in New York in 2007, and it blew everything else away. But after eight years, it had stopped feeling like an amazing phone, and more like a slightly limited computer. And that’s really what it came down to, I think. It wasn’t the iPhone. I just didn’t want to be carrying a computer around with me everywhere I went.

Bored of Twitter

I’ve never been someone who checks their email obsessively. I never enable email notifications on a phone; partly the damn thing would ping every few minutes, partly I have no interest in reading work emails at 8pm.

I did find, though, that I was compulsively checking the Internet for “updates”. Flicking from Instagram, to the Guardian app, to Twitter, and then back again.

In any quiet moment, whatever I was doing, I’d instinctively reach for my pocket and “just check something”. Waiting for a tram. Waiting for the kettle to boil. Waiting for the adverts to finish. When you find yourself standing at a urinal with your phone in one hand and your – well, you get the idea – then something isn’t right.

What’s more, the whole process felt like a chore. Twitter in particular became something I had to “keep up with”. I was using a device I didn’t like using, to read content I didn’t enjoy reading, and I felt as though I was doing it obsessively. Plus, it was going to cost me £600 to keep doing it. Time to stop.

The Nokia 105

What I needed was a phone that was smaller, cheaper, and that didn’t have 8000 pointless bloody apps for me to install and then never use. Honestly, if they’d released an iPod Nano with a SIM card I’d have been all over it.

It turned out, though, that people are still making really basic handsets, known as “feature phones”. These are partly intended for emerging markets, and partly for people (like me) who didn’t want or need a smartphone. I bought a Nokia 105 for £15 on Amazon, and it’s great.

This is what my Nokia 105 does:

  • Makes calls
  • Sends SMS messages

That’s it. Oh, and yes – it comes with Snake. (Quite a decent version as well, and if anyone can beat 1536 points, I’m impressed).

It also has two SIM cards, so I can take calls on my work number or my personal one, and a battery that I charge literally once a week.

It’s also small, and fairly indestructable. If I drop it, it bounces. (I can also use it perfectly well in the rain, unlike a touchscreen phone). In fact, if I do manage to break it – well, I’ll spend £15 on a new one. It’s quite liberating to see a phone as a day-to-day tool to use, rather than a piece of valuable technology to treasure.

What I miss about the iPhone

Adjusting to life without a smart phone can be tricky. There are a few things I initially missed, and in some ways still do:

Google. It is quite handy to be able to look things up whenever you want. God, who’s that guy? He’s dead familiar! Was he in CSI? Hang on, let me check IMDB.

Counterpoint: Honestly, it isn’t that important. Just check when you’re back online. Chances are you’ll have stopped caring within ten minutes though. (And yeah, he probably was in CSI, most people have been).

Google Maps. Getting off a train and thinking, “Shit, where was that meeting again?” isn’t a problem when you can just open Google Maps.

Counterpoint: This is something that you learn to plan in advance, like people did before 2006. Take a note of the address, and work out beforehand how to get there.

Instagram. Or specifically, being able to take and post photos when you’re out and about.

Counterpoint: OK, this was a big one, and probably the one thing I miss most. I use Instagram a lot. In the end, I bought a GoPro and carry that around with me; they’re brilliant, but I do still miss the immediacy of being able to point, click and post.

Synch. There’s no way to plug the Nokia 105 into a computer and download all your Google Contacts.

Counterpoint: In fact, and maybe this is just me, the number of people I call on my mobile is actually surprisingly small. It took very little time to add in all the people I call or text frequently.

iMessage. iMessage is fairly slick, and free, and people get used to sending you messages at chris@chrisgibson.com or whatever.

Counterpoint: I still pick up iMessages on my Mac, although I did have to train people to text me on my mobile number if they wanted a prompt response. SMS is perfectly reliable, and who doesn’t have 2000 free text messages included in their bundle anyway?

Notes. The iPhone is a pretty good, if expensive, portable notebook. If I pop to the shops nowadays, I have to scribble a list on a piece of paper, like an old person. No great hardship though.

Emails. See above. It’s occasionally handy, but honestly, I was never one for checking my emails while I was having my tea. Plus, anyone who sends me an email expecting an instant response has failed to understand what email is for.

So why switch?

The fundamental benefit for me of not having a smart phone is that I’m no longer “always on”.

I no longer have that temptation to check my phone whenever I have nothing else to do, or even when I’m doing something dull that leaves one hand free.

It’s actually quite liberating to sit on a tram, or wait for someone in a pub, or just lounge on the sofa at home, and not have that urge to “just check your phone”.

After a while, I genuinely do think it starts to clear your mind a bit. I wouldn’t want to overstate this – I’ve not entered a Zen-like state of higher consciousness. However, a bit of time to just sit and think, or to focus on what you’re supposed to be doing, does you wonders.

Another major benefit is that it’s freed up my time to read. Instead of scrolling through social media  –  especially when on a tram or a train  –  I read a book. Since ditching my Smartphone, I must have read twenty really, really good novels, which otherwise I’d never have found the time to do.

Conclusion

Initially, I got the Nokia 105 as an experiment; something to try out for a bit. In fact, I ran it alongside my SIM-less iPhone for a while, until it completely died. (That was a total failure, as I was then carrying two phones rather than one, plus I spent half my time dementedly searching for Wi-Fi hotspots).

Having switched, though, I wouldn’t go back. I enjoy not having to worry about my battery, or whether I’m going to drop or lose my phone. I like the fact that my phone is now just “a thing”, rather than something precious or special. Most of all, I wouldn’t go back to being plugged into a constant stream of information and interruption, 24 hours a day.

I might treat myself to a Punkt handset, which probably has a slightly nicer UX than the Nokia. Even that feels like a step in the wrong direction, though. The Nokia 150, on the other hand – now, that looks like a nice phone…