My month with just one “dumb phone”

Like everyone else, I spend far too much time on my iPhone. And so I decided to give it up for the much slimmer Light Phone II. But could the modern world really make it easier?

I’m stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic—red lights as far as I can see—and I’m late for a funeral. How long will the standstill last? Is there a less crowded route? Should I exit the Autobahn and take the country road instead?

I don’t know: A few weeks earlier, I traded in my iPhone for a Light Phone II, a $350 mobile device that can only make calls and send and receive text messages. And so, as I have done many times since I gave up the smartphone life, I call my friend Sunny. “You sound like you’re underwater again,” she says. “I can hardly hear you.”

“Wait – let me take you off the speaker,” I reply, although I’m pretty sure she can’t make it out either.

The Light Phone II is a block of matte plastic that’s a little longer than a deck of cards and about as thin as an iPhone. It’s the brainchild of Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang, an artist and product designer respectively, who met in a Google experimental program in 2014. The first model was released in 2017. Business Insider stated that the “beautiful credit card-sized phone could cure your smartphone addiction” and TechCrunch called it an “incredibly inspiring company”.

But the first light phone was so impractical – it only worked on 2G networks – that Hollier and Tang quickly went back to the drawing board. “The original Light Phone was only intended to be used as a casual ‘second phone,'” the makers wrote a few months later in a public manifesto. “However, the Light Phone II was designed with the intention of being a fully functional basic phone, whether it’s your ‘only’ phone or ‘second’ phone.”

Unlike the first model, which was only used to make calls, the second was designed with the intention of completely replacing your smartphone. With the addition of a few other essential features like messaging and an alarm clock, Hollier and Tang have developed a custom “lightweight” operating system with a matte black and white E Ink display – imagine a cross between a Tamagotchi and an old Sony Ericsson . Since then, they’ve added other “tools” – mainly a calculator, a music player, and a GPS. (I installed some of these features, but getting them to work turned out to be a real stumbling block.)

My light phone II

As it entered my orbit, like most Americans, I spend far too much time on my phone and wanted to find a way to rid myself of it. The Light Phone II seemed as good a starting point as any. But I learned right away that it’s not a great phone. The speakerphone is activated by my ear too easily, hitting my eardrums when I least expect it, and if there’s a way to transfer my contacts from my iPhone I haven’t figured out yet. So I had to reply to a not inconsiderable number of text messages with “sorry, new phone, who is that?”.

Worst of all, the touchscreen is archaic. I don’t have particularly fat fingers, but I’ve stopped going back and trying to correct the mistakes I make when typing short messages. I’ve also mostly stopped texting people altogether, which didn’t seem to bother my family and friends, if only because they hate that my messages now appear as a green text message bubble.

Still, not everything is bad. When I go to bed at night, I no longer spend an extra hour lulling myself to sleep with headlines about how Will Smith beat Chris Rock at the Oscars. And when I go to my grandma’s for dinner while she spends most of her time on her iPad, I spend the night flipping through old photo albums and seeing pictures I’ve never seen before. Most memorable is that on the Persian New Year when an older guy choked on his food I’m pretty sure I saw him struggling to breathe long before anyone else when I wasn’t on my phone and was able to give him the secret before it got worse. (True story.)

And yet, life-saving tool or not, everyone still mocks my Light Phone II. There are people who ask me what I’m doing on a kid’s cell phone. Others press a button before they get bored. But by far the most common answer is what Wired called the “that one thing” problem: “If only it had email,” a family friend told me; Another offered: “If only I could listen to my Spotify playlists.”

My personal “that one thing” is the GPS. I downloaded it to my phone, but like so many others on the Light Phone subreddit, I quickly realized it wasn’t working. Either the screen freezes or it goes offline every time. “Offline mode works great,” writes one Redditor. “But whenever I venture into the city, I really need the GPS mode to recalculate when I come across a construction site. Instead, I get hopelessly lost.” At heart, you may have a sense of where you are, but getting accurate directions to your destination becomes a major obstacle.

The weird thing is that the Light Phone’s non-working GPS was driving me nuts – until it wasn’t anymore. With little to no control over the length of my route, I now roll down all the windows, leave the radio on, and remember how much I used to love driving. No voice tells me to turn right or left. Or a red ticking clock that constantly reminds me that I’m going to be late. It’s just me and some streets that I kinda, kinda know.

In almost every Light Phone II review I’ve come across, the reviewer concludes that while the Light Phone II is an admirable attempt to curb our tech addiction, they just can’t replace their smartphone with it. Instead, it’s often referred to as a great “digital detox.” To this end, CNET‘s Jessica Fierro wrote that while she loved the Light Phone II because it allowed her to live in the moment, “there’s no point in switching permanently because I work on social media and need some form of mobile Access to apps like Instagram and TikTok to keep up with trends.”

For me, however, “light” has never been synonymous with less. I’m still at my computer eight hours a day, and if anything, the Light Phone II has only made that time more purposeful — I mean, I have to get everything done because I really log off at the end of the day. And again, more than a month since I first used the Light Phone II, I’ve made peace with its limitations. I’ve certainly been unsubscribed from some texting groups – people really hate the green bubble – but the downside is that I have a little more control over how and when I’m online. If anything, I’ve learned to appreciate the moments when I’m really bored.

Sure, without GPS I get lost more often in the world. But finding my own way – and walking my own way – wasn’t such a bad way to reach my ultimate goal either.