Why I use a dumbphone

This is my mobile. It’s a Nokia 2310, which I was given in 2006 after the one I was given previously was stolen. I’d rather not have received a replacement – the very factor at the root of their popularity, the fact that the owner can be contacted at any time in any place, is precisely what I hate about the technology. I don’t like people being able to contact me at any time, because I’m usually in the middle of other things. In fact, I would attribute to possession of a mobile part of the reason I failed to make any friends in college – since I was contactable 24/7/365, I could never get a few minutes to talk to somebody without some family member calling me and demanding to know when I’d be home.

But that’s not the point. I managed to make some peace with it last year when I managed to get a job away from home. My house had no phone at all, so my mobile was the only way to call people. It was a simple matter to use it in the same manner as a landline – I left it in one place and was able to talk on it when I happened to be at home. This worked out well enough.

This is a phone that makes and receives calls and texts. There’s also an alarm and a calculator grafted on, but I never use them. Selecting one of a set of preinstalled ringtones is the limit of customisation.

All good things must, unfortunately, come to an end, and I was laid off from that job when one of our customers lost a major contract. I moved back in with my parents, and expressed interest in the idea of a smartphone. After all, smartphones are awesome. Have you seen all the stuff they can do? Freaking ace!

As it happened, my dad had an old Nokia N97 from 2009 or so knocking about, and he gave it to me to try out. All I had to do was take the SIM card from the 2310 and put it into the N97, and when it worked, it did so entirely satisfactorily. I never used the Internet or any apps – all I did was make calls and send texts.

Speaking of texting, the N97 has a full, miniature pull-out keyboard on which you can type a text using only your thumbs, thus making it one of the very few phones on which I can stand to deal with text messages.

There were a few teething problems. This phone hadn’t been used in years due to dad getting a Galaxy, so the battery was naturally dead. It uses a standard microUSB port to charge, so I reasoned I could use my Raspberry Pi charger with it, especially since everybody has been saying you can power a Raspberry Pi off a standard Android phone charger. As it turned out, I needed the original charge cable that had come with it. That was weird, but not a deal-breaker.

What wrecked the N97 for me was when I went to Wexford for an (ultimately unsuccessful) job interview, and brought the phone with me. Now, to travel between Galway and Wexford, I have to go via Dublin due to the vagaries of public transport in Ireland. Well, no biggie, I have a digital audio player to pass the time.

When I set off, the N97 reported a full charge. With this in mind, I reasoned that a charger would not be necessary, as I wouldn’t be gone longer than the battery would last. When I arrived in Wexford, it reported a full charge. When I left the next day, it reported a full charge, and it had been off for about six hours between my waking up and the interview finishing. Nevertheless, when I got back to Dublin and was waiting for the bus to take me home, I checked to see if I’d missed any calls and found the phone was off. That was weird, since turning it off properly required entering a series of touches, but maybe that happened by some improbable sequence of events. As it turned out, it had turned itself off due to the battery being almost dead.

Now, please keep in mind that I never used this phone for anything other than calls and texts. Also, I barely used it even for that. Since initially leaving Galway, I had taken part in three calls – I had made a short one to the B&B when I couldn’t find it at first, called mum after the interview was over, and taken a call from dad some time after I arrived. None of these lasted for more than three minutes, and when I made the post-interview call, it was still displaying a full charge. This is actually unusually high activity for me – I have only ever once spent more than €10 on credit at any one time, and that was under duress because mum was sure I would get extra (I didn’t). I have also never bought credit more than once a week, and that €10 will usually do me for a fortnight or more. (This will become relevant later).

So anyway, on the way home, I decided to leave the phone off for most of the journey to save the battery so that, in an emergency, I would definitely be able to make a call. You know, like mobiles are supposed to allow you to do. Well, I did, and came home to two very angry parents who had been trying to call me for the entire trip, but had been unable to because I was conserving the battery in case of emergency. Right then and there I took out the SIM card and returned it to the 2310, which I have been using ever since.

So, the big, fancy Nokia N97 doesn’t even last two days. The 2310, in contrast, has lasted me up to 11 days on a single charge under the same conditions and use rate. From what I’ve heard from people who own them, modern smartphones as made by the likes of Apple, Samsung, HTC, Google, modern Nokia, and others have to be charged up every night. So, since I got my second mobile, battery life has been declining.

When the GameCube was first launched, people wondered why it didn’t have a built-in DVD player like the PlayStation 2 and XBox. Shigeru Miyamoto said it was because if a device can do lots of different things, it often can’t do any one thing especially well. I would say this sentiment is often false, but when it comes to mobile phones, it is quite true.

There are perfectly good technical reasons why a smartphone eats battery charge like thin-crust pizza. They have much bigger, brighter screens with higher resolution, colour density, and contrast – all that adds to the power drain. Their processors are orders of magnitude more powerful, and with extra computing power comes extra energy requirements. They are capable of running multiple programmes simultaneously, and performing many, many calculations per second as well as dealing with Internet traffic. Finally, a touch screen requires many more sensors, and reading the data from all those millions of sensors instead of just 20 buttons is a relatively massive energy drain.

You may have noticed that I refer to my trusty 2310 not as a phone, but as a mobile. I remember back when mobile phones first started appearing, we were all amazed at the ability to take calls from anywhere. Since phone in those days referred exclusively to landliness, the ones you could carry around with you were referred to as mobile phones, or mobiles for short.

Smartphones have traded mobility for functionality. Yes, you can carry one in your pocket and use it anywhere, but if you have to charge it every night, you have to keep within reasonable distance of a power supply at all times. This ties you down to areas with significant infrastructure, and makes it hard to, say, travel across Europe with no set path in mind, not knowing where you’ll end up. It also adds bulk to your baggage, which somewhat defeats the slim, tidy form factor.

That’s the big reason. For me, the astounding gains in functionality aren’t worth the slashed battery life. I think I would be better served with a seperate tablet and dumbphone – I can keep the phone on all the time for calls, and turn on the tablet only when I really want to use an app. It’s reminiscent of what Miyamoto said – while a smartphone works very well as a miniature computer, the pathetic battery life means it utterly fails as a phone.

That’s the big reason, but there is another factor keeping me away from smartphones. Price. As I’ve already explicated, I barely use my mobile as it is, and I doubt this would change if I got a smartphone. Sure, I might download an app or two, but at present I have no needs that a smartphone would fill which my dumbphone and laptop combined fail at.

So when it comes to mobile phones, for me at least, it’s smart to be dumb.

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