I have no love for my phone. And yet, it’s the first thing I reach for in the morning and often the last thing I look at before going to sleep. I reach for it obsessively, reflexively, often for no reason at all. Sometimes I’ll look away from Twitter on mTheVergey laptop so I can look at Twitter on my phone.
Simply put, our phones do too much. The services they give us easy access to — Facebook, Instagram, Twitter — leave us distracted, overwhelmed, and maybe even depressed. To break their habits, people are scrubbing their phones of notifications, grayscaling screens to make them less enticing, imprisoning their phones in nefarious-looking lockboxes, and attending over-the-top digital detox retreats. But changing our habits is hard. These are products methodically designed by behavioral scientists employed by the richest companies in the world, working to keep us endlessly engaged, forever thirsting for our next like.
But if we can’t change our behaviors, maybe we can change our devices. Enter the minimalist phone: a phone that does less. Over the course of a few weeks, I tried out four different phones — the Unihertz Jelly, the Nokia 3310 3G, the Punkt MP01, and the Light Phone — in an effort to curb how much time I spend needlessly scrolling and refreshing. Not every one of these phones is intentionally minimalist, but each came with unique limitations, built-in throttles that would effectively discourage anyone from wallowing in the stupor of infinite feeds. I was looking for a change. I was looking for salvation.
But when it was all over, I came crawling back to my iPhone.
THE UNIHERTZ JELLY
Unihertz, the makers of the Jelly, call the phone “Impossibly small. Amazingly cute. Totally functional.” Two of those claims are true, and I’ll let you guess which ones.
The first thing you’ll notice about the Jelly, which retails for $125, is just how small it is. At just over three and a half inches in length, it fits in the palm of your hand. Despite that, it’s a real, honest-to-god smartphone: it runs Android 7.0, has a Quad Core 1.1GHz processor, and features both rear and front-facing cameras — though at 8 and 2 megapixels, you might not like what you see. The phone runs on 4G networks and supports dual SIM cards. Because of how thick it is, most people I showed it to thought it had a slide-out, Sidekick-style keyboard. It doesn’t, no matter how hard you push. Instead, it has a 2.5-inch fully functional touchscreen.
Admittedly, the Jelly is “impossibly cute” and “amazingly small.” It’s toy-like, and there’s something remarkable about watching a live Instagram video on a miniaturized screen. For those looking to disconnect, that size serves a purpose: though you can still scroll through feeds, chances are you’ll spend less time doing so. The size of the touchscreen adds a considerable layer of friction, so even if I had just as much functionality as I did on my iPhone, I found myself using it less. It was just too annoying to decipher the content of an Instagram post — or, god forbid, try to type out a comment.
Ultimately, the phone’s keyboard is what undermines its claim as “totally functional.” I have normal-sized hands — I think — but the Jelly’s minuscule keyboard left me feeling like I had sledgehammers for fingers. Just my thumb covered half the keys. My texts were full of so many typos I started texting less out of shame. “Okay” turned into “k.” Anything longer than a few words was best conveyed in a call. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing.
The Jelly’s other big drawback is battery life: there is none. The phone lost almost 20 percent of its juice within 15 minutes as I downloaded four apps. At an 83 percent charge, the phone told me that I had just over four hours of life left, and even that turned out to be overly optimistic. Eventually, I learned to carry around an external battery pack with me just to make it through the day. I’d never felt less minimalist.
Still, there was too much functionality. If I wanted to disconnect, I’d have to ditch smartphones altogether.
NOKIA 3310 3G
The original Nokia 3310 is one of the most iconic and commercially successful phones of all time. So in 2017, as part of the company’s nostalgia-focused marketing push, it brought the 3310 back to life. Design-wise, the new Nokia 3310 is pretty close to the original, though it does benefit from a significantly larger color screen and feels more bubbly than its brick-like predecessor.
The phone retails for $60, has a 2-megapixel camera in the back, runs Nokia’s proprietary OS, and comes with a predictable skeleton crew of 2002-era features: a calculator, an MP3 player, and, most importantly, all the Snake you can handle. Unlike the Jelly, it has a respectable battery life — an estimated 6.5 hours of talk time, and about 650 hours of standby life.
Those looking for a minimalist experience might be disappointed to find two new additions to the phone’s navigation screen: Facebook and Twitter icons. Rest assured, these aren’t actual apps, but instead shortcuts to Nokia’s web client. Open these up, and you’ll be banished to the mid-2000s, moving a clunky mouse cursor up and down with an old-school directional pad. It took me 10 minutes to pull up Twitter and complete my two-factor authentication, only to accidentally leave the web client and be faced with embarking on the process all over again. I gave up. The apps are so hard to use they may as well be nonexistent, which suited my purposes just fine.
But the Nokia 3310 comes with one step back in history that I ultimately couldn’t stomach: T9, a texting system so slow and miserable that it should’ve been left to die in the 2000s. I refuse to memorize how many times I have to hit “1” in order to land on a question mark.
If you’re looking for an intentional minimalist phone experience, you might want to consider the MP01, created by a Swiss company called Punkt. Punkt promises that the MPO1 has “no app icons, animations, or special effects vying for your attention.” It is, they assure, “everything you need, nothing you don’t,” and “timeless.” It also looks like a calculator.
Despite that, the MP01 feels nicely designed to the touch. The phone comes in three colors — black, brown, and white — and is about four and a half inches tall. It has a sturdy fiberglass-reinforced body, Gorilla Glass, and feels solid in your hand.
Unlike the Nokia, the MP01 really and truly only does two things: it makes calls and texts, and the face of the phone has easy access buttons to both functions. That limited functionality gives the MP01 good battery life — almost five hours of talk time, and an optimal standby time of over 20 days.
But — and there’s always a but with minimalist phones — the MP01 costs $230. That’s a lot to pay for a device that only does two things. And one of them, not so well. Texting is clunky, and the phone has trouble with the basic task of capitalizing just the first letter of a sentence. In a seeming nod to an earlier — and worse — era of email, the MP01 does not thread text conversations. Instead, messages are divided into Inbox and Outbox folders, and nary the two shall meet. For a minimalist phone, it feels maximally confusing.
The MP01 also only currently works on a 2G network. That’s a problem because if they haven’t already, most of the major carriers will be phasing out 2G coverage over the next few years. So much for timeless.
If there’s one phone that represents the epitome of the minimalist phone trend, it’s the Light Phone. It’s a business card-sized device that you can use independently on a 2G network or tether to your smartphone. It does one thing and one thing only: make phone calls. It costs $150 and comes with six months of a free SIM card from the company.
The Light Phone only comes in two colors: white and black. It weighs a featherlight 38.5 grams and has a muted OLED display. It can display your call logs, but not much more than that, and it has a three-day standby time. It’s a beautiful gadget that, despite its limited functionality, actually feels like it’s from the future.
But that limited functionality needs to be addressed. The problem with having a phone that only makes calls is that it takes two to talk. And in 2018, whoever you call probably won’t pick up — maybe their phone is on silent, maybe they don’t have time to talk, or maybe they just don’t like you. (And if they do pick up, you’re sure to cause alarm since, these days, it seems out-of-the-blue phone calls are almost exclusively reserved for life-and-death scenarios.) If no one’s picking up on the other end, what’s the point of even having a phone? Instead of buying the Light Phone, I suggest you just toss your current phone over a cliff. It may be just as useful.
Its extremely limited functionality makes the Light Phone feel more like an experiment than a viable product — an attempt to gauge whether there’s enough consumer appetite for a phone dedicated to the minimalist experience. Apparently, there is: according to the company, the Light Phone has shipped to 10,000 customers. In fact, at the time of this review, the Light Phone was totally sold out and no longer available for purchase.
In early 2018, the creators behind the Light Phone announced the development of the Light Phone 2, a 4G version of the original that will feature “E Ink, messaging & other essential tools,” and even a full keyboard. The Indiegogo campaign to finance the project has met and exceeded its fundraising goal of $400,000 by over $1.1 million. It’s slated for release in spring 2019.
Ultimately, none of the phones I tried hit the minimalist sweet spot: either the battery life sucked, or I was left frustrated with a texting interface that was shabby or nonexistent. But the experiment did clarify what a viable alternative to a smartphone should look like. First, and foremost, even a minimalist phone should have a full-sized keyboard. Texting is a fact of life in 2018, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Forcing users to make phone calls to relay every message is unrealistic, and asking them to relearn T9 is cruel.
But aside from that, everything else can go — the social networks, the cameras, the dual cameras, and the big color screen. My phone could be one large bezel for all I care, as long as I can text effectively when I need to and have enough battery life to make it through the day. As far as I can tell, that phone doesn’t exist yet — though the Light Phone 2 sounds like it may come close.
For now, it’ll just be me and my iPhone. And until a good minimalist phone arrives, I’ll do my best to resist Instagram Discover’s endless feed of rescued dog videos, stale memes, and sports clips, but I’m not making any promises.