Life without a smartphone

What it looks like to rewind the clock back by a decade or two

The smartphone explained (photo credit: Suzana Perišić)

A few months ago, I decided to stop using a smartphone. It’s not about privacy — I keep my documents in the cloud, and I’m pretty sure the big brother already has a fat dossier on my digital life. I find the smartphone is too disruptive for me. It occupies way too much cognitive space. I decided to get rid of it and go back to what I used to do before smartphones.

When I first started using smartphones over a decade ago, it was a convenient package that merged a few of my favorite gadgets: portable computer, camera, mp3 player, and (quite obviously) a cellphone. In order to stop using a smartphone, I had to break this integrated device into multiple gadgets.

Other than ending up with more gadgets to play with, I discovered the advantages of not owning a smartphone in particular.

More cognitive capacity

Because the smartphone stopped taking up all the cognitive space, I could focus on people around me in conversations. I am also more aware of my environment in situations where I would normally kill time looking at the screen.

I also stopped having obsessive-compulsive notification checking routines during commutes. This is probably one of the more important aspects of not owning a smartphone. By not being connected 24/7, I feel like my life is less controlled by my digital activities.

I won’t lie to you, though. My goal was not to do technology detox. I’m still a gadget freak. Point is, even all the replacement gadgets I got could not contaminate my cognitive space the way smartphone could.

The phone

Nokia 105

I’m getting rid of the smart in smartphone, not the whole concept of having a cellphone. I’m not backwards enough to think a landline phone is all I need.

I picked up the cheapest Nokia feature phone I could find: Microsoft-branded Nokia 105. It’s feature list is much shorter than the feature in feature phone would suggest: make calls, text, alarm, calendar…

Oh and the phone book, the kind that’s not automatically backed up to the cloud. In fact, this phone is completely cut off from the cloud. I don’t need to set up any accounts. I just put the card in, and turn it on.

The battery on this thing lasts about a week with normal usage. I can’t remember the last time I charged my phone… literally.

The camera

I love photography. Smartphone was actually a blessing in that regard. I finally had a small pocketable camera that would always be on me when I needed to take a shot. Over time, I actually spent quite a lot of money on expensive smartphones just for the camera. Sony Xperia Z series, LG G4, Huawei P9 with its Leica camera, just to name a few.

Finding a replacement was not easy. Practically anything that you could call a camera is going to be much larger and much less pocketable than even the largest smartphones. I managed to find a perfect camera, though.

Fuji X70 compact camera

After a bit of research, I settled on Fuji X70. It’s a street shooter’s dream camera: compact, almost perfectly pocketable, and a great camera. More than anything, it’s a proper camera. Even the best phone camera, with all the manual controls and similar gimmicks, still cannot beat a proper camera in terms of photo quality and versatility.

More than anything, photography has become sooooo much more fun. Without going too much into detail, I’ll just end here by mentioning that I’ve only missed one day of shooting out of a month and a half since I got the camera — X70 has seen more action than all of my smartphones I’ve ever owned, combined.

Music on the go

Although I can always play music on my laptop, I did miss the music on the go. I was beginning to think that mp3 players were a thing of the past, but one quick search online revealed that I was quite wrong. In fact, portable mp3 players are quite expensive, and very popular among music lovers.

Shanling M1

I eventually got a tiny (as in half as big as the Nokia 105 cell phone) Shanling M1, an entry-level music player that supports FLAC files. Don’t let the name fool you. It’s a Chinese product, but it comes in a fancy box, has a metal case with smooth matte finish, very well built, and oh-so-beautifully-sounding.

Here’s the thing: having a dedicated portable music player has some serious advantage over keeping your music on the phone. First of all, the software on M1 is much better than any music app I’ve ever used. It has all the essential eye-candy, supports titles and artist names in different languages, shows cover art, etc. Audio quality is also quite fantastic (and I’m not an audiophile, so it should be saying a lot).

Dedicated vs integrated

The combination of these three devices, a single charger (thanks to the fact that all three devices are low-power and use USB for charging), a spare battery for the camera, expanded storage space in my backpack to accommodate the three devices… It all sounds like a bit of a hassle, doesn’t it?

Yeah, it is a little bit more hassle than carrying a single thin device in my pants pocket. I’m old enough to have had lived like that for a long while in the past, though, so this is not exactly new to me. Secondly, it’s not as much hassle as it used to be back then. All these devices are smaller, lighter, and more powerful than their early 2000's counterparts. I’m carrying my backpack with me anyway.

More than anything, all these specialized devices do their job very well. In most cases, they do their job lot better than a phone. In terms of photography, there’s not even a contest. In terms of music, I’m not an audiophile, but audiophiles do claim there is no contest there either.

Many times, the ergonomy of a dedicated device with all the hardware buttons and knobs you could want beats touching the screen 99.9% of the time. I can shoot my camera without looking, I can change the track and volume on my mp3 player without looking, I can even text without looking. All these devices start up fast, and are ready to serve you when you need them.

Having dedicated devices amounts to more than just breaking the smartphone into individual hardware bits. It means breaking the whole integrated experience into distinct experiences and then amplifying each until they are close to optimal. It gives me more focus in every activity, and, at the same time, frees me from the distractions that plague the smartphones. Overall, I’m very happy with my choice.