7 days living without...a smartphone

MWC 2011 is around the corner and with it another flush of the very smartest of smartphones just waiting to wow the world. This year looks set to herald the dawn of the dual-core handset, putting mobiles very nearly on a level footing with a lot of laptops out there. So, as these pocket devices take a greater importance in our lives, a question occurred to us at Pocket-lint: is it too late for us to live without them? Have our lives become so entwined with our clever cells that we’d be at a loss if they were taken away?

To answer the question, I volunteered for the job and put a slight spin on our 7 Days Living With features to explore the experience. I gave up my smartphone and instead switched my SIM to the world’s simplest mobile, John's Phone, for a week to see what life was like. This is what happened.

Monday

I’ve opened the box to find they’ve sent me a pink one. This is not a good start to the week. There was me thinking that one of the few plus sides of this experiment was the fact that I’d be walking round with a handset that’s all funky and different with all the cool cats in all the cool bars coming up to buy me a drink saying: “Hey, I saw your phone from over there. Nice.” Instead, I’ve been sent something that looks like a girl’s toy.

Disappointment dealt with, I put John’s Phone, or Jane’s Phone as this one appears to be, onto charge and after a couple of last hours with my Nexus One that go all too quickly, the little face on the my handset for the week tells me it’s fully charged and ready to go. I stick the SIM in the slide-out draw and the adventure begins.

Come lunchtime, I’m still waiting for this adventure. Nothing’s really happened. All I’ve worked out is that nobody phones me very much. I’m not sure if anyone’s sent me any text. I’m not sure if it will get displayed on the small screen on the top of the device or not. If it doesn’t, will it all arrive in a rush when I get back to my smartphone or is that it? Are they gone forever? Someone could be texting me right now? I could be missing out on an opportunity of a lifetime!

What I realise is that you just have to let go. If it’s important enough, someone will pick up the phone. Of course, the other issue is caller ID. Will I know who’s calling before I pick up? It looks as though this phone might display the number on the screen but, seeing as the only address book is the leaflet on the back, I'm not too sure.


I can’t take the pressure any more and I call Mrs Pocket-lint. Hers is the only number I’ve written on the phone. By the end of the week, I might actually be able to remember it.

It’s late afternoon and what’s really getting me is that I keep having this compulsion to check my phone but, of course, I know that it’s not going to tell me anything. I feel like a crack addict, with this craving a constant lurk at the back of my mind. That aside, I haven’t really encountered any real problems.

The first actual issue is when I need to go to the loo. The heavy stuff. Normally I take my phone up as something to read while I’m there but instead I have to make do with the sights of my bathroom. I walk away having decided to buy a new splash guard for the shower and with the knowledge that the walls are going to need repainting soon at the rate it’s peeling off. Slightly depressing but certainly more productive than a few rounds of Angry Birds.

The worst part of the day is bed time. Lately, I’ve pretty much stopped reading books altogether. Whereas I used to get through a chapter or two in bed just before Mrs PL turns the light off; I’ve taken to browsing the world through my smartphone with its own backlit illumination for as long as I want. This is probably more erudite than it sounds and has pretty much descended into trying to break my record at Time Attack on Flick Kick Football these days but either way, the option is not available to me this week. So, do I instead revert to picking up a Penguin Classic? No, I just watch even more South Park on the sofa downstairs until I’m ready to shut my eyes.

Tuesday

It’s largely dark in my bedroom as I wake to the sound of Baby Lint calling to come and take him out of his cot. Normally, I’d check my phone to see if the little bugger was pulling a fast one for some early milk, but there’s no time displayed on the diminutive John’s Phone screen and my light-less watch can’t be read at this hour. Instead I do something I haven’t done in years. I call the Speaking Clock. The time after the third stroke, as it turns out, is 7.04 precisely and I get up to release my son from his nightly cell.

We’re having a little dance together at breakfast as She Sells Sanctuary by the Cult comes on the radio. The porridge and raisin mix I’ve lovingly made is flying up the walls as Baby Lint jiggles his arms and body about.

I reach for my dressing gown pocket for my Nexus One to capture the moment on video but find my non-camera sporting, pink handset. By the time I’ve turned out the sideboard draws to find my Flip camcorder, the moment has passed. My son indicates he wants a banana and our dance disappears into the unpaired sock depths of the great laundry basket of time.

With another day spent entirely at my home office, the only turn up for the books is that someone actually calls my phone. It rings and buzzes and a lady called Aly from Audio-Technica talks to me completely unaware of the ridiculous pink gadget at my ear. As I put the phone down, I glance at its screen. There are four bars. I don’t know if that’s the battery or the signal but, either way, we appear to be in good shape.

Wednesday

Documenting my life for a week has become quite alarming. Yet again, I barely left the house today save walking Baby Lint down to nursery and two short trips to Tescos - the second because I forgot my debit card the first time around. If I’m at home for 95 per cent of the time, do I need a mobile phone at all?

One thing that struck me was when I tried to phone my friend Hugh to arrange a trip away next week. I had no idea what his number was and, what’s more, I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to find it. In my memory I’ve got my family’s mobiles, my parents’ home number, all but three digits of Mrs Pocket-lint’s - which is beginning to sink in, incidentally -  and the car phone of my best friend's dad from when I was 10 years old. I don’t suppose that last one is in service any more. I’ll try it. Nope number not recognised.



So, given that none of my family know Hugh and Mrs PL doesn’t have his number, I’m not sure how this is going to be possible. Fortunately, I remember that Android phones sync your contacts with your Gmail account and there’s his name card complete with mobile number sitting in my account. Google to the rescue. I take the pen out of my John’s Phone and add Hugh’s details to the address book.

I’m up to bed late again. This time it’s a Family Guy episode I must have seen three or four times before. Will I ever read again?

Thursday

Okay, today is the day I was dreading. I’m leaving the house. In fact, I’ve got meetings all day. Normally, I’d rely on my smartphone for access to my emails and maps to find out where I’ve got to, when and what the people I’m meeting are actually called. I’d also use the time on the Tube into town for a 40 blissful minutes or so of a little time to myself, catching up on a podcast or two. None of these are available to me today and, knowing that, the key has been preparation.

I could dust off my old MP3 player - presuming I can find it - hook it up to my computer, transfer some music, download some podcasts but it doesn’t quite feel in the spirit of the experiment. What’s more, I can’t really be bothered - either to spend the time doing it or carrying around a second lump in my pocket. My bag’s already heavy enough complete with laptop, DSLR, voice recorder, notepad, pen and everything else that the job demands. That reminds me, no Android smartphone means no mobile hotspot wherever I go. Hadn’t thought about that. Finding a Soho cafe where I can get a seat, siphon Wi-Fi and nurse a lukewarm cup of tea is never as easy as it should be.

Thankfully, I remember the TalkTalk show room on Broadwick Street with its free, yes, free internet and Nespresso coffee machine, and no one seems to bat an eyelid when I flip open my laptop and sit on the floor. The only issue is when I go to get a Wi-Fi key and the assistant asks for my phone number so they can text it to me.



The rest of the day goes pretty much without a hitch. My little piece of paper that I've prepared with all the details of my meetings isn’t faring so well in the day-long drizzle but I can read enough of the smudging ink to make it to all three and all on time as well.

As for my on-train entertainment, I’m giving that book a shot and, low and behold I manage to crack it. I get enough of it read to find myself gripped. I haven’t felt gripped by a book for a long time and it feels good, worthy, something a features editor should be doing.

On the final leg of my journey home my John’s Phone starts to ring on a packed commuter train in rush hour. There’s a fair amount of rude boys in the carriage and I’m more than a little self-conscious as I pull out the pink handset blaring away at maximum volume. I’m trying to ignore the funny looks from a broad shouldered chap standing in front of me with a gold boxing glove round his neck, a Kangol cap at a purposefully jaunty angle and large lump of ice at his knuckles.

“What is that phone, bruv,” he says to me as I get up for my stop. “It’s like an old school pager, mate, it’s wicked.”

After a second’s doubt, it seems this guy’s actually serious. It turns out he wants one despite the BlackBerry Bold 9800 in his hand.

“As long as it does Bluetooth, has it got Bluetooth?” he bellows across the crowd as I’m about to step off and the last image I have of him is one of pure incredulity as I shout back my reply.

“It doesn’t even do text.”

Friday

Friday’s a bit of a mix. Conscious that I’ve only left my premises 1 day so far, I’m please to note that I need to take a trip out at lunchtime to pick up some football tickets. The journey up to the ground is frustratingly short for my quest to continue my reading habit. By the time I’m in the headspace that enjoying a novel requires, I have to get off again and somehow this staccato approach to Shuttlecock by Graham Swift has actually distanced me some from where I was with it yesterday.

There’s also a problem with the phone. I let Baby Lint have a play with it this morning. He’s usually trying to grab at my Nexus One and there’s simply no way I’m going to let him get his teeth on my AMOLED. The John’s Phone, on the other hand, I have no issue with. Unfortunately, his first move was to throw it across the room and onto the unforgiving surface of cold kitchen tiles. Ever since it’s been rattling and, while it seems to work okay, I realise it’s the vibrating mechanism that’s broken off inside when I get a series of calls about a package that someone’s trying to deliver to my empty house.



Waiting around in the queue at the ticket office, I realise that the John’s Phone actually comes with games - well, game. At the back of the contacts book are nine blank grids of noughts and crosses. I ask the gentleman in front of me if he fancies playing and the fun lasts three rounds until we get the idea that no one’s going to win. He turns back and it’s all a little awkward for a while as we go back to ignoring each other before the clerk behind the glass relieves the situation.

Back in the home/office I'm sitting on the floor up against the bookshelf housing my hi-fi. I've been testing out a lot headphones this week and not having a phone to plug them into has been a bit tricky. So, instead I'm trying them on my separate system - an investment of my entire second year's student loan from university days; still the best investment I ever made. It sounds absolutely excellent. I haven't been using it often enough.

I spend the night on the sofa watching films and, despite the progress with my book, I choose to while away the smaller hours before bed with yet more South Park. Incidentally, it’s one of the funniest episodes I’ve ever seen where they start getting high on cat wee or "cheesing" as it becomes known. It’s called Major Boobage. I suggest you watch it for yourself.

Saturday

Saturday is a day out with the family down to the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill where Baby Lint can be wowed by the tropical fish in the small aquarium. He’s not quite as impressed as we are by the wildlife, but trying to climb into one of the tanks becomes a source of great delight for him.

One good by-product of rocking the world’s most basic phone is that we’re forced to bring along Mrs Pocket-lint’s compact camera which is 10 times that of my Nexus One. As a result the pictures of our little one have got far better colours and fewer are blurred.


The downside is that I’ve no way of knowing what the football scores are, or what time the trains are coming when we head back. It’s not a massive deal. I can adjust to finding out both later on, but there is a matter of convenience. All the same, there’s an image that strikes me as we walk about the museum gardens. A little girl, looking cute as a button, stands in her mini yellow mac and pink wellies. She’s moving from puddle A to puddle B and back again with delight in eyes as she tries to work out which is the best for showing off her obviously new attire.

All the while, her dad stands hunched over the buggy a few yards behind her with his head buried in his iPhone missing it all. Owning a smartphone doesn’t make that a certainty, but it’s a pointed reminder to me of what can happen. That evening I spend an extra half hour reading with Baby Lint before his sleepy time.

Sunday

Final day of torture. I phone my friend at the Speaking Clock for what I suspect will be the last time in many, many years. There’s no desire to look at my phone not even once as the morning goes by. That feeling like the itch of an amputated limb has simply disappeared.


All the same, I’ve had enough of this experiment and I must confess to cutting it a few hours short as I put the SIM back into my smartphone at lunchtime with quite some relief. All the same, I think I’ve got the point of what I’ve been through.

I glance down at the screen of the John’s Phone for one last time and as I go to turn it off I realised that I never had to charge it once.

Conclusion

I would never suggest anyone goes back to a non-smartphone/feature phone, but then I don’t think I ever was. What’s important though is that we just give it a rest. Think twice before you take it out of your pocket. Do you really need to check the news, your email or Facebook quite as often as you do? It’ll still be there a few hours later, but what’s right in front of you might not and it's important to switch off sometimes.

Remember to read a book, whether that’s on your phone or not, when perhaps you might have a long enough journey to do so. Perhaps an hour of Angry Birds isn’t what the game was designed for.

Carrying a camera might even be something you want to do every now and then. For me personally, it’s highlighted the fact that I should probably buy a slimline high end compact - something like the Canon PowerShot S95 or the Panasonic Lumix LX5 - rather than just the choice between a heavy DSLR and the frustrations of a cameraphone. Listen to your hi-fi system. It's got better speakers than any pair of headphones out there. 

The point is that a smartphone is an excellent all rounder, but it's not as good at any of its tasks as the more specialised gadgets that you already own. Don't forget to use them. Where a smartphone is fantastic is for pure convenience. Preparing that piece of paper for my day of meetings just felt unnecessarily time consuming. Why waste precious hours when you can take care of that stuff on the move when your laptop’s not in front of you?

Finally, there was something that I only noticed on Saturday. I’ve listened to much less music throughout the week and to make up for it, it seems I’ve been singing to myself as I’ve walked around. So, perhaps going back to my smartphone will save my sanity in more ways than I’d expected.

Oh, and just for the record, I now know Mrs Pocket-lint's number off by heart.

Are you still living with a feature phone? Does this sound like your experience of it? And is there any technology you'd like us to spend a week with and write about? Let us know in the comments. 



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