|My last three phones|
As some of the people reading know, I had a flip phone (a Kyocera DuraXTP, to be precise) until late December 2021.
I was, and still am, on a family phone plan. When the rest of my family switched to smartphones, I went with a flip phone because smartphones were much more expensive and I was poor. But after a while, as cheap(er) smartphones became available, it became sort of a combination of wanting to see just how long I can survive with a flip phone in an increasingly smartphone-orientated world, being leery of just how easy it is to get drawn into social media/internet when you have a browser in your pocket. And, in recent years, I also grew leery of participating in the certain aspects of smartphone-centric world. For example, rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft are built on labor exploitation and investor subsidies, and I could neatly avoid all the moral quandaries that come with using apps by having a phone that didn’t support them. I liked having my transit passes on physical cards and buying (or printing out) physical tickets. And, like I said, I just didn’t like the thought of being connected to the Internet all the time. It may seem counterintuitive, given that I’m a journalist, but I appreciated the fact that, when took the ‘L’ train, the lack of onboard wi-fi forced me to disconnect and gave me a respite from work concerns, even if for less than an hour.
Now, in a bit that’s going to be a recurring motif in this post, I should mention that my mom got less and less amused by my choice the longer this went on. She would never go so far as to tell me to get a smartphone already, in those exact words, but she made her displeasure known. In 2018, when my phone screen suddenly stopped working and I had to get a new phone, I was almost resigned to getting a smartphone. But my mom kept gloating how I would “finally be joining the 21st century,” and I ended up getting a flip phone out of sheer spite. Which is how I got the Kyocera.
I would have stuck with the Kyocera – but my carrier’s (T-Mobile’s) decision to sunset its 3G networks forced my hand.
I did some research and discovered that, since the last time I seriously looked at what’s out there, a whole new class of phone emerged. The feature phone wasn’t fully “smart,” but it had more features than my Kyocera. They had apps (of sorts), such as YouTube and Google Assistant, and some of them could work as wi-fi hotspots. I was even surprised to realize that there were smart phones that were shaped like flip phones (more on that quite a bit later).
When I went to get a new phone at the T-Mobile store (literal days before the deadline), I was offered two free upgrade options – the Alcatel Go Flip feature phone and a Samsung Galaxy A32 5G smartphone. And it’s not like the store employees pressured me – quite the opposite, in fact. But two things ultimately nudged me toward choosing the second option.
One, in the novel I’ve been working on for years and years now, I could justify some characters not using smartphones, but I couldn’t justify most characters not using them – and I figured that, if I’m going to write about smartphones, I should get some first-hand experience with them. Two, I just kept thinking that my editor at Austin Weekly News, who hasn’t been amused that I keep using an old flip phone in the year of our Lord 2021, would be even less amused if I had a chance to get a free smartphone and didn’t use it.
So I compromised with myself. I was going to use a smartphone for six months, see if I like it. If I didn’t… well, I would now have a working SIM card that I can put into a feature phone. I even had a model in mind – a Nokia 6300 4G. It had YouTube and Google Maps, it had 4G, it had an e-mail client, and it could function as a wi-fi hotspot. While I liked getting a respite from Twitter and e-mails, the realities of journalism meant that, sometimes, having to connect on the go was necessary.
Things didn’t work out that way.
In the real world will my full-fledged smartphone
In the interest of fairness, I will start with the positives, many of which surprised me. The call quality was objectively better on my Samsung than it was on my Kyocera, to the point where it kind of freaked me out at first. While I had some issues with the on-screen keyboard (more on that further down), one indisputable upside was that I could type in Cyrillic on it, something that the Kyocera didn’t allow. I really came to appreciate being able to drop Russian words in my texts to my sister. The Samsung camera was objectively better than the Kyocera camera, which was rudimentary at best. Having a device I could stream music on was, I admit, I nice bonus. There was something to be said about flipping through Instagram on an app, on the screen the social media platform was designed for. And, as the war in Ukraine began, I came to appreciate the ability to have the Telegram app at my fingertips.
My mom, I think, believed that I would come to like it as I got to see all of Samsung’s functions. But, to her frustration, there are certain phone functions I deliberately ignored, and she wasn’t amused that I wouldn’t “use the phone properly.”
I didn’t install any ride-share apps, because, well, the fact that I could didn’t make my moral objections go away. I deliberately didn’t install any social media apps (other than the aforementioned Instagram and Telegram). Viewing Twitter on the browser meant I didn’t get push notifications, so I was less tempted to check it, and I simply never used Facebook on a phone (even on the browser). I ended up installing Ventra, the transit app for the Chicagoland region, in order to try to buy Metra commuter rail tickets en rote to the station, but I had so much trouble buying Metra tickets on it that, at one point, I nearly threw a phone in frustration .
I didn’t use it on CTA and Pace, because, well, I had a perfectly functional physical card, and I kept thinking about how my mom had to pause a call just to swipe in, which just seemed like a hassle.
(It didn’t help that, back in April, when my family and I visited my brother in Washington D.C., I remember family members standing in the airport with their phones, trying to install and register for he local transit app, and I just kept thinking – wouldn’t it be easier to just buy a card from the vending machine? It’s what I ended up doing)
I’ve long been paranoid about online banking. I avoided (and still avoid) doing something as simple as checking my account balance unless I can connect to a password-protected networks. Paying with an app, or transferring money with the app, just didn’t feel safe. And, again, watching my mom struggle to find the right app to pay for certain things just made me think – wouldn’t it be easier to use a physical card?
Which does kind of dovetail at one thing that kept driving me crazy about using a smartphone – the lack of physical things to press. Accepting a call suddenly became a chore, one that tying the function to pressing volume rocker only somewhat fixed. While the Samsung had a better camera, I didn’t use it much, because, every time I did, the lack of a shutter button made me feel clumsy. A physical button on a camera was straight-forward, direct, responsive, but when I touched the screen, it felt like the phone could slip out of my hand any second, and it just didn’t have that immediate response the button had.
Texting felt clumsy, too. Having the full-fledged keyboard as opposed to T9 number pad dialing was faster, but it felt like I kept on missing keys (activating autocomplete somewhat fixed that problem). And I was surprised just how much I missed having keys that gave physical feedback. I ended up activating the option where the phone vibrates when I hit the on-screen keys just to have something.
And then, there is the battery power thing. After having a flip phone for almost two decades, I was not prepared for how quickly smartphones lose their charge. Forget having the charge for 2-3 days – it seemed to lose charge by evening. Once, when I was so tired I just kind of conked out, I woke up to find the phone’s battery almost completely drained, which never happened with any phones I had before. More then once, I found myself asking – why do smartphone users tolerate this?
What kind of cemented it for me was a time back in June, when I was covering a long meeting and had to use my Samsung as a wi-fi hotspot to live-tweet. I ended up nearly draining the battery, and I found myself thinking that this is not just a design flaw. This gets in the way of my work.
It didn’t help that I remember riding the ‘L’, seeing people stare at similar-looking smartphones and… growing up amid the collapse of the Soviet Union gave me some weird baggage, which manifests itself in some surprising, sometimes contradictory ways, which is why I found myself thinking – do I really want to be part of the collective? Do I really want to be just like everybody else?
Buying a (smart) flip phone in 2022
Like I said before, my initial plan was to try the smartphone out and, if I didn’t like it, switch to a Nokia. But as the self-imposed deadline approached, I started having second thoughts. Like I said, I liked being able to switch back and forth between Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, and I could never get a straight answer about whether Nokia even supported Cyrillic, let alone Cyrillic texting. It didn’t have Telegram – just a Telegram emulator, which felt… iffy. And the more time passed, the more leery I felt of the candybar phone and its potential to butt-dial stuff. Say what one will about flip phones, but the design neatly takes care of that problem.
I did some research, and my thoughts kept returning to one of the options I considered when I originally had to give up my Kyocera – the CAT S22 Flip. It was built by Bullitt Group under license with Caterpillar construction equipment manufacturer as part of its line of rugged phones – tough phones that could withstand rigors of things like construction work, logging and farming, Some of those phones have candybar designs, some are traditional smartphones. CAT S22 Flip is the only one that looks like a flip phone – but It was smarter than the likes of the Alcatel and the Nokia. It kind of reminded me of Japanese keitai phones – smart phones shaped like flip phones, which are popular in Japan and Korea but never caught on in the Western countries.
The CAT S22 Flip had a physical keyboard I was looking for, but it also ran Android 11 Go edition, which meant access to standard Google apps and the apps I wanted. That meant access to Google multilingual keyboard. And, since my tendency to break electronics is legendary in my family, the whole “tough enough to handle all kinds of damage” definitely appealed to me. While Bullitt/Caterpillar never promised “classic” flip phone type battery life, the reports suggested it was better than Samsung’s. And at the time, at least, it was only available on T-Mobile (in United States). It seemed that the stars were aligned.
By that point, I started earning more money than I have in quite some time… or ever, really. And, by June, my mind was made up. I was going to save money and buy it in the end of September, as a birthday present to myself. But, once again, circumstances outside my control interfered.
The family plan I’m on was carried over from Sprint. As part of the ongoing integration into T-Mobile network, everyone on the family plan got new SIM cards a the tail end of August. And I thought (wrongly, as it turned out) that CAT S22 Flip required a larger SIM card than a nanoSIM my Samsung had. So I decided to go to a T-Mobile store and get the phone with the right-sized SIM.
Actually getting that done was… interesting. I went into a T-Mobile store in downtown Evanston, and the sales clerk told me that CAT S22 didn’t exist. I showed him a page on T-Mobile’s official website on my Samsung, which is when, without missing a beat, he said that they didn’t have one of those.
After that, I figured out how to look up which stores had which specific models in stock. I found out that only one store near me (the one in the shopping plaza by the Howard ‘L’ station) had any, and even then, only a handful.
When I eventually made it there, I was told that they had to check if they had any in their vault (!). I waited patiently, and they did. The store employee who assisted me stared at the phone with genuine curiosity.
“I’m not sure I know how to activate one of those,” he admitted in a mix of concern and awe, and his eyebrows shot up as he hit the keys and an on-screen keyboard pop up.
It took some doing, and, because he wanted to make sure the phone could make calls first and foremost, he rushed through some of the synching, but it worked, and it even transferred over a decent chunk of my text exchanges on the Samsung.
I field-tested the phone by calling Anna. I admit that I didn’t call my mom until the following day, just because I didn’t want to deal with the disappointment and the judgement.
When I did call her the next day my mom, who doesn’t want to follow Grandma Nina’s footsteps and be judgy about her children’s choices, put on a brave face and dutifully said that it was fine, really. But, just last month, in a fit of frustration, she referred to the phone as a “кошмарик” (basically “little horror”), and lamented that I didn’t have Google Maps on it, even though I told her it was running Android and she knew for a fact that I could post stuff on Instagram from it. Which, I suppose, just goes to show you that even usually reasonable people can be blinded by their biases.
A flipping smart phone
|CAT S22 Flip|
With the above in mind, I feel like it’s worth reiterating – CAT S22 Flip is essentially an Android smartphone that happens to look like a flip phone. Since it runs Android Go, not all of the Android apps work, but plenty do. You can install a fully functional Instagram app. You can use Telegram. You can run Zoom – it will even keep running when you closed the phone. You can run Google Meet (though, as I learned the hard way, it can drain the battery pretty fast if you’re not careful). You can install rideshare apps, if you want. You can even install Ventra… which does tie into one obvious issue.
CAT S22 Flip does have a smaller screen. Larger than the Kyocera, smaller than the classic Japanese keitai phones. Some apps work on the smaller screen better than others. Zoom, for example, becomes a bit of a pain to flip through if there’s more than four people on at one time, especially if there are closed captions running. In some news apps, headlines end up getting broken up because they can’t fit a smaller screen. As for the Ventra app, I installed it, but I never tried to use it, because I can’t even imagine how it would work on a smaller screen.
On the other hand, the VLC player works remarkably well in this size, and Instagram shrinks down surprisingly well. The pictures look smaller, obviously, but the layout is preserved.
Displaying things on screen of that size also leads to some interesting hiccups. Newsletter sign-up type pop-ups can block the entire screen. It took some trial and error, but I realized that the only way to close themis switch the browser to desktop mode. And for apps that run ads, closing out of ads becomes harder than ever.
Now, given how much time I spent complaining about the buttons… As you can imagine, it was just nice to have physical buttons to press again. You can take pictures on the camera app using the touch screen, but taking it by clicking volume keys just feels so much more intuitive (filming videos works the same way – you just need to switch to video mode first). While using the touch screen is faster and more intuitive in many situations, you can use physical keys to scroll through the start menu, open apps, select different options, hit “play” or “pause” on YouTube videos and VLC player tracks if you feel like it, and it is honestly kind of reassuring that the option is there. The classic Android buttons (backspace, main menu and switch apps) are there as actual buttons.
I like how you can program the key on the left to launch any app you want (or two separate apps – one for a long press and one for two short presses). And I like some keyboard shortcuts. Hitting the aforementioned program button and the volume key takes a screenshot, hitting the off/hang-up button twice opens the camera app, pressing the call button continuously opens Google Assistant, that sort of thing.
After all the issues I had with accepting calls on a Samsung, it is nice to once again be able to simply open the phone or hit the green button, and close the phone/hit the red button to hang up.
Texting, and using the keyboard in general is, to put it mildly, a mixed bag. CAT S22 Flip defaults to the aforementioned Google on-screen keyboard, which takes up so much of the screen that you can barely see anything else. You can set the T9-style number pad testing as a default. Since I had two decades of practice with this mode of texting, that’s not a problem, and word suggestions (which the Kyocera didn’t have) sped things up. The only issue I ran into is that, in the Kyocera and the flip phones before it, you switch input modes by long-pressing the “0” key. With Kika, you need to press the ‘#” key, and I’m still haven’t completely unlearned that muscle memory.
Typing in Cyrillic is another matter. The default Kika texting only includes English, French and Spanshi as language options, so if you want to go Cyrillic, you need to use the Gboard, which feels even clumsier than Samsung’s on-screen keyboard. After a lot of trial and error, I found an app that let me use the number pad for Cyrillic – only to run into an issue that, honestly, I’m kicking myself for not seeing coming.
Like I said, I have a lot of practice texting using the dial pad… in English. I have zero practice texting that way in Russian. As a result, texting in Cyrillic that way was so much slower. I think I figured out a trick to speed up the process, but it has been a challenge, I won’t lie.
I will say that, after using CAT S22 Flip for almost three months, I still get a kick out of tweeting and sending Instagram messages using the dial pad. There is something hilariously transgressive about it, and one would think it would get old, but it hasn’t yet.
(Sending e-mails that way isn’t quite as fun, but it’s not entirely without charm).
There are some unexpected benefits. I was surprised how nice it was to have a phone that comfortably bit in my hand. The Samsung always felt a bit too wide to be comfortably held, especially when one of its surfaces is a touchscreen. It is nice to once again be able to drop the phone without worrying about the screen cracking. And I didn’t expect to enjoy the fact that the phone is waterproof as much as I did. Not only can you take it into Lake Michigan, but you can film underwater. Samsung couldn’t do that, and Kyocera didn’t have good enough video camera for that.
(I should add that it’s not something one should indulge in for too long. Once, I ended up putting the phone in the water several times in quick succession for almost 15 (cumulative) minutes, and the ear piece stopped working for two hours. So, if you are going to do underwater photography/filming, don’t keep it under water too long and make sure to dry it off).
As far as the battery… It lasts a little longer, and while the Samsung seemed to drain in less than a day no matter what I did, the CAT loses power at a noticeably slower rate if you just leave it in your pocket and don’t do much other than call or text. I never had a battery drain overnight, at least not yet. And it charges quicker, and what kind of cables you use affect the charge rate a lot less than they did with the Samsung.
As far as calls, I think the audio quality in noisy environments like the ‘L’ trains may be the best by far. One neat feature is that the phone vibrates slightly when the other person picks up a call – which, again, is useful in noisy environments. I would be remiss not to point out a design issue. The way the touch screen is sized, if you press the phone against the left size of your face, you can end up hitting the “mute” button on the screen.
Speaking of issues that I would be remiss not to mention – one thing I kind of started to take for granted that Samsung made it easy for me to show pictures and videos to people. Doesn’t work quite as well with a smaller screen, especially for the near-sighted people. While some apps work just fine with the phone closed (VLC, Zoom), others, most notably YouTube, just shut off, and this isn’t one of those flip phones where you can close the phone and take a picture with the camera. Figuring out which recorder app would work with the phone closed (an important thing when you’re a journalist) took some trial and error, and the recording that came out of the app that worked isn’t the best, quality-wise. I sometimes carry the Samsung around for work just to serve as a recorder.
Finally, some miscellanea. I like that CAT S22 Flip sound library incudes a lot of nature noises. I put crickets as the default notification sound (which I like to think is less disruptive than the usual notification sounds), and the phone hoots when it gets mail. I did have to set up a separate sound for new texts arriving, because I kept missing texts when they were just crickets. It took a few tries, but my phone now makes classical AOL Instant Messenger sounds when I get texts.
Interestingly, I found that I use the CAT S22 Flip to take pictures a lot more than I ever did the Samsung, because it just feels so much easier. And I use it to listen to music more than I did the Samsung. It fits more comfortably in my pocket when closed, and I can just plug in headphones and listen to podcasts or Internet radio streams. Speaking of headphones – the headphone wire acts as an antenna, which lets me use the pre-installed FM radio app. I’m really looking forward to using it next time I’m on a long Amtrak trip. It will be fun to see what stations I can pick up along the way.
It is kind of nice that my phone is, once again, in on itself a topic of conversation. In one memorable instance, I was checking my e-mail at the Central Park-Conservatory Green Line ‘L’ station and a guy literally asked “what the hell is that?” There was something satisfying about being able to say “A phone.”
In lieu of a conclusion
When I first called my sister from my CAT S22, she mentioned that it sounded like a great phone for me – which I think kind of goes to the heart of it. A lot of what I didn’t like about my Samsung are pretty subjective hang-ups, and I imagine some of the things I mentioned about the CAT s22 would be deal-breakers to many people reading this. And there’s nothing wrong with that. In the end of the day, with many electronic devices, what we likes boils down to whether the upsides outweigh the downsides, however we choose to define either.
With this post, I tried to share my perspective – nothing more, nothing less. But if anything about this intrigued you, or if you have any questions, feel free to drop a comment.
3 thoughts on “My journey from a flip phone to a smartphone, and back to a (smart) flip phone”
I hate the idea of making calls via smartphone, but I understand that a smartphone is necessary in our world right now, especially during the war. So for the last several years, I use two telephones: one is a good old Nokia, where I have my SIM card and from which I make calls, and the other one is a cheap smartphone, where I have all the essential apps, including those that are linked to my telephone number, although I do not have the SIM card in there. I use the smartphone via WiFi wherever I have WiFi, and sometimes (mostly because of the unreliability of the current situation and the necessity to have an alternative connection) I also buy mobile Internet specifically for the smartphone. I am pretty happy with this arrangement, and when my Nokia eventually dies, I think I’ll just buy a new one and continue as now.
I don’t think smartphones are necessary per se. They can be useful, sure, but I managed without one until the end of last year and I didn’t feel too terribly deprived. I meant what I wrote – I would have happily continued with the Kyocera if T-Mobile didn’t force my hand. But my situation is not yours, so I’m not going to go as far as to say they aren’t necessary under some circumstances.
I am curious, though – what kind of Nokia do you have?
Well, there are many smartphone-related things that are pretty much essential for me now, like Internet banking (I know that it is is not very developed in the US, but we, Ukrainians, use it widely and it is part of our everyday lives now), free instant messengers (viber, telegram, watssapp), various notifications from internet shops and other services through these messengers, our national app “Дія” which collects electronic copies of the most important documents of a person, including driver’s license (completely valid an ID) and COVID vaccination certificates (update automatically, completely valid at international passport control), our national healthcare personal cabinet (allows choosing your family doctor/specialists and making doctor appointments without any calls and other bothersome things, keeps all the information about your visits, vaccinations, etc.), the system of air raid alerts, useful channels and government notifications that allow to follow the most important information related to your safety and survival during the war even without electricity, and so on. All these things are either not available in any other form or need a computer, electricity, and the Internet to do something like this, and even in this case, the functions are often limited if they are not in smartphone apps.
I do not use the smartphone as a substitute for a personal computer, like many people do now, but I see that some of its functions have become increasingly necessary for a quality life and access to some important information and services.
As a mobile phone, I use Nokia N78. I wouldn’t recommend it if I had a choice, because it’s somewhat glitchy and has many functions that I do not need there (photo camera, games, etc.), but it has been working for almost 15 years by now and still does the most important phone things without problems, so… let it be, I think. I would like to have something very simple for calls, just a telephone with the SMS function and an alarm clock, and that’s enough for me. All the apps linked to this telephone number (viber, telegram, watssapp) are working perfectly on any smartphone without a physical sim card, via any Internet.