Minimalish: Six Month Brick Phone Review with a Small Detour into a Quite a Large Consumerism Rant

Sooo if you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you’ll know I swapped my smart phone for a brick phone late last year. I did a one month review and thought, since it’s now been about six months, I’d do a proper, Which?-esque write up, especially as a few people have said they’d love to ditch their smart phone. Here’s what the phone looks like:

Nokia Brick phone next to a gold foil bow

Good things about the brick

To be honest, the best things about the brick are not the phone itself. As a device, it’s mediocre. But as a metaphor conduit thing to help me concentrate, it’s bloody brilliant.

  • Since buying it, I think I’ve developed a reasonably better attention span.
  • I think I’m less twitchy and less likely to pull out the phone for something to hold and stare at and poke when I’m in an awkward situation which, considering we are living in the End Times and my natural state is extreme twitchiness, feels like a big achievement.
  • I’m definitely more likely to look at things now, rather than snapping a picture of that thing and never look at it ever again.
  • Having a very boring screen has helped me realise that lots of apps and notifications stress me out. My mum’s phone has three screens of apps and just looking at the screen makes me anxious. She has all her notifications on too. It’s like having an insect buzzing around your ear, except more annoying because at least insects contribute to the eco system. I did cut down my notifications and apps on the smart phone, over the course of a few years, but it’s been lovely to look at a screen with absolutely nothing enticing apart from the odd game of Snake.
  • I charge it about once a fortnight and I’m smug about it.
  • Because the internet is a non-event, I pay a pound a week for my data, minutes and texts. A POUND A WEEK. I’m smug about that too.

Less good things

  • It’s so easy to lose a small device in your pockets! Like I said before, do you know how difficult it is to lose something in women’s cut pockets?
  • I have occasionally replaced mindless smart phone scrolling with other bad behaviours, like mindless scrolling of Reddit, so maybe don’t do that (but I am working on the social media thing. More on that another time).
  • The brick phone doesn’t have certain apps I use a lot, like WhatsApp, banking and Headspace, so I’ve kept my old, rickety smartphone. Because we’ve been in lockdown, it’s no hassle to swap between the two.

So the brick phone is here for life, right?

Not quite.

Some nuance and adult considerations

Having lived without one, I feel like I have a new appreciation for the fact that smart phones are great. That giant computer Alan Turing came up with plus the cassette tape Lou Ottens invented, plus the camera (I do not know who we consider to be the inventor of the camera), plus interactive maps, plus texting, plus a little torch, oh and plus a telephone, tucked in my pocket. There’s a reason they’re ubiquitous and that reason is that technology is great. Mobile phones, and smart phones specifically, represent innovation and, in many ways, social equality: about five billion people own mobile phones worldwide. I couldn’t find stats on how much of that is made up of smart phones but it’s probably a fair bit.

My issue with them – everyone’s issue with them, right? – is that they are lotus-eaters, designed to wriggle into your brain and whisper that you need never leave this brightly coloured screen. I can’t not think about the hours I’ve lost to Twitter threads, the Instagram browsing page, news sites and Facebook posts by people I don’t even like. I hate how reliant I used to be on one device. When was the last time I had to use my brain to figure out a route instead of consulting Google? I can tell you: Chiang Mai in Thailand four years ago, when my battery died and I found my way through badly lit streets using my memory and the map in a guide book. Can that really be the last time I used my braincells? No wonder my memory’s shit and my confidence is shot to pieces; I needed that bright, cheery screen to find my way out of bed.

But those things aren’t the smartphone’s fault. They’re mine, because I let the phone make the easy choices for me. Use my memory or consult Google Maps. Have difficult conversation face to face or have it over text. Converse with sort-of-friends-who-I-don’t-really-like or escape to social media, where I can look at content by people I’d actually like to be friends with. Think through response to email in a sensible, measured way or fire off an angry response because the message is right there. That was all me, letting the phone make my life easier in the short term even if it made me an anxious, irritable insomniac with bad communication skills and worse coping methods in the long term.

I don’t like how we always assume people own a smart phone, either. Getting Covid tested was a bit of a faff because I couldn’t scan my app thing, but I’m still pretty tech-savvy and could fill in all details with the staff. There was a story this week about older people being discriminated against because they don’t own smart phones and can’t use apps to order from tables in pubs, etc. My great uncle got a mobile a couple of years ago not by design but because one of his neighbours had a spare. He’s barely a telly bloke. He deserves to pop down the pub should he fancy, and not be turned away because he can’t scan himself in. If I remember correctly, he did something with radios in the Royal Navy. Could I do that? No. The digital divide is real and it’s not fair. Us Bright Young Millennials are going to be confused as fuck when our children start uploading their brains into the cloud. If tech isn’t working for one lot of society, is it working for all of us?

Then there’s the cost of smart phones. People are putting down a grand for a phone like it’s normal behaviour? My dudes. These phone companies are fucking us all over with their shiny marketing campaigns and their addictive screens and their insidious whisperings that you need to take out a payment plan or use your credit card to purchase a device that will be obsolete in two or three years’ time.

Don’t even start me on the social and environmental impact of the tech industry. Actually, I’ve started. Smart phones pollute. They are made from metals mined in countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo, where militias often control the mines. Both those articles are a few years old; I’m not sure what the stats are at the moment. But my soapbox has been stood on: our consumerism is killing the planet and harming people we’ll never meet.

Cinderella uggghhh GIF
from giphy

This took a slightly angry turn. Back to my phone shite.

Things I quite liked about my smartphone (when its battery wasn’t dying, my brain wasn’t melting and the microchip wasn’t recording my every movement for the lizard people)

  • Usability. Tapping the ‘3’ key three times to get the letter F on the brick can be annoying. Making 6 clicks to activate silent mode is a moderate inconvenience when you’re trying to check your phone won’t go off in a meeting. The speaker, which isn’t brilliant, is a bit irritating when there’s background noise. Smart phones are just so easy to tap, man, and they’re so… solid. Well, other than that Samsung that used to catch fire if you glanced at it the wrong way.
  • Apps for boarding passes. I know it’s a non-issue at present but I love waving my phone at passport control. I don’t love carrying around bits of paper. It’s more stressful knowing that losing one item means loosing access to all your paperwork, but it’s less stressful keeping hold of one object than a file of papers.
  • Banking apps/Headspace/WhatsApp (basically the unholy trinity of my life ahaha).
  • The camera. I am so, so grateful I have about a thousand photos of my dogs from before they died. Do I look at all one thousand images every day? No. One day I may even find the strength to clear out duplicates. But for now, my folders of dog photos are important to me.

So. I will likely get a smart phone at some point now the world is opening up. I love not having to faff about with papers at the airport; I love that I can check my bank balance in five seconds. I want to take photos of my friends, and of cool things I do, and of other people’s dogs! I don’t love that the brick disappears into the folds of my trousers.

But what type of smart phone? My ideal device would be one that’s basically a Nokia 3310 I have now but with some app functions, and a bigger screen and better camera. I like the Light Phone for its simplicity (its screen uses the same tech as e-readers, so no irritating bright colours that keep you awake), but it doesn’t have apps like Whatsapp. So I guess my best option is to get an actual smartphone and just keep it in night mode forever, and be strict with myself about apps and notifcations? I try to follow a one-in-one-out rule with accounts I follow on social media, clothing and general stuff, and it’s done my mental health wonders; maybe I should do the same with apps (I think this whole Minimalish series is just me saying ‘my brain is cluttered and less physical items helps it be less cluttered’).

I’m not sure how much I’ve learnt, or how much sage advice I’ve passed on in this post. In the last couple of days I’ve finished an assignment, filmed, failed to edit and scheduled a video for the No. 1 Readers’ Club, phoned PayPal because my Patreon money is stuck in my Patreon account (it is still stuck) and done a cool thing with The Princess and the Dragon that I’ll share with you next week. So I’m ready to close the lid on the week and regain some human-ness. Wait, I wrote that sentence before I learnt that Helen McCrory died. I think I want to have a gin and watch Peaky Blinders. I was just thinking about Aunt Polly today. Stop taking nice things, 2021.

Let me know if this has inspired you to swap out your tech use, or put you off the whole idea of brick phones. Let me know your Helen McCrory memories. Let me know how much gin is the right amount for a Friday night in sort of-lockdown with a livestream and some laundry.


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Minimalish, Part Three: a 1-month anniversary review of the Brick Phone

Before we start: this post got LONG. Just a heads up, especially if you’re reading on a mobile (ha). Here’s part one, part two and part four of this tenuous series.

I was going to share this sooner, but I wanted to take a bit longer to get to know the newest electronic acquisition in my life:

Black Nokia 3310 2015 'brick phone'
Bow added for scale

Yep, it’s a brick phone. It’s a 2015 model, so it has 3G and an okay-ish camera, but that’s about it. I got it because my smart phone is dying (at the stage where you take one photo and 80% battery becomes 2% battery) and because I was fed up with spending all my brain power looking at one small, overly-delicate screen. I’m also trying to look after my mental health more, and although a lot of studies are observational and although the internet is generally a Good Thing, we know that increased screen time often contributes to worse sleep, which contributes to worse mental health. We know that the behaviour associated with bad mental health can also be associated with obsessive phone use. (This is a good article looking at various evidence for what I’ve just mentioned.) I know that my smart phone contributed to my appalling mental health, through the very scientific study of having used one for 10 years.

I’ve also been thinking a lot about consumption and the environment, so I didn’t want to get a new-new phone. When I scoured Southend’s second hand tech shops, I realised I couldn’t actually afford an old-new smart phone, even if I wanted one, because smart phone prices are like house prices. It doesn’t matter how many are available or what the quality’s like; someone’s realised that they can get away with adding a couple of zeroes to the market price every year or so. £400 for a second hand mobile that will stop accepting updates in a year or two? Haahahaa no.

From sunshinethekatt.tumblr.com

So I got this little Nokia. Emphasis on the little. I’ve had it about a month now, so I thought this is a good time to take stock of its pros and cons:

New Brick Phone Pros

  • There’s no touchscreen; it’s harder to accidentally press something and message the wrong person.
  • It’s so basic there’s no need to pick it up unless it makes a sound.
  • Fits in most bags and pockets.
  • It has Snake!
  • It cost £23, aka a realistic budget for a full time student.
  • I’ve owned it for four weeks and, after an inaugural full charge, have only plugged it in twice. Maybe three times, but I think twice. I do a fair amount of calling on it too. My smart phone needed juice every other day at best.
  • It’s too early to say for sure (thanks lockdown), but I think I’m more present at social events. There obviously hasn’t been enough socialising to do a full study, but since there’s nothing to do on the phone unless I want to call or text, or maybe use the calculator or timer, there’s no point in it being in my hand.
  • I have to be more deliberate about doing the things I used to do in 2 clicks on the smart phone. For example, I use Headspace, and I try to do a few minutes’ meditation (or sitting to try to meditate) everyday. Now my smart phone is usually turned off or failing to charge, I often use the desktop version of the app, which means I’m planning my meditation more. It’s the same for my banking app: I used to check it as though I had a nervous tic. Now I spend a minute logging in on desktop, so I do it less but now I know what I’m looking for when I am on there.
  • I think I’m not tapping my card to pay for ‘little’ purchases quite as much either, because I can’t do a quick balance check to see if I can justify the payment. If I’m right, it’s probably going to save me cash in the long run because let’s face it, ‘checking to see if I could justify the purchase’ did not necessarily mean I could really afford it, but it meant that I told myself that I’d done my due diligence.
  • I’ve done at least one Proper Drop and the thing damn near bounced. There’s barely a scratch on it, and it was second hand to start with. I can’t believe how much I’m going to save on screen protectors, cases, repairs, etc.
  • No creepy adverts on the phone that reflect something I Googled on a separate device.
  • No noisy, headache-inducing apps enticing me to stay a minute longer.
  • I don’t feel like every tap is being tracked by the government or satellites or whoever owns or hacks the satellites. It doesn’t even matter if I am being tracked, man, I just don’t like the feeling that I might be.

Brick Phone Cons

  • Manual button pressing for texts = painful on my achy fingers (on the plus side, I find I am saving things for when I can have a proper conversation. This might improve my memory in the long term?).
  • No notes app (ditto; I carry a pen most places anyway).
  • No track and trace (although the track and trace app fried my smartphone to the extent I couldn’t turn on the location or the Bluetooth until I was zapping a QR code, which called into question the point of having said app. Also haven’t they decided track and trace in England doesn’t work?).
  • No emojis. You can insert basic smileys, but I miss the eye roll emoji.
  • It’s so small I keep losing it in my pockets. Do you know how small a phone has to be to get lost in women’s cut pockets? I can actually keep the phone in my purse haha. I keep leaving it around the house, too, and forgetting where it’s gone because I haven’t needed to look at it for six hours.
  • No WhatsApp or work banking apps.
  • I would love a better camera.

All in all, I’m feeling pretty positive about the swap. For anyone wondering about phone contracts: I have a SIM only pay-as-you-go whatsit. At one point I topped up my smart phone with £10 or £20 a month, depending on how much data I thought I might need. Gradually I reduced it, because I wasn’t really using all the calls or texts, and I realised that a lot of my smart phone use was just me checking emails or messages that could wait until I got to a computer. Have I ever mentioned that I’m not very good at work-life balance. So I have a bundle thing that works out as £1 a week for calls, texts and data. I thought I might have to pay more when I bought the brick, because it doesn’t have wifi capability – you have to use 3G. But the internet system is a) quite shit and not worth bothering with unless it’s an emergency, and b) so low tech that your data gets you more browsing time.

There are a couple of things I’d like to improve.

Number one is WhatsApp and the banking apps. I’m in a couple of groups with family and college people that are really useful. You can get WhatsApp on desktop (so much easier than typing on a phone) but it needs to connect to the smart phone. Which is entering that can’t-hold-charge phase of its demise. Can I really do without WhatsApp? Not sure. I also liked the Facebook messenger app, because I do a fair bit of selling on Facebook and it’s convenient to be able to message people in situ. There are also friends who I only get hold of through Facebook, so sometimes I’d like to be able to message them a bit more easily. Furthermore*, I did like apps like Depop and Headspace (infinitely easier on the app than on desktop) and my work banking apps. I can’t not use those banking apps, because they don’t have desktop versions. I could use a different bank to make up for it, but that’s a lot of admin (and I like those services).

Number two is the camera. I’ve still got the smart phone, because I don’t own a proper camera, and I do need a one for general photos/videos for members of the No. 1 Readers’ Club/product pictures. The brick does not cut the mustard, so I’m sort of juggling between the two if I need to film something.

Finally: you sort of need to tap more on a phone with buttons. Although I used to scroll various apps and send messages when I could’ve phoned people on the smartphone, I loved the qwerty keyboard because it’s kinder on my hands and fingers than the traditional brick phone keyboard (to an extent, of course. I fell down with the smart phone because I used it until my thumbs were numb and I could hear my wrist bones clicking). Now I have to press-press-press to get the letter C, or press-press-press to turn the phone on and off silent mode. On the plus side, I’m now more inclined to ring someone if they require a long text, which means the conversation is actually over faster.

Soooo the verdict?

The brick is staying for now. I really like that I’m less tethered to one device. There’s less risk if I drop it, it’s cheaper (both in terms of running costs and in terms of paying up front for the device) and my mental health is almost definitely better for it. I’m not feeling as though I’m beholden to something that ostensibly is there to make my life better and easier, but was actually making me anxious, frustrated and easily-distracted. It sounds ridiculous, but the plain-black screen is nicer on my eyes (no bright apps shouting in my face), the interface is so empty it’s quite calming and I’m not tempted to waste my life mindlessly scrolling. Those are things worth hanging on to.

That said: I am still juggling between the brick and the nearly-dead smart phone. The camera could become an issue, and if they ever improve test and trace, I’d like to use it.

My plan for now is to keep using the brick and eke as much life from the smart phone as I can. Depending on how much money I find myself with in spring (at which point I’ll have had six months of using the brick, so I’ll know what I’m willing to compromise on), I might do a spot of shopping. There has to be a smart phone on the market that has zero bells and whistles. Or a brick phone with a couple of bells. I know some Nokias do have WhatsApp options. I feel like there must be a kid on Kickstarter crowdfunding a phone that offers all the convenience and genuine positives of the smart phone, with none of the shouty, advert-y, brain-frying creepy tracking of the current market.

Of course, I could get a proper smart phone and just not load up the apps that had a bad impact on my brain (so basically, everything except Headspace and my banks. Sorry Depop, I love your convenience but I have made multiple purchases on you just to make myself feel better. WHICH THEY DIDN’T. Now I feel guilty when I look at those clothes). But do I trust myself not to crack and download Instagram when I’m feeling low, even though I know it’ll make me feel lower? No. I might download Instagram so I can do a fun Insta Live with my lovely followers, but keep it on there ‘just in case’ I do another soon. Which I won’t. I’ll just sit on it in bed, scrolling past the posts that I know are lies, let those lies make me feel bad about myself, lose sleep… and wonder why I feel crappy the next day.

So for now, the little brick is staying with me. Maybe in six months I’ll buy a smart phone but keep the brick as a back up, so if I notice myself falling back into bad habits, I can just pop back to the brick until I’ve rebooted my brain. We’ll see.

Have you ever considered swapping your smart phone for a brick? Do you know any good low-tech smart phones? Let me know in a comment! I’m curious to see how many people have thought about doing this, or have done it. If you can’t imagine swapping your smart phone, why not? (Okay, I kind of know the answer to that.)

Look after yourselves!

*Furthermore. Can you tell I’m writing essays again?!

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