Phones Will Never Be Fun Again

I tried to shop for a flip phone. All I found was slabs.

A flip phone lying on a deck chair (like a person)
Illustration by Daniel Zender. Source: Getty.

When they came up with machine-sliced bread, did we start referring to other bread as “annoying”? After the invention of the dishwasher, did we start calling our sinks “stupid”? Post-railroad, did we slander boats as “useless and embarrassing”?

Obviously not. Yet after the smartphone came along, a category of product that was once known simply as “phones” became, rudely, “dumb phones.” If a phone didn’t have an app store and a powerful operating system and an internet connection, it was no longer considered particularly admirable that it performed the core function of telephoning. It was dumb. If you held one, you’d be like, “This doesn’t do anything,” despite the fact that it did at least one thing perfectly well.

Well, everybody hates their smartphone now. These phones are too smart. They distract us and delude us and ruin our lives. Now “younger generations” are supposedly crawling back to the dumb phone, starting a “movement,” as a recent CNBC report claimed. This aired two months after a Good Morning America segment about a flip-phone “comeback,” which followed a very similar Today discussion and a New York Times story about self-described “Luddite” teens in Brooklyn, who spend a lot of time in the park with one another and their (dumb) flip phones.

This craving for dumb phones past represents a perfect mix of anti-technology wellness trends and now-trendy aughts nostalgia. “I miss when phone designs were funky,” people say on TikTok, where they also speak of digital detoxes and “dopamine diets.” Tumblr moodboards of beautiful, outdated phones are tagged #y2kcore, #nostalgic, #nostalgiacore. Dumb-phone influencers explain the joy of dumb phones to thousands of subscribers on YouTube; one of them sells T-shirts and tank tops that say My phone is not dumb, it’s clever.

But you have limited options these days if you want a phone that is not a haunted glass rectangle that you could stare into forever. A couple of weeks ago, I went shopping. I wanted to evaluate the state of the non-smartphone on its own terms. I was worried that this would be impossible, because the dumb phone can never really have its own terms: It is “dumb” relative to something else. The people who buy dumb phones today, reports suggest, buy them because they are tired or fearful of the smartphone.

I was also worried I would be disappointed. Phones were once amazing. They came in all shapes and sizes and had weird names. They were kind of heavy and had real buttons. They made “thwack” noises when they flipped or slid. They often had full keyboards, as did the last phone I used in college—a red LG Xpression, which had 50MB of internal storage, so I could keep only texts from crushes and had to immediately delete all the rest.

Shopping for such a device today is hard. Walking into various stores in Brooklyn, I saw slabs, slabs, and more slabs. The only non-smartphones available at Target or Best Buy were super-cheap phones made explicitly for seniors (there were photos of old people on all of the boxes) or even cheaper burner phones made somewhat less explicitly for conducting criminal activity. The AT&T store I went to had just one black flip phone: It cost $62.99 and was manufactured by Tinno, which has been criticized by security researchers for putting Chinese spyware in its devices. You simply cannot walk into a store and have a grand old time picking out a new dumb phone anymore.

Instead, you have to find recommendations and shop online. The YouTuber Jose Briones’s Dumbphone Finder quiz is prefaced by wishing you luck in finding a “simpler life” and “peace of mind.” In the r/dumbphones subreddit, strangers swap stories about the devices that helped them become more present, focused, productive, and happy (they also mourn the cellular past).

These people are among the target demographic of the sleek, minimalist phones introduced in the past few years. I am also the target demographic (Millennial, uses Reddit, lives in Brooklyn, would spend a few hundred dollars on something not purely necessary): I pass posters for the $299 Light Phone II every day on my walk to the subway. It is the latest in a series of ironic marketing campaigns. Do not buy Light Phone, they read, above a fake logo (featuring three eyeballs) for an “Alliance of Big Tech.”

The Light Phone is teeny-tiny—the size of a credit card, with an even smaller e-ink screen. The first version, released in January 2017, allowed only phone calls and let users set nine people as their go-to speed dials. The latest version also has text messaging and optional add-ons including an alarm clock, GPS, music, and podcasts. The e-ink screen is slow to react and can seem a little glitchy, Light’s co-founder Joe Hollier told me when I visited the company’s appropriately teeny-tiny office in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. People sometimes think the phone is broken. But Hollier thinks of this as a feature, not a bug: “Should you be able to text at monster speed?” he asked. I guess not.

Light Phone’s customers, Hollier says, include former porn addicts who appreciate being able to leave the internet at home and people convicted of certain felonies whose parole conditions mandate that they not have internet-connected devices. Religious families in the Bible Belt supposedly like it too. Hollier declined to give the exact number of devices that Light has sold so far but said it was in the tens of thousands. “I’m not sure it will ever be a fully mainstream thing,” he said.

It is clearly more of a subculture than a phenomenon. Briones, the YouTuber and dumb-phone expert, started his Light Phone “journey” in 2019 and told me he currently uses it as his primary phone. He was motivated by the typical reason. “I don’t feel comfortable anymore with having an all-in-one device,” he told me. “I know myself, and I know that I don’t end up making the best choices.”

But he does like to have options. Briones owns basically every non-smartphone available. (He called from a Sunbeam F1 flip phone—sold as a family phone “without the distractions and potential dangers of most modern devices.”) In his reviews, he differentiates between the pricier minimalist phones such as Light or the $379 Punkt and truly back-to-basic-features phones, which can sometimes be found for as little as $20. He also recommends what he calls “transition devices,” which run simple operating systems such as KaiOS or a pared-down version of Android and usually have some kind of physical deformity, like a very small screen, which makes them difficult to spend too much time on. They work for people who want to check their email or call an Uber but don’t want to find themselves staring at TikTok for hours.

I’d called him for advice. The day before, I’d picked a Nokia flip phone out of a locked case at Target and taken it home sight unseen—these phones weren’t important enough to put on a display so that people could touch them before buying. And I’d been seriously bummed out by how flimsy it felt—like a child’s toy. “Older phones had better build quality,” he told me. New flip phones aren’t being executed at the same level: “It’s an underwhelming experience.”

According to Briones, there really is no perfect way to indulge aughts-phone nostalgia. The major cellphone carriers have shut down their 3G networks; T-Mobile has some 2G coverage left in some areas but is phasing it out by next spring. Older phones relied on those networks and therefore won’t work anymore. (Some would-be retro phone users—including a BuzzFeed reporter who tried to switch to a hot-pink Motorola Razr—learn this the hard way.) “It’s a sad reality here in the United States,” Briones said. As a moderator in the r/dumbphones Reddit forum, he often sees people ask whether they can go on eBay and buy old-school BlackBerries or the beloved LG enV keyboard phone. But they can’t. “It would be nice; it would be great,” he said. “But we have to move on.”

The full physical keyboard, it seems, has been the hardest thing for people to leave behind. They no longer exist, according to Briones, because they wouldn’t be profitable. The “retro” flip phones in stores are made of easily recycled scraps from the smartphone-manufacturing process, but keyboards require effort—special software configured to a way larger number of buttons, a way larger number of buttons subject to breaking and needing to be replaced. What would it take to get a phone maker to sign up for this? “A miracle, that’s what,” one commenter wrote recently in r/dumbphones.

Despite the news reports and the TikTok posts and the supposed interest from consumers in retro products, there doesn’t seem to be enough actual demand to make them profitable. In April 2021, when LG, the maker of most of my wacky pre-iPhone devices, announced that it wouldn’t make phones anymore, it emphasized this reality: “As other beloved phone brands have demonstrated before us, it’s a numbers game, not a popularity contest,” a spokesperson explained at the time.

The Light Phone is a very nice little object that I borrowed from Hollier and played with for a few days; I joked to my co-workers that I was afraid I would swallow it. But the phone I had the most fun with while shopping was a semi-smart flip phone sold by the construction-equipment company Cat (it’s also available on clothing-resale sites, tagged “Retro Y2K”). It can be rinsed in bleach, dropped from a height of up to six feet, and placed under five feet of water for up to 35 minutes. The phone weighs more than half a pound and is marketed as “flippin’ tough.”

Briones recommended the S22 to me because it has a light version of Android OS. I would be able to use Google Maps and check my email, but “the form factor is not going to invite you to spend tons of hours on it or play mobile games.” I had to read some Reddit comments to figure out how to customize the phone to let me type using the old T9 (“text on 9 keys”) method of predictive texting. Obviously, one of the first text messages I received was “Wait, why am I green?”—a reference to the dreaded “green bubble” that displays on the iPhone when it receives a text from an Android device. I’d forgotten! The bubble is something you inflict on others, out of sight and out of mind.

I liked the S22 enough. I carried it around the city for a weekend and used its five-megapixel camera to take photos at a friend’s wedding. As I walked down the street, making a call, I heard a day drinker in an outdoor dining shed say to a friend, “Is that a flip phone?” I felt like I had a new affectation that would interest strangers for a minute or two. The jerry-rigged T9 situation really was untenable, though—incredibly awkward.

I guess I will just have to wait, and keep waiting, for a true dumb phone that is truly perfect for me. And I will try to be grateful for the current state of cellular technology. Just before I hung up with Briones, I asked him: Is there anything about today’s dumb phones that’s better than the old dumb phones? “I mean, call quality used to be terrible,” he said. “‘Can you hear me now?’ was an ad for a reason.”