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Can This Dumb Phone Free Us from Smartphone Addiction?

The Light Phone lets you make and receive calls—and that’s it.
March 31, 2017

In many ways, my smartphone is a digital security blanket. I cuddle its glowing screen when I wake up in the morning, clutch it throughout the day, and tuck it in at night for a good charge.

I’ve become so dependent on this gadget that it feels weird to be without it.

At the same time, this dependence can feel like a shackle, and sometimes I just want to get away from that constant connectivity. I’m not the only one feeling this conundrum, so a few companies have come up with slick-looking “dumb phones” meant to entice you to take a vacation from your smartphone.

One of these is a little sliver of a gadget called the Light Phone. It promises to free you from your smartphone without missing any calls: when someone dials your regular smartphone number, the call is forwarded to your Light Phone via an online server. Calls you place look like they’re coming from your usual number, too. Two years after it began as a Kickstarter project, the credit-card-sized device is slated to be generally available in April for $150 plus a $5 monthly fee.

Talking on the tiny Light Phone can be a bit awkward.

The Light Phone has its own SIM card, so it doesn’t need to be anywhere near your smartphone to function. It’s barely recognizable as anything more than a thin slab of plastic until you press the power button, at which point it lights up with a number pad and single-line display.

Truly, it is a phone in the simplest sense: it can make and receive calls, and that’s it. There are no texts, e-mails, notifications, or voice mails. If someone calls you and you don’t pick up, they’ll eventually hear a robotic female voice say, “I am using my Light Phone and am currently unavailable.” Then the Light Phone will hang up on them.

When I tried it out, it quickly became clear that the Light Phone’s simplicity is a bit of a facade. You have to plug it in to a computer to set it up and add or change any of its up to nine programmable speed-dial contacts. And using call forwarding was a big pain: I had to dial one number stored in my smartphone’s list of contacts to turn it on, and another number later on to turn it off.

After sorting that out, I set off on a few adventures with the Light Phone in my pocket, nervously leaving my smartphone behind on my desk.

After a little while, I found that walking without my smartphone actually freed me up to enjoy the sights and sounds of the city around me, rather than burying my face in a screen. It was nice to be away from all the normal buzzes and beeps of my constantly connected life, and my brain felt a little clearer once I got over wanting to check Twitter and Instagram. If someone really needed to reach me, I figured, they would call.

And they did. My husband tried me, returning an earlier call I made to him, and we were able to have a good-enough conversation for a few minutes. As with other calls I made and received, he sounded a little muffled, but it was good enough for me to understand that he wanted me to buy aluminum foil.

Not quite greater than the sum of its very few parts.

I wouldn’t want to have a lengthy conversation on this handset, though. Apart from the call quality, holding it up to my ear felt awkward, since it’s just over eight and a half centimeters tall and less than half a centimeter thick. Due to its plain look I actually completed at least one call while holding the back of the phone up to my cheek. Oops.

The Light Phone’s display was problematic as well. It was nearly impossible to use in bright sunlight. I also noticed that if I missed a call that wasn’t in my list of speed dials, it would show me all but the last digit of the caller’s phone number.

Its battery life isn’t great, either—surprising for a device that is meant to do very little. After a few calls and about five hours, it was down to 61 percent; by early afternoon the next day, after some more brief calls and many hours of idle time, it was down to 20 percent. Considering the handset spent most of the time just sitting around with its display off, I expected it would last longer. 

Turning off call forwarding for the last time, I felt disappointed. I wanted to like the Light Phone, and having it in my pocket did give me a sense of the security that I typically count on my smartphone for. For me to really feel comfortable shelling out for a sometimes-useful phone, though, it needs to be able to do the few things it does really well. Otherwise I’ll just be pining for my smartphone, rather than enjoying the time away from it.

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Illustration by Rose Wong

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