For the past several years, I have been completely free of smartphones and cell phone. For a variety of reasons (mostly privacy related), I have simply avoided them.
My life really hasn’t been worse because of it. I still have portable computing devices (tablets, UMPCs, PDAs and the like) that allow me to communicate with the world while on the go—I just need to find a Wi-Fi hotspot to do so. A minor annoyance, to be sure, but it seems like a reasonable trade-off for the increase in personal privacy and security.
Then again, it’s been so many years since I’ve had a cell phone. What if my understanding of the value of having a good smartphone is outdated? What if smartphones have improved so dramatically that their value would outweigh the privacy concerns?
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While I doubted that would be the case, the truth is I simply didn’t know. And I don’t like to make decisions based on a lack of information.
So, I got a smartphone and resolved to use it for two weeks.
Not just use it, but really dive into it and rely upon it for everything: driving directions, communication, gaming, music—making it a critical part of my life.
Then, after two weeks, I could decide whether having a smartphone is worth the reduction in my personal privacy.
The phone I went with is a Moto G4. This felt like a good phone that didn’t cost a small fortune, running an up-to-date-ish version of Android. And it’s unlocked, so I could use whatever carrier I want.
Now, I’m not going to bore you with all of the details of using a smartphone. You’ve got your own. You know how they work. Instead, I’d like to talk about the places where having a smartphone made a difference in my life compared to my typical cell-phone-free existence.
Owning a smartphone: The good stuff
It’s nice knowing that in an emergency, I have a way to call for help—right there in my coat pocket. That’s incredibly handy and reassuring. No doubt about it. During my two-week experiment, I never needed to use the phone for any sort of emergency, but it was nice to know it was there in a pinch.
The other thing that surprised me was how this impacted my music listening habits. Normally I keep a folder filled with tunes on a few different devices—typically about 20 gigs worth—plus a handful of audio books (enough to entertain me on even the longest trips).
But since I had a smartphone now, I left that folder at home. Instead I relied entirely on music services such as Google Play Music. I paid the couple of bucks for a monthly pass and listened to whatever I liked on the go—a collection far larger than my own digital archive. It lacked many of my favorite albums, but overall, the experience was excellent. Being able to search for and listen to any random tune, wherever I am, is a lot of fun.
Those two things were nice, but I think my favorite thing about having a smartphone is the form factor of the device.
It’s hard, nowadays, to buy something that resembles the PDAs of the 1990s (and early 2000s) that isn’t also a cell phone. And having a PDA-sized/shaped device in my pocket is fantastic. Nice to hold. Great battery life. Easy to travel with. Plenty of power to do just about anything.
Owning a smartphone: The bad stuff
Let’s ignore for a moment the fact that a smartphone is a device that, by its mere existence in your life, completely compromises your personal privacy. Just completely put that off to the side.
There were a few practical areas where having a smartphone significantly made my life worse.
First, and unexpected: Maps.
During my two-week experiment, I stayed entirely in the region I live in—a region I am comfortable with. I know my way around this city (and the area around it) pretty well. I tend to walk most places, the one exception being taking my daughter to and from school. For that, we either take public transit or drive.
My typical morning routine is to check the traffic at home and then make a decision about what route to take to get my daughter to school that is the quickest and easiest.
Now that I had a smartphone, I opted instead to rely entirely on Google Maps. I figured this should save me some significant time, as Google Maps can stay up to date on traffic and travel times and offer me alternate routes that would save me time on the go.
But it didn’t work that way.
During the first five days of using Google Maps, my daughter was late to school three times (significantly) due entirely to Google Maps re-routing me in incredibly stupid ways. I also kept tabs on Google’s estimated travel times. It underestimated the travel time every single morning. Typically by a good 25 percent or more.
This doesn’t have anything to do with the smartphone itself, but the value of using Google Maps was pretty much nil when getting around my city. In fact, it was less than valuable—it made my life worse. I ended up needing to leave my house significantly earlier each morning just to accommodate the poor routing and estimates of Google Maps.
Looking up specific businesses or addresses is handy. But I can do that with an OpenStreetMap-based, offline map software (which is what I normally do) just as well.
The other bad thing about having a phone with me …
… people can contact me! All the time.
Normally when I’m on the train or walking around town, I get quiet time. I get to think. I get to look around and enjoy the world. Now? Twitter is there. Email is there. Instant messages. All the time. It’s a never-ending barrage of, “HEY LOOK AT ME!” There’s never a break.
And that kinda sucks.
It got to the point where after only a few days, I started wanting to leave the stupid phone at home. I forced myself to bring it along even though it was slowly driving me insane.
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There’s clearly good and bad to having a smartphone compared to a different portable computing device. But if I’m being honest, the good doesn’t outweigh the bad. My life with a smartphone is noticeably less enjoyable and efficient than without a smartphone.
But I do really like the form factor. I hadn’t fully realized how much I miss having a PDA-sized/shaped device in my pocket. I miss my old PalmOS devices and the like. Having an Android-based smartphone fills that void rather nicely.
Perhaps I’ll keep the phone and try to find a way to completely disable the cell chip inside of it, thus rendering it, essentially, a little PDA.
Or maybe I’ll keep it as a phone and buy a little Faraday cage/sleeve for it, blocking the signal except for when I want it to have a signal. Then I can keep a phone in my bag for emergency calls and expose myself to security/privacy issues only when I feel it’s definitely worth the trade-off.
No matter what, I’m glad I did this little personal experiment. Maybe I’ll do it again in a few years just to make sure I’m not missing out on anything.