April 2, 2023

Smartphones: the right tools for which jobs?

The smartphone is the worlds biggest multi-tool.

When I go riding, I need a multitool in case my bike has any issues.  These are compact little tools for fixing various bike things.  Multitools are limited by their size - they need to be small enough to carry on a ride.  Sure, it would be great if I could bring a full size pump and a track stand and some chain cleaner... but I can't fit that in my backpack.  So, I have a limited multitool.

The smartphone has gotten smarter and smarter without taking up more physical space - it's become a tool for any job.

In order to consider leaving my smartphone, I documented what I was using it for, and if this was something I needed, wanted, or hated.  I made a list of all my apps and decided how much I valued each thing, and what could replace it.  Here is a snapshot:

Making CallsHighNokia 105
TextingHighNokia 105
News Applow
Grocery Store AppLow
QR Code scannerlow

For me, the real sticking point was the Camera, Maps and Podcasts.  I considered getting a TomTom or a Garmin, and I looked at a fancy camera, but what I loved about the iphone camera is that it uploads straight to the cloud, and photo editing is so easy.  

I also wasn't sure if they made TomToms or Garmins anymore.

After looking at price points for Cameras I realized that Apple had already made what I wanted.  I just wanted a version that didn't have the whole world inside it.  

[edit: this bit has been updated after a comment from the very astute NGS] I realized what I wanted was an ipod.  Back in the day, ipods were great - they had music, they had a camera... they did everything! And they weren't a phone. So I went to Apple and... they stopped making them.  Ugh.

I emailed Apple and asked for an iphone without the phone. They never got back to me.

[I should also note that one of the reasons I was looking at phones at this juncture was due to leaving my job, where I was provided a work iphone which I used for many not-work things, like photos. So it was the right time to investigate phone problem and camera problem together]

I ended up pricing up a Cannon powershot (£600) vs the iphone SE (£450) and even I couldn't avoid the truth that it wasn't worth an extra £150 to escape the i-economy.  So, we got what we call the "Family Smart Camera", a sim-less, data-less, iphone.  

Yes, I realize the irony of escaping my smartphone by having a smartphone.  But for me, the important part was separating my "phone" from my "everything else".  

When I leave the house, I take my phone.  

When I want to take photos, listen to podcasts, or get directions, I take the Smart Camera.  The smart camera doesn't have everywhere internet or WhatsApp, and it will never blip with an incoming text or call.  It also doesn't belong to either Andy or me - it's a household utility like our TV or computer.

If I'm out and about and just want to check the weather or my email... I can't.  If I want to take pictures my kids, I can.  If I want to send those photos to friends I have to wait until I get home and do it on the computer.    

Clearly the process was not a purely "Digital Minimalism" endeavour.  For me, as it was about finding the right tool for the job, and the right time for the tool.  With a smartphone, there was no better or worse time to do anything. Everything could be done anywhere.  

By separating my "smart" from my "phone" I've enforced my own rules for when and how I do things. For now it's working well enough for me.


  1. But they don't make iPods anymore, do they? Do you just get refurbished ones? What about when you can't get this stripped down technology anymore? I agree with you on the non-calling apps that I mostly use my phone for - maps, podcasts, and the camera - and I'd be interested in making a switch. I'm curious about what your iPod options are these days.

    1. OMG you are so right! I've updated it now - I've been calling it an ipod for 2 years but when I looked at it I realized it's actually an iphone. It was the closest I could get to a DYI ipod at the time - it just doesn't have any sim or data.

  2. It's great that you've been so intentional with this and have found a good solution.

  3. There was an iPhone with a camera? Really. Have never heard of that.