Light Phone II Dumb Phone Review 2020
Confession: I regularly fantasize about destroying my iPhone. I dream about throwing it off a cliff, crushing it with a car, or hammering it into a thousand tiny shards (à la Office Space).
This fantasy provides approximately two seconds of sweet relief before reality returns. I’ve worked in digital and social media for the past decade and well know the burnout from constantly being “on,” always responding to texts and Slacks, scrolling through Instagrams I’ve seen before, absorbing awful headlines while lying in bed—neck aching from peering down, thumbs cramping from endless tapping. I fall asleep with headaches from too much screen time. And yet, totally untethering from my device seems impossible, especially when my work and life are reliant on staying connected and so many essential services sync with my phone.
A friend who knows my quandary sent me a link to a device I’d never heard of: the Light Phone II. This distraction-free smartphone is “designed to be used as little as possible,” according to the site. “A phone is a tool, and it should serve you as the user, not the other way around.” Its parent company, Light, was founded by Joe Hollier and Kaiwei Tang, an artist and a product designer who met through a Google experimental program and floated the original Light Phone via Kickstarter in 2015 (it shipped out two years later).
This latest prototype, the Light Phone II, builds on the original model by adding messaging and an alarm to its features (therefore making it less pared-back but also a bit more useful than its predecessor). At its core, though, it’s essentially a souped-up “dumb” phone: All this phone essentially does is call, text, allow you to set a single alarm, and listen to podcasts and music.
Compared to the average smartphone, Light aims to break your addiction to the attention economy with the promise that its phones will never have social feeds, ads, news, or email. It recommends that the phone serve as your primary device, if you are so bold, or as a secondary device (like a “weekend phone”), for the days when you want to be offline but still desire the basic ability to reach someone if necessary.
Curiosity piqued, I reached out to Light for a tester. I wondered: Was this a solution to my struggle? Would this “dumb” phone free me from my dependency on devices?
I decided to test the Light Phone for the duration of my three-day Labor Day weekend. It comes with a SIM card, in case you choose to sign up for the Light plan, meaning you’d have a second phone number (the way you might with a work phone). For the sake of this exercise, however, I wasn’t ready to make the leap yet and chose to move my existing SIM card from my iPhone to the Light Phone instead, so that I could preserve my number and plan.
The Light Phone arrived in a slim, cardboard package with sparse instructions. The minimalist, gray phone is tiny, despite how it appears in some images; only slightly bigger than a business card, it fits snugly in my palm like a small, sleek stone. It’s incredibly satisfying to hold, and, well, I think it makes me look cooler too, like some kind of tech influencer (as evidenced by the number of people who spotted me holding it, did a double take, and asked, “Is that…a phone?”). It’s a lot like using a miniature e-reader, with its black-and-white matte e-ink.
After transferring my SIM card and powering on, I followed the site’s directions to set up a dashboard on my computer so that I could import my contacts to the Light Phone. This process was fairly straightforward, though it required me to generate an app-specific password for third-party apps through my Apple ID account, a step that was new to me. The contacts synced within minutes.
The menu page offers three options: Phone, Alarm, and Settings. Under Settings, I could toggle on airplane mode, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, adjust notifications, time/date format, and account settings. I chose to let the phone alert me when a new text or call came in, which appeared as an understated asterisk next to the time on the home screen. The sound options are pleasing; no sirens here, just gentle, spa-like chimes. I tested the alarm function, which easily allowed me to set one alarm. There’s no snooze, so it’s perhaps not my most reliable a.m. wake-up clock, but it was still useful to have the alarm when I needed a nudge to finish a task.
Within the Phone option, you can search contacts, select their name, and either call or text them. However, if you have multiple numbers for one person, each number will display as a different contact, so you may wind up texting or calling a couple of numbers to figure out if it’s a cell or landline. There’s no ability to save favorite contacts, but once you’ve reached out to someone, their name or number appears in your log, which is what I ultimately referred to for reaching out to those I needed most.
Texting on such a tiny keyboard is a painful exercise. In order to text, by default, the screen turns from portrait to landscape, and you must very precisely key in your message, as there’s no T9 or autocorrect. A cursor isn’t an option, so if you make a mistake or want to edit text, you have to manually delete, and sometimes there’s a lag when you do so.
It’s not easy, but this did make my texting strategy more concise. I found myself asking: Do I really need to text this? Could this be a phone call? Could this conversation wait entirely? All things I never normally consider before firing off a paragraph. By the end of the weekend, I relished the challenge of concise texting, especially since a subtle, haptic vibration resonates across the phone every time I type a letter, punctuating my decisions.
Similarly, calling isn’t a seamless venture. Because I’m 84 at heart, I was amazed that a device that small can receive calls. But the volume only has four levels, and the speaker is faint. In order to best hear callers, I hooked up earbuds via Bluetooth pairing (which the phone offers), and the sound still wasn’t ideal. Perhaps this was also by design because I ended up not calling anyone unless necessary.
Other things I learned using the Light Phone: You can receive emojis but not text them. You cannot see photos, though you will receive an icon that denotes a photo file. Friends claimed to send me audio messages, but at this time there’s no ability to send or receive them. There’s no voicemail, though when I later transferred my SIM card back to my iPhone, the voicemails I missed emerged after a restart. There is a hotspot capability, a calculator, and the ability to listen to podcasts and upload music, and according to Light, later this year, they’ll add ride-share, voice memo, reminder, notes, calendar, weather, directions, dictionary, and Find My Phone options.
Fingers crossed for the addition of directions because—I hate to admit this—I still carried my iPhone in my bag over the weekend. I live in New York City, and though I mapped my routes before travel like we did back in the Mapquest days, the idea of having zero access to directions when navigating trains during a pandemic gave me enough pause to bring it, just in case.
The biggest perk, hands down, was having no social media or news feeds for even a few days. When I took the train, instead of zoning out to a podcast or music (which I could’ve done, but chose not to), I sat with my thoughts and noticed that my fellow passengers were all on their phones, even couples. While waiting in line at the deli, I listened to the playful banter between baristas and filled my lungs with the scent of freshly baked bagels. Walking in the park, I watched dogs tumble in the grass, nodded along to an impromptu jazz session, and gazed at the clouds, skin warmed by the sun. I found stillness.
At over $300, the Light Phone II is a digital detox that may not save you money but will make the time you spend with your screen, and away from it, more meaningful. Big Tech may someday invent their own back-to-basics modes (like some extreme version of screen time restrictions) for smartphones, but in the meantime, there’s something special and delightful about having a lovely little phone that’s completely separate—a tangible reminder that phones can just be phones.
For me, I can’t really justify the price as is (it would be nice to have a maps feature), but if you’re someone who wants an actually attractive, no-frills device in order to unplug, this may be just what you need.
The last thing to consider is whether or not you’re fully prepared to go against the grain in such a tech-savvy world: My biggest pet peeve from using the Light Phone was simply trying to explain it to others. Summarizing repeatedly why I couldn’t receive a photo or properly respond was a headache, especially on that limited keyboard. I felt like I should’ve sent a press release or OOO in advance that politely spelled out to those contacting me that I was using a phone with reduced features, which defeats the purpose of quietly slipping off the grid. I also worried I’d miss critical digital dispatches from loved ones because of the absence of features like voicemail—something I’d know I lacked, but no one else would.
That said, it was a major relief getting a break from screen time. The experience made me far more aware of my digital habits and others’ too. I reflected on how much of my life, of our lives, is and was swallowed by screens and was glad to have a phone that (mostly) forced me to step away. To feel time pass, if only for a few hours.
Light Phone II
A minimalist cell phone with limited features, intent on reducing screen time consumption. Available in light gray and black.
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