Adventures in Phoneland - the LightPhone

A few months ago I decided it was time to start searching for a new phone. Is it possible to find a private and functional smartphone in 2023? I wanted to find out.

For the past four years I’ve been using a refurbished iPhone 6S (originally manufactured in cough 2015), so my baseline expectations here were pretty low. It’s well known at this point that Apple intentionally slows down old phones with software updates, so my old iPhone was feeling terrible and slow. One more reason to get away from Apple: anti-user software like that is just one of the reasons I’m no longer an Apple fanboy.

So I wrote a list of hopes for my dream phone. I want it to be:

  • Privacy first. If you use a sim card you can’t expect total privacy, but I’d like no one other than the cell company to be able to spy on me. (this excludes both Apple and Google phones, of course)
  • I’d like smartphone features if possible: a full keyboard and hotspot capability would be nice.
  • I’d like a small form factor. Absolutely no phablets allowed.
  • Open source OS? Would be nice, but not essential.
  • I’d like to still be able to use Obsidian for notes: every other app I use is probably replaceable, but there’s nothing like Obsidian.

First attempt: the Light Phone #

I stumbled across the Light Phone a couple of years ago, and I like the philosophy.

It’s a weird hybrid between smart and dumb phones: it has minimal notifications, no app store, no email, very few features, and in their words it’s “designed to be used as little as possible”. It also has a lovely small form factor, and the company says they’re privacy focused.

Sounds good to me.

It has an e-ink screen, which theoretically I like (although in practice, it has some limitations. More on that below).

The downsides are actually similar to the upsides: it’s a closed source OS (which makes it hard to verify how private the phone actually is), it has no apps which allows for little customization, and it’s expensive.

Also, after buying and trying one out for a while, it turns out the e-ink screen is a bit of a liability. It’s lovely to look at, but the slow refresh rate makes typing on the keyboard challenging. You can’t type quickly, which is a problem, and goes against their “use this phone as little as possible” philosophy. The slowness of the phone could be a feature, but I see it as more of a liability.

Also, the only way to add contacts to the phone is to upload your contacts to the LightPhone server, which irks me. For a company that says they are privacy focused, that is a faux pas that is hard to ignore.

Overall I’d give the LightPhone a B. It does the job of getting you away from your phone admirably well, but it’s not quite flexible enough for me.

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