My First Three Months with a Nokia Dumb Phone as a Daily Driver
In my previous post, I discussed Apple’s controversial plan to add on-device photo scanning to iPhones and Macs that they announced back in August 2021. Faced with massive pressure from the public and organizations such as EFF, Apple subsequently swept most parts of the plan under the rug. However, this whole controversy rekindled my interest in dumping smartphones altogether.
I had tried to switch to a feature phone a few years earlier, but that phone was a really dumb Samsung from 2010 or so with no 4G, Wi-Fi or a modern messaging app. That attempt failed, but could things be different with a more modern phone like Nokia 2720 Flip?
I had spent literally several weeks agonizing, reading the reviews of various dumb phones and trying to decide if I’m ready to take the plunge. And then my wife, seeing my torments, said: “The Nokia costs less than 100 euros, why don’t you just try it?” And so I did.
Nokia 2720 Flip is a keypad flip phone that was launched in 2019. It runs KaiOS, a Linux-based OS that traces its roots to Mozilla’s abandoned Firefox OS project. KaiOS’s open-source status is unclear to me (Wikipedia mentions a “source-available” model), so in this regard, KaiOS loses to the open-source CalyxOS / GrapheneOS Android derivatives. However, given that it’s a dumb phone anyway, I’m not putting nearly as much of my life onto it as I would with a smartphone, so I’m fine with that.
While going completely old-school with, for example, Nokia 8800 from 2005 would undoubtedly be uber nerdy and cool, the 2720 Flip is actually a modern device that has some crucial features that older phones lack. Number one is 4G support. With operators around the world shutting down 2G and 3G bands, an old Nokia phone would soon become useless in most countries.
Support for Wi-Fi hotspots is a close second. I still have to use my iPhone from time to time, and it’s very convenient to just turn on a hotspot on the Nokia instead of having to switch the SIM card over to the iPhone.
Other notable features of the Nokia include:
- Apps including WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, Google Maps, as well as others that you can install from KaiOS Store.
- Google Assistant. It’s not deeply integrated with the device (more on this below) but it can still be useful for voice text entry and quick Google lookups.
- Ability to sync your email, contacts and calendar, or simply import your contacts from a third-party service.
- Dual SIM.
- SD card support.
- User-replaceable battery.
- Bluetooth support for connecting headphones or car audio.
- Rear camera with a flashlight.
- GPS support (but no turn-by-turn navigation in Google Maps).
Overall, we’re looking at a pretty solid package that can support a good chunk of your critical daily tasks. Now let’s see how it all works out in real life.
Living with the Nokia
If you’re switching to a dumb phone while expecting to keep your smartphone habits, you’re out of your mind. The Nokia is slow, has no touch screen and imposes a bunch of limitations upon you. And yet, that seems to be the mindset of most of the authors whose reviews of the Nokia I’ve read. It’s funny to see how they complain about being unable to WhatsApp with their friends fluently, or about the torture of watching YouTube videos on the phone’s 240x320 screen.
If you are looking to keep your smartphone life, don’t get this phone, or any dumb phone for that matter. Instead, get a budget Android device. My goal with the Nokia was precisely to make the common distractors like social media, browsing and messaging very inconvenient so that I spend less time with them – and the Nokia accomplishes that task beautifully.
The Nokia doesn’t have a touch screen. Instead, you have to enter text using the keypad. For example, you press 4 twice to enter “h”, 3 twice to enter “e” and so on. The phone supports predictive text entry where you only have to press each button once, but it doesn’t know all the words. Now imagine typing a 10-character word only for the phone to tell you that it doesn’t know it and you have to retype it as usual once again. No, thank you.
Then there is Google Assistant, which actually works OK for entering text with your voice. The problem is, I switch between four languages in my daily life, and of those, Google Assistant only supports English.
In the end, I’m keeping it simple and relying on regular typing with the keypad. It’s interesting how I’ve been able to get back to my mid-2000s level of keypad-fu in under a week or so. I’ve even been typing reasonably long WhatsApp messages to my wife.
Nokia 2720 Flip and other KaiOS devices have WhatsApp. I’m not a fan of Meta (Facebook) and would rather stay away from their products as much as possible, but given a choice between WhatsApp and the insecure and often paid SMS, I’ll go for WhatsApp any time.
The WhatsApp app in the Nokia is actually pretty advanced. You can type regular text messages, send voice messages and make voice calls. You can also use Google Assistant for text entry. I’ve read reports about the Nokia overheating in WhatsApp voice calls, but I’ve made a few and haven’t had this problem.
On the downside, there is no video calling in WhatsApp, and voice calling doesn’t seem to support a speakerphone mode.
Phone calling on the Nokia is fine. You can answer an incoming call by opening the phone and end it by closing it. There is a speakerphone mode in regular calls, which is a nice touch.
Navigating your contacts is a different story. I have several hundred contacts imported from Google, and it takes the Nokia several seconds to open my contact list. After that, searching for a contact is reasonably fast, which, I hear, is a big improvement compared to the state of things a year or so ago.
Unfortunately, the search is not diacritics-agnostic, so if you have a contact named “Fircák” and search for “Fircak”, the Nokia will not find it. It’s one of the many little bugs in KaiOS you just learn to live with after a while.
Music and Podcasts
KaiOS has a built-in music player that can play tracks from the phone memory or the SD card. It automatically groups the tracks by albums or artists based on the ID3 tags and is generally convenient to use. When using Bluetooth headphones, you can control playback with the headphone buttons. The playback continues when you close the phone, too.
My biggest pet peeve with the music player on the Nokia is that you cannot have the music playing in the background. For example, if you receive a message and exit the music player to read it, the playback will stop. And not just stop: When you return to the player app, it will reset itself to a clean slate, so you’ll have to find the song again and fast-forward to where you’ve been listening.
Update Jan. 21: I’ve just discovered that there is background playback, and it works great! The trick is to use the back arrow button on the keypad to leave the player app. I’ve been using the hang up / power button all this time, and that one must be shutting down the current app completely. This trick also works for third-party apps playing audio.
As far as podcasts go, there are apps in KaiOS Store for podcast playback, one of which is Mocha Podcasts. Unfortunately, it has its quirks, like stubbornly refusing to load some podcasts. Also, Bluetooth headphone controls don’t work in it (which seems to be a manifestation of the general problem of KaiOS apps not having full access to the device’s hardware).
In the end, I opted in for using the wonderful gPodder app on my desktop computer for downloading podcast episodes and syncing them to the phone as regular audio files. I then use the stock music player for listening.
Camera and Photos
The Nokia has a 2 MP rear camera. If you’re used to modern smartphone cameras, forget it. The picture quality is mediocre at best, and photos made in low-light conditions suck big time. I mostly use the camera for snapping announcements, lists or book covers – so basically for note-taking.
You can technically shoot videos with the Nokia, too, but, again, forget it unless you want a piece of 2005-style mobile video nostalgia.
The Nokia comes with WhatsApp, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and Google Maps preinstalled. I’ve already written about WhatsApp above. YouTube is decent; I haven’t used it much though. When you close the phone, playback stops even if you are logged in with a YouTube Premium account. I use youtube-dl for downloading audiobooks or shows from YouTube, and then listen to them with the regular music player on the Nokia.
Google Maps is reasonably useful. It doesn’t have turn-by-turn navigation, but you can look for places, read reviews, check out the photos, and get directions. The app is pretty useless for driving, but I’ve been able to successfully navigate to a couple of places when walking around Budapest on our recent family trip.
I can’t comment on the Facebook and Twitter apps because I haven’t used those.
You can download more apps and games at KaiOS Store. The only extra app from KaiOS Store I ended up keeping was KaiWeather, which is a no-frills weather app. As I mentioned, I’ve tried apps for podcasts and online radio but those haven’t stuck.
Nokia 2720 Flip supports Google Assistant which lets you use voice text entry in some apps, as well as get answers to questions like “What’s the time in NYC right now?” or “How much does Bitcoin cost?”
Google Assistant is not tightly integrated with the device. If you ask it to set a timer, it will happily report, “All right, five minutes. Starting… now” but after five minutes, nothing will happen. Same for trying to send a message with Google Assistant, or asking it to launch an app – in these cases, Google Assistant honestly tells you that it can’t do that on this device.
Payments, Loyalty Cards and Vaccination Certificates
There is no Apple Pay or Google Pay on the Nokia, so I’m back to using physical cards for payment.
I used to scan my loyalty cards into the Stocard app on my iPhone, but, as far as I’m aware, there isn’t a similar app for KaiOS. I tried taking pictures of the cards but the Nokia’s screen is so dim that the store scanners refuse to scan barcodes off of it. So I’m back to carrying plastic loyalty cards, too.
Same for my vaccination certificate – I’ve had to print it on paper and put it in my wallet. The wallet is now really outsized with all this plastic and paper in it but, well, important things go in a case.
KaiOS is not completely raw and unfinished, but it has bugs. My biggest pet peeve is probably random shutdowns that occur a couple of times per week.
Another example is the disappearance of the quick access menu that should show up when you press the left button on the joystick. It was there after I bought the phone, but then it magically disappeared and I don’t know how to bring it back.
Yet another issue is Internet connectivity in apps. Sometimes everything works fine, and sometimes apps report being offline despite there being a connection and the browser opening pages. I haven’t figured that one out so far either.
Security and Privacy
I assume KaiOS to be completely insecure. The file system is not encrypted, and I’ve read mentions of KaiOS 2.x still being based on Firefox code from 2016. Things are reportedly better in the new KaiOS 3, but it looks like my Nokia will not support it. I’ve also read security reports on KaiOS that claimed there being a number of remote and local exploits in the wild.
With that in mind, I’m not keeping any mission-critical information on the Nokia. Neither am I logged into any online accounts like Google or YouTube, or have Google sync set up. So in case someone gets hold of my phone, they will not be able to read my email or access other sensitive info. Of course, I also have a SIM PIN and a screen lock code on the device.
Not having Google sync set up is a bit inconvenient because I could definitely use calendar and contacts synchronization. However, setting up Google sync on the Nokia requires permissions for email, calendar and contacts in a single bundle, and there seems to be no way to selectively disable email access. Fortunately, you can use the contacts import feature which only requires the contacts access permission with your Google account. I’m fine with that.
When you receive an SMS message, KaiOS displays a notification with a message preview. This is a potential security risk if you’re using SMS confirmation codes from services like online banking. I haven’t been able to keep the notifications but disable the previews, so I’ve had to disable SMS notifications altogether. Fortunately, I’m not receiving a lot of SMS messages and I generally know when to expect one.
Another annoyance is promotional notifications from KaiOS that they send once a week or so, normally asking you to check out some app. I haven’t been able to find a way to turn those off either.
It’s been three months now, and I think I have more or less learned to live with the Nokia. It’s slow and has its issues, but it manages to support my critical daily tasks. The battery life is great, I find myself charging the phone once every 3 to 5 days.
There are a lot of compromises to make if you want to live with a dumb phone in 2022. Why am I enduring all this? The biggest reason is weaning myself off of the digital distractions that are so common nowadays. Even without social media apps, with my iPhone, I’ve always had this urge to “look up just this one thing on the Internet”. The Nokia is so slow that I don’t even bother. And you know what? Most of those things I forget anyway, that’s how unimportant they turn out to be.
I still have to rely on my iPhone and iPad for some tasks, but those cases are generally few and far between. One notable case is turn-by-turn navigation with Google Maps, Waze or Maps.me, as well as occasional usage of my banking apps. This is when I appreciate the ability to turn on a Wi-Fi hotspot on my Nokia. Most of the time, though, my iPhone is off and sitting in my table drawer.