Looking for the best dumbphone? We'll help you pick out the best value non-smart cellphone for your needs – and guide you to getting it at the best price.
Ever since Steve Jobs introduced his ‘internet communicator’ to the world in 2008, the traditional mobile phone has been taking a kicking. Now, though, times have changed; the success of the best smartphones is assured, so rather than eliminating the last memories of other kinds of handset, it’s perhaps worth choosing the best phone for the job.
The descendants of the iPhone are good at multitasking, handling simple computing tasks and providing us media on the move (social and traditional). In exchange for that, they’re expensive, have a short battery and shelf life, and are relatively delicate. They’re also potentially problematic if you’re paying your employee’s bills.
On the other side of the coin the name ‘dumb phone’ very much does the devices it encompasses a disservice. Dumb may be the opposite of smart, but what we really mean here are phones which are relatively inexpensive, can handle basic communications, may also include a camera and music player, can be relatively robust, and, in all likelihood, only need charging once a week.
That means for many an either/or choice is replaced with the option of a Smartphone most of the time and something else for a few specialist occasions or times the smartphone is definitely banned. Here are some devices that should open up possibilities and (right at the bottom) a couple of smartphones which you should probably also take a look at before deciding to ‘go dumb.’
Nokia may just be a brand name nowadays, but it is still one associated with quality. So if you’re just looking for a simple handset which can take calls, read (but not compose too many) texts, and even browse YouTube and Facebook, then this elegant and relatively up-to-date flip phone is a good choice. (That’s watch YouTube – the camera only takes stills). The main color screen is safely closed inside the flip shell when the phone’s out of use, but a good quality white on black 240x240 pixel display on the outside lets you know who is calling or just check the time and date. One lovely nod to feature sets from phones twenty years its senior is the inclusion of an FM radio, a more battery efficient way of getting music, news & entertainment than the average smartphone will offer you.
A brand you might better associate with heavy machinery, the CAT even rumbles like a diesel engine at start up. It’s not actually the company’s only foray into phones, but the B35 is the more feature-rich, in that it includes KaiOS and the collection of Google-owned apps which you’d expect to accompany that (Maps, YouTube, Google Assistant). None operated by a touchscreen, of course, though Wi-Fi, Bluetooth & 4G LTE are on offer. The keys are, just about, operable wearing gloves, and while texting is pretty hard work (as for any ‘dumb’ phone), the apps well behaved on the Qualcomm 8905 Dual-Core 1.3GHz
Processor. It might not be suitable for every occasion, but the casing (and raised lip around the compact screen) will protect against a drop onto concrete, and the speaker is plenty loud.
So, it’s not a smart phone in the iPhone sense, but it’s definitely still smart in the chic sense, helped of course by the fact that the first Matrix movie left an indelible mark on a generation of nerds. Like the 2720 flip, this is a perfectly serviceable modern 4G phone, with a distinctly ordinary camera, squashed into a form factor and branding that matters to many. Like the flip, the keyboard slider makes this phone not only light and compact but pretty practical too, with no accidental pocket dials (or bag fluff) likely to cause a nuisance. The other side of that argument is that the plastic seems a little more easily scuffed than you’d like, and the processor could be snappier, but the price is very attractive – an ideal backup phone.
If you feel you’ve seen the name ‘Nokia’ too many times in this list, just imagine going into a phone shop in the late 90s when the brand truly dominated. The 3310 is perhaps the most iconic of that spate of market leaders, and it has now been revived twice, in 2017 and 2019. This newer model survives the post 2G era, so is more widely compatible. Atop T9 texting, rudimentary browsing and phone calls, you also get Nokia’s special treat: Snake. This time with a bit of color, but unmolested gameplay. This is atop s30+ / “FeatureOS” (and perhaps soon a YunOS 4G edition, at least in China). For now though, it’s fun, allows you to express yourself with coloured shells, and has amazing battery life, but isn’t your friend if you’re composing emails!
Available with red, blue or orange trim, this is a good-looking candy bar phone built around the Spreadtrum 7715A 1.2GHz processor. Either side of the main control are bright buttons for WhatsApp and Facebook, highlighting this phone’s ability to communicate using popular messaging platforms (albeit via old-school text entry). Battery life may be less stellar than some candy bar phones, but it’s still has over a week on standby and, crucially, the newer 3G technology will survive network switch-offs in major markets.
Typically sold without a contract, this is a senior-friendly flip phone with all the protection that comes from the clamshell design, plus a few more features designed specifically with more frail users, specifically the SOS button. This automatically reaches out to 5 emergency contacts – but only when it’s very definitely pressed for over a second. There are also two very clearly marked memory numbers – so no diving through contact menus – and, surprisingly useful for many, a charging dock. There was a time when Apple included them! Finally it’s worth noting that the screen is a very good size for a “dumb” phone, as well as the keys, so more usability points!
Worthy of a mention more because of its ambition than success, the MP01 (2G) and MP02 are very expensive phones given their stripped down feature sets, but their design is wholly deliberate. These aren’t old designs fished out and re-branded for the elderly; they are new phones designed to serve as a minimal distraction from the modern world and – while the 2017 MP01 was technically unsuited to the post 2G world in North America – the MP02 hits upon a brilliant solution: it is 4G, and it can be a hotspot when needed, but as a phone it’s distraction-free monochrome. Simply being 2G isn’t the solution; sometimes we need to work, but taking the phone out of the equation is appealing, and the design is sharp.
Occupying a not-fully-justified spot on this list is the new Nokia 800, possibly the 2020 revival of the partly-rubberized 5210. It has features which, in honesty, we have to consider ‘Smart’ like a 4G radio, GPS, WiFi and the ability to create a mobile hotspot, yet at the same time it still looks like a dumbphone (a lot like a blander 5210). The difference is KaiOS and a Qualcomm 205 processor which support those features, but thought has still been given to practical use – you can ask Google Assistant something if typing T9 is temporarily impossible. Nokia even manage to fit in an FM radio and headphone jack. This handset seems built to offer more than nostalgia – it is much stronger than the revived 3310, and can even be used for practical features (e.g. WhatsApp voice messages).
Part product, part experiment, this device brings the price of a smartphone to the functionality of an early feature phone. To protect your eyes from backlit LCD, the credit-card sized handset uses an e-ink screen, like a kindle, with a touch keyboard for texting. It also adds alarms, a calculator and (since June) a podcast player; GPS is in there, so directions are a possibility too. You can even appeal for additional features via brand’s Twitter account, in between admiring photos of the phone playing its part in hip lifestyles. The Mark II brings 4G radio so the phone survives past modern network switch offs, but it very deliberately offers no email, social media or the eye strain of a traditional phone screen. It’s easy to imagine being an uber driver, switching off your normal smart phone at the end of a shift, turning this on knowing you won’t get lured away by work, but it’s definitely a luxury device.
A little less “dumb”
There are a variety of phones to suit particular needs on the list above, but one that occurs more than once is the now firmly established digital detox market. It’s worth remembering that you can get a relatively ‘light’ phone without depriving yourself of much needed features if you opt instead to exercise your own self-control. The huge advantage of that route is that you remain able to communicate the way most people do now – via a disparate array of messaging apps, typing at speed and rarely speaking. Obviously a smartphone is outside the main list for obvious reasons, but below is one irresistible example. Clearly it’s not here to compete on ruggedness (though of course cases are available) or easy of use, but given that the price is broadly similar to the Light Phone II and Punkt MP02, keep the specs of both of those in mind as you consider it:
The popular iPhone SE, which can be made less intrusive with careful setup of the apps and notifications. These are your choices, after all, but the ability to install them keeps your options open, and Apple’s A13 Bionic chip can run pretty much any app (including the Burner or Flyp apps for those seeking anonymity). The relatively compact 4.7-inch screen still fells generous compared to candy bar phones, the camera is in a different league to those here that even have them, capable of shooting 4K video or 240fps slo-mo. The iPhone SE can also keep its screen playing video for 13 hours, so while the battery won’t beat some of the month-long standby options above, you’re unlikely to run out during the day with a modern smartphone like this.