Smartphones are good, actually*
So I recently moved to using a smartphone after being a basic-phone only person for multiple years, and my experience has been actually positive. To the point where I would write a provocatively titled blog post about it for the clicks from annoyed FOSS and permacomputing people at me liking an objectively trash device. And yes, smartphones are objectively trash. They’re hard to repair, built for minimum life and maximum profit, and generally suck (as all devices invented by modern capitalism do). But after having lived without one for so long, I want to talk about having one again.
I got rid of my smartphone, a Nexus 5, originally, probably sometime around 2017? I honestly don’t remember. It’s your usual story - found myself distracted by social media, hurt by FoMo and tracking, wanting to “digital detox” and take control back of my life. I did this by stopping using a smartphone entirely. (looking back, the smartphone wasn’t the problem, as there were wider issues in my internet usage at the time). But the phone got ditched, and I developed a new approach: each device should do one thing and do it well. Phone is seperate from MP3 player, MP3 player is seperate to camera, etc. I largely still believe in this and would probably return to it, expect for one thing: I got a smartphone again. Specifically, I got the same smartphone again - my old Nexus, which was my sister’s for a while. Now it’s mine again.
After my most recent MP3 player died, I was out looking for a replacement. I thought about buying an ipod, but I then found my old smartphone in a drawer. I charged it up thinking it was broken (the screen was already a bit cracked, and I have vague memories of my sister throwing it out), then it turned out - it works! So I started using it as an mp3 player, and very soon after as a phone as well, because I may as well put a SIM in the thing if I’m carrying it already. But it needed some things to make it good.
How to make a smartphone good
Out of the box, smartphones are corporate tracking devices that hate you. So you need to take some basic steps to make them better:
- install a custom ROM with no gapps. This will remove 99% of the bullshit straight off the bat.
- install fdroid, a source of reasonably decent apps
- keep any and all social media off it.
- keep it mostly offline. I am on a data connection that is metered by the megabyte, and only go online on wifi to download apps. I only use mobile data for things like live bus times.
These steps basically convert a smartphone from being a corporate tracking device to being a small, media-focused portable computer running a kinda shitty OS. My daily usage of this phone now mostly revolves around listening to my local music library and podcasts (which I copy onto it from my PC), sometimes checking one website for bus times, and sending the occasional text.
- I now have a device that I can use to access live bus times while I’m standing at a bus stop with no wifi and the last bus didn’t arrive
- I only have to carry one thing and it is a perfectly servicable portable media player, phone, and (in a pinch) web browser
- the android (7, what my phone runs) UI is very nice and feels a lot better to use than a lot of dedicated device UIs (why do feature phone UIs have to suck?)
- Touchscreen-only input sucks, especially for a music player where I want some more easy-access control while it’s in my pocket without buying earbuds with a remote
- I feel like it’s constantly on the verge of breaking, especially because I’m using a 9 year old model that already has a cracked screen
- it uses MTP for file transfer which doesn’t work super well in linux
- people think I can get instagram now
- people have gone from respecting me for not having a smartphone to laughing at me for having a shitty smartphone
- Android. The UI is nice but the developer side of things is a mess. Would be nice to have a nicer OS, but I also cannot think of any that is better.
- the screen on mine, because it is cracked
- relying on micro-USB, a very flaky and unreliable connector (although newer phones use USB-C, which is less ugly)
Having a smartphone is convenient. The user experience and flexibility are nice. You have to disable a lot of stuff to make it good, but when it’s good, it’s pretty good. Still not better than dedicated devices, but a whole lot more convenient. A portable computer actually made to be good (repairable, having a good OS, etc) would be far better, but smartphones are what exist, and having some kind of semi-flexible pocket media player with internet access is good.
so, to complete this post’s title: “Smartphones are good, actually, when you run a degoogled OS, keep them mostly offline, got one for basically free, and use it as a souped up MP3 player”. I hope that you enjoyed this shameless nonsense. Back to your regularly unscheduled somewhat shameful nonsense soon.