In Defense of the Flip Phone

The more time that passes, the more ire the sight of my flip phone garners from people. “You still use that?” they ask, somewhere between surprised and disgusted. “How do you get around with it?” “Do those still work?” Or my favorite: “Did you lose your iPhone?” Not so long ago, my flip phone got a light-hearted chuckle from strangers when I used it in public places, but recently people seem borderline offended that I still use one.

What surprises many is that I am using a flip phone despite being in the prime target demographic for a smart phone:
1.) I’m a young, single, college-educated white male
2.) I live in a major city
3.) I work for a website
4.) I used to work at the Apple Store
5.) I’m living in the 21st century

Somehow, all of these sure-bets have failed to make me a smart phone convert. What went wrong? I don’t use a flip phone to be cool or ironic (even the most self-aware, image-conscious person would likely grow weary of the limitations of the flip phone). I can’t explain exactly why I still use one, but it has something to do with cost, durability, and a desire not to be reachable in all manners of communication, at all hours of the day, all days of the week. If something is important enough to elicit my attention on a Tuesday evening or Sunday afternoon, a call or text will be more than sufficient. Luckily, my flip phone can handle both of those.

But there are definitely other, stranger reasons I still have my flip phone. 

A year ago, my flip phone got me unwittingly picked up at a bar. I took out my phone while waiting for my drink, and a young woman next to me excitedly pulled out the exact same model. We both had well-formed opinions on the strengths and weaknesses of our Samsung Gustos (strengths, of course dominated the discourse). She was a fan of the way the the phone intelligently learns your texting mannerisms; I extolled the virtues of the “text to email” feature. She even taught me how to quick search the contacts list, a time-slashing measure I use to this day. Looking back, we were definitely doing that “I’m young and live in New York” thing where you talk about something kitchy but really you’re flirting. Except, I was definitely just talking about my flip phone.

Even as our conversation matured from sundry cell phone observations to more typical barroom fare, I kept thinking of more points and flip phone experiences I wanted to share with my new compatriot. We shared a common lineage—we were the last two survivors from a distant land time had long since forgotten who serendipitously bumped into each other in the unapologetic capital of smart phones. We were relegated to an oral history that would be doomed if we didn’t preserve it through T9 word or the Gusto’s very spotty voice recognition software. We talked for over an hour and a half. She kept telling the increasingly-peeved man I kept bumping into accidentally that she was sorry, because this was our awkward first date.

This was unambiguous flirting, but at the time, that only made me think of the calendar function on my phone, which lets you search for stored events by date. I used the opportunity to launch into my feelings on this topic. Even when she put her hand on my upper arm when leaning in close to tell me something, I still didn’t pick up on the fact that this was anything more than a fortuitous flip phone symposium. I was so under the influence of flip phone discussion that after those charmed 90 minutes, I left forever, caught up in the mayhem of my friend who had just broken a beer glass without getting the number of my brave countryman on our unifying device.

I’d like to see an iPhone do that.

Not all of the warnings that smart phoners give are misguided. I do miss out on fun Yelp, Twitter, and Foursquare deals at my favorite bars and restaurants. Loyalty in this new century of ours only counts if you can log it with a mobile device, and I am behind the curve. What I don’t yearn for, however, is my friend Kelly’s almost franticly proud compulsion to “check in” everywhere she goes, most quixotically at a Dunkin Donuts at 2:30 a.m. two weekends ago (nothing free was rendered from this, but much was lost).

I love my flip phone paradoxically because I don’t actually love it. Like many things I don’t love, I don’t look at it often. Sure, I excitedly talk about it when a cute girl at a bar has the same exact relic, but I don’t paw at it endlessly when I’m bored or have a spare minute, and that’s not because I’m a cool, unattached person: It’s simply because there’s nothing to do on a flip phone. My phone has never once obstructed me from noticing my surroundings for more than 15 seconds. I’ve never  “tweeted” on my phone. I don’t have to compulsively check it, because when I get a text or a call, it will vibrate and I will tend to it. It also has this really neat function that displays the time on the front of it, saving me from having to wear a cumbersome watch.

I don’t even need a data plan.

Texting is one of the most advanced features the flip phone can handle, and even that gets its own unique little spin you can’t find anywhere else. My mobile can only receive 160 characters per text, so when I receive long messages, they are broken up in chunks, which become like little cliff hangers. Sometimes I have no idea if someone is mad at me or pleased with me based on the first half of their text, and the 20 seconds it takes to get the second half is breathless. I imagine it’s how Alexander Graham Bell felt waiting for the first return phone call. And if you think I’m off by several orders of magnitude, you have obviously never received a lengthy text from a girl whom you just spilled paella all over that the first installment ends in “…just make sure y….” Still gives me chills.

Not all unique flip phone experiences even require a second person. Every couple of weeks or so, I have to delete all my text messages because my dinky phone just plain runs out of space. This sounds annoying, but it’s kind of a cool experiment in memory, because every time I get the message that I’m out of space, I always go back to my earliest text message from the cycle. It’s from a couple of weeks ago, and I am always surprised by what I have written, whether it’s an angry text to a person I haven’t talked to since, or a text from when I was away from home, or a so-clearly-flirty text (emblazoned with far too many exclamations) that it makes my skin crawl just to read it 20 days later.

Of course, any sort of especially sentimental texts can be “locked” so that they’re not deleted in the “delete all” tri-weekly purge, but I find even those never make it past three or four iterations of text deletion. Those are usually the saddest, because they are invariably from unrequited loves or flings that were cut too short, the sappy side of me unable to delete the last text vestige of them from my phone. This is an emotional experience of finality and loss that the endless archives of the smart phone hard drive could never replicate. My flip phone saves me hundreds of dollars a month on therapy.

Eventually, I will get a smart phone. If you had asked me a year ago, I would have proudly said, “Never!” but that was just the hubris of youth speaking. Unless you head for the jungle or the mountains, smart phones will find their way into even the life of even the most fundamentalist flip phoner. Much like analog TV, non-smart phones will eventually be phased out. Somehow, this flip phone issue has transformed me into the reactionary old man who is the last in town to accept the generous offer from the strip mall developers. I know it’s only a matter of time, especially because literally everyone I know, save my parents, has taken the deal. I’m the one in the way of progress, telling people, even some older than me, how much better it was when you couldn’t send an email from the palm of your hand. There are 45-year-old housewives who know more about smart phones than I do. There are likely prisoners incarcerated since the late seventies who have more of a handle on 3G networks.

My aunt has an iPad.

I guess I just want a little more time before I have to stare down this strip mall every day for the rest of my life, and I don’t mean that pejoratively (or at least not entirely). I know strip malls aren’t the most loved things in the world, and I don’t think owning a smart phone is inherently bad, but the similarities are compelling. You can get everything you want in one place, they are unavoidable, they are unsettlingly convenient, and they are everywhere. It’s just different experience, and like futzing with bunny ears, the experience of owning a flip phone is slipping through our fingers.

People are forfeiting their last chance to be off the smart-grid before this country and culture is completely 3G. Smart phone ubiquity is coming, and it’s likely coming very soon. No more weird bar conversation fodder, no more texts being broken into heart-stopping chunks, and no more getting lost on your way to that new Indian place that opened up across town. We will all be beholden to the elegance and agony of the smart phone before you know it, and even the most entrenched flip phone loyalist will have to make the switch. I guess my point is this: what’s the rush?


Matt Powers is a citizen of the world. Also, New York. 


31 Comments / Post A Comment

I wholeheartedly agree with this! Neither my husband nor I have a smart phone, and it is awesome. Sometimes I forget that my phone even exists (though I suppose this could be, in part, because I don’t have that many friends, heh). But the BEST part is that our combined cell phone bill every month is only like $80. Ha. I scoff at you, data plans!!

nonvolleyball (#305)

@Amanda Webber@facebook it’s the same in our household. & I almost NEVER wish we had smartphones. we do both have an iPod Touch (his is newer & even has a CAMERA. fancy), which means we can check email on the go when there’s wifi–but we also have a general rule about avoiding being That Couple who’s simultaneously on their handhelds instead of actually interacting.

wifi is nearly ubiquitous these days, you can text google to find addresses/phone numbers most of the time, & for the rare occasion that you actually NEED a piece of info that’s not obtainable via either of those methods (this has never actually happened), you could always text a smartphone-owning friend.

I’m sure I’ll cave & get one eventually, but in the meantime I enjoy my more-frugal, less device-centric life as a luddite (see also: that Bogost piece in the Atlantic).

Katzen-party (#219)


I also have a flip phone–not even anything as “fancy” as a Samsung Gusto, just some Nokia piece of trash that was already out of style when I got it in 2006. I am not ideologically opposed to smartphones, but my phone still works so I see no reason to upgrade. And like the writer, I don’t think it’s a bad thing not to “love” my phone and use/look at/fiddle with it constantly. I feel a little…more free (?) because of this, I think…

navigateher (#555)

@Katzen-party Oh yes! I used a flip phone instead of my smartphone for a few weeks (see below) and it was amazing to be so…free, as you put it. No fiddling, no checking twitter / facebook / news. Whenever I was sitting on a bus or waiting somewhere it was weird though, because that’s when smartphones actually become very useful.

Katzen-party (#219)

@navigateher Yeah, don’t get me wrong, I feel like it would be nice in some instances to have a smartphone (“wait, WHERE is this place? I wish I could check google maps,” etc.) and I would definitely want one if there was no cost difference (I’m poor, and I’m cheap). But otherwise, I’m okay on the bus/waiting in line if I’ve got my iPod or a book. And I can still use my flip phone to pretend to text so I can look busy to creepers and weirdos (though I look like a bit of a weirdo myself, using a flip phone…).

@Katzen-party I have a super outdated Nokia flip phone and just lost the charger in the hotel, and I feel so dumb buying a new one because how much longer can this phone possibly last at this point? I do want an iPhone but at this point I’ve waited so long, I might as well wait a little longer until the next one is released, assuming the flip phone makes it until then. (Mine has a design defect where it eventually stops being able to take a charge.) Also I’m poor, so there’s that.

navigateher (#555)

My (android) phone broke recently and I had to use a flip phone that I bought in 2006 (or 2005?) for a couple of weeks. I got some very weird looks, so I know how you feel. At first it was all weird, like “I have to check my e-mails on my laptop now wtf?!”, but I soon got used to it. Other people didn’t. Strangers looked at me with pity in their eyes, and my friends probably thought I was broke and/or making an ironic statement.

It’s funny how quickly we’ve forgotten the time when you didn’t have to charge your phone every day. That flip phone was over 6 years old and still had the original battery, but went through five! whole! days! of frequent use before I had to charge it again.

Hey, I have a candy bar phone. *shrug* Data plans in Canada are so prohibitively expensive, I’m still not sure why anyone has any other model.

Katzen-party (#219)

@bustedsneakers Ha, yes. I don’t have the candy bar, but my flip phone is THICK–an inch thick when closed, which is probably at least twice as thick as other flip phones I’ve seen. And yeah, I’m not super-jazzed about paying for a data plan either, so it’s a flip phone for me until mine stops working.

Megano! (#124)

@bustedsneakers I pay $30 unlimited everything with Wind.

Spinach Party (#253)

I love this! It makes me feel nostalgic for my old flip phone… I was constantly running out of space for new texts, and it was a nice to read through things from the previous months. (It’s sort of the same nostalgia I feel when going line by line through my credit card statements- I’m weird.)

The only reason I have an iPhone today is because a friend gave me their 3Gs when they upgraded to the 4G this past fall. I simply moved my SIM card into the iPhone and I was done! Still don’t have a data plan, but I get free Wi-Fi zones frequently and I am still on a Pay as you Go plan, costs me roughly 20-30 bucks a month.

I was planning on using my old flip phone until it fell apart. (Somehow, I was even using it despite the Zero button not working.) But the lure of a free smartphone that I could save from a landfill was too strong.

mof (#342)

This was awesome. I want to print it and thumb through it in years to come. Maybe laminate it and then store it in my Trapper Keeper. This made my day better.

VolcanoMouse (#420)

Okay, this is how techno-inept I am: I am STUNNED to learn that smart phones allow you to receive messages longer than 160 characters. I just figured folks with iPhones were verbose!

I used to claim that I was holding out for one device that could play my music/read my email/connect my phone calls/let me write notes/do GPS-things. Now that smart phones *can* do all that, I’m waiting for them to become affordable. I suspect this means I will never have a smart phone.

AnnieNilsson (#406)

Oh man! The other day a friend was berating me about not getting his text and he said “If you’d just get a damn iphone like a normal person you’ve never miss a thing!” I laughed and said “I know, I want one but I can’t afford it right now.” He replied, “If you can’t afford an iphone you need to MOVE to a cheaper apartment.”

That would be a really hilarious reason to break my lease, but yeah, people have strrrooong opinions on these things.

My flippy costs $28 bucks a month. Sure I’m practically unreachable and I can’t even take a photo that doesn’t look like a Bigfoot sighting, but I’m just not ready to take the leap. Though maybe now that I’ve given up the sauce I’ll be able to justify it?

whizz_dumb (#151)

@AnnieNilsson Almost everyone spends a lot of money on these things and they feel the need to justify their purchases, including me: the many-tools-in-one aspect makes taking noise measurements in the field much easier than when I had to carry a digital camera, a GPS device, etc.

That said, I would never tell someone to be “like a normal person” in regards to consumerism, especially to a friend. I am actually jealous of not being part of the flippy owners club. It makes total sense to stick with what works and save money. Plus, when everyone around me has the same damn phone and they’re all staring at their screens together, I keep mine in my pocket because I hate feeling like such a conformist herded animal maaaaaan. Oh and congrats for not drinking booze anymore!

muush (#521)

I have a candy bar phone, since it has the QWERTY keyboard that I like. But I’m with you about not needing to be reachable via 5 modes of communication at all hours of the day and night.

Megano! (#124)

I did not get a cell phone until two years ago. It was not a smartphone. I just got a smartphone two weeks ago, which mysteriously broke on Monday. So now I am on smartphone #2. I dunno if I would say it’s better — I mean, it takes good pictures, and I like having games, but man, you have to charge the battery constantly. And there appears to be no power-saving feature whatsoever.
Also @AnnieNilsson my friend DOES have an iphone, and never gets my texts OR CALLS.

dancersasha (#1,184)

When I pull out my non-smartphone in bars I get “I remember my first cell phone” from strangers.


kellyography (#250)

Ha, this is a great article. I, too, have not joined the ranks of the smartphone initiates, for many of the same reasons the author hasn’t. Literally, none of my friends can ride two stops on a subway (even with companionship) and not pull out their phones to play Angry Birds or look at pictures or something. I desperately do not want to be one of those people. And there is a reason my friend calls his iPhone the Calldropper 5000. In NYC, they are practically useless as actual telephones. Meanwhile, my hand-me-down flip phone from 2003 (2004?) works like a charm. Just sayin’.

I have an Android phone but still love using an old model phone, the Nokia 3310. It’s because I could make text faster and although I may come put a series of wrong words I could immediately delete it. It may sounds ridiculous to others since it is already obsolete, but I understand those people like Matt Powers and others why they love or like the flip phones. What matters most is what phones are you comfortable with.

Gordon@twitter (#1,190)

I am basically identical to the author in every way to this story, except Denver, not New York. Is this really so weird? I feel like lots of people our age don’t have smart-phones, am I that out of touch already? I haven’t found my ability to function in modern society remotely compromised by not paying $500/year for a data plan.

we already spend $200/month on phones and internet connection. Do not want to spend any more for data plan phones. I don’t even have texting (I pay per text.)

I love my red Motorola Krzr flip phone and the horrified stares I get when I use it.

@Catherine Martin@twitter LMAO I didnt read your comment till after my rage posting. But heck yeah! The RAZOR is an awesome phone.

I have been ranting and rage posting on many tech sites defending the “phone” and my intellect (protecting me from following the herd and BUYING a large “SHOPPING CATALOG/DEVICE”. I currently use my Motorola RAZR V3. This thing is bad ass, I have 1½ screens, the little one IS useful for CID and self portraits. I have the most important feature yet, its really a PHONE, with options. Not a Thing, with a phone feature you will never use.
I like to ask people, “why did you buy a phone to send letters to people?” They look confused at first, and thats they way they stay. They have to ask me what do I mean? So I reply, I got a phone to talk to people. Its simple, fast and direct. Its like using a computer to research data versus the encyclopedia. Now most people hail errors in their thinking. They will buy a touchy feely device, (worst interface ever. buttons were invented for reasons) they continue to honor that device with their money. *follow me* From the initial purchase, of the phone,plan, and options like unlimiting certain functions. To your very first moments activated, you are constantly giving your money away. Apps, downloading this and that, data data data, not having any grip on reality that, you bought this thing to talk on. Remember, PHONE. You continue to be amazed by your touchme’s ability to perform certain tasks and run pointless apps on a lil iddy biddy screen. Again, all the while paying someone for something. Trying to watch say, youtube & text message @ the same time.
Now you may ask, whats wrong with that? I will tell you. The almighty, all doing, limited cost, if any, machine sits probably less than 8feet from you. Forgotten, abused, neglected, and powered down. Your once, joy of your world, that you never bothered to maintain properly. Nor did you learn the right way to do things on it. Sits dusty and replaced by your newest and 3000 X more asinine distraction that you just cannot seem to pull yourself away from. on the jon, out in PUBLIC with REAL people. At work, on dates, Ive even heard of people doing things while “doing it”
* must be some bad secks*
All because, somewhere, some clever marketing, got you to forget about productivity, (your REAL computer) forget about using commonsense. Call the person, say what it is, hang up, continue living. You now hold day long conversations that cover nothing at all. Nothing that would take maybe a 2 minute phone call to get across.
You think Im bullsh177ing you? Do this, count how long it takes you to tap your responses in. How many wrong inserts, or “fudge! thats not what I wanted to do” occurances. And then think of your productivity versus a keyboard and mouse and bamboo pen and touch surface, and BCI (brain computer interface) such as Emotiv’s or Braingate, or NeuroSky make computing pwnage. And “smart” devices look like what they really are, STUPID.
Long live the PHONE. Flip or Brick.

@Arthur Crout@facebook I almost forgot to mention, my Razor plays mp3′s that I store on a mem stick, so I can change things up, and never loose anything if the phone is lost. I have games, Friday night fight night round 2 (PS1 quality), Ridge Racer 1 (PS1 port over I swear), Madden 08 (PSP quality I swear, all these games are polygon based 3d games. no cheap-o sprite games.) And for the most part all of the features that you all have. But go unused because hell, its a phone. Hello,…

goodbye. :P

wordbit (#1,282)

I am also a proud flip-phone owner since 2004. The most exciting thing you can do is change the ringtone and I haven’t done that in a few years. But seriously, if you’re spending more than $25 a month on your plan, you might as well get a smartphone. I am on a pre-paid plan and my grand total is $10 a month. Granted, I have an office job so the trusty landline is always available.

Alex Grasso (#3,608)

I am a 14 year old triplet and I had this one phone but I missed my flip phone so I had her switch me back to the flip phone and now I am offered an iPhone in may but I’m not gonna take it an its my only chance in 2 years but I’m just too obsessed with my flip pine :) I loved reading this so much :))))

Vintagecarbon (#3,623)

I do one thing on my cell/flip phone TALK! Its an ancient way of communication these days but it makes me feel connected to humanity – all the bits and bytes of cold texting. I actually got RID of my smartphone. Sorry Apple etc nice products and plenty of distractions to the vibrant real world around me Id rather partake in. People no longer know how to properly communicate(ever been on a Seattle bus? No one talks to one another!) or use proper grammar thanks to the “lure” of shinny new things that in reality most of us can do without. Maybe I am a ludite in my 40′s but I like not having to dole out more $ to corporate USA and + my cell doesnt need a charge for days!!!

M. Strewth (#5,499)

My current clients (I’m an architect) call my flip-phone ‘the Dino phone’. Must admit I’m not aware of odd looks when I use the phone but then, I rarely use it whilst out and about. Never whilst driving (truly), on an occasion if checking with someone when out on an errand but, that’s it. I use text pretty frequently but, again, not when driving or out somewhere. So…all said, I’ve never seen it as anything but a phone w/text. No camera, no video function and it’s pay as you go. And, I agree, the battery lasts really well.

It’s got a hard rubber outer surface that’s saved it when out on construction sites, or dropped on hard tile floors. It does what I need it to do and I resist any more distractions than are currently surrounding all of us. The old hippies used to say “Be here now”…whoah!, just try to do that and wanting to play games on a phone fades into nonsense.

Daren Sammy (#7,631)

Flip image collections are very nice to see and also those are quite funny also. Flip book creator is also very much essential to have a good collection of Flip images and videos. Flip book software is there to create a Flip book easily.

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