Author(s): Ben Wood
Last week, I took a short holiday after a busy few months. Taking a cue from my colleague Marina Koytcheva's presentation at our recent Predictions event, which covered topics including "digital detox", I thought this was the perfect opportunity to try a break from a smartphone (see 100 Predictions for 2019 and Beyond). This also gave me the chance to try the latest Cat rugged feature phone, the £99 B35. This handset uses KaiOS, an operating system that brings 4G capabilities and a few basic apps to this category of device, which some people in the industry have referred to as a "smart feature phone".
Having switched my SIM card from my smartphone to the feature phone, I set about getting to grips with the device that was going to be my main means of communication for the next few days.
The first thing I noticed was how small and light the B35 was compared with the large-screened smartphones I'm used to. Over the past few months I've used the Galaxy Note9, iPhone XS Max and other phones with large displays such as the Huawei P20 Pro. Going from a six-inch screen to a 2.4-inch display is a huge difference.
Navigation on the device is, as you'd expect from a feature phone, a bit of a challenge compared with a smartphone. Everything is done via the four-way key below the screen, which makes using the phone much more cumbersome than being able to quickly scroll around on a touch screen. In fact, on many occasions I found myself automatically trying to manipulate the screen with my finger, particularly when scrolling through the main menu which displays square icons on the screen for different features such as browser, messages and more.
As my parallel goal of using a feature phone was to indulge in a little "digital detox", I didn't actively set up any communications apps on the device. But the reality is that there aren't really any available. Right now, messaging services like WhatsApp aren't supported on the KaiOS platform so that temptation was removed by default.
This left me relying on good old-fashioned text messaging and a very basic Internet browser as my main tools beyond voice calls. It certainly proved a real challenge getting to grips with entering text on a 12-button keypad again, but thankfully the B35 does have predictive text built in so I didn't have to tap out every letter using multiple key presses.
Another element that caught me out was that I didn't have my address book automatically loaded when I switched to the device. This is something I completely take for granted these days. Whether it's an Android phone or an iPhone, you just pop in your credentials and as if by magic your address book is delivered from the cloud. In the pre-smartphone era I had memorised many important numbers, but these days I have no clue, so having to manually enter important numbers I needed for my trip was a chore— I only ended up putting in four!
Taking pictures is one of my great passions and I was really worried about this as I like to capture the highlights of my daily life. In the end I succumbed to carrying around a smartphone, without a SIM card, so I could take pictures, but I did use the B35 as well and I was very surprised at how a pretty basic two-megapixel camera could produce good photos. As you can see from the image below, there's clearly a trade-off, but the quality is acceptable. If I really needed to capture a photo this device would probably be good enough. That said, the images below were shot in good light, outside. It's a different story in poor lighting conditions.
Picture taken on iPhone XS Max
Picture taken on Cat B35 feature phone
I quickly realised I also spend a lot of time using the browser on my smartphone to get lots of information, for example, facts about places I'm visiting. Although having 4G connectivity on the B35 allowed me to benefit from speedy downloads, searching on the tiny screen and then having to navigate through a Wikipedia page was definitely a much weaker experience than on a large smartphone. I did manage to do it several times during my few days away, reading out fun facts to my travelling companions much to their amusement as I squinted at the little screen and struggled to continuously scroll through the tiny amounts of text shown on the 2.4-inch QVGA screen.
The most impressive element was the amazing battery life. This is a well-known characteristic of feature phones and underlines not only the efficiency of KaiOS, but also the fact that I was using the device much less than I would a smartphone. It was only after five days without a charge that I finally got a notification that the battery was low (note that I did turn it off most nights).
Five days without charging the Cat B35 feature phone
So, what did I learn from the experience? Well, as if I didn't know it, I've become completely dependent on my smartphone in numerous areas of my life. In addition to the camera, another feature I use all the time is navigation using Google Maps. The B35 has a browser-based Google Maps implementation, but it is pretty rubbish. I resorted to using the satnav built into my car and quickly found that it's a poor substitute to the real-time mapping and traffic updates you get with Google Maps.
Other elements were things like certain tools I use regularly including apps for parking, detailed walking maps, messaging such as WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger and more. Even things like the app I use to monitor my dog's pet tracker were no longer available to me.
For me, a digital detox is more about not reading e-mail than anything else. That's the one constant burden in my day-to-day life and it was good to take a break. There was always a temptation to have a quick look on the smartphones I had lying around, but I did manage four days without a peek at my inbox. This helped me enjoy my holiday a little more, but did make it a little stressful too, as I worried about what I would be coming back to.
The bottom line is that it was a fun experiment to go back to a feature phone, and the Cat B35 certainly ticked all the boxes if you want a basic communications device with great battery life. However, for most people these days the smartphone is here to stay and it's such an essential tool in so many aspects of daily life that I'd certainly find it very difficult to quit mine.