How healthy our digital habits are is the subject of much debate right now, with even Apple and Google building “digital wellbeing” tools into their mobile operating systems. Now there’s the BoringPhone, a crowdfunded device designed so you spend less time staring at a small screen in your hand.
The BoringPhone is essentially a fairly simple Android handset – the 5.5-inch Xiaomi Mi A1 – with custom-built software loaded on top. That software gives you some of the key features of a phone while cutting out three of the biggest distractions: email, the web, and social media.
In fact there’s no app store at all on the BoringPhone. You’ve got what comes on the phone and that’s it. The preinstalled apps include a phone dialer, a messaging app (Signal), a camera, a mapping app, a podcast manager, a music player, and a syncing tool for your contacts and calendars.
On top of that you also get a calculator, gallery app, a notepad tool, a clock, a voice recorder, a torch and an FM radio app. These are all free, open source or custom-built alternatives to the usual apps you’d get from Apple, Google and others.
The idea is that you’re not constantly bombarded with notifications and distracted by the likes of WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, but at the same time you have features that you wouldn’t get on a basic feature phone – primarily maps, a camera, and the ability to play music and podcasts.
We were given a preview BoringPhone to have a look at, and based on a few days of use, it does a really good job of succeeding at its goals. You don’t get tempted to open up Twitter or Snapchat, because they’re just not there (and can’t be installed). It’s a refreshingly easy way to stay away from digital temptation without having to set up app timer limits.
The apps that the makers of the BoringPhone have chosen to include, such as AntennaPod and OsmAnd, aren’t quite as polished as some of the better-known alternatives, but they do their jobs perfectly well, and we had no complaints in terms of features or functionality.
Of course these apps are cut off in many respects – you don’t get access to all the places you’ve saved in Google Maps, for instance – but that’s sort of the point. As an extra privacy bonus, the big tech companies aren’t tracking your every move either.
Everyone’s digital habits are different, and it might be that using the screen time limiting options that are on board your existing Android phone or iPhone are a better option for you. Maybe you just don’t have a problem with checking your phone too often in the first place. But if you are worried about how much of your day you spend glued to your smartphone display, the BoringPhone is an intriguing option.
It also makes a really good phone for kids – everything they need to stay in touch, get around and listen to music, without access to the web or any social media tools. In fact the BoringPhone might be even more appealing to parents buying for their children than smartphone users in general.
There are some downsides. Not having instant access to your contacts and your calendars, like you do when you sign into Android or iOS, is one mark in the negative column (you can sync this information over, but it takes a few minutes to do).
Personally, I missed access to my Spotify playlists and mixes, and being able to look up something quickly on the web (or via Google Assistant). I wasn’t too bothered about not being able to check my emails, but if you need anything from your inbox – like a cinema eticket, for example – then the BoringPhone can’t help you.
Another area where your mileage may vary is in video playback. While I don’t use Netflix or YouTube much on my daily phone, I do use those apps to cast content to a Chromecast, and that’s something that you can’t do with this stripped-down device.
The BoringPhone isn’t really about the hardware, the speed of the Xiaomi phone and the camera performance is more than satisfactory (there’s a Snapdragon 625 CPU, 4 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage under the hood, if you were wondering). It’s also light, and feels comfortable in the hand.
What’s more, the lack of apps and the monochrome color scheme mean that battery life is excellent – I’ve been getting well into two days of use between charges, though I was using it less than I use my normal phone… just as the developers intended.
It’s a really interesting idea to put together a phone that cuts out the apps that are the biggest timesinks, while keeping the ability to take photos, get directions, listen to (locally stored) music and take down some quick notes.
Again, it seems a particularly good option for kids, but it’s hard to assess just how many other people will want to add a BoringPhone to their lives. It’s likely that for most smartphone owners who want to cut back on their screen time, just uninstalling apps like Twitter or Facebook is more straightforward way of doing that.
Our devices are now, more than ever, part of a wider ecosystem as well – accessing files in the cloud, controlling smart home devices, syncing information about schedules and so on – and the BoringPhone doesn’t allow any of that. If that’s fine with you, it could well be for you.
The makers of the BoringPhone are looking for NZ$20,000 (about US$13,440) before July 12, and at the time of writing are almost up to three-quarters of that. The cheapest Kickstarter pledge is NZ$349 (about US$235). If the project gets funded, and everything else goes to plan, shipping is estimated to start in December. The video below has more.