There is an unfortunate undercurrent of dissatisfaction that one invites into their life when they decide to eschew a smartphone. The smartphone is such an assumed part of a modern existence that it takes a serious heaping of dissatisfaction to actually push a person away from the use of one, and that dissatisfaction doesn’t just melt away when the change is made. It’s actually now been more than three years since I first recognized not only that I disliked my smartphone but that I wanted to take steps away from its use. It wasn’t until about January of 2021 when I took the first actual step away from it, and I’ve been on some variation of an either non-smart or somewhat dumbened phone since then.
Each new phone has been different, but my experience with each has been tinged by some type of inescapable dissatisfaction: I loved how simple and cheap my NOKIA 225 4G was, but its inability to handle group MMSes hurt my social life. My Palm Phone had a miserably short battery life. My AGM M7 had this stupid button on its side that turned a too-powerful flashlight on and it couldn’t do music apps. My Schok Classic stopped working with VoLTE and sometimes struggled to send and receive texts. My Unihertz Titan Pocket worked well enough, but I wanted a simpler form factor and it required too much touchscreen use.
This brought me to the CAT S22 Flip. Caterpillar, the company you know from construction equipment, also makes cell phones. I thought that this was a recent development, but GSMArena lists phones under their brand dating back to 2013, so they’re experienced in the field. The S22 was first released in September of 2021. It intrigued me because it has the form factor of a classic flip phone, which I found myself missing after a few months with the Titan Pocket, and it runs on Android Go, a lightweight version of the Android operating system. It looked like it was a perfect middle ground between the smartphone and the dumbphone, giving me what I wanted of both. It would be able to run the few smartphone apps that I was happy to keep around – Shazam, Tidal, Maps, Keep Notes, and MyFitnessPal – its small screen would keep me from spending too much time on it, and I’d be able to navigate it with the keypad instead of accidentally clicking so often with the touchscreen as I had with the Titan Pocket. This in mind, I purchased one used off of eBay back in January.
My issues surrounding this phone basically all stem from the same place: The touch screen. I’ve never liked touch screens, dating all the way back to my first smartphone back in 2011, but for the years in which a desire for the capabilities of a smartphone outweighed my disdain for the touch screen, I put up with it. I really dislike the inaccuracy of typing on touch screens, I dislike how oils from my skin get all over the screen when I make calls, and I dislike navigating anything on them as I find myself constantly accidentally clicking things when I intended to scroll and vice versa. I hoped, and perhaps foolishly, expected, for the S22 Flip to allow the user to primarily use the keypad for navigation. This was not really the case.
I don’t know if this is an Android compatibility thing, but there’s not a single task that I was able to complete only using the S22 Flip’s navigation buttons. I expected this with any android apps I’d downloaded, but even the default calling and messaging applications required the touch screen for what I felt were fairly basic functions, like scrolling through messages and contact lists, selecting text threads, and even sending messages. It just felt redundant, typing out full messages with the keypad (I will credit the keypad for being responsive and effective when used for the purpose of typing), then having to tap the screen just to send the message. It’s a minor thing, but it’s a constant recurrence – Why couldn’t that be accomplished with a button press?
I also ran into my pet problem of pressing options on the screen with the side of my face, repeatedly either muting myself or putting the call through the speaker without trying to do so. It’s a small thing, but it was a constant annoyance to me, so keep it in mind that the keypad is functionally insignificant for most functions save for typing. There may be third-party methods of getting the keypad to do more (for instance, I installed “BIG Launcher”, which allowed at least for me to pick applications from the home screen with the navigation buttons, though its in-app inutility remained an issue) but I couldn’t find full fixes if there were any.
This required a philosophical change: No longer could I think of this as a flip phone with some smartphone capabilities. It was, in use, an underpowered smartphone with a bulky, typing-only keyboard appendage dangling from it – and I already didn’t intend to use it like a smartphone.
The experience of using this is like using one of those intentionally small-screened smartphones, like the Unihertz Jelly or the aforementioned Palm Phone, except with the very minor improvement of providing a physical keyboard. I’m not quite where Dan Nosowitz is with this sort of thing (odd because I tend to like when things try hard but are only semi-functional in most other realms of life), though I appreciate the piece he wrote on those little phones last winter. The systems at the centers of smartphone usage are designed for much larger screens, and the little screen on the S22 Flip just could not handle them. Every time I struggled to use the S22 Flip’s smartphone amenities, I found myself frustrated by the inner paradox of the whole thing, that the few little conveniences I liked in a smartphone had become hassles themselves. Also it runs hot, it’s heavy, it’s bulky, the battery life is mediocre, and there’s no 3.5mm jack.
I believed this would be something like 90% flip phone simplicity with 10% of the scant few things I still want from a smartphone, a perfect melding, but what we got was something abominable. An underpowered, tiny little smartphone with a heavy and only partially functional keyboard stapled to it, less a melding like Frankenstein’s Monster and more one thing struggling to accommodate an unwanted appendage like Sally Rab-bot.
It reminded me a bit of using the vending machines at the school where I work, most of which were built to accommodate quarters and dollar bills, but have had all manner of credit card readers fused onto their faces in recent years. I’ll go up to one, insert whatever amount of cash I need to insert, and then be met with some sort of issue where it only takes coins, or it can’t make change, or it only accepts a single bill per transaction, and then I’ll try to use the card reader, only for it to shit its pants, lose connection to the internet, and spend ten minutes rebooting and displaying the phone number of its operator on its little screen in a display of futile begging for love and care back home from a person who appreciates its struggles (which I ignore, of course, not my role to fix these stupid broken vending machines)… Except even here, it’s the opposite, it’s the new thing, the smartphone, with an element of the old thing, the flip phone keypad, unceremoniously tacked on.
In short, I didn’t care for the CAT S22 Flip. It’s a shoddy smartphone in the body of a bulky dumbphone and it can do neither of the things I’d want from either.
I thank the CAT S22 Flip, despite all of this, for making it clear to me that I couldn’t have it both ways. After realizing the folly of struggling to find some good from the presence of apps, I moved on to a much simpler phone: The intentionally limited Sunbeam F1 Orchid, which does calls and texts, and since I sprung for the fully featured model, will show weather forecasts and has some limited navigational features, too.