In October 2019, I became a lucky owner of a just released new amazing phone, a Nokia 800 Tough. What sets it apart from my previous smartphone (a Motorola Moto G5S) is that it’s not a smartphone – instead it’s a feature phone with no touch screen, just some keys.
From day one I knew the transition from one phone to the other would not be easy. So I decided to carry both of them in my pocket and hopefully some cool natural habit would come out of this.
I am terminating this experiment today, as I found my second last pair of jeans to have a tear near the pocket in which the phones were kept. I cannot afford to lose any more clothing at the expense of this. And either way, I think it was kind of overdue.
And that is because I consider Nokia 800 Tough to be a flawed phone. Not in any particular big way. Instead, it’s a number of small shortcomings.
Where it shines
Battery life is just amazing
The phone’s CPU is vastly underpowered compared to a typical smartphone. There’s only 512 MB of RAM, which is not much, but which should be just fine for a not-smartphone. The screen is tiny and it’s not a touchscreen.
All of these factors contribute to me being able to charge this phone at most once a week (it should also manage to stay alive longer, I just didn’t bother making real measurements of how often I charged it). Sometimes I turned on the Wi-Fi tethering option and forgot about it for 5 hours, and the phone still had enough battery to stay alive for another day of standby.
The browser is not terrible at compatibility
This cute little brick’s powered by KaiOS operating system, which evolved corporately from the leftovers of Firefox OS. That puts the browser’s version at Firefox 48, as confirmed by Nolan Lawson, whose blog post was a major influence in me buying into this adventure. That’s pretty good if you’re not looking for the latest of the latest, the feature set is pretty okay. My university’s gradebook works out of box. My Pleroma instance’s web interface works out of box. A number of recent websites works out of box.
It has very basic Google Maps
It’s not great, but it adds a lot to the usefulness of the phone that you can open up Google Maps and (assuming you’re in cellphone range) see where exactly you are and get basic directions for getting somewhere else.
The app is clunky, but it’s there.
Now for the shortcomings
The keyboard has terrible debouncing
I very rarely get a chance to type in the 4-digit screen unlock code without difficulties. When I press the digit 4 (oh no, now you know one of the digits of the code) it frequently gets typed in twice. So when I’m not looking at the screen while unlocking it, I will type in the wrong code inevitably. Usually I need 3-4 attempts to unlock.
Now that’s just unlocking, but when you’re typing a longer message, you’re gonna need a number of corrections, because you will get
i instead of
h regularly and such. I feel as though it occurs more often on the left side of the phone, but I don’t have the data to back this feeling.
This kinda defeats the point of having a phone with a keypad. My last feature phone before Android came around was a Nokia E51, and what I really loved about it was how I could type with my eyes closed, or with my hand down while I’m crossing a road, because the keypad was very predictable and I could type by memory. This was something I found smartphones to lack, and I missed it badly.
Google Assistant is an absolutely mandatory app
In an attempt to innovate, KaiOS developers made Facebook a non-obligatory app, but Google apps are hardwired into the system. I presume Google might be one of their main investors at this point. Why, if you long press the center button in a text field, Google Assistant will pop up for you to dictate to. I haven’t seen the option to turn this off.
It’s too big
When I saw the trailer of this phone, my thoughts went back to my very first phone, a Siemens ME75. I feel tricked, because the ME75 was massively smaller, while 800 Tough is roughly the same size as my smartphone. And the smartphones these days are obnoxiously huge. (Now you don’t have to wonder anymore what the introductory paragraph about jeans meant.)
The operating system is a mystery
It might have something to do with Mozilla’s work on Firefox OS being Apache2-licensed, but the initial versions of KaiOS were closed sourced and now some parts are open source, but I can’t tell how to possibly put them together to make an own version.
Usually in the smartphones community someone ends up making an alternative build of Android for any given phone. But for Android phones the vendors are usually forced to give up the source code for their kernel build. To my best knowledge, Nokia has not provided any for 800 Tough.
Now, for an earlier KaiOS phone, Nokia 8110 4G, the community has built GerdaOS. I’ve yet to see anything about a build for 800 Tough. I think there just aren’t enough people with pro OS compiling skills using these things.
I get online notifications even with internet turned off
Now this is peculiar, Nokia support person said this shouldn’t be possible, but at some point I logged in to Facebook, then I turned off mobile data and Wi-Fi, but Facebook message notifications kept coming.
I’m sort of scared of researching this further.
KaiOS company seems to have a plan to become Africa’s Big Tech overlord
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to dig into the market of people who haven’t had smartphones before. But I’m confused about what KaiOS Technologies is trying to do, from the KaiOS Pay app that’s hidden in my phone to the fact that Google apps are mandatory.
Also, if you apply to put your app on the KaiOS Store, you will be reminded that the apps that use KaiOS Ads will get priority verification and such. Oh, so there’s also a centralized ads platform here? Awesome.
This phone reminds me of Free Basics by Facebook and it’s a bad memory.
I’m back to my 2 year old Moto G5S.
It’s not a bad phone. In fact, I think it’s a much better phone than the Moto G7 Plus that I recommended to my aunt as her first smartphone (only to find out a week later that Moto G8 is out already from my friend who bought one). But it’s no longer available.
The loss of amazing battery life is going to be pretty annoying, but the truth is, I was charging this Moto every night anyway, because I was using it heavily. Maybe it’s time to get over it.
The beautiful Nokia brick goes in the drawer until better times come, or, I don’t know really.