The “dumb phone,” a cellular device primarily designed for use as a phone, might just be sticking around longer than Samsung or Apple would have predicted. Nowadays, earnest bloggers refer to them as “Feature Phones,” but that hardly communicates the charming simplicity of the technology. In the era of the sleekest, most voice/touch-sensitive multi-purpose devices drawing lines of midnight shoppers, the old standard for cell phones is still managing to retain some relevance.
These devices have proven themselves to be surprisingly reliable and straight-forward in their focus on a few useful tasks. Whether you’re tired of the “always connected” nature of current devices, or simply need an emergency solution that won’t lose its ability to make a call because of your addiction to instagram, a “dumb” phone could be just what you’re looking for.
What is CDMA?
That’s an easy question to answer: Code Division Multiple Access.
Alright, alright. That doesn’t explain much after all. Really, it’s the name of a radio transmission protocol. Like an operating system for the airwaves, the standard uses a particular set of tech standards for communicating information through radio waves. The benefits of such an approach are fairly obvious: You can build a single, interconnected network that can be accessed by any device using the same protocol.
Now, the differences between the different protocols can be a bit esoteric, but you might consider, say, the difference between an Android and Apple smartphone. Each has qualities particular to its strategy, as well as the related downsides. Since these cellular protocols are all utilizing the same general spectrum of radio waves, the coverage of the network itself is often more important than the brand.
What is the difference between CDMA and GSM?
GSM is the standard for 90% of the rest of the world. In 1987, Europe issued a mandate for its adoption, and it quickly spread out from there. As these communication technologies expand, the cost is driven down, accelerating that expansion. Indeed, AT&T and Sprint both use GSM networks in the United States.
The difference in capabilities hinges on one key issue: CDMA cannot transmit voice and data at the same time. GSM, as a standard, demands this capability. And again, the current environment is best explained with the operating system analogy. Back in the 90’s, cellular carriers had to decide upon a new standard for building out their networks. The CDMA standard of the time had better features than GSM did, so the infrastructure followed suit. GSM eventually countered, but the commitment was already made. It should be noted also, that since one of the other benefits of GSM is the ability to swap a SIM card to any phone you choose, the locked-down nature of CDMA allows the kind of walled-off approach that American tech companies favor.
So while GSM eventually proved itself the more-capable technology, in the United States at least, CDMA has a robust and extensive radio network for the dumbest of phones to utilize.
How to tell what network a phone requires
The simplest answer is to buy direct from a network outlet or online. However, since one of the benefits of using old technology is taking part in its recycling, you may want to head to eBay or a local thrift shop. Of the items quickly parted with between upgrades, cell phones have established their own sort of currency at resale. The key to finding a phone that functions on the network you want is to simply….take a smartphone to the store to look up each devices’ capabilities. Alternative, you could use the old “pen v. paper” strategy, and do the research later. It might be good preparation for you if you’re downgrading intentionally.
The primary thing to remember is that phones generally won’t cross well with the more basic protocols. A smartphone has a range of “G’s” to select from, as well as new LTE options. A basic phone will not. A CDMA phone used exclusively on that network will not be able to communicate with a GSM network like AT&T and T-Mobile. However, many phones have been produced with CDMA and GSM variants, so it’s even more important to get a handle on any used phone you intend to buy. You should be able to find all product information and relevant codes under a battery pack. If not, simply power it on, hit the nearest “menu” button you can. An option for “Info” or “About” will usually be located at the bottom of the menu, and should lead the way to the information you need for a quick and successful internet search.
Now you just need to find one…
The 10 “Best” CDMA Dumb Phones
A quick explanation: “Best” in this case relates to their reliability and usability in the business of making phone calls and sending and receiving basic text messages. The rise of smartphones absolutely lowered the cost of sturdy, long-lasting electronics, which these options reflect.
- Nokia 515
- LG Rumor Reflex
- Samsung Intensity 2
- Motorola Razr2 V9
- LG Lotus Elite
- Motorola i866
- Casio G’zOne Ravine 2
- Nokia 106
- LG CU500
- Samsung Jitterbug
Where to buy unlocked dumbphones?
Amazon, Ebay, and Best Buy all feature unlocked phones, and do carry plenty of feature/dumb phone options. If you’re planning to stick with a particular carrier and buy in-store, they also should have a range of new and pre-owned/refurbished devices for you to select from at the store. You’ll get some extra assurance of quality, will probably save a few bucks when buying as part of your service contract, but might also wind up getting talked into unnecessary charges along the way.
If you are interested in finding a phone first and a carrier second, just remember to focus on those tips for deciphering what network it uses, because you will be tied to the options for each. An old Verizon model should absolutely work on any other CDMA network, while an old AT&T/T-Mobile device will only work with those two carriers.
Craigslist is another option, albeit one with more serious drawbacks than the extra insurance you’ll get at Verizon. Thrift Stores and Pawn Shops have some obligation to track where their goods are coming from. Craigslist puts that responsibility in your hands, while dealing with someone who might be the greatest, coolest person ever….or might be the person who stole that phone.
However, the risk has its own rewards. Prices are terribly low, and the sellers are usually motivated. If they weren’t, they’d be on Ebay, which is one of the better options for buyers. You get something between Craiglist and a potentially-shady Pawn Shop, with as much accountability and tracking as you could hope for in the resale market.
You’ll still need to be careful about the details of the phone being offered, but Ebay’s infrastructure is already overwhelmingly tuned to delivering that information to you in detail.
Amazon isn’t perfect, but at least they try to work with reputable sellers and ferret out the scammers. They also offer hassle-free return policies, but as with any online sellers, you should make sure you understand the return policy terms before making any purchase.
Avoiding the trappings of fast-paced technology is perfectly reasonable, but don’t let yourself miss out on modern developments in safety either. The rapid ascension of smart phones has standardized a lot of basic emergency services, completely separate from what each carrier offers. If you have a working cell phone, it will make 911 calls. However, if you get too excited by the novelty of antiquity, that comfortable old phone might not have the network options to make the call. Modern dumbphones strike a comfortable balance between function and simplicity. A used, formerly-state of the art dumbphone could very well hit the same balance, but you’ll need an internet-enabled something to make an educated decision.