Pretty smart for a dumbphone

Posted by in Mike's blog

This is part 3 of a 3 part series about how we got our phones, how we get away with paying peanuts for great service, and what our awesome “dumbphones” can do without any kind of data plan.

“Can you send me a pin”?  We had no idea what this meant after the first time we heard it…but it didn’t end there.  Everybody wanted pins, and everybody wanted to send me pins when I asked for directions to anywhere.  I later found out that “sending a pin” is the local slang term used for sharing location data on mobile Google maps.  When I replied to friends and strangers alike with “no, I don’t have an iPhone”, I was met with shock and disappointment.  Most of the Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) on the JET Programme in Fukui have iPhones.  What’s wrong with us?

It’s not about what’s best, it’s about what meets our needs

When we purchased our phones, we wanted to get the cheapest phones we could that would still do what we needed them to do.  We try to make every purchase about what we NEED, not what we want.  We need our phones to call people…that’s it.  If our phones did not have an SMS function I don’t think I would miss it.

We don’t need iPhones.  I think that they are fantastic little machines and I very much want one – but I don’t need one.  I get by perfectly well with my Sharp Pantone 3 (001SH) and iPod touch. The iPhone does a LOT of things, and I can’t begin to compare its vast power to my lowly Pantone 3.

The “killer feature” (for foreigners) that the iPhone has that I don’t is the GPS and Google maps app over 3G.  I can see how having directions to everywhere in a city where only major streets have names can be handy.  Still, I can’t justify paying more than triple my current monthly bill for it.  The savings add up.  By the time my 2-year contract with SoftBank is over, the difference between what I will have spent compared to an iPhone user could buy a roundtrip ticket to Canada (without a seat sale). Fortunately for me, Google recently announced that offline maps are coming to Android. I can’t see it being long before I can use this feature somehow on my iPod.

Dumbphones can have killer features too

In the meantime, my Pantone 3 has a couple of “killer features” of its own.  9 months later, I still only need to charge my Pantone 3 once or twice every week.  It also has bluetooth and a 3MP camera (which, might I add, is better than the iPod touch for some reason).

Aside from those features, I expected it to do the bare minimum in terms of functionality, but I have been presently surprised a few times. For our first 6 months here, we didn’t have an alarm clock.  Pantone 3 took care of that for us – as is to be expected from every phone that’s been manufactured in the past 15 years.  What’s a cell phone without an alarm clock!?  Pantone 3 takes its alarm one step past our expectations:  It allows us to set a reoccurring alarm for work days (M-F), but it knows when all of Japanese national holidays are, even the ones that don’t always fall on the same day.  The alarm doesn’t ring on those days!  It also ignores any silent/vibration setting that we may be using and wakes us up when it’s supposed to, even in “silent mode”.  I know, it’s an alarm clock.  Who cares, right?  That’s not the Pantone 3’s “killer feature”.

It has a kanji dictionary. My phone can make use of its camera to identify kanji characters – the ones that come from chinese and make the language illegible to anyone who hasn’t studied them for years.  It takes me a while to translate things with it because I can only input 1 or 2 characters at a time AND because the results are still written in Japanese (hiragana)…but using Pantone 3 and a Japanese/English dictionary like the Kotoba app for iOS I can very slowly translate things.  It’s useful for when I need up to 1 sentence translated and I can’t find help.  Anything more than 1 sentence just takes way too long. I consider this to be a “killer feature” for the Pantone 3 because there still isn’t a reliable app on iOS that can translate kanji from sight.  Some apps let users draw the characters on the touchscreen…but the process only works if the users know about proper stroke order.  I don’t, and I know that I don’t.

Something else that the iPhone can’t do as well:  Charms.  Ya, I went there.  Most people here personalize their phones with little charms that dangle.  Some, especially high school girls, choose to attach several large stuffed charms at once so that their phones have no hope of fitting in any pocket.  In some cases, their charms are several times larger than their actual phones.

Both of our cell phone charms are souvenirs from our travels. Mary’s (right) is from Miyajima and mine (right) is from Tokyo.

At first we thought cell phone charms were silly, but we totally bought into them after we found some tasteful ones.  Mary has a souvenir from Miyajima island in the shape of a maple leaf with the big torii gate, a deer and more maple leaves inside – all representative of Miyajima.  I had a piece of plastic shrimp-mayonnaise sushi for a while, but I recently upgraded to my awesome metal chuo-sobu line train.  I admit, I did use both for a while, but I grew tired of the amount of pocket space that I had to sacrifice.  The train charm is flat – that matters.

The bottom line: We’re happy with the choices we’ve made

Am I saying that the Pantone 3 is better than the iPhone because it has superior battery life, a cool alarm clock, a working kanji dictionary and supports charms?  No way.  What I’m saying is that it’s possible to thrive in Fukui as a foreigner without an iPhone, or a smartphone of any kind.  We did our research and chose a plan that lets us do everything we want to do with our phones for a great price, and then we got our Pantone 3 phones after fighting for our right to lease them and get the same deal that Japanese customers get.  We are happy customers.  🙂

Thanks for reading part 3!  If you want to know anything else about our mobile setup here, let’s discuss it in the comments.  In case you missed them, here’s part one: Getting cell phones in Japan without selling a kidney, and part two: Mobile services: Japan vs. Canada.