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How I survived without a smartphone for 10 days
Don't expect a feel-good story about reawakening a long-dormant part of my soul. Not having a phone was a huge headache.
Smartphones and water don't mix. But if you do get your gadget wet, rice can help.
Smartphones and water don't mix. But if you do get your gadget wet, rice can help. CC BY: Kona Gallagher
M

y dad is the kind of stingy first-generation Filipino-American who will drive five extra miles for unleaded gas that's 5 cents cheaper than whatever's at the well-lit station four blocks from our house. As a kid it drove me nuts. But as an adult I totally get it.

I inherited my dad's paralyzing inability to spend money on something unless he was getting max value in return. It explains why all our big family milestones were spent at a multicultural institution called Sizzler, where the $9.95 salad bar featured all-you-can-eat spaghetti and meatballs, nacho toppings, and breaded chicken shaped to resemble dinosaurs.

Inheriting his thriftiness is, in many ways, a bad thing, especially since I cover technology for a living. Earlier this month, for example, my favorite little social crutch — an older iPhone with a cracked back panel — got soaked in a downpour and would no longer charge. I tried rescuing it by putting it in a ziplock bag full of dry rice for a few hours. No luck. The battery died soon after.

On the bright side, I'm on Verizon, and was due for an upgrade. Unfortunately, the HTC One (which I would have purchased in a heartbeat) isn't available on my carrier. I briefly flirted with the idea of switching to a Windows Phone (either HTC's 8x or the newly announced Lumia 928). But ultimately Windows' lack of Instagram — which I spend most of my idle time on — was a dealbreaker.

This is also the worst time of year to buy a new phone on contract, especially an iPhone. A new Google Nexus is due any minute now, and the iPhone 5's successor will be unveiled sometime in late August. If you can, it's better to wait and either buy a new spec'd out phone, or get the model you're currently eyeing with a much cheaper price tag.

Not able to procure a dumbphone, this left me with a few options: I could (1) take my iPhone to a repair spot like Tekserve, where I could pay more than $100 to wait in line for a few hours with a bunch of sad-faced folks cradling broken phones; or (2) I could order a replacement charging dock and some tiny screwdrivers from iFixit for $40, wait a few extra days, and do the repairs myself.

The answer was clear. I placed my order and vowed to just live without a smartphone for a few days. It's what Dad would have done.

***

You might be expecting me to talk about how liberating it was to be without a phone; how not being constantly tethered to the Internet tickled to life a forgotten region of my soul. Well, that didn't happen.

My phone is my primary portal to books, articles saved to Instapaper, music, photography, and whatever my friends and family are up to. I immediately missed being connected to this stuff. So after two days of being disconnected, here's what I did (try not to laugh): I started lugging around a comically large iPad 2 that could only connect via WiFi. It became my "phone" wherever I went, which is hilarious and awful for someone who thinks giant phones are an easy marketing crutch. My strategy was to triangulate between work, wherever my friends or girlfriend said they were, and the most convenient Starbucks to "borrow" WiFi from, so I could shoot people iMessages or emails in case plans changed.

The author, looking a lot like his father.

One night as I was taking the train home from a happy hour, I realized I'd forgotten my keys. I hopped off, ran up the nearest set of stairs (Barclay's Center in Brooklyn, which on that particular night was full of Rihanna fans and the smell of possibly illegal substances) in hopes of finding a wireless signal. In what was not my finest moment as a tax-paying member of society, I stood quietly in a darkened corner outside of Starbucks as they were closing, firing off iMessages to try and track down a spare key or someone who could let me in. A group of nice-looking young women dressed as slightly different variations of Rhythm Nation-era Janet Jackson walked by puzzled, while I, slightly intoxicated, stood in the dark, my face creepily illuminated by tablet light.

Then there was Mother's Day. My mother — a tiny, wonderful woman who's convinced Facebook is sin incarnate — inexplicably owns an iPhone. She has three apps, one of which is the Bible. Instead of calling her, I tried Facetime from my beat-up iPad. She picked up confused, as if it were a normal phone call. I spent the initial seconds of our two-minute conversation talking to a pixelated close-up of the side of her face.

We're not a chatty family.

***

There are more anecdotes, but they're all variations on the same theme. The short of it is now I have a phone again. Replacing the dock connector was mostly painless, thanks to step-by-step tutorials on YouTube (save for a stripped screw that I had to finesse out).

There was something immensely satisfying about watching my phone's screen flicker back to life. It made me feel like Dr. Frankenstein, only with shakier hands.

Now I don't have to look like a crazed weirdo in public. And I can save my upgrade for when a new phone comes out. (Yes, I do realize that this is the first-worldiest of first-world problems. But phones are expensive!)

So what did I learn from my phone-less adventure? A few things...

1. Always carry an umbrella.

2. If you use dry rice to resuscitate a wet phone, don't touch the power button for at least 24 hours, no matter how much you're tempted to. (Oops.)

3. Doing your own phone repairs can save you a nice bit of change, at least if you're no longer under warranty. (I saved at least $60 or $70.) You can order parts and pentalobe screwdrivers from a well-vetted service like iFixit or, if you do enough research, Amazon. Just follow directions on YouTube.

4. Giant phones really aren't for me. Tablet-sized screens are great for reading in bed or watching Game of Thrones on an airplane. But they're horrible for those little everyday moments when you need to mindlessly keep your hands busy, like when you're waiting in line at the store and scrolling through tweets.

5. If you feel compelled to order something at Starbucks to use their WiFi (or bathroom) in good conscience, and have already gotten your caffeine fix elsewhere, the cake pops are hugely underrated.

Chris Gayomali is the science and technology editor for TheWeek.com. Sometimes he writes about other stuff. His work has also appeared in TIME, Men's JournalEsquire, and The Atlantic.

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