Why I’ll be using a keypad phone in 2023

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For the past month I’ve been using the Unihertz Titan Pocket, a phone released in 2021 that rocks a 3.1-inch screen over a full Qwerty keyboard. To be clear, it’s been my choice – my editors didn’t jokingly instruct me to do this (some of them even made fun of me for using it), and it’s not like I don’t have other options. I have a perfectly good iPhone 12 Mini that I have actively given up on switching to this phone.

The first reason is that it can just be fun to try something new. Or in this case go back to something old; my first experiences with a smartphone was stealing my father’s Navy-issued BlackBerry to email my other half when I was in high school. But for the past 10 years, the phones I’ve used have been pretty much the exact same form factor. They just changed size.

The same is largely true of everyone else. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as many responses to a gadget as I did to the Titan Pocket. I got several “is that a BlackBerry?” or “wow, cool, what kind of phone is that,” and I think that mostly has to do with the fact that people just aren’t used to seeing someone use these kinds of phones anymore. (Although there Are tens of us! Someone who goes to my gym also has a Titan Pocket, which shocked me; I never expected to see one in the wild again.)

Thickness aside, the Titan Pocket is as compact and portable as an iPhone Mini.

However, the main reason I decided to switch to this phone is because of its main selling point: the keyboard. I’ll be disappearing into the wilderness for a few months to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, during which time my main form of contact with the people back home will be through long emails sent every week or two. I won’t be texting every hour like I normally do, which marks a pretty fundamental change in how I communicate. So why not combine that with a fundamental change in my communication device?

This phone feels like it was made for writing. The keyboard is tactile – you’re pressing real keys, of course – and includes a slew of function keys across the top that add an extra layer to the experience. Of course there are shift and alt keys for accessing capital letters and some symbols, but there are also two programmable keys. I use the symbol key for its intended purpose, invoking a virtual keyboard that allows me to enter characters that are not on the hardware keyboard. However, I configured the Fn key to basically work as a control key.

Yes, that means I can access all my favorite desktop shortcuts on my phone. Select all? Function-A. Want to search a page? Function-F. Undo? Yes, I can too. I can even press Function-L in Chrome to go to the address bar and immediately start typing the site I want to go to.

The usefulness of having a keyboard on your phone goes beyond the in-app or typing experience, too. Whenever I need to launch an app on iOS, I swipe to get to the home screen, pull down to open Spotlight, and start typing its name, tapping the icon when it appears. On the Titan Pocket, I double-tap the home button (if I’m not already at the launcher) and just start typing. Once I enter the name of the app, or enough to get it as the first search result, I hit the enter key and it launches.

Okay, so the time savings are not that great. But I feel much cooler when I hit the enter button than when I tap an icon.

Unihertz also has a system that allows you to set keys as shortcuts for apps and actions. For example, wherever I am on my phone, I can long-press the “t” key to start a new timer or the “c” key to open Chrome. As it turns out, having extra buttons can be very useful when you want to get things done quickly

This phone has a lot going for it beyond the keyboard. First, it has features that my iPhone 12 Mini, which cost a whopping $479 more, doesn’t. You know how everyone complains about phones not having headphone jacks or microSD card slots anymore? The Titan Pocket does. Those will come in very handy for me as I try to hike across the US for reasons I my colleague David Pierce explained on an episode of The Vergecast.

It also has an IR blaster that I can use to control my TV and oscillating fan, and if I plug in wired headphones I can use it as an FM radio. Plus, there’s an additional hardware button that you can program to perform three separate actions depending on whether you press it once, twice, or long. Why has the market decided that it shouldn’t be each flagship phones that have these features when so many budget handsets do?

Also: Take a look at this battery chart, then remember that this is a phone about the size of an iPhone Mini. (Granted, it’s a lot thicker, but it’s just as easy to hold in my opinion.)

This phone can easily last two days without being charged.

Now I’m not trying to say that this phone is perfect because it definitely isn’t. Here are some of my complaints, in no particular order:

  • The vibration motor feels like it could have come out of a low-end phone in 2012.
  • The MediaTek Helio P70 processor was mid-range when it launched 2019 — and boy is his age noticeable.
  • It does not support 5G or eSIMs.
  • It’s stuck on Android 11, probably forever, and the security patch on it is from September 2022. (Don’t hack me, pls.)
  • The camera is so bad that I’d better write down a description of what I’m looking at rather than taking a picture of it.
  • I’d give anything for this phone to have a true BlackBerry-esque trackpad or rollerball, because manipulating a cursor on such a small screen is hell.
  • Despite the 6 GB of RAM, I still feel that apps are frequently kicked out of memory.
  • The touchscreen is fine, but many apps aren’t built to run on a square screen. I have to put it in a crazy letterbox mode (which, frankly, is very cleverly built in) to view Instagram Stories, for example.
  • The leather holster for it is sold outmaking it very difficult for me to fully complete my transformation into my father.

There’s also an amazingly annoying bug where things just break when the first thing I type into a text box is a number or symbol. (That is, when I’m using the keyboard to type it; the on-screen keyboard doesn’t have that problem, but some fields seem to block them from appearing.) That’s very annoying when I’m trying to, say, type in a zip code or reply to something with an emoticon.

And yeah, okay, now that I look at it, that’s a pretty long list of complaints. And there are also some objective points you could make against the Titan Pocket for being a good typewriter. I type even faster on the iPhone than on the Titan (59 words per minute vs. 50), and the physical keyboard gets even worse if, for example, I need to add a special character that isn’t one of the characters accessible through the alt key — the dollar sign is a common culprit, as is the semicolon. Plus, this screen just can’t display that much text at once, which means I have to scroll a lot when I read something back to make sure it’s correct.

But if I just use the phone to text a friend, write a note, or send a long email or blog post, all those problems usually just disappear. It’s a tactile experience that my iPhone just can’t touch, and being able to switch apps, copy and paste text without ever touching the screen makes me feel like a productivity god. Sure, I may be slower at typing, but my brain has always been the roadblock to my writing speed, not my fingers. I can still type as fast as I can form coherent thoughts.

I like the iPhone’s keyboard, but even the haptic option doesn’t hold a candle to the actual buttons.

This may all be in my head, but using the Pocket makes me want to write and it allows me to focus on what I’m doing in a way that other phones just don’t. I’m not tempted to just move away from a draft and watch a YouTube video because honestly watching YouTube on this thing sucks! My wife has made fun of me for having to hold the phone so close to my face when watching videos on it.

And yes, it’s perfectly fair to criticize the Titan Pocket for those shortcomings (although they’re actually mostly inherent to all keyboard phones, since Steve Jobs pointed it out when he announced the iPhone). But in some ways they’re part of why I love this phone so much. As someone who has been addicted to the internet pretty much all my life I appreciate the little moment of hesitation I have before I pick up my phone and it’s not very usable with one hand so I have to commit to it if I decide to use it do use it.

I’m definitely not trying to argue that phones in general should be a little less useful so that people use them less. I’m just saying I’m happy mine is. And yes, I love that everything I do with it feels like serious business, even if I’m just typing out lame jokes for friends and colleagues. It’s hard to think of another phone that has fundamentally changed how I think about what exactly I use a phone for. And sure, when I get back into society, I’ll probably go back to my iPhone. But I hope that at least some of my BlackBerry habits will remain.

Photography by Mitchell Clark / The Verge