Technology

Why I’m using a keyboard phone in 2023

For the past month, I’ve been using the Unihertz Titan Pocket, a phone released in 2021 that rocks a 3.1-inch display above a full Qwerty keyboard. To be clear, it’s been by choice — my editors didn’t assign me to do this as a prank (in fact, some of them have clowned on me for using it), and it’s not like I don’t have other options. I’ve got a perfectly good iPhone 12 Mini that I actively gave up to switch to this phone.

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

That’s also largely true for everyone else. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten as many comments on a gadget as I have the Titan Pocket. I’ve gotten several “is that a BlackBerry?” or “whoa, cool, what phone is that” comments, and I think that’s mostly down to the fact that people just aren’t used to seeing someone use this sort of phone anymore. (Though there are dozens of us! Someone who goes to my gym also has a Titan Pocket, which shocked me; I never expected to see another one in the wild.)

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

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

This phone feels like it was made for writing. The keyboard is tactile — obviously, you’re pressing down on real keys — and includes a bevy of function keys across the top that add another 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 as well. I use the symbol key for its intended purpose, popping up a virtual keyboard that lets me enter characters that aren’t on the hardware one. The Fn key, however, I have configured to act basically like a control key.

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

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

Okay, so the time savings aren’t that significant. But I do feel way cooler pressing the enter button than tapping on an icon.

Unihertz also has a system that lets you set keys as shortcuts for apps and actions. For example, no matter where I am on my phone, I can long-press the “t” key to start a new timer or the “c” key to open Chrome. It turns out that having extra buttons can be super useful if you want to get things done quickly

This phone has a lot going for it beyond the keyboard. For one, it has features that my iPhone 12 Mini, which cost a full $479 more than it, doesn’t. You know how everyone complains about how phones don’t have headphone jacks or microSD card slots anymore? The Titan Pocket does. Those are going to be very useful for me while I’m attempting to hike across the US for reasons that I explained to my colleague David Pierce 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 some wired headphones in, I can use it as an FM radio. Plus, there’s an extra hardware button that you can program to do three separate actions based on whether you single-, double-, or long-press it. Why has the market decided that there shouldn’t be any flagship phones that have these features when so many budget handsets do?

Also: please look at this battery chart and then remember that this is a phone that’s approximately the same size as an iPhone Mini. (Admittedly, it’s a fair bit thicker, but it’s just as easy to hold, in my opinion.)

This phone can easily go two days without being charged.

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

  • The vibration motor feels like it could’ve come from a low-end phone in 2012.
  • Its MediaTek Helio P70 processor was midrange when it launched in 2019 — and boy is its age noticeable.
  • It doesn’t support 5G or eSIMs.
  • It’s stuck on Android 11, likely forever, and the security patch on it is from September 2022. (Don’t hack me, pls.)
  • The camera is so bad I’d be better off just writing out a description of what I’m looking at rather than taking a picture of it.
  • I would give anything for this phone to have an actual BlackBerry-style trackpad or rollerball because manipulating a cursor on a screen this small is hell.
  • Despite its 6GB of RAM, I still feel like apps get kicked out of memory a lot.
  • The touchscreen is fine, but a lot of apps aren’t built to run on a square screen. I have to put it in a goofy letterbox mode (which is, to be fair, very cleverly built in) to view Instagram Stories, for example.
  • The leather holster for it is sold out, making it very difficult for me to fully complete my transformation into my dad.

Also, there’s this astoundingly annoying bug where things just kind of break if the first thing I type into a text box is a number or symbol. (At least it does if I use the keyboard to type it; the on-screen keyboard doesn’t have that problem, but some fields seem to block it from coming up.) That’s super annoying if I’m trying to, say, type in a ZIP code or respond 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 writing machine. I actually type faster on the iPhone than the Titan (59 words per minute versus 50), and the physical keyboard gets beaten even worse if I have to do something like add a special character that’s not one of the ones accessible via the alt key — the dollar sign is a common culprit, as is the semicolon. Plus, this screen simply can’t show that much text at once, meaning I have to do a lot of scrolling when I’m reading back through something to check that it makes sense. 

But when I’m just using the phone to text a friend, write a note, or bang out a long email or blog post, all of those problems mostly just melt away. It’s a tactile experience that my iPhone just can’t touch, and being able to switch between apps, copying and pasting text without ever touching the screen makes me feel like a productivity deity. 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 haptics option doesn’t hold a candle to actual buttons.

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

And yeah, it’s totally fair to criticize the Titan Pocket for those shortcomings (though, really, they’re mostly inherent to all keyboard phones, as Steve Jobs pointed out while announcing the iPhone). But in some ways, they’re part of why I love this phone so much. As someone who’s spent pretty much my entire life addicted to the internet, I appreciate the tiny moment of hesitation I have before picking up my phone, and it’s not terribly usable one-handed, so I have to commit to it when I do decide to use it.

I’m absolutely not trying to argue that phones in general should be a little less convenient so that people use them less. I’m just saying that I’m happy mine is. And yes, I love that anything I do with it feels like serious business, even if I’m just typing out silly jokes to friends and co-workers. 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 return to society, I’ll probably go back to my iPhone. But I hope that at least some of my BlackBerry habits stick around.

Photography by Mitchell Clark / The Verge

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