As Smart Phones Get Dumber, the Dumb Phones are Getting Smarter
Last week I wrote a rather critical blog post about a line of overpriced junk phones that someone decided to call Blind Shell. It seems that these are being sold on Amazon, or at least I can see a product description for at least one of them, but that still changes nothing. Their overall value can in no way even come close to justifying the prices they want for any of them, and the website is still riddled with enough typos to make a dictionary bleed. That said, I did mention in that post a rather interesting phone simply called a TCL Flip that my phone service provider cells unlocked with a SIM included for around $95 including taxes and shipping, about 30% of the base price before any tax or shipping of the least expensive Blind Shell phone that can be purchased in the States where I live, and the TCL is said to be compatible with every major network in the States, although Visible tells me it's incompatible with their network, but nothing I have ever tried has told me it's compatible, not even the Moto E4 that I know is compatible with the Verizon Wireless network. In any case, these are my findings after using the TCL Flip as my primary phone for about 5 days.
I do not receive any commission for most of the links I'm including in this post, but if you do happen to like the cell phone service on the "my phone service provider" link above and you purchase any plan with or without a phone, you will get $25 off your first bill, and I will get $25 off my next bill as well. Still, I don't believe in writing dishonest reviews to get paid, so this one will reflect my honest opinions, both good and bad.
I Can Still Buy a Flip Phone
People tried to tell me that I couldn't have it all, that I would have to learn to love the flat touch screens that grow larger and larger with each passing year, as buttons were becoming a thing of the past. But while this is largely true of full keyboards, the flip phone with a real number pad still exists in 2022, and it's not going anywhere. In fact, it's getting smarter and better as it matures. People also tried to tell me that the removable battery was a thing of the past. But I can prove them wrong once again. In fact, my TCL Flip has a removable and replaceable battery, an SD slot and another thing they told me was going away, a 3.5mm headphone jack. Oh yeah and by the way, it also includes a modern USB-C power/data port, so I have the best of both worlds right on my oldschool flip phone that actually has real buttons and no annoying touch screen to hang up my call if it gets too close to my cheek and the proximity sensor goes wonky, as they are known to do.
The first thing I noticed when I received my new TCL Flip was that it shipped in a very large box, but most phones I have purchased do seem to ship in boxes that are far larger than the phones inside. This one however held a smaller box, but one that was still rather large, although the SIM was inside of that box, a SIM I actually didn't need to use, although I can hold on to it in case I lose the one I have. Inside of that mid-size box was the box that held the phone, its battery and its USB cable and charger plug, and this box was surprisingly flat, although it was wide rather than being thick as many phone boxes are. Aside from the box in a box in a box thing though, the packaging is functional and keeps the phone and its included components protected during shipping, so I really can't complain, since it did arrive undamaged and in perfect working order.
The Charging Kit
First, it must be said that although this phone includes a modern two-way USB-C charging and data port, the other end of the cable and its wall wart are USB-A, like most desktop computers, so they only fit one way. Still, it is possible and relatively inexpensive to purchase a wall wart or a powerbank with USB-C output and a cable with USB-C on both ends, so the included cable is not a deal breaker at all. In fact, since my computer has only USB-A ports on it, I can use the included cable to transfer files to and from the phone with no difficulty.
A Little About the OS
First Power On
Wow! Someone got it right! The first time I powered on my new phone, although it took about a minute to start setup, I heard a voice coming out of the phone that said: "To enable read out mode, press the left software key." Now this is something that I definitely was not expecting. Usually I have to look up documentation to find out just how I'm supposed to turn on the screen reader, but this phone just told me right away how to do it. The single drawback to this is that it uses the somewhat old SVox Pico voice that we came to know from Android Gingerbread, which although it doesn't bother me, may be unintelligible or less than tolerable for some. It's certainly no RHVoice or Speech Services by Google, but it definitely gets the job done, and is far better than some other voices I heard on small devices and even desktop computers both before and after Gingerbread phones. The setup process went very painlessly from there, having me connect to a wifi network by entering a password via the number pad, tap 2 for a, double-tap 3 for f, toggle uppercase/lowercase/numbers etc using the pound key, stuff like that, then following a few prompts that were mostly all spoken. The worst parts were when the notification about finding out what's in the Kai Store interrupted it asking me whether I wanted the default media location to be the SD card, which can be set later in settings if necessary, and then the little tutorial at the end that just tells me that the right soft key will take me to the next screen. It changes at the end to allow me to press the select button that is in the middle of the d-pad ring, which in this case acts as the OK button. No, I don't yet know what is on those screens, but it didn't seem to stop me from figuring out how to use the phone. After I hit that select button though, it took me right to the home screen, which told me the time and date. From there, I can tap the left soft key, the button in the upper left corner above the d-pad ring, to read my notifications, the select or OK key in the middle of the ring to go to "all apps," or the right soft key in the top right corner above the ring to open my contacts. Or I can just dial a number and press the button at the lower left of the d-pad ring to make a phone call. Yes, it is all set up in roughly 2 minutes, and although an account may be desirable to remotely lock or erase the phone if it gets lost or stolen, having the account is completely optional; it isn't needed even to download apps.
The Basic Apps
Some apps are already included on this phone. These include of course the phone that is part of the home screen, call log and contacts, messages, clock, calendar, the app store that they call the Kai Store, web browser, email, news, weather, FM radio, notes, camera and gallery, utilities that include a calculator, todo list and voice recorder, a music app, maps and YouTube. There are also a few games preinstalled, though I couldn't get those to talk to me, though a couple did make sound and play music.
It makes sense to talk about this first, because I for one buy a phone to make and receive phone calls. I thought everybody did ... before this whole "smart phone" revolution got started 😂. Using this phone is so dead simple, we're back to the days when a phone was really a phone. I dial a number, hear the touch tone sounds, hit the button near the lower left corner of the ring and it just calls the person whose number I dialed. To hang up, I can either hit the button at the lower right corner of the d-pad ring or just close the phone. Man I didn't know just how much I missed the good old days of the flip phone until I had one again. And it's so satisfying to close the flip on someone and let them hear that nice loud clicking sound that it makes 😈. But there are a few more things I can do while I'm on the phone as well. First, the OK key, middle of the d-pad ring, toggles the speakre phone and the left soft key, at the upper left corner above the d-pad, toggles mute. Those are most important, and work reliably, even letting me know via the screen reader what exactly I just did. The right soft key, upper right corner above the d-pad, offers some other options, including add call, hold call and messages. Yes, it is possible on this phone to text while talking, and it can even be done without having to look at the screen. What's more, a dying feature in Android works much better in KaiOS. This is the conference call. I was able to successfully call someone, add another call, merfge the two, then add another and merge it in. On my Android phone, once I merge two calls together, the add button goes away, so there is no longer a way to add a third call. This feature has been largely dead on Android at least since 9, and possibly earlier, with the exception of TextNow, which allows up to 5 participants in a conference call, instead of the usual 3. Perhaps there is a hidden Android setting that will allow more than 3 participants in a conference call, but I haven't seen it in the native dialer. It seems Google took this out of their phone dialer app. Good that KaiOS still has it. Better, I can once again merge the calls together when someone beeps in, then still get another beep in. I even successfully merged in the second beep. Everything on the KaiOS phone app works as expected, including VOLTE, also called HD voice calls, and some phone features work much better than they have since I had a Nokia 6682 Symbian Phone way back in the day, most notably conference calling. I also have 3 keys above the 1, 2, and 3 keys on the dialpad. These are "favorite contacts," "messages" and "clear." So if I dial something wrong anywhere, the clear key above 3 comes in really handy, as I can tap it once to backspace or hold it down to clear out everything. Favorite contacts, above 1, just gives me a short list of my selected favorite contacts that I can choose and call or text. Messages, above 2, of course opens the messaging app, which I will discuss below.
I can still remember the old contacts app from the days of Gingerbread with a full keyboard that included either a d-pad or arrow keys. The contacts app on KaiOS phones is very similar, except that there is no touch screen input, only the d-pad, plus a search function that allows dialing in either a contact name or number and getting the results. Just like on Gingerbread, it does take partial names or numbers, and search results, unlike some reports I have seen, appear to come up very quickly. It's worth noting that I can search using either the T9 predictive dictionary or by tapping the pound key to cycle to capitalize, uppercase or lowercase and tapping out the letters individually, i.e. tapping 2 once for a, twice for b, tapping 5 twice for k, 3 times for l, etc. I decided some time back to store contacts only locally or via my NextCloud, so did not have Google contacts to sync, but I successfully copied my vcard file that has all my contacts on my computer and imported it from the SD card that I inserted when I inserted my SIM and battery. Because my contacts are stored in a vcard file stored on the SD card, I can reset my phone as much as I want and just import the file again to get my contacts back. KaiOS does not erase the SD card when resetting the phone, so everything I have stored there stays. Everything in the contacts app works as expected with the screen reader. I can call, message and compose email right from the app. I can also set speed dial numbers both from the contacts app settings and by holding down a previously unassigned number and selecting the contact to assign to it. Overall, this is a much more intuitive experience than working with the touch screen.
There's not much to say about the standard text messaging app other than the fact that IT WORKS! My text messages are read out to me, and composing is as easy as dialing in either a name or number, dialing in my message via T9 prediction, which actually works much better than it did on the Nokia 6682 that I like to say was probably about the best phone that I had used when I could get a screen reader working on it, before we had phones with full keyboards. I have needed to be aware of the partial words spoken at times with T9, and sometimes I still need to tap out individual letters, but overall, this is a joy to use, and can sometimes be faster even than Talkback's braille input, which somehow gets extra A's into my text, types B's when I want A's, and other things that make the experience less than ideal. I mean really, when I can quickly dial in "8447 47 2 8378" and "This is a test" comes out that quickly, and I don't have to hunt and peck e, ... v, ... e, ... r, ... y, ... space, ... s, ... i, ... n, ... g, ... l, ... e, ... space, ... l, ... e, ... t, ... t, ... e, ... r, or dealhtae bll the eaxtraa letters and dots, well, let me just say that T9 is much better than most of that crap, and it works nearly everywhere. Even passwords that have to be tapped out character by character are easier to enter than even the braille input that sometimes has to be spaced and backspaced to get the symbols right. The only thing I didn't try in the messaging app though was adding multiple recipients, though I suspect it will work in much the same way as adding only one person, although I did notice that group messages seem to come in under individual people's threads instead of showing up as a group, so replying to the group may be more difficult.
This one needs a little work. Setting up an account was very easy, although I only set up my own email that I run myself; I did not try to set up Gmail with the email app, and I'm not sure how well that will work, considering the new limitations on Gmail IMAP access, which requires random generated app passwords now that I cannot choose myself. The problem I ran into with the email app is that I can only read parts of text email messages. HTML messages don't have their snippits read aloud, and opening either text or HTML messages only told me who the message was from, its subject and said "message body" without telling me what was in the message body. Scrolling to a link did change what the OK key does, and it opened the link I tested, but other than that, the email app, unless I missed something, seems less than usable in read out mode.
So I can't add alarms. This means I have to use what ships on the phone already. But there is a good enough selection of alarms. I just want to add one and can't do it from what I've seen, unless there is a secret way of doing this. Also, I have no ascending volume, meaning that it will not start quiet and get louder over a period of time, which is something I definitely like in an alarm. With this out of the way, the alarm clock works as expected and is highly usable with the screen reader. Timer and stopwatch are also usable, though in order to find out how much time is on the timer, I had to shift left to alarm or right to stopwatch then shift back, then close the phone so that it would read out the remaining time completely, otherwise it chatters and doesn't fully finish the time. Stopwatch does something similar, although it simply chatters as it runs, and stopping it reads out the elapsed time. Closing the phone also stops the chatter so that the stopwatch reads out the current elapsed time without stopping, and I can just open and close the phone to hear the time red out. Now going back to a running timer, I can also hear the remaining time just by opening and closing the phone, so the shift must only be done once after starting it I think. Sadly, it doesn't seem possible at this time to run multiple concurrent timers or save preset timers and name them. Still, the single timer works well enough in most situations.
Again, I don't use Google on this phone, so I didn't see how well it integrates my Google calendar, which I rarely use, usually only if I'm invited to an event that goes through the Google calendar. And although the KaiOS calendar app is said to support caldav, it indicates the server is unavailable when I try to add my NextCloud calendar. So I use local calendar storage instead, which is still probably better than storing my calendar events even on my own server. The lack of a .ics calendar file import is a bit off-putting, but it is easy enough to create events I guess. This is probably best for those who don't have a "cloud" calendar and just want events on their local devices. I have seen that there may be apps that can be sideloaded that will add better caldav support, or that maybe updating certificates on the phone in some way will help get this working, but for now, either of these options is beyond the scope of this review, which is to say that I'm only really focusing on the stock apps, and will probably work with the technical stuff at a later time. For now, it's best to just use a Google calendar, which is probably fully supported, or don't do any syncing and just create and store calendar events on the phone itself.
The Utilities Folder
This includes a calculator, a todo list and an audio recorder. The calculator is your basic four-function calculator, and I got it to work perfectly. Numbers dial in just like dialing a phone, and the arrows on the d-pad perform operations: up subtracts, down adds, left divides and right multiplies. The left soft key clears the current value and the right soft key clears everything. The OK key reads the result of the calculation, although a bug makes the screen reader say "microphonetoggle" before reading the result at times. The recorder is very basic also, but does include two audio settings, 8KHz and 44.1KHz. It seems it records opus files, which is definitely a good thing, although it records only using one microphone where the phone actually has two. In order to keep the phone's speech out of the recording, I had to plug in headphones or use bluetooth. Covering the speaker temporarily also helps attenuate the speech, though it doesn't completely silence it the way a bluetooth connection or wired headphones would do. The screen stays on while recording, and closing the flip stops and saves the file. The only problem with this is possible battery life issues, since the backlight will stay on while recording. Audio recordings can be shared via bluetooth, messaging or email right from the recorder app. The todo list is a nightmare though. Of all the apps on the phone, this one is the least usable with the screen reader. I was able to I think create a couple of tasks, but could not figure out what in the world I was doing because the screen reader would not say enough. I did accidentally delete the tasks I had created, but accidentally deleting them means that I couldn't figure out how to delete them intentionally. Well, I think the right soft key followed by the down arrow, the OK key and the right soft key does it, but that was trial and error that did that, not actual feedback from the screen reader, so the todo list is a non-starter unless or until it can get an update that fixes its screen reader interaction.
I didn't play much with the still camera, but the video recorder is pretty nice. It does record in some sort of 3gp format that uses H.264 and AAC instead of the webm VP8/opus that I would like, but it records stereo audio from two very well-positioned microphones on each end of the open phone when the video resolution is high. The geek in me uses the video camera to record audio and just takes and copies the file to the computer, using ffmpeg to pull out the audio, deleting the rest, unless I want video. I only wish the audio recorder could record stereo opus files in the same way. I find the camera pretty easy to use. The left and right arrow keys change the mode between photo and video, or this can also be set using the right soft key options if you need the mode to be read out before changing it. The shutter or recorder is activated or toggled respectively using the OK key. It's only a 2MP camera, and it seems it has no flash, but although I can't really comment on the quality of the video, the audio is really not bad, especially since it records in stereo using both microphones.
This is where accessibility gets a bit painful. It is in fact possible to browse the web in most cases, and I found that I was able to read my own website pretty well once I knew what I was doing. But still, unless I'm missing something, it's all trial and error. There is supposed to be some kind of accessibility cursor, or at least I saw mention of one, but unless it's the one that is on by default, I don't know how to activate it, and I had to read documentation on the shortcut keys elsewhere, as the window that pops up when I press the pound key tells me what they do, but doesn't read what key I'm supposed to press, and nothing mentions an accessibility cursor or screen reader cursor. The default cursor requires that I move left to right, down, right to left, down etc in order to hit what I want to read. Even my own website, which follows accessibility guidelines simply by not breaking them has a little trouble on the KaiOS browser due to the hit or miss nature of the arrow scrolling, which I would expect to more closely emulate tab, shift+tab, up and down or similar, but instead seems to only read an element when it stumbles upon it. This problem also affects other apps such as Youtube, since many such things are just websites that have been automatically pinned to the apps menu. The browser actually does allow pinning websites to the apps menu as well as to its own home screen, so if there is a website that you can get working well enough to use it effectively, you can always pin it to where you want it. Just be aware that the pinning option speaks, but where to pin does not, one of a small handful of similar bugs, but selecting the pin option and then pressing the OK key pins to the home screen of the browser, whereas selecting the pin option, hitting the down arrow key and then pressing OK will pin to the apps menu. In short, the browser works, but it needs a lot of work, unless I'm missing something.
News and Weather
Sadly, I can't get either of these apps talking properly or working properly. I was able to allow the weather app to access my location, but it's not offering me a weather forecast or conditions, and it still asks me for a city name, entering my city still seems to do nothing. The news app is doing nothing at all for me, and I didn't get BeMyEyes or Google Lookout from my Android phone on it to see whether it really was doing nothing or simply wasn't talking.
The notepad app is working pretty well with the screen reader. I was able to write multiple notes, read them, share them, delete them, etc with no trouble at all. I would say editing is a bit problematic, as the arrows won't tell me what line or character my cursor is on, but as is expected on small screens, it's great for jotting down short text notes that can be shared via messages or email. Like any of the other apps where text can be written, long notes are also possible, just know that editing may be somewhat of a pain point in any app at this time.
Yes, since this phone still has a headphone jack, it does have a real FM radio. It seems to be just as sensitive as the FM radios on more expensive phones, and I was able to use it with the screen reader as well, although the d-pad would have made the radio easy enough to use even if it didn't work with the screen reader. It doesn't have more advanced functions like recording from FM, but it's not bad for what it is, a cheap but effective FM receiver built into a phone.
This is the basic but functional and accessible file manager app. I can copy, move, delete and open any file on either internal storage or on the SD card. It sees all the same files I can see on the computer when I connect the phone. There's not much good or bad I can say, except that it works well.
This is the most basic music app. It will play albums, artists, genres, etc, but it doesn't play from the folder structure of the SD card or internal storage. Still, it works with the screen reader, and all available options and settings speak. FOr folder playback, there is another player that can be downloaded from the store, and it also works well with the screen reader, as long as you don't mind ads popping up and having to use the clear button to back out of them from time to time.
There's not much in the KaiOS store at this time; it's mostly games. But most everything I tried worked really well, and nearly if not all options speak. I am especially fond of K-Music, which is the music player I mention above that allows me to play anything stored in only one specific folder if that is my choice, Radio Waves, which allows me to listen to radio stations from around the world and LibriVox Audiobooks, which is exactly what it says.
It's not perfect by any stretch, but about 80 to 90% of what I tried works well with the built-in screen reader. If like me, you wish that you had never seen a touch screen, you want something with real buttons, a headphone jack, an SD card slot and a removable battery that talks and has the ability to run apps, look no further. KaiOS will only get better with time, and the TCL Flip is one of the best KaiOS phones currently on the market, and is certainly one of the least expensive phones available unlocked in the States, although other KaiOS phones do exist in other countries as well. Yes, it's certainly missing some apps we could use, but with time, these may become available as well. If you're in the market for a dumb phone that is capable of becoming smarter, if you think today's smart phones are becoming so smart that they're actually getting dumber and you wish you could just go back to the basics, but you need your basic cheap flip phone to talk to you, I can now truly say leave the Blind Shell on the blind shelf and just get a TCL Flip for less than 30% of the price of the least expensive Blind Shell model available in the States. There are certainly some things I need the Android phone to do, but there's nothing better than being able to just open the phone, dial a number, start talking and then close it, or open the phone, send a text message and close it, all while being able to do more advanced things as well, and all with a voice that talks me through it all. Question: Android or iOS? Answer: KaiOS. I love my KaiPhone.