Why Single-Purpose Devices are Often Better Than iPhones

Why Single-Purpose Devices are Often Better Than iPhones

GPS and Phone in the car
[lead dropcap="yes"]My iPhone is a marvel of modern computing, a supercomputer that can tap millions of apps that entertain, inform, connect, and outright amaze from moment to moment. But I’ve come to recognize that it’s also limited in a way that makes me realize that there’s still space in my life for single-purpose devices.[/lead]

Last week, my family went on vacation to Virginia, driving 13 hours each way to and from Massachusetts in a minivan chock full of two adults, five children under 8, and all our stuff.We traveled through eight states, more than 500 miles each way. During our stay we made daily drives into Washington, DC, to see the sights and visit with friends. Now, normally when I’m driving around town or commuting to work, I’ll use the Waze app on my phone to navigate, to get directions, to find out traffic information. But there is a slight annoyance involved because I also like to use my phone to listen to podcasts through the Downcast app. It works okay, but it means I have start the podcast in one app, then switch to the other to start the navigation, and anytime Waze needs to alert me, it turns off the podcast sound and then I miss part of what was being said on the podcast. Or worse, I get a phone call and it interrupts both the podcast and the navigation.

Those annoyances were only magnified during our vacation. Add in areas where AT&T’s coverage was spotty, battery charger issues, and limited screen size. Suddenly my single-purpose Garmin GPS looked much more useful than it has in the past. As a dedicated device, it just has to do one thing and it does it pretty well. Not as well in many ways as the Waze app, but good enough most of the time.[1] The GPS has all the maps loaded on it already so it doesn’t need an Internet connection to keep guiding us. And it only does one thing, so I can continue to use my iPhone for music or podcasts or, when I’m not driving, for games or web surfing. Or I can just save the battery.

Likewise, the humble and ubiquitous remote control. I’ve tried a lot of home theater remote control apps on my iPhone over the years, whether it’s the Apple Remote app that lets me control my AppleTV or apps that come with hardware to plug in to the iPhone’s docking port or headphone jack to emit the infrared signals the various entertainment components use. They all worked … okay. Some wanted you to look up the specific make and model of component in order to know what codes to send and then let you create your arrangement of buttons. The Apple Remote usefully lets you use the iPhone’s keyboard to type on your AppleTV, instead of laboriously clicking back and forth on an on-TV keyboard, slowly selecting one letter at a time.

But there are drawbacks. The first was true of the GPS apps: You can’t do anything else with your device. If I switch to the Twitter app to make a wry comment on the show I’m watching and then someone enters the room and starts talking, I have to scramble to get back to my app to pause the program. Or if my phone goes to sleep and I want to pause or change channels, I have to wake it, enter the lock code[2], make sure I’m in the right app, and select the function. Or I could use a single-purpose remote control and press the right button. Yes, remote controls are a pain because you end up with a million of them and they always get lost (unlike your phone?), but they also just get the job done.

Another example of a superior single-purpose device is my Kindle Paperwhite. I have almost completely switched from physical books to ebooks. I find the format more convenient, which makes me more likely to take spare moments to read. But those spare moments aren’t likely to be on my iPhone or iPad. The Kindle is a better device for reading books, even though it does only one thing and does it in shades of grey. I know that Amazon has made Kindle apps for every device out there newer than an Apple II. And I have tried reading books on my iPad. But it just doesn’t stick with me. There is some truth to the claim that passive screens, like the Kindle, are easier on the eyes than backlit screens, like the iPad. The Kindle is lighter to hold for the long periods of time I’m usually reading and has vastly superior battery life. It’s compact, even smaller than iPad mini, yet it doesn’t feel cramped. If I read a book on an iPad I give up fairly quickly, but I can read on my Kindle all day.

I know that the trend these days is toward multitaskers, flexible devices that can morph into whatever you want it to be at this moment. But I will always have a place for the unitaskers, the single-purpose devices that have just one job to do, but they do it with elegance or efficiency or style.

GPS and Phone in the car

  1. Actually there were a few times when its deficiences became very apparent such as ambiguous instructions that didn’t alert me to intersections and off-ramps quickly enough and re-calculations that took forever when we didn’t follow its directions exactly. It’s actually led me to purchase a newer replacement GPS that looks like it makes up for many of those problems.  ↩
  2. I know I could disable the lock code, but in a house with five children always willing to play with an unattended phone, that’s a bad idea. I do know that TouchID could alleviate some of this.  ↩

photo credit: mroach via photopin cc

  • Thanks for the Waze information. I’m heading to the San Francisco bay area soon and I’ll give it a try.

    • I suspect it will work particularly well in San Francisco. The high concentration of geeks ensures that location-based apps work well there.

  • I love my Kindle. I still think children should read “real paper” books until a certain age but am on the fence about when the transition should occur. My son loves his paper books but he powers through them so quickly.
    He is my little Bible reader (what got him hooked was the Brick Bible of all things) and is now at 10 on the Catholic Youth Bible and several saint books. I cannot afford his habit. lol So am considering switching to the Kindle .
    I would love to see how to utilize a Kindle in the best method for bible study and any books you can recommend for Johnny would be rocking.

    Pam aka Momma…. well most of the time. lol.

    • Hi Pam,

      I’m not sure I would use my Kindle for Bible study. Kindles are great at straight reading and perhaps highlighting, but they’re terrible at note-taking and cross-referencing. For that I would either use paper books or a software package like Logos.

      As far as books for kids go, I would recommend my wife Melanie’s blog, The Wine Dark Sea, where she writes all the time about kids book and reading lists and even take request from readers for suggestions. I am not as up on the best books for younger kids.

  • Hey Dom,

    This is a really nice article. I will share it on my FB Timeline after this comment.

    The Dream of a Single Purpose Phone (a no Compromises Device, unlike the Watered down Cheap Feature a.k.a Dumb phones out there) brought me to this article.

    May be, like the absolutely true Single Purpose GPS device and Kindle case study in your article, it would be a very interesting thing to discuss what a Single Purpose Phone (or lets call it a Communicator) should and shouldn’t have.

    Thank you,


    P.S., I really like the font and shade of White on this Web page – such a neat layout and elegant to read.