Monday, June 24, 2024

The Light Phone 3 is a little less light — but a lot more useful

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Five years after the Light Phone 2 launched, co-founder Kaiwei Tang says it’s selling better than ever. This is both extremely unusual for a phone and kind of the point of the thing: Tang, co-founder Joe Hollier, and their team built a phone that was designed to do very little and last practically forever. Their E Ink device became a hit among people looking for a way to get away from their smartphones for a bit, to “go light,” in the company’s parlance. The Light Phone 2 made calls, sent texts, and not much else. That worked really well for a lot of people, for a long time.

Now, Light is trying to do something a bit different. The company is launching the Light Phone 3, which comes with a new display, a camera, and a few other features that Tang says the company has found most users just can’t live without. The goal is once again to build a simpler, less alluring smartphone for when you want to check out but also, this time, to maybe replace your smartphone for good.

The Light Phone 3’s biggest change is a new display. The E Ink screen is gone, replaced by a 3.92-inch black-and-white OLED panel. “E Ink, the refresh rate — almost 50 percent of our users couldn’t get used to it,” Tang says. “That’s the main reason they give up.” This isn’t the most impressive screen you’ll ever see, at 1080 x 1240 pixels, but it refreshes faster and should feel familiar to more users. You also control the brightness with a new scroll wheel on the left side because Tang says he hates when a phone automatically just blares light at your face. (The wheel also clicks to turn on the flashlight.)

Switching to an OLED screen is a little less minimalist but probably much easier to use.
Photo: Light

The Light Phone 2’s lack of a camera was the other reason, which is why the new model has a rear-facing camera. It’s not a normal smartphone setup, though: it’s just a 50-megapixel camera on the back and an 8-megapixel one on the front, each one with a fixed focal length and a center focus. It’s as much for scanning QR codes and video chat as anything else, Tang says, and because it has a dedicated shutter button, shooting with it should feel more like an old film camera than an iPhone. “There’s no editing or sharing, just documenting the moment if you need to.” 

Beyond that, the device has a bunch of what you might call futureproofing upgrades. There’s an NFC chip because Light wants to integrate payments at some point. There’s a USB-C port because that’s what everyone uses now. You can replace the battery yourself, which should help the device last longer. There’s a fingerprint reader, a Qualcomm SM 4450 processor, 128GB of storage, and 6GB of RAM. It all comes in a slightly larger box than before — Tang calls it “BlackBerry size,” compared to the credit card-sized Light Phone 2 — and even the aluminum buttons on the side have been built to last. 

The new phone is up for preorder now, and Tang says it’ll ship next January. For now, it costs $399, though Tang says he’s not sure what the final price will be. It depends on how many Light sells. The company’s promotional materials say the retail price of the Light Phone 3 will be $799, which is dangerously close to full-fledged smartphone territory, but the company is hoping to sell enough devices to make them a bit cheaper to produce, which would mean it could lower that final price. 

The aluminum body and buttons are meant to last just about forever.
Photo: Light

For years, the problem with minimalist smartphones (or dumbphones, or feature phones, or whatever you want to call them) has been the near-impossible balance they try to strike. How do you make a phone that does everything people need and nothing else? Everyone has their mission-critical apps, and they’re always different.

Tang and the Light team have now spent years trying to figure out how to manage that. They’ve built simple tools for music, podcasts, calendar, navigation, and notes. They’re thinking about how to integrate the Spotify API, build a way to get Uber or Lyft running on the Light Phone, make payments, send voice notes, and more. He’s interested in integrating with Beeper, too, to add more messaging services. Light isn’t steadfastly against apps, Tang reminds me, other than the endless feed ones. It’s just against the chaos of modern smartphones, and it’s trying to find better ways to get the features people want without the chaos that so often comes with them. It’s a tricky balance to strike.

Light has also been playing with ChatGPT and other AI tools to see if they might be a way to bring users more information without subjecting them to endless news feeds and engagement bait. “We’ve been experimenting” with AI, Tang says, “but we don’t have the confidence that we can set a clear boundary for our users.” Light’s users rely on the company to set those boundaries, he says, and he doesn’t want to overdo the feature set and lead people astray.

In a sense, the Light Phone 3 is the least light device the company has made yet. It has more capabilities, more features, and more things to do and fiddle with. But Tang hopes that’s all in service of the greater goal, which is to get people away from their smartphones and the endless notifications and feeds that they contain. “I’m not trying to design vintage phones,” he says. “I want to design all this modern technology, from the ground up, and eliminate all the bullshit.” You can’t beat smartphones with worse phones. Maybe you can do it with different ones.

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