Before you run away, this is not a post about marketing.

This is a post about dumb phones, and about the exact point where a dumb phone becomes too dumb.

Getting Away From My Phone

Over the past few months, I’ve been trying to unplug more. For me that doesn’t mean not using technology at all, but instead changing the way I interact with technology.

Specifically, that means making sure that I’m in control. I want to decide when I use my devices rather than the other way around. So, why not just turn off my notifications and check my messages when I want to? Easy, right? Nope. There’s one problem.


It’s hard to ever turn off notifications when part of your job is to answer them. Last time I was on call, I used an app called Silent Manager to ring loudly only for Pagerduty even when my phone was on silent.

This time, for some reason I couldn’t get it working. Maybe the app has been updated, maybe it just doesn’t work on my phone, or maybe what I need is only in the paid version.

In any case, even with something like Silent Manager, I still have to keep my phone on all the time. That may not sound like a big deal, but I’ve found that sometimes turning my phone completely off has been the best way to break the habit of mindlessly checking my phone and getting sucked in.

In the end, the obvious solution to this is to not use my phone as a pager at all! Time to get a dedicated pager.

Not The Usual Customer

I started on Pagers Direct to get a sense of what I was dealing with. They offer one-way pagers and two-way pagers. I want a two-way pager because I want to acknowledge alerts on pagerduty from my device so people know I’m looking at them (and so they don’t auto escalate and wake up someone else).

It turns out, one-way pagers go for over 100 dollars, and two-way pagers are around 500 dollars! Ouch.

My best guess for why these are so expensive is that they are actually not meant for me. They are meant for people in areas with poor cell reception like hospitals where they also need to be extremely reliable. I don’t need that, so these prices seem crazy to me.

Time for Plan B: get a dumb phone.

Too Dumb

The phone I went with was the Tracfone Prepaid Alcatel Myflip. It’s a prepaid phone that was only 15 dollars when I bought it! What could go wrong.

It was actually pretty easy to set up. I went in, bought the phone, and on the train I was able to log in, create an account and activate it for three months. It cost about $40 total and worked great for pages.

Then came the downfall.

Spam calls.

You might reasonably expect that the ability to block calls is a standard feature these days, but you would be wrong.

I tried following their documentation, texting their help number, and calling support, and they all gave me instructions to press buttons that don’t exist on that phone. Finally, I fell back to actually looking at the manual for the phone. The word “block” only appears twice, not in the context of blocking numbers, and all instances of “contacts” are equally unhelpful.

So it turns out this phone is actually not capable of blocking numbers. I felt as dumb as my phone when I realized that I had spent $40 on this before finding that out.

I now know that the one feature you must get for any phone you want to use as a dumb pager is the ability to limit calls to “Contacts Only”. LG has a dumb phone with that ability (search for “Contacts Only” in that manual), and I found a few others, but none with Tracfone.

I found some other people looking for this too. Still no Tracfone though, so I think I’m sunk with that cost.

Maybe Next Time

Hopefully this helps someone if they’re considering trying this out. At this point I’ve gotten more calls from people asking for someone whose name I can’t pronounce than real pages from our infrastructure.

I haven’t found any dumb flip phones available to buy with this feature (many of them are sold out), but I’m keeping an eye out for round 2.

If you have any corrections or ideas, please mail me at

Update (2019-08-17)

I haven’t gotten spammed at all in the past week, and the phone is working great as a pager! I think I was wrong about the calls being spam calls. Instead, I think they were calls from people who were trying to call the previous owner of this number.

They seem to have stopped calling after realizing this phone has a new owner, so I might be in luck! One of my friends once had a land line with a phone number that was previously owned by very popular belt buckle repair business, so he wasn’t quite as fortunate.

In the end, the “block all but contacts” feature would still be nice, but this experiment may be more successful than I originally thought.

Update (2019-08-19)

Of course right as I say that, I get two spam calls. So the overall results are “mixed” and I would still recommend getting a phone with a “block all but contacts” feature.