Staying at home changed how we use our phones

OnePlus 8
(Image credit: Future)

While we started 2020 looking forward to new smartphone tech, we’re living in a different world now. We’re still excited for foldable phones and all the cool things coming down the line, but given how much the outbreak has changed our lives, we’re taking a moment to reflect on how we’ve started using our phones differently, too.

Why? Because we spend our days recommending phones with an eye toward how those will be used and valued in the years to come. If our circumstances have changed, then the things we value in phones might have shifted.

For instance, do we need those high-capacity batteries we espouse in our reviews now that we’re sitting within five feet of a charger at all times? Are we watching more media walking around our living spaces – or less, since some of our commutes have been drastically cut down?

The way we use phones has changed, and while it will return to some kind of normalcy in time, we’re curious about whether these new habits will stick around – and in turn, what we value in handsets going forward. Our team of phones reviewers have explained how their behavior has changed in the last months of lockdown below:

LG V60 ThinQ

(Image credit: Future)

David Lumb
Mobile Editor, US

There are plenty of things I’ve loved about phones that I haven’t found nearly as useful while sheltering in place: bigger batteries, telephoto lenses, and screen brightness don’t matter as much as they used to. It’s actually let strengths that are typically overlooked come to the fore. 

For instance, I’m still using wireless headphones (because cords are the worst), but I’ve found my lack of commuting makes it easier to plug my nice headsets into phones with a 3.5mm jack – and as it happens, two new handsets feature that old perk: the LG V60 and the Motorola Edge Plus. Audiophiles and holdouts have missed this port in newer flagships, and I’m appreciating their side of things now that my more sedentary day has kept me from relying on my AirPods Pro.

These circumstances have revealed an even better unsung hero: fingerprint scanners. While staring at a phone until facial recognition kicks in has never been a particular pleasure, it’s much harder to use now that we’re all wearing masks outside – or, in the iPhone’s case, impossible, since FaceID won’t register faces that are partially blocked.

And like most of you, I’ve been video chatting quite a bit more. While I’ve put a lot more mileage on my webcam, I’ve also done my fair share of FaceTime and Google Hangouts, which is where my wireless headphones have come in handy to keep the conversation going while I’m cooking or doing dishes. I’ve come to value accessories like wireless charging stands to keep my phone propped up while I’m talking. I don’t exactly need a high-quality display to see my friends and family; I’d rather have more dependable Bluetooth connection to my headphones.

OnePlus 8 Pro

(Image credit: TechRadar)

John McCann
Deputy Editor

I’m using my phone more… but I’m also using it less. As I currently don’t have to make my lengthy commute to and from the office, the amount of time I spend listening to podcasts and music, and streaming video on my smartphone has dropped to pretty much zero.

With bigger screens, smart speakers and a games console all within easy reach at home, I’m currently not reliant on my phone for music, movies or TV. When it comes to using my handset for extended periods of time, it’s greatly reduced during lockdown.

However, I’m also using my phone more, but in shorter bursts. I find myself picking it up to check for notifications more regularly, and message volumes are up as friends, family and colleagues keep in touch in lieu of face-to-face meetings.

So in short, my interactions with my phone are up, but the length of time I’m using it for each interaction is down.

(Image credit: TechRadar)

Tom Bedford
Staff Writer

I don’t think I’ve checked a social media feed in a month. Nor have I listened to music (except in my government-alloted exercise time), watched movies or TV (except one time I was too lazy to leave bed) or gone on outdoors photoshoots to test phone cameras. So there are three things I do in abundance with my phone.

Firstly, I’ve been gaming differently. Not necessarily more frequently, but I’ve had time to engage in more complicated games, so I’m now deep into Stardew Valley and have XCOM: Enemy Within lined up next. Thank god I’ve been locked down with some great gaming phones.

Secondly, I’ve been communicating via phone calls, and I don’t remember the last time I had one of those that wasn’t via an app or with video too. This has almost exclusively replaced digital interactions I had using apps. Yep, I’ve been having more of that plain old boring phone functions, always at least one a day, and it’s the preferable way to communicate too if your house has poor Wi-Fi. It does feel like I’ve jumped back in time about ten years, though.

Finally, I’ve decided to use my phone camera to embark on a new project - learning stop motion animation. With the purchase of a smartphone tripod, a portable Amazon lightroom, and a huge amount of Play-Dough, I’m using my Oppo Find X2 Pro and iPad Pro 12.9 to capture and edit together short sequences - it’s not exactly art yet, but it’s an accessible way of learning a new skill while in lockdown.

Samsung Galaxy S20

(Image credit: Future)

James Peckham
Phones Editor

The home screen on my phone is a sacred place. There’s a meticulous order to my apps so muscle memory can just take over and I’m not wasting those precious seconds, especially when I’m on autopilot, by opening up my email when I really wanted WhatsApp.

Okay, maybe that’s all a bit of an exaggeration, but one of the biggest changes for me during the Covid-19 lockdown was when I realized I had to swap some apps around. It all started when I realized Citymapper was irrelevant.

Netflix; who needs that on their home screen when they’ve got a TV just a few meters away? Banking apps aren’t even that useful right now as I’ve got a much clearer idea of where I’m spending my money, and how.

In fact, a lot of the order of my home screen has changed. For example, I now have four different audio apps. Those are Spotify, Audible, a podcast app and the BBC Sounds app (a radio provider in the UK) as I’m using all four of these far more regularly than normal.

Plus I’ve re-downloaded Words With Friends (which took over Citymapper’s coveted place at the top right) as now everyone wants to challenge me at the Scrabble-like game to stave off the boredom.

David Lumb

David is now a mobile reporter at Cnet. Formerly Mobile Editor, US for TechRadar, he covered phones, tablets, and wearables. He still thinks the iPhone 4 is the best-looking smartphone ever made. He's most interested in technology, gaming and culture – and where they overlap and change our lives. His current beat explores how our on-the-go existence is affected by new gadgets, carrier coverage expansions, and corporate strategy shifts.