Pixel 3A: I tried Google's latest digital wellbeing idea and only lasted 5 hours

A quest to digitally detox sheds an unexpected light on personal safety.

Lynn La Senior Editor / Reviews - Phones
Lynn La covers mobile reviews and news. She previously wrote for The Sacramento Bee, Macworld and The Global Post.
Lynn La
7 min read

The envelope for the Pixel 3A.

Angela Lang/CNET

As I finished cutting and gluing the Envelope together to eventually encase my Pixel 3A, I was hopeful. On top of being an average phone user, I've been reviewing and reporting on phones for years. To spend time with phones and be paid for it, then turn around and do the exact opposite, would be new for me, and I was amused to embark on it.

From electronic lock boxes to minimalist phones, the lengths people go -- or rather, the lengths companies hope people go -- to detox from their phones have always intrigued me. On one hand, these intentions come from a good place; we could all stand to spend less time on our phones. But the marketing behind these solutions often carries a whiff of privilege. After all, the customers they want to attract who are "overwhelmed" by their phones are also more likely to be able to afford time away from it; they'd have the means to buy that fancy lock box or a secondary phone whose main selling point is that it does nothing.

So when Experiments with Google, Google's collection of outside developer projects, showcased in January a low-tech project called Envelope that aims to help users decrease phone usage by way of a physical barrier, I was even more curious. It required an app (of course), but also just a pair of scissors, some glue and a paper print-out. It was created by London-based design studio Special Projects, and it challenged users to temporarily seal away their phones in a paper envelope and, you know, live life or whatever.

The concept essentially dumbs down a phone (in this case, it only works with the Pixel 3A, a slightly less-featured and cheaper version of the Pixel 3, something Google is rumored to continue with the Pixel 4A in 2020), so that it only makes and receives calls and tells time. Outside of that, a 0.1mm sheet of paper would lie between me and messaging, Chrome, YouTube, Maps, a camera, Instagram and everything else I love my phone for. 

I planned to last at least 24 hours, with the aim to limit my phone use entirely. But as I later realized, I was regrettably underprepared and had to lower my ambitions quickly.

Watch this: Pixel 3A vs. Moto G7: Which one should you buy?

Desiring to detox

Envelope works by replacing the Pixel 3A's default phone call app with its own, one that is plain and stark, in black and white. After swiping through a start-up guide, the app gave me 10 seconds to slide my Pixel 3A in my fully assembled Envelope. 

On Monday, Jan 28 at 2:30 p.m., I sealed the Pixel 3A. Once inside, I only had access to the standard four-row dialer, a call button, and a button for the clock. When I needed to dial a number, the call button turned green and then switched to red when a call was active. To tell the time, the numbers on the dialer lit up each digit of the time sequentially, while a calm four-note melody played. Watching the time flash through the paper like this unexpectedly became my favorite part of the app.

Because my friends and I mostly chat through Facebook Messenger and hardly anyone calls one another these days, I easily lasted through the workday, checking messages and listening to music on my computer. Back at home, I assumed things would be as effortless. Barring any fantastical event that would warrant me ripping the Envelope open to take a photo, I can easily leave my phone in my bedroom for hours while off cooking, eating and watching Netflix in another room. The only temptation I could imagine was checking Twitter before bed, but that would be easy enough to resist for one night. 

Later in the evening though, I was invited to dinner last-minute and needed driving directions to a friend's house. In the end, it wasn't any addiction to Twitter or Instagram that did me in, but Google Maps. And because I didn't want to look up and down at hand-written directions at night while driving, I felt comfortable to terminate my experiment then and there at 7:30 p.m. 

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Because the point of the Envelope was to decrease time spent mindlessly scrolling through my phone and not to eliminate phone use altogether, however, I was curious to keep going. At that point, I decided to use a second phone to navigate for directions and keep the Pixel 3A sealed. Don't get me wrong -- I readily admit that had it not been for the second phone, I would have tapped out completely after five hours. I do concede that I couldn't last 24 hours with my main driver inside the Envelope. But I still wanted to see how long I could continue.

During the next 24 hours, I talked over the phone with my sibling through the Envelope (call quality was a bit muffled, but surprisingly my facial oil didn't leave any visible residue on the paper), tried to avoid the rain (turns out, paper doesn't go so well with water) and checked the time about a dozen times (again, it was a delightful thing). 

But after three more instances of using my second phone, I ultimately called it quits. Without a bedside clock, I used it to set a wakeup alarm. I used it again at the movies to call up an emailed confirmation code. Finally, when it was late at night, I had to check a transit app and time for the next bus because I wanted to stay inside a nearby store instead of idly waiting outside at a bus stop alone. 

It was three strikes and I was out (four if you count navigating to my friend's house). Before starting the experiment, I imagined myself breaking the seal when I was in a peaceful state of mind, fully rested and relaxed, and ready to re-enter digital life. But things didn't pan out so idyllically. On Wednesday evening, Jan. 1, after 48 hours of sealing away my Pixel 3A and a bit of stress, I cut the Envelope open with a paring knife. 


I did my best.

Angela Lang/CNET

Affording to disconnect

In the past couple of years, several studies have focused on the insidious dangers of spending too much time on your phone. It can mess with your sleep, cause you to unknowingly overeat and even accelerate blindness. Hours spent scrolling through social media apps can negatively impact your mental health.

In response, phone-makers started to include software that gives you information on how much time you spend on your device and limit usage time on certain apps. Apple has Screen Time, Google has Digital Wellbeing and OnePlus has Zen Mode. Third-party apps and launchers such as Siempo, Space and Flipd also help with digital detoxing.

The idea of sealing away your phone isn't unique to Envelope either. Yondr, for example, was founded in 2014 and works with schools and concert venues to secure phones away in pouches. "Anti" smartphones with stripped-down features such as Punkt, Light and Palm existed for years and cost about $350. 


The Punkt MP02, which launched in 2019.

Andrew Hoyle/CNET

But what drew me into the Envelope is that it's both physical and free. That's because it's not quite a real product -- just a well thought-out notion that was created for the Pixel 3A, submitted to, and then picked up by Google. 

"I wish we were able to do it for every single phone!" said Special Projects co-founder Adrian Westaway in an email to CNET. "We chose to make the code open-source and free to modify so that the community could hopefully edit and evolve it, and make it more available to other phone users." 

When Punkt launched its minimalistic MP01 phone three years ago, its tagline was "Offline as the new luxury," and CEO and founder Petter Neby listed typical Punkt customers as "architects, lawyers, bankers and Silicon Valley people," in a 2017 interview with CNET.

But a lot of us, me included, aren't architects, lawyers or bankers. And the fact that my last instance of using a smartphone was due to a concern of personal safety is worth noting. As mentioned before, peddling the need to go "off the grid" bears a thin veil of indulgence. Many can't afford to simply disconnect because their job, education or welfare depends on consistent access to a phone. As a 5-foot woman who gets winded after a flight of stairs, I wasn't going to make myself any more vulnerable than I already was alone at a bus stop for the sake of detoxing.

Though it's limited to the Pixel 3A, I hope others take Westaway's suggestion and expand it to other devices (it's available on GitHub) and have a go at experiencing it for themselves, if only for a few hours. 

In the meantime, the desire to be more mindful and less tied to your phone is still an admirable, albeit first-world, ambition. While I consider myself decent at avoiding needless screen time, I was still thrown off by all the small but vital tasks I use my phone for. I was especially surprised how these features had implications to my personal safety too, even with my own privilege as an able-bodied person. Taking time off to live life in reality shouldn't have to be an extravagance afforded only to the few. And while the Envelope certainly doesn't solve these issues of parity, it at least requires very little -- just a sheet of paper, a glue stick and a pair of scissors.