Single Versus Multi Purpose Tech

A Swiss Army knife is known for being this one thing you can stick in your pocket and have all the tools you need at your disposal. Knife? Of course. Scissors? You bet. Toothpick? Radical! But is a multi-purpose device always best?

Likewise, an iPhone is known for being the one digital device you can pocket and do all the cool things with. Phone? Obviously. iPod? Now you’re talking. Wireless internet communicator? Yes! These three things were shown to be one device when Steve Jobs unveiled the iPhone in a 2007 keynote. 3-in–1; what could be better?

That question comes to my mind sometimes, especially now reading Digital Minimalism by Cal Newport. Being into tech, a sorta gadget geek, I tend to welcome shiny whiz-bang devices into my life. Maybe too many. So why have multiple devices when you can have one multi-purpose device to rule them all?

The smartphone, for many, has replaced several single-purpose devices: the Flip video camera, the flip-phone, the point-n-shoot camera, the Garmin or Tom-Tom GPS, the MP3 player, the pocket calculator, the modern PC, hand-held game console, ereader, and more.

But I often think that a single function gizmo, while an extra thing to carry around, is the best tool for the job. A smartphone may be all you really need these days, but in some cases the old cliche may apply: jack of all trades but master of none.

So I want to explore just three specific ways the smartphone may not be as good as some dedicated devices it has replaced.


I really like photography, and my iPhone is the only camera I use anymore. But I can say there are still ways a dedicated camera is better, especially when it comes to creative picture making.

One advantage is the long zoom range of most cameras. Another is the ergonomic grip built into the camera body. Even the neck strap can be a big plus. Also, dedicated physical buttons and dials for quick easy access to features such as switching modes or setting exposure.

These are real benefits to creative photography that the beloved iPhone still can’t replace. But for casual use, and given the unique advantages of advanced smartphone photography, there is not a clear winner. You must pick the best tool for the job.

Hand-Held Game Machine

Remember the Gameboy? Now the cool new hotness is the Nintendo 3DS XL, or maybe a PS Vita. For me, Nintendo’s dedicated portable game gadgets are still the best in some regards for good’ol gaming on the go.

For this category of device, both hardware and software are key pros over the smartphone. Nintendo makes some good games now for Android and iOS. But they’re casual games, more-or-less. For full-fledged Nintendo goodness, you still need their machine. Like Apple, Nintendo still makes the “whole widget” when it comes to video gaming.

In other words, if you want a real Mario game or Zelda, you won’t find it on iPhone.

And Nintendo has always been great at innovating and implementing game play mechanics via physical hardware buttons, which the iPhone eschews. Like dedicated cameras with a myriad of control knobs, the latest 2DS XL is loaded like a pro game controller with a built-in screen.

You can see the game on-screen without fat fingers in the way, there’s no oil from your skin fogging the view, and also omitted is the thumb-slippage that’s prone on glass touch screens that try to mimic fake analog control sticks. Smartphones just don’t have enough tactile feedback for hardcore or long-form gaming.


I once read Steve Jobs’ entire biography on my iPad. And I’ve read an entire fiction novel on my iPod touch back in the day. But when it comes to ereading, while tablets can get the job done, nothing beats the experience of a dedicated ereader. And of course I mean the kindle.

I love my kindle paperwhite. It’s front-light is better than a tablet’s backlight which fatigues your eyes. It’s eink screen has just about zero glare in full sun, but a tablet looks like a mirror. And being able to go days to weeks without charging your ereader, unlike a smartphone or tablet, is a bigger benefit than you might think. You can always count on reading your ebook very much like a paper book.

The kindle ereader becomes the very book you’re currently reading, while the smartphone is just a fancy distracting device that happens to also let you read words on a screen. Pick it up to read a book and you’re way more likely to check Facebook or text someone instead.

I also like the fact that when my face is glued to my kindle screen, my kids at least know instantly that I’m reading a book, not just scrolling some feed.

Hands down, ereaders for the win.

As much as I like certain single-purpose gadgets over my iPhone, there is still that elusive allure of The One Device to rule all.

Years ago, before I could afford an iPhone, I carried to work everyday my flip-phone and my iPod touch. These two devices sat on my desk doing their things. One was for texting. One was for music and apps. But I longed for the time when the two could merge. Then I would be done keeping up with two things. (Note- I still carry two devices to work everyday: iPhone and iPad. So, yeah…)

So simplicity…having just one device is attractive. But since it’s really multiple devices in one, it’s not that simple. That small blank rectangle of glass without buttons is many gadgets in disguise. It does so much that it becomes all-encompassing and engrossing. It can be distracting or overwhelming.

When you use a single-purpose device for a single task, you are focused and your device is focused. This lets you concentrate on your task at hand. And instead of being consumed by your device, you’re engrossed in the one thing you’re doing. There’s something to be said about the mental overhead that comes with a multi-device like an iPhone versus the mental clarity and simplicity in a gadget that just does one thing. Call it focused functionality.

Yet the coin can be flipped again. There’s also something about a dedicated gadget festering with buttons and dials that scares people off. They don’t want to grapple with a camera’s numerous controls, for example.

That’s what was so cool about the iPhone. When Steve Jobs announced it, he expressed disgust with feature-phones of the time, littered with so many buttons. He even deplored a simple stylus, saying your finger was best.

There must be some balance. A plethora of devices, one for every single task you have, is too much. One single device that claims to do it all is not always best or realistic.

I guess you must, as always, pick the best tool or tools for the job(s).

There are several other categories of devices that the smartphone replaced. For you, what has it replaced, or what single-function gadgets do you still tenaciously cling to?