Not all of us want or need the vast power of today's wireless wonder wands, despite fast-growing demand for smart phones. Seniors, in particular, lag in adopting cellphones. And that's a potential tragedy, say advocates for the aged. The Senior Coalition recently urged seniors to quit viewing cellphones as a luxury but as a wireless lifeline to emergency help.
Phone makers sense an opportunity and have started to release simpler phones aimed at the tech-weary. Several include large screens, operator assistance, or emergency buttons that particularly target older users but might also appeal to younger technophobes.
We've tested four:
Jitterbug—About $150 with no-contract plans that start at $10 monthly plus airtime and $3 a month for voice mail
Innovative software simplifies this phone, aided by audible menus and voice recognition. The company is led by the husband-and-wife team of Arlene Harris, whose family were paging pioneers, and Martin Cooper, father of the first cellphone.
The Jitterbug also brings operator assistance to the cellphone. Hitting "0" connects users to an operator, who can dial a call for a flat rate of five minutes of airtime, or about $2, depending on a caller's monthly plan.
The phone itself looks like a bulbous Samsung clamshell, with a simple and backlit keypad. The phone list can be entered from Jitterbug's website, which transmits changes to the phone, enabling a loved one to manage the list. Users can also fax their list to Jitterbug, which also will preprogram five numbers before shipping a new phone.
"Yes" and "no" keys help negotiate the bright colored screen. Each time the clamshell is opened, it asks if a user wants to see the help guide. That could annoy those who know how to navigate the phone. We couldn't figure out how to change that or customize the device. That's perhaps the cost of keeping things simple.
Voice dailing worked well, if not flawlessly. A treat is the voice-mail system, which offers clear, audible prompts such as "Would you like to review your voice-mail greeting?"
ClarityLife—About $270 with no contract, from specialty retailers this fall
This may be the phone most dramatically customized for seniors, with a simple menu, large screen, and amplified speaker. The phone's maker, Clarity, has long designed and sold wireline phones for seniors.
What stands out is the look and feel, as well as a bright red button on the back. Pushing the button rings up to five preprogrammed numbers in succession. The phone itself is bulky, heavy, and in a rectangular black case. It isn't at all sleek or attractive but might prove easier for frail hands to grip.
Stripped of functions other than calling, the handset has no camera, media player, or Web browser. It can receive and send text messages. Messages help ease getting numbers into the phone book, as it can pull a number directly from a text message.
A monochrome screen that glows bright orange is easy to read, but its text menu looked eerily like the monitor on a pre-Windows PC. Four large buttons populate the rest of the phone's face, though a full keypad slides out from the bottom.
The phone will sell as an unlocked handset that can be activated with a contract or prepaid minutes on GSM carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile.
Pantech Breeze—AT&T sells it for $50 after rebate and a two-year contract, or $200 without
The Breeze has done less to be simple. That's not necessarily a bad thing, because it gives seniors and other lesser-techies a range of ease versus power in handsets.
The phone is an attractive clamshell with a white exterior and silver-and-white interior. Big buttons make the keypad more accessible than most standard phones. Numbers and letters appear to be printed in a dark gray that looks nice with the silver case. Jet black, though, would've made the labels pop for those with failing eyesight.
Three dedicated buttons for speed dialing are the Breeze's most distinctive reach for ease. Labeled with a 1-2-3, the buttons sit apart from the keypad on the phone's upper half. They're also easy to program. But they're not that much better than setting up speed dials on the keypad itself.
To reach other features, the phone displays a simple text menu. Or it can shift to a menu of icons, which is more confusing despite the promise of graphics to make tech easier.
Phone numbers also appear in giant type when punching them into the keypad.
Otherwise, this feels like most low-end feature phones, with a multitude of choices buried in sometimes confusing menus. Maneuvering, for example, often calls for hitting the "OK" button. But that doesn't exist because AT&T apparently replaced the "OK" label with its logo.
Features include E-mail, instant messaging, and a camera that also takes video. The phone can access a Web store for ring tones and other applications, such as mobile banking at a few institutions. And it can browse the Web itself.
Coupe—Verizon Wireless sells it for $40 with a two-year contract
The Coupe makes a few compromises to simplify it, mostly by leaving out advanced capability like a camera or Web browser.
The smallest of the phones in this group, the Coupe is a clamshell in a shiny black shell. It's sleek and stylish, but also slippery to the touch, and with keys that are harder to see. They do produce extra large numbers on the bright color screen as a number is dialed.
As with the Pantech, it's most obvious bow to the needs of seniors is in three dedicated buttons highlighted in red and that sit on the phone's upper half. The Coupe marks them as I-C-E, as in "In Emergency Call." That helps put the buttons in context but doesn't make them any more useful except perhaps to an emergency responder looking for the next of kin.
More useful perhaps is a dedicated "911" button that is a little harder to see as it's black and sits just above the black keypad. Opposite the emergency call button is a button for a speakerphone function, which is unique among these handsets.
The Coupe also offers a simple menu of functions, which include text messaging and tools, such as a calendar, stop watch, and calculator. A nice touch that we'd like to see on mainstream phones is buttons and ports on the edge of the phone that are set off with different colors, such as white, which makes the oversized volume control even easier to see. A red cover over the receptacle matches nicely with the red plug on the power charger.