For many of us, smartphones with all their bells and whistles are a crucial part of our lives. But what if you just want a mobile for yourself or family member (young or old) that's simple to use, easy to navigate and lets you make a quick call in times of stress?
There are several options available when looking for a mobile device for users with deteriorating eyesight, hearing or dexterity. You may also be surprised at the ability of some of the more popular smartphones to provide useful assistance to seniors.
Simple smartphones strip most things back to the bare essentials, and typically do away with touchscreens. Because of this they tend to have:
- a "retro design"
- clear navigation tools
- a far lower price point compared to most smartphones.
In fact, a number of models in our test fall below the $100 mark.
They're often marketed as phones for seniors, which some manufacturers embrace. Many models include:
- large buttons
- limited vision settings (e.g. large text)
- support for people with reduced or limited hearing, including louder volume options and hearing aid connectivity.
They could also be a useful option if you, or someone you know, lives with a disability, limited dexterity, or even a simple case of forgetfulness, as the pain of losing a $60 phone is far less severe compared to a $1000 model.
Cool for school
Many schools don't allow smartphones, as they can get damaged, stolen, they're distracting, and so on. However, so-called dumb phones are permitted for quick communication with parents and guardians. Despite being marketed as "phones for seniors," simple smartphones like this can be a good option for school-aged children. Plus, they're low price point means it won't hurt the bank too badly when the phone is inevitably lost or damaged.
Forget 2G - it's dead, beware of the 3G shutdown in 2024
The first question to ask when buying a simple talk and text phone: Is it at least a 3G mobile if you want to use it for a couple of years or a 4G mobile if you want to keep it past 2024? Why? Hopefully this will not be the case but there may still be phones sold in some disreputable outlets that only support the 2G or GSM network. The thing is, they will not work in Australia on any carrier anymore.
Once you have confirmed that the phone is at least a 3G phone (which will be fine to use for a few years), the next question to ask is, does it work on the 850MHz or 900MHz band or both?
- The ideal handset should work on both to ensure you get the widest reception possible.
- Support for 2100MHz on the 3G band used to be handy but now it's more important that the mobile supports for either 850MHz or 900MHz on the 3G band.
- Telstra works predominantly on the 850MHz band as does the various virtual network providers (Aldi, Boost, Woolworths) that basically rent some of Telstra's network and sell it onto you at a discount.
- Vodafone is now 900MHz on its 3G band as is Optus and other virtual network providers (Coles, Amaysim, Kogan) that rent parts of Vodafone and Optus networks and sell it onto you at a discount.
Though you may not intend to use a network on the go (away from Wi-Fi), it's worth keeping your options open. Plus, some emergency services can use 3/4G networks to find you if you need assistance.
Just when you start getting used to not having the 2G network operating, there is now talk that the 3G networks days are numbered. This is bad news for simple or feature mobile phones as most of these models are 3G only and even the phones in the latest batch of mobiles we tested were 3G, not 4G.
Telstra has announced that it will be shutting down the 3G network for mobile phone use such as talk and texting by 2024. By the end of 2020 hopefully all mobiles sold will be 4G or 5G. So basically, if you want to keep your mobile for more than a few years, you need to choose a 4G model.
The locked mobile
Over the years, many CHOICE readers have asked "why do phone networks lock my phone and how can I unlock it?" This was a very important issue several years ago as Telstra, Vodafone and Optus locked many of their post-paid (when you are on a monthly plan) mobiles and most of their pre-paid (when you pay as you use) mobiles. In the case of iPhones:
- If you bought an iPhone 5 or newer, your phone will be unlocked and can be used on any network.
- If you own an iPhone 4/4S and use iOS 7 or newer, your phone will be unlocked and can be used on any network.
- If you have a hand-me-down iPhone 3G/3GS and don't want to use iOS 7 (because it performs really slowly on iOS7) then perform a restore in iTunes (if you're not sure how to do this, check with a friend or family member who enjoys doing 'tech' stuff)
- You can use your phone on another carrier but not necessarily on any carrier because the iPhone 3G/3GS supports either 850MHz (Telstra and Vodafone) or 900MHz (Optus and increasingly Vodafone towers), not both.
You should also keep an eye out for these features:
- Desktop charging cradle: A dedicated charger removes the need to insert a cable and physically plug in the phone for charging. This can also make it easy to find for charging, compared to a cable that easily goes missing or can be used with other devices.
- Dedicated speed-dial buttons: This feature, usually available on mobiles with a number keypad rather than a touch screen, can be handy when you need to call a few people often. The number in our report indicates the number of buttons on the phone that can be programmed to call user-generated phone numbers.
- Emergency SMS: This function can send a predetermined message for help.
- Emergency call key: Lets you contact a predetermined number or numbers. To use the Emergency Call key, you must first activate the function and store the emergency numbers you wish to call.
- Headphone connection type: A phone with a standard headphone jack lets you use headphones, which may be preferred by people who have limited hearing.
- Hearing-aid support: The microphone (M) rating and T-coil (T) rating determine how well your hearing aid will work with your mobile phone. If you use your hearing aid in microphone mode, look for a phone with an M3 or M4 rating. If you prefer telecoil coupling, look for a phone with T3 or T4 rating. A sum of six (M3/T3) or greater indicates that the telephone would probably provide good performance with that hearing aid. Read more about hearing aids and mobile phones.
- Maximum ringtone and speakerphone volume: This provides an indication as to how well someone with limited hearing can effectively use the phone either when held to the ear or when the phone is used hands-free in speakerphone mode.
- Receive MMS: This feature allows you to view photos and/or listen to sound sent to your phone. While you may not be able to take video or photos, at least being able to receive them can provide important connection with family and friends.
- SAR rating: The specific absorption rate (SAR) indicates the amount of energy per kilogram of body weight absorbed when using the phone as claimed by the manufacturer. Any phone available to buy in Australia will be below government limits. Although evidence relating to exposure to electromagnetic fields remains inconclusive, you may want to choose a model with a lower SAR value if this is a concern to you.
- FM radio many simple mobiles incorporate an FM radio, without the need to access the internet or use mobile data. However you do need to listen to the radio through your earphones as the cable acts like an antenna.
Not all mobiles are compatible with hearing aids but most of the latest smartphones are. You should check first that the phone at least has a rating of M3/T3.
- The T refers to how well the phone deals with a hearing aid that has a telecoil (also called an induction hearing aid).
- A telecoil is a device in some hearing aids that lets the wearer circumvent the speaker in the mobile and receive sound straight into the hearing aid. Some audio devices also have this so people can listen to their own music in as pure a form as possible.
- The M rating is more of an indicator of how well the phone deals with a hearing aid in general.
- An M3 rating is a claim that the mobile's components won't produce much interference when you hold the phone to your ear.
If the idea of a smartphone isn't so scary, but the asking price is, you may want to look into a low-cost model instead. There's plenty of affordable options out there and they're much easier to customise, compared to a simple phone.
- You can adjust settings and download apps to suit specific needs, to assist anyone from kids to seniors.
- Inbuilt accessibility options, for example, can add; magnification, colour correction, screen readers (which convert items to text read aloud), and custom controls which includes mapping physical buttons.
- Then there's the seemingly endless list of third-party paid and free apps that can turn your smartphone into a device designed to assist a disability.
- Some add basic hearing aid options with the help of headphones, others can act as a magnification tool using the inbuilt camera.