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Accessible mobiles: smart phones for seniors

A few months into the launch of this site way back in 2009, we wrote about how the traditional 12-key mobile interface was going the way of the dodo.

In terms of the mainstream mobile market, the touchscreen, once a curio, now reigns supreme. But the disappearance of traditional 12-key mobiles isn’t perhaps quite as complete as we thought. If anything, phones with ye olde keypads and big buttons are due for a resurgence.

Figures and data from the Office for National Statistics show that older and disabled people made up 27 per cent of the UK population in 2009, or 16.9 million people. By 2034, the number of people aged 85 is set to reach over 3.5 million, combined with the population aged 65 and above, this will account for some 28 per cent of the total population.

These people need phones to keep in touch and as a means of security. But for many, the touchscreen touting, app-ready smartphone is too complicated and too crammed with unnecessary functions.


Accessible phone requirements

A Consumer Panel Members report (Making phones easier to use: views from consumers) published in January 2011 sampled 60 people (disabled and non-disabled across a range of ages). They were given a 12 handsets of differing designs to try and feedback on, resulting in some interesting results:

“All the touch screen phones tested were difficult to use one handed and participants struggled to reach parts of the screen with their thumb[s]… Touch screens could also be both under and over sensitive, resulting in more errors and spontaneous activations than tactile keys, particularly for those with limited sensitivity in their fingers.

“Phones with Qwerty keypads in particular can have keys that are too small for many older and disabled people to use.”

We should point out some of the touchscreen phones used in the sample were resistive, which we think anybody would struggle to use effectively. Touchscreens these days are generally capacitive and generally bigger, brighter and much easier to use.

All the same, the report found that phones with number keys “keys aligned in a square were easier to navigate than offset or differently shaped keys,” and that “Short, simple, logical menus” were more useful “for older or disabled people who use a limited range of functions on the phone or who find navigating the phone difficult.”


Top five accessible phones

With this in mind, we’ve taken a look at five phones available now that conform to the requirements of this growing demographic.

Along with featuring straightforward keypads with regularly spaced and aligned keys, we’ve also picked phones with easily legible, high contrast displays and loud ringtones. Where possible, we’ve listed the HAC rating of devices as well, which rate mobile devices based on how well they work with hearing aids

Generally, we found that its preferred to buy these kind of phones on a pay-as-you-go SIM-Only basis. We’ve listed the prices accordingly in the round up below, but have also included contract prices for the phones underneath (where applicable).


Doro PhoneEasy 338 and Doro PhoneEasy 610
£100, £115 from RNIB

Though Doro products are nominally for anyone “tired of complicated mobile phones”, they are perfectly suited to this growing demographic. Both the PhoneEasy 341 and PhoneEasy 410 feature smooth, matt plastic casings providing easier grip and large, tactile keys that are arrange in regular rows.

The 341’s straightforward bar design has three shortcuts keys at the top – A, B and C – to which specific numbers can be assigned for speed dialling. The fourth book icon on the left is a shortcut to the address book, which stores up to 50 numbers and names. There’s no function to send text messages, but they can be received and read. The high contrast white-on-black display makes for greater legibility as well.

The Doro PhoneEasy 338 gives 3 hours 40 minutes of talk time on the 338 and 566 hours of standby time. HAC is rated at M3/T3.

The Doro EasyPhone 610 is a new addition to the Doro line-up and is a stylish clamshell/flip phone.

The PhoneEasy features three speed dial keys that you can assign numbers to. There’s also a shortcut to the text message editor and an emergency key that can send out ICE (In Case of Emergency) information in a text message to a pre-set number. This emergency key is located on the back of the PhoneEasy 610, so the phone doesn’t need to be open.

Featuring a loud and clear ringtone with a volume of above 35 decibels, the Doro PhoneEasy 610 gives 3 hours 20 minutes of talking time and 533 hours of standby power. It has an HAC rating of M3/T4.

Doro PhoneEasy 338 from the RNIB

Doro PhoneEasy 610 from the RNIB


Binatone Speakeasy 600
£65 from Comet

Binatone’s Speakeasy 600 is a compact phone that slides open easily and features an easy to use numeric pad and menu keys. The colour menu is easy to navigate and the menu keys have a chunky, nicely clickable feel.

Like the Doro PhoneEasy 410, there’s an emergency button, located on the back which can send out pre-written messages and call up to five different numbers for help.

The Speakeasy 600 also features a slideable switch on the side which activates a small torch light at the top of the phone and it also features a basic 1.3-megapixel camera. On the left side of the phone there is a volume rocker that allows you to turn up the ringtone volume; up to a maximum of 20 decibels.

The Binatone 600 also features a microSD card slot for storing pictures and two SIM card slots, so you’ve the option of having two numbers in one phone if you need to.

6 hours of talk time and 288 of standby time is what the Speakeasy 600 gives you. Though there’s no charging dock or pod, you get a mains adapter in the box.


The Emporia RL1
£75, Vodafone

Available to order now from Vodafone, the Emporia RL1 is arguably the most stylish and modern handset here. It just features the basics on its keypad; 12 numeric keys plus four menu keys for navigation and call and cancel. The keys are very tactile allowing for effortless dialling and texting.

The menu is similarly streamlined, giving you the option to scroll through the phone book, text message inbox, settings and a log of all missed and received calls.

Other features of the Emporia RL1, such as a torch, volume controls, power and a screen lock control are located on the sides of the phone, activated by curved ergonomic buttons that depress easily.

Lightweight and featuring an angled body with a tactile matt finish, it’s easy to use the Emporia RL1 and access all of the features in one hand. Battery life for calls clocks in at 3 hours and 200 hours of standby time.


Geemarc CL8400
£100, Hearing Direct

Aimed at the hard of hearing, the Geemarc Clearsound CL8400 has a top speaker volume of up to 40 decibels and a maximum ringtone volume of 80 decibels. For comparison, 140 decibels is about the equivalent of a passenger airplane taking off.

No information on the exact HAC rating yet, but Geemarc says that “the handset is fully compatible with modern hearing aids.”

Volume and clarity aside, the Clearsound CL8400 features a straightforwards keypad layout with three speed dial memory keys sitting on the top section, while “answering and ending calls [on the CL8400] is as simple as opening and closing the phone,” according to Geemarc MD Andrew Grossman.

The CL8400 is fairly simple but conveys the basics. As well as the charging dock that comes included, there’s also an SOS emergency button that can send out an emergency message to up to six different numbers.

Hearing Direct


Buying a handset from a network

Aside from the handsets we’ve mentioned, we had look at what the major UK networks offer this segment of the market, combining low price – because for many elderly people cost is a major consideration – and ease of use.

O2: O2 doesn’t seem to offer any options specifically for older people. Looking individually, there is a good selection of basic candybar and slider phones like the LG A100 (£19.99) and the Nokia 2220 Slide Turquoise (£39.99

Orange: Top marks to Orange for offering the Doro PhoneEasy 410g (available for £79.99 plus a £10 top up), the network also offers a range of affordable Nokia and Samsung phones with numeric keys, like the Nokia 1616 and the Samsung E1170

T-Mobile: Not much here in the way of phones aimed specifically at this market. But there are simple bar and slider style phones like the Nokia 2220 Slide Black (£29.99) and the Samsung E1170 (£12.49).

Three: Disappointingly, Three didn’t have many handsets that fit our criteria here; the only bar phone we could find on pay-as-you-go was the Sony Ericsson Cedar (£39.99), which isn’t the most user-friendly for this type of user.

Vodafone: Of course, Vodafone has its own Emporia RL1. As well as this there are a good selection of phones with simple designs like the Nokia 1800 (£27.50).

We spoke to a partially-sighted 89 year old grandmother of two from Yorkshire, about her experience looking for a phone. She wanted a mobile phone to keep in touch with her family. Her requirements were: for tactile, large keys and simple, easily legible displays with uncluttered menus and a bright screen with text easy to read. A flip or slide phone was also preferable, mainly because you can quickly lock the phone, preventing keys from being accidentally pressed in pockets.

Our lady visited a selection of shops in central Leeds and found that Carphone Warehouse and Phones4U were the most suitable: offering an overview of phones on all the networks. The biggest issue she had was finding a slide phone with buttons big enough. Ultimately she chose the Samsung SGH-E250, which had good contrast, making texts and numbers as clear as possible.

Silver Surfers: The verdict

What is certainly clear from our research is that there is a huge market for mobile phones for older people, for whom ease of use is paramount, that who don’t fit into the touchscreen and app category.

As we’ve seen from handsets like the Vodafone Emporia RL1 and Doro’s phones, it’s possible to create a handset that puts usability high, but still manages to create an attractive and stylish phone.


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