Smartphones are incredibly popular devices, but their immense capability has made them increasingly complex for novices. What might seem second nature to young people can be incredibly confusing to a generation that grew up before the internet.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the market caters to experienced phone users, so you have to look a little deeper if you want a phone that's truly appropriate for older generations. A smartphone might still be the way to go, but if calling and texting is still the priority then a regular mobile might be more appropriate.
Here we'll look in detail and what a smartphone is, and how that affects usability. Then we'll suggest some simple things to look for when buying a smartphone.
We're also written a handy buying guide if you're looking for a computer for older people.
Smartphone for the elderly: What is a smartphone?
A smartphone is in essence a web-connected mobile phone. It will have the ability to send and receive email, browse the web, and install apps - small software programs designed for use on a smartphone or tablet. These offer easy access to things such as news, sport and weather information, as well as fun games with which to waste an idle hour. All smartphones also double as media players, letting you upload music, films and ebooks you already own, and buy downloads from dedicated stores accessed direct form the handset. All smartphones work as compact cameras, too.
Smartphones have dedicated operating systems, with the vast majority of devices running either Apple's iOS or Google's Android. They have much larger screens than regular mobile phones, often in excess of 6 inches.
They connect to the internet via either cellular or Wi-Fi technology. Cellular technology requires a SIM card, and can be expensive because you have to pay for the data in the same way you pay for calls and text messages. But whenever you are in reach of a wireless network for which you know the password, your smartphone will seamlessly select the free option.
Basically, you can do on a smartphone anything you can do on a web connected PC, wherever you can get connected. Some things - email, for instance - may actually be easier to do on a mobile device, although most of the time the smaller screen can mitigate against prolonged use.
Smartphone for the elderly: what to look for
Now that you are (hopefully) sold on the benefits of joining the smartphone world, here are a few pointers as to what to look for. It's always worth trying out a handset in store, so you can get the feel of the hardware and the operating system interface. The breadth of choice can be off-putting, but don't be afraid to take your time and try as many handsets as you like before making a choice: this is a purchase you'll want to make only once every two to three years, so it pays to get it right.
1. A simple interface - because of the massive amounts of functionality smartphones offer over feature phones, they can seem complicated to use. Look for a smartphone with simple, easy to use, intuitive navigation. Think of a few key things you are going to want to do - make a call, send an email, find a phone number - and ask to try them out in the store. Don't be afraid to ask for advice, but if it takes a sales assistant a long time to explain how to undertake such key tasks, this may not be the phone for you.
Make sure you spend some time using the onscreen keyboard, too. Most will respond to keypresses by making the letter or number concerned bigger, and even vibrating gently. This can be a huge aid to usability, but not all interfaces are built the same.
Apple products are famed for their ease of use, and the iPhone is generally a very simple and intuitive device to get to grips with. Apple is also pretty hot on customer service, should you get stumped. The iPhone has only one hardware button, which does simplify things somewhat, and because you are tied in to iTunes installing apps and buying music and movies is straightforward. This does mean that you pay Apple's prices, though.
Most smartphones on the market, however, use Google's Android OS. Android phones tend to be cheaper than the iPhone. Because Android is to some extent open source, however, individual phone handsets have different versions of the interface. The best are iPhone-like in their simplicity, the worst cramped and crowded, ugly to look at, and difficult to use. It's important to try before you buy.
However, if you find a touchscreen interface is too difficult to effectively use - and studies have shown that issues with eye-hand coordination accompany ageing (which is bad news for my already dreadful golf) it may be that a hardware keyboard on a high-end BlackBerry such as a BlackBerry Priv is the way to go. This handset also runs Android, making it a superb cross-over device from old-style keyboard to new software.
2. A large screen - a close cousin of the need for a simple interface is the requirement for a clear, bright LCD screen. Sad fact: as we age we gain wisdom and style, but our eyesight declines. From my observation of parents and parents in law, I think it is fair to say that we also develop a rampant urge to look at photos of things (and things, I mean children we are related to). All smartphones have cameras built in, remember. So in order to get the most use out of a smartphone, a big screen is a must.
As I mentioned above virtually all smartphones have at least a 4in display, these days. High end devices such as the Android-running Samsung Galaxy S7 have massive 5in or more displays. The bigger screen the more expensive the phone tends to be, and a large screen will drain battery life. Also, it is worth remembering that not all screens are created equal: the display on the relatively small iPhone SE is sharper than that of some larger phones, for instance. So once again, trying before buying is important.
3. Something easy to carry about - simply because smartphones contain so many features, they have to include a big battery and a proper processer. Add in the large screen and a smartphone can quickly become big, and heavy. Again, this is where it is worth trying out a phone before you commit. The smartphone with the big screen may be easy to look at, but if it is too heavy to carry about it isn't going to much use.
Here are a few handset recommendations if you are after an easy to use, no-frills smartphone.
Some companies have made the mistake of patronising their target market. Thankfully, Doro strikes the right balance, and the 8030 is a phone that gives a helpfully modified Android smartphone experience for those that need a bit of guidance around the operating system.
It is very easy to set up, with on-screen prompts and instructions and once you've set up all your existing email accounts and added contacts, it's simple to find your way around to make calls, send texts and even download apps.
There is a newer version in the form of the 8040, but we don't feel the significant extra spend is worth the money.
Doro Secure 580
If you want to go one step further with the simplification, Doro's Secure 580 should do the job.
The keypad has been completely simplified, with just four letters corresponding to your favourite contacts. This is most appropriate to people who don't plan on sending SMS messages, but it can still receive them and will notify the sender when it is opened.
The built-in GPS won't help you with Google Maps, but will be important to notify loved ones where you are. There's also an SOS button, which will notify each of the 4 preset contacts in case of an emergency.
All settings can be managed remotely through My Doro Manager.
You can buy it now for £107.41.
Like the Doro 8030, the affordable Moto G7 runs Google's Android software. The G7 is the one for you if you think you need less guidance from the phone as to how to make calls, send messages and download apps.
Android is fairly simple if you aren't a heavy user, and it shouldn't be too much trouble if you've used a simple smartphone before. It has an easy to view
The iPhone SE may be nearly four years old, but it's still the Apple handset we'd recommend to most people new to smartphones.
With a 4in screen it's very much an antidote to modern devices, which are regularly available with displays in excess of 6 inches. Basic phones have always typically had much smaller screens, so it may be easier to adapt to this form factor.
The good news is that the phone is still supported by software updates, so any model can be upgraded to iOS 13 if it hasn't already.
Although the device has been discontinued by Apple, there are still plenty of places where you can pick one up. However, it might be worth holding out until the SE 2 is released.
Alcatel have gone with a very traditional design for their easy-to-use phone. A smaller display makes way for a big button keypad.
It supports the legacy T9 texting, but will be most appropriate for a generation that relies on calls to stay in touch. Other features include an SOS button which will call several preset numbers when activated. There's even a 3.2Mp rear camera, which is capable of taking stills and video.
You can buy it now for £32.95, with a handy charging cradle included in the price.