September 28, 2006
By David Pogue
And now, an exclusive peek inside the in-box of a technology columnist.
“Dear Mr. Pogue: You’ve reviewed cellphones that play music, record video, receive TV channels and do e-mail. But here’s a radical idea: What about cellphones that make phone calls?
THE BASICS The Jitterbug cellphone, above left. Among its basic features is a dial tone. The battery in the Motorola V195, above right, allows eight hours of of talk time.
Now, cellphone companies are understandably unenthusiastic about this category of phones (and customers). A basic phone, after all, will never rack up charges for Web surfing, music, photos, games, ringer sounds and so on.
Nonetheless, the four big cellular companies gamely sent along their super-simplest phones for a Simplicity Derby. To make the game more interesting, there’s a fifth entry: a new phone called the Jitterbug that’s designed solely for simplicity lovers.
Individual reviews follow. In the meantime, note that even these bare-bones phones offer illuminated keys, speed dialing and a vibrate mode; all but the Jitterbug have text messaging and a headset jack. Except as noted, sound quality is loud and clear — at least where you have service. (In my experience — and that of Consumer Reports — Verizon has the best coverage, although you can save money with its rivals.)
CINGULAR Cingular submitted two phones. Both are part of its GoPhone plan, which means you prepay for your minutes. You simplify your life by eliminating contracts, bills, credit checks and surprises — but you pay a steep 10 to 25 cents a minute. (The other carriers offer similar plans.)
First, there’s the Motorola C139 ($40): a small, black capsule that’s quite possibly the worst cellphone on earth.
You could write a whole booklet about the failings of this phone — a five-way controller whose middle button isn’t Select, a tiny screen that fits only two lines of menu text at a time — but the worst part is how many steps it takes to do anything. Somehow, Motorola has managed to strip down this phone without actually simplifying it.
Let us count the taps. To turn off the ringer: 7 steps (press the volume-down key repeatedly). Open the phone book: 1. Open the Recent Calls list: 2 or 3 (for no good reason, incoming and outgoing calls are listed separately). See your own phone number: 8.
You know what? Life’s too short.
Cingular’s second entry, the Sony Ericsson Z300a ($40), is more successful. It’s a sweet metallic-blue flip phone with a dedicated on/off button (a rarity).
This phone isn’t utterly barren; an alarm clock, a calendar, a stopwatch, and rings for individual callers await, if you want them. The ringers are rich and polyphonic, if not especially loud.
But the Sony has only a so-so Software Simplicity Score. Ringer off: 2 steps. Phone book: 4. Recent Calls list: 1. See your own number: 2.
Talk time is very good (five and a half hours). The buttons and on-screen text are both tiny, though, and the manual practically requires an electron microscope. And the earpiece is a little hissy.
T-MOBILE Among simple phones, the Motorola V195 ($30 with two-year contract) is at the high end. It’s the only phone here with Bluetooth, for example, for use with a wireless headset. You can use MP3 music files as your ringer sounds. And AOL, Yahoo and ICQ instant messaging are available. Setting up these things, however, is decidedly unsimple.
You can dial by voice (“call Mom”), although you must train each name individually. You can’t type more than one letter (like D) to navigate your phone book; after that, you must arrow-key your way through the D’s, which can be infuriating.
The 2, 5 and 8 keys are nice and big; inexplicably, the other keys are much narrower. The battery is incredible, though: eight hours of talk time.
The phone’s Software Simplicity Score is very good. Turn off the ringer: 1 step. Phone book: 1. Recent Calls list: 2 or 3 (there’s no unified list). See your own number: 3.
Finally, a plug for T-Mobile’s Web site. Its coverage maps don’t just show you vague blobs of the country — it shows you the reception at individual street addresses.
VERIZON The software on the shiny, compact LG Electronics VX3400 flip phone ($30) could teach Motorola a thing or two. Ringer off: 1 step. Phone book: 1. Recent Calls: 1. See your own number: 4. Speakerphone: 1.
On this phone, menu commands are numbered. Instead of scrolling nine times, you can just press 9 — a quick trick when you want the calendar, alarm clock, tip calculator, world clock or unit converter.
The ringer is superloud — you’ll hear this one in your pocket — and call quality is top-notch. You can dial by voice command, after training. The sole disappointments: the keys aren’t very big and the battery yields only three hours of talking.
SPRINT The Samsung A420 ($10) is a silver wisp of a thing, a flip phone the width of a matchbook. Its unique contribution to the Cellphone Simplicity movement: It turns on with a quick tap — not a long press — on the Power button. (What’s the point of the press-and-hold requirement on a flip phone, anyway? It can’t get turned on accidentally in your pocket.)
There’s a dedicated speakerphone button; large-type numbered menus; voice dialing (with training); alarm clock, calendar and calculator.
The efficiency quotient is about average. Turn off ringer: 7 steps (or hold down the volume key a long time). Phone book: 1. Full Recent Calls list: 4. See your own number: 5. Speakerphone: 1.
Unfortunately, there’s no screen on the outside, so you have to open the flip to see who’s calling or check the time. And the battery dies after only about 3.5 hours of chatting.
JITTERBUG But hold the phone — what’s this late entry? It’s the Jitterbug phone (available from www.greatcall.com), “a totally new cellphone experience!”
It’s intended for “the ever-growing baby boomer/mature market, those who want a simplified cellphone experience.” Put another way, it’s for technophobic old people.
This satiny-white flip phone is so big that when you’re on a call, the earpiece and mouthpiece are right next to the proper orifices of your head. The Jitterbug has huge illuminated buttons, gigantic type on the screen and a dedicated on/off key.
Nor are those the only nods to the over-40 set: this may be the only cellphone on earth that, when opened, produces a dial tone.
And how’s this for clever? Number of steps to find your own number: zero, since it’s on a sticker right below the screen.
Most radical of all, this phone has no branching menu system whatsoever. When you open the phone, the screen says: “Voice Dial?” If you press the Yes key, you can say “Call Casey” to place the call; no training is required. If you press No, you can scroll through the phone book and hit Yes to dial.
And that’s it. No calculator, games, text messaging, Internet, headset jack, speakerphone or on-screen status icons — not even a carrier logo. In fact, GreatCall won’t even say who provides its service, and there’s no coverage map at its Web site. Even voice mail is an extra-cost option (unless you prepay a year in advance).
The pricing is steep — $40 a month for 300 minutes, for example — but includes 24-hour operator service (press 0, of course). More of a concierge, really; the operator greets you by name and offers to look up a number, place a call for you, or add numbers to your phone book by remote control. You “pay” for each such call with five extra minutes of talk time. (On my review sample, only an operator could add numbers to the phone book. GreatCall says you’ll be able to add numbers yourself when the phones ship on Oct. 9.)
The large, cupped earpiece is plenty loud, but the audio quality is sometimes slightly muffled or even echoey. Battery life is a paltry three hours.
SUMMING UP Simple cellphones may not get much press, and the phone stores may hide them on the bottom shelf behind the car adapters, but they’re out there. And some, like Verizon’s efficient LG 3400 or the totally rethought Jitterbug, should bring happiness to simplicity seekers everywhere. They prove that the movement for simpler electronics is still alive and well; after all, life is complex enough already.