Believe it or not, not everyone knows how to use a cell phone, especially one gussied up with advanced multimedia frills. Among the most mystified and confused by cell phones are senior “don’t call us old” citizens. Our grandparents, to whom “wireless” is another name for radio, were born in the age before the transistor radio, television, VCR, and personal computer, and therefore lack the second-nature technological intuition of today’s high-tech generation, and born into an environment inundated by digitalia.
Stepping into this demographic void is a new company called GreatCall. Its Jitterbug cell phone service turns the whole cell phone paradigm on its head to meet the needs of this underserved niche. There are two Jitterbug clamshell phones, both made by Samsung, both priced at $147. Simple service plans are priced at $10/SOS (emergency use) only per month, $15/30 minutes per month, $20/60 minutes, $30/150 minutes or $40/300 minutes USD.
One interesting note: GreatCall’s founders are Arlene Harris and her husband, Marty Cooper, who is the former Motorola executive responsible for the development of the first cell phone in 1973.
*Editors Note 4/29/07 – We changed the Jitterbug discount on page to from 20 to 40%. We also removed the link to the secure Jitterbug website which was not working.
Features and Design
The target market for Jitterbug is not this reviewer, and probably not most of you reading this. In order to more accurately gauge Jitterbug’s attributes, I loaned a phone to my parents, both in their early 80s. Much of the judgments reported here come from them.
Jitterbug operates on a CDMA network, either Verizon’s or Sprint’s — the company won’t say which. It doesn’t have (or need) EV-DO service since there’s no internet access. The five simple monthly minute service plans do not require a lengthy multi-year commitment (for obvious reasons), but there are substantial discounts if you pay for a year of service in advance, including up to 40 percent off the price of the handset. All unused minutes roll over to the next month, up to 90 days. Voicemail is the only extra — $3 a month. The phone itself can be purchased in three $49 payments. Phones are available in English, French, and Spanish versions.
There are two Jitterbug phones, the OneTouch and the Dial. The OneTouch phone is literally an emergency phone — it has no keypad, just three call buttons: “OPERATOR,” “TOW” (or “FRIEND,” “HOME,” “WORK,” or whatever — Jitterbug will program any number you want behind this button), and “911.” Jitterbug Dial, officially the SPH-a120, is a more standard dialpad-equipped phone — and only a phone. No camera, no wireless Web, no text messaging, no music player, no anything except a cell phone. We’ll be concentrating here on the Dial, but both phones operate similarly.
Both duckbill-shaped, satin white (if slightly effeminate) phones measure 4 x 2.25 x 1 inches, which might seem a bit bulky to younger folks with youthful digital dexterity accustomed to miniaturization. But for often arthritic seniors, the wide-body, contoured phone is easier to grip and manipulate. When open, the phone is 7.25 inches long, which places the microphone closer to the mouth. Technically, mouth-to-mic proximity doesn’t ensure a clear conversation (in fact, if you’re too close, your voice could become distorted at the other end), but it provides a psychological assurance to seniors that their voices will be heard.
Unlike other modern phones, there are no buttons lining the perimeter of the Dial for seniors to accidentally press. Plus, small spine buttons are hard enough to find and identify with young eyes, much less with optics afflicted by age, cataracts, or glaucoma.
A volume toggle on the front flap under the small screen (which always displays the time and date) is the only external control. When the phone is open, this control is at the top of the phone, where most seniors — used to large, wired phone receivers — hold the phone. All other buttons are inside.
Jitterbug’s dialpad is comprised of extra-large round, colorfully lit, and easy-to-read buttons. The glowing white-on-black numeric buttons are ringed with a neon yellow glow for extra emphasis. Above the dialpad are green-ringed “YES” and red-ringed “NO” keys. Backlights stay illuminated for 10 minutes, plenty of time for even the slowest number puncher. In between the “YES” and “NO” keys is an up/down toggle. Above the “NO” key is a separate “on/off” key. And that’s all the buttons.
Below the 1.85-inch, 160 x 128 pixel LCD screen, your phone number is embossed (a nice touch, since seniors may be unable to recall a not-often repeated phone number). Above the screen is the large earpiece speaker.
Lining the rim of the top flap is a rubber gasket to protect delicate elderly ears. The gasket also helps the user accurate locate the speaker on their ear and doesn’t slip when hunching the phone in place with your shoulder.
There’s no menu button, because there’s no menu. There’s no menu, because this phone has only five features to scroll through when needed. One of these features is, of course, a phone book, which can hold up to 50 numbers. When you order a phone, you give Jitterbug a list of the top five phone numbers you want initially programmed into it. Once you get your pre-programmed phone, your contact list can be updated and managed from the phone, from a secure Jitterbug webpage (coming soon), or by calling Jitterbug (they’ll add the names and numbers for you). Also, after a call comes in, you are asked if you want to save the number.
There is also no-training voice dial and voice mail. However, it’s not what’s offered, but how you use what’s offered that’s the impressive part of the Jitterbug experience.
Image Courtesy of GreatCall
It’s refreshing – and rare – to find a phone that someone actually put some effort into designing, both hardware and interface, that actually improves the way people will use it.
First and foremost, people baffled by technology on any level are never on their own or forced to use the manual. Jitterbug operators are almost literally standing by, 24/7. Just press “0″ to reach a live Jitterbug operator who answers you by name for any Jitterbug need, including finding a number and placing a call for you. This service is essentially free; Jitterbug merely deducts the minutes used as it would for any call.
As to the phone’s actual performance, it starts off reassuringly to non-cell phone users. When you open the flap, the phone emits a dial tone for 30 seconds – not a real dial tone, of course, but a comforting sound to seniors unfamiliar or uncomfortable with a cell phone’s silence. The screen displays a voice dial prompt. Simply say a name from your phone book, the phone asks you to confirm, then it dials. No voice training necessary. Our Jitterbug had no trouble with dialing “home” or “Stewart’s cell” upon command. I actually had two “Stewart” entries, one for cell and one for home; when I simply said “Stewart,” it asked “Stewart’s Cell?” You can also ignore the prompt and dial directly, or, as noted, just dial “0″ and ask the operator to dial.
If you hit “NO” on the voice dial prompt, the screen then displays the first name in your phone list, which you can scroll through, one name/number per screen. Press “NO” again and you get a list of the last few outgoing calls, again, one name/number per screen. Press “NO” again and you’re asked if you want to check for saved voice mail messages. Press “NO” again and you get a phone status screen (battery life, signal strength, and approximate minutes used). Press “NO” once more and you’re back to the voice dial prompt. All but the outgoing call and status screens are accompanied by a dial tone, and all screens can be ignored if you simply want to dial.
If you miss a call, the first screen you’re greeted with upon opening the flap is a notice that voice mail is waiting, along with a “YES” or “NO” choice to listen to said message(s).
And that’s the entire menu. All prompts and dialed numbers, like the keypad, are displayed in large, easy-to-read fonts. Even the slim, 103-page manual has large, easily-readable type.
Our lone complaint is ringers. Jitterbug offers five polyphonic ringers. The default scaling, flute-like ringer is plenty loud at its maximum setting, but no louder than most loud ringing cell phones (likewise for the relative tameness of the vibrate alert). Raising, lowering, or silencing the ringer toggle is simply a matter of manipulating the external volume control with the flap up, but you can’t change the tone itself from the phone. Ringers can be adjusted only on the user’s personal www.myjitterbug.com webpage (although we couldn’t find a subscriber login link at this URL) or by calling the Jitterbug operator. However, this is a minor issue, since most casual phone users worry more about hearing the phone than the relative distinctiveness of the ringtone.
As you’d expect, conversation volume is exceptionally loud (my hearing aid-wearing father lauded its volume) — louder than most cell phones we’ve used — and call quality is near landline quality.
Battery life is a bit shorter than we’d expect — 3 hours talk and 8.3 days standby — but this is a phone that seniors are likely to keep plugged in until needed.
Jitterbug is a brilliantly conceived and executed concept, filling a need for a large and growing segment of the population that simply need a basic cell. Considering the handset’s modest capabilities, it’s a bit pricey, but it is also quite specialized, designed as it is for a specific user base, and doesn’t exactly have any competition. I and my parents highly recommend the Jitterbug phone and service for all senior technophobes.
• Simple to use
• Easy to handle, uncluttered handset
• Large, bright, readable keys and display fonts
• Simple pricing plans
• 24/7 subscriber assistance
• Expensive, unsubsidized handset
• Cannot change speakerphone volume