In search of simple phones


When a letter landed on my desk addressed to the BBC Technical Correspondent, I opened it with care. In the past, a typewritten envelope has sometimes proved to contain something extremely unpleasant - but this time the opposite was true.

Inside, I found an extremely courteous and interesting request for information and a stamped addressed envelope for my reply. My correspondent, a lady from Leicester, wanted to know whether there were simple phones on the market that did little more than just make calls. She went so far as to lay out in some detail exactly what she was seeking, right down to a diagram of the size of the keys.

Now I have been asked the very same question by relatives and have made some suggestions, but I wanted to seek out more information before I replied. So I consulted a modern communications method, Twitter. There were plenty of useful ideas - and then someone asked me whether I would blog about what I'd found out.

So here are a few suggestions of what is out there for anyone who does not need their phone to be too smart. I should of course stress that neither I nor the BBC is endorsing any of these products - just giving you a glimpse of a market that we should perhaps cover more frequently.

Doro is a company that specialises in big button phones and other products aimed at elderly people. They seem to range from some slightly more sophisticated handsets with cameras to phones with just four buttons programmed to call family or summon help.

Emporia is a company I've come across at various mobile phone trade shows promoting its easy-to-use handsets. Its phones are better looking than many in this sector - but you do pay extra for that.

A company called Mymemory is also selling an extremely basic big button phone. You'll need a simcard to go in it - and the advert pointedly says it does not do 3G. But then the mobile web is not high on the agenda of anyone looking for this kind of phone.

And similarly, the TTfone Basic Big Button comes sim free and without the capacity to roam the mobile internet.

Neither the major manufacturers nor the big mobile networks spend much time on marketing simple phones that do little - that's not where the money is. But this basic Nokia on sale via Vodafone was recommended by one tweeter. It is also a sad reminder of just how good and durable Nokia phones used to be - and probably still are.

The charity Age UK is launching a mobile phone service, My Phone. It comes printed with the names of up to eight people the user chooses - just press the name and the call is made. You pay £55 for the handset, and then choose a tariff for calls.

The Spare One is one of a number of pared down devices really just meant for emergencies. They can be put in a glove compartment and forgotten, as they are powered by AA batteries which last for years. This may be the closest thing to what my correspondent was seeking - she wanted it powered by the kind of batteries you get in a torch. But it does not look suitable for everyday use.

So that is just a few ideas which I hope will prove useful to Mrs S in Leicester and to others in search of simplicity when it comes to mobile phones. Feel free to add more suggestions at the bottom of this blog.

Rory Cellan-Jones Article written by Rory Cellan-Jones Rory Cellan-Jones Technology correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    I bought my elderly and partially sighted mother one of the phones mentioned above, and while she was initially very happy with it, it soon started malfunctioning. Naturally, not being confident with technology, she blamed herself. I'd like to get her a Georgie smartphone, but she won't try it after her experiences with this one. Can anyone recommend it or provide any feedback?

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.


    I've no doubt a smart phone could me made very accessible - I could even write an app myself if needed.

    It does't meet my needs though. Not being people who carry mobiles all the while, we would like something cheap(ish) and reliable that can sit for months in the glove box so there is always a phone there in case of emergency. Big buttons and torch not essential but certainly bonuses.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    My 80 yo dad ended up buying a mega-multi-function phone. I have spent around 6 hours so far helping him with it. The thing is just too complicated for a confused elderly gentleman. The saleman obviously saw an oportunity, and bamboozled him with all the "must haves". He's too embaressed to return the thing, or let me do so

    A user should own a phone - not a phone owning the user & his son.

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    The market for elderly people is huge but untapped by the mobile phone people

    They insist on making 1000 function phones when 25% of the population only need 5 function phones

    big buttons
    easy on/off
    And a big easy to read screen

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    We should not be encouraging people to stay stuck in the past like this.

    I have heard the 'I just want something simple' argument time and again. The fact is, for proper accessibility iPhones are one of the best things you can own (I have worked with disability charities on this) I am sure most other smartphones have caught up.

    By contrast, dumbphones are cheap, clunky and difficult to navigate.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    My Father could really have benefited from one of these before he passed away. I bought one for him from one of the manufacturers mentioned in the article and it was very unreliable. It failed completely within weeks. Reliability needs improving!

    Speakerphone mode works well on modern smartphones (my Dad loved it) but ironically *not* on some of the phones supposedly designed for older people!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    A wind-up phone probably wouldn't be much better for the environment than a standard rechargeable phone. If someone is forgetting to charge their phone, then wireless charging may be for them.

    If someone wants a phone with just one or two panic buttons on it - surely a smartphone app (or possibly even a custom build of Android) would do the job?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    Prescription Displays please!
    As someone with middle-aged eyes, I so wish that someone would develop a phone with a microlense over each of the pixels in the display so that the image was focussed in the middle distance. It's really boring looking for your reading glasses when you want to use your phone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Nobody likes to hear the truth, but its a good point....
    If you need big simple buttons, you can't possibly read a car number plate at 20m and as such could not possibly pass a driving test. Explains why so many drive about at 42mph everywhere, they can't read the damn road signs.

    Simple mobile phones are not hard to find, grab an old Nokia handset at a popular online aution site.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    We do keep a wind up torch in the glove box and did try keeping a cheap basic mobile there but we never remembered to charge it up.

    It looks as if something like the Spare One would meet our needs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Slightly concerned that Mrs L's requirements are remarkably similar to the description of the Spare One. Hope you've not been caught by some subtle marketing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    There's also - not a phone you can dial as such, but offers an alternative and very simple approach.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Yes, this person needs a torch that makes phone calls. And you know as soon as they have that, they'll want a radio too, and a camera, and a compass. Seriously though, they obviously don't have a computer/printer hence the typewritten letter, so they're not likely to read these comments, or RCJ's suggestions are they? And should they really be driving still?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Rory, you missed the point of the letter:

    "Operates like a hand-torch with batteries"

    I think this lady was looking for a battery-powered torch.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    On a minor technical note, a lot of networks will cut SIMs off after six months of total inactivity on the assumption that they're not being used. It usually just takes one call to reset the countdown, but it's worth doing that, otherwise a phone kept 'for emergencies' may not work when you have one.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    As an IT professional, I am genuinely in awe of your correspondent's ability to write requirements. Her statement of needs was brief, specific and to the point. Better yet, it gave a scenario of when she might need it.

    Her need, as expressed, is one my mother has struggled with and didn't get much help with from phone shops in trying to meet it. This was a really useful and interesting article.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    I was in the same situation for my nan last Christmas. We ended up getting here a doro phone even though it's not exactly cheap (circa 100) but it does have good features like it will emergency call several people should she need help. It was definitely worth it for the peace of mind as her home phone had been having line issues.

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    With some people, no matter how simple something is, their eyes STILL glaze over when confronted by something new and then fear sets in.

    What they want is something thats exactly like what they already have (only newer, because apparently new is always better). Something that requires no extra learning.....

    "We don't like change".

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    @ _Ewan_ #8
    It's a good shout, but even I struggle with tiny BB keyboard! I have looked closely at a Nokia Lumia - strip down the home screen with just 'essential' tiles, put pictures of her contacts into the address and bury anything she won't need - FB, Twitter etc. Cheap too...!

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    At the weekend my wife bought a Nokia 100 at less than £20 having looked at several models of basic phone in the shop. One had large keys but that was not a requirement. There was a range of prices.
    No problem


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