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Smartphone for the elderly: buying advice

How to choose a smartphone if you are old and wise

Smartphones offer more than 'traditional' mobile phones, but they can be overly complicated to use, and many of their features may be more hindrance than help if all you want from a phone is the ability to make calls and send text messages. Here's PC Advisor's older person's guide to what to look for in a smartphone.

The trouble is that smartphones are very, very popular. There are very few simple feature phones available on the high street right now, and if you need a new phone you may find that a smartphone is the only way to go, with all the expense that entails. But this needn't be bad news: the internet is for everyone, and if you use email, like to browse the web or look at photos on Facebook, the right smartphone will be a brilliant purchase.

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. (Being myself firmly ensconced in middle age, I'm going to try to avoid being patronising here, but should I fail in this, do feel free to let me know in the comments at the bottom of the story!) See also: Group test: what's the best smartphone?

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 such as Google AndroidWindows Phone or Apple iOS. They have larger displays than feature phones, usually at least 3.5in, and they will have some form of QWERTY keyboard: usually an onscreen touch keyboard, although BlackBerry handsets have small hardware keyboards.

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 seemlessly 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 offputting, 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.

iPhone interface1. 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.

Windows Phone has taken great strides, and although the interface is flashy and full of bright colours, it is now the simplest mobile operating system to use. Windows Phones are rarely cheap, and there are few of them about, but they do tend to be high-quality products. Windows Phone is very much a love-it-or-hate-it proposition, however, so make sure you have a good play with it before you commit.

BlackBerry was once the undisputed king of the connected smartphone space, but in recent years it has fallen behind the others. With BlackBerry you usually get a physical keyboard. This may be a good thing, you'd think, but the keys are often tiny and may be harder for you to use than a good onscreen touch keyboard. 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 Bold 9790 is the way to go.

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 3.5in display, these days. High end devices such as the Android-running Samsung Galaxy S3 have massive 4.8in or 5in 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 4S 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.

Around 100g is about as light as you can expect to go with a smartphone. Such phones as the HTC Desire C and Sony Xperia U fit this criteria, and they are happily amongst the cheapest out there. But you'll lose out in other areas, such as screen sharpness and features - so once again, work out what is most important to you and try before you buy.

Smartphone for the elderly: specialist handsets

If you've tried multiple handsets, and none has worked for you, you may wish to explore dedicated handsets for elderly users. Companies such as ITTM make 'easy to use' phones, lightweight handsets with large buttons. Calling these devices smartphones is pushing it a little, however, and we can't vouch for how good they are. Still, there are options out there even if you are physically incapable of using a standard smartphone handset. And although it is not yet available outside Japan, Fujitsu has announced a smartphone for the elderly.

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