Katherine Boehret

Simple Cells: Basic Phones Put to the Test

The cellphones that so many of us carry around in our pockets every day are packed with functionality. They can be used for Web browsing, watching TV, purchasing digital music, gaming, Bluetooth synching, capturing photos and videos, instant messaging and GPS navigation. Oh, and they also make phone calls.

It seems that this last attribute — the ability to make and receive calls on a cellphone — is overlooked and underestimated by many manufacturers. But believe it or not, there are plenty of people out there who simply want to use their cellphones for calls, period.

These individuals range from college students who frequently damage or lose their phones to wary, first-time buyers to senior citizens whose kids or grandchildren insist they use a cellphone. About a year ago, GreatCall Inc. introduced its Jitterbug cellphones, which were aimed squarely at the senior set with large keys, a free operator service and the phone’s own number prominently displayed on a sticker.

It seems that GreatCall was on to something. Verizon Wireless recently followed the company’s lead by introducing its straightforward, no frills Coupe, a cellphone that offers many of the helpful traits found on Jitterbug phones, like large screen fonts, but without a lot of extras. Verizon simultaneously unveiled two calling plans designed specifically for seniors, and was followed a month later by AT&T and its own monthly plan for those 65 and over. AT&T also has an uncomplicated phone of its own in the works for 2008.

This week I tested Verizon’s $40 (with a two-year contract) Coupe (www.verizonwireless.com) against GreatCall’s $147 Jitterbug Dial (www.jitterbug.com) to see how the two stacked up. I found the Jitterbug more comfortable to use for longer phone calls because of its cushiony earpiece, which blocks out external sound and helps the phone rest easier between your shoulder and ear during conversations. And Jitterbug’s mantra of simplicity will appeal to cellphone newcomers.

But for those who have been using cellphones and are familiar with the way they work, Jitterbug’s nonconformist features — like Yes and No buttons in place of Send and End and the use of a dial tone whenever the clamshell-shaped phone is opened — can come across as too basic, to the point that they’re confusing. One example: many standard cellphones redial the last number called when the Send button is pressed twice, but redialing on the Jitterbug requires navigating through five screens to redial the last number.

The Coupe is the smaller of the two and blends in with other cellphones. It includes a few of the extra functions found in normal mobile phones, like an alarm clock, calculator and the capability to send and receive text messages; perhaps most people who buy the Coupe won’t use it for texting, but it’s nice to have the built-in option. (The Jitterbug doesn’t have any of these features.) Right now, this cellphone only comes in shiny black with a blue border around its outside display screen. An included charging cradle adds a touch of convenience.

The Coupe also has some fun features that give it a more personal touch, including a choice of 24 ringtones and 10 wallpaper designs for the main screen’s background. After seeing low-grade camera lenses on nearly every digital device that I’ve picked up recently, the Coupe looked a little naked without one.

Three red buttons labeled I, C and E (for In Case of Emergency) are positioned just below the phone’s screen and can be assigned names and numbers to work as shortcuts to those most often called. A specially marked “911″ button on the phone’s keypad is designated specifically for emergencies, though this must be held down to use and, even then, asks if the caller definitely intended to call 911.

A speaker button is also clearly labeled on the Coupe’s keypad, and pronounced volume adjustment keys line the phone’s side. On-screen fonts appear larger than those found on regular cellphones.

Verizon’s well-known network is sure to be a draw for potential buyers, especially because any plan used with the Coupe includes free calls to other Verizon Wireless users. Though any of this carrier’s plans work with this basic phone, the Nationwide 65 Plus plan made its debut with the Coupe in hopes of appealing to those ages 65 and up. A single-line plan allows 200 anytime minutes and 500 night and weekend minutes for $30 monthly; the two-line plan offers roughly double the minutes (to be shared) for double the price. These plans aren’t exclusively usable with the Coupe.

GreatCall’s Jitterbug comes in two $147 models: the Dial, with a numeric keypad and the OneTouch, with just three large buttons labeled Operator, Tow and 911. I’ve tested both in the past, but this time around I looked at the Dial because it’s most comparable to Verizon’s Coupe.

The Jitterbug Dial phone comes in black or white, and its buttons and all of its on-screen lettering appear considerably larger than the Verizon Coupe’s. Its number keys glow bright white and are encircled by yellow borders, while the Coupe’s digital keypad is black with glowing blue numbers — colors that aren’t as distinctive. Unlike the Coupe, Jitterbug doesn’t come with a charging cradle, though GreatCall has plans for adding cradles in 2008.

A free operator service can be reached from Jitterbug phones by pressing “0.” This operator greets users by name, places calls on the user’s phone (saving you the trouble of dialing) and can add numbers to a phone’s contact list if a user doesn’t want to or can’t do this.

The Jitterbug can be pre-programmed with names and numbers; I ordered mine with five pre-programmed numbers, a luxury that nervous new cellphone owners might find worthwhile. Things get difficult when you try to enter your contacts. Even though each number key has three or four letters assigned to its key as on all phones, adding a contact involves using Jitterbug’s clumsy system of choosing one letter at a time from the screen. You’re better off using the free operator service for this.

Jitterbug phones let users store only 50 contact names and numbers, while Verizon’s Coupe will store 500. Many first-time cellphone owners will be content with 50, but, again, options are good.

The Jitterbug and Coupe each have small screens on their outer shells that display the time, date and phone numbers of incoming calls. But the Coupe displays its remaining battery power both on this outer screen and inside on its main screen, while the Jitterbug only flashes battery status on the screen if the battery reaches a certain low level, or if you navigate to a special “Phone Info” screen.

Graphic

Behind the scenes, GreatCall’s Jitterbug phones run using networks set up by other carriers; I never had any trouble dialing out or receiving calls. A variety of calling plans can be used with Jitterbug phones ranging from $10 monthly for pay-as-you-go at 35 cents a minute to $80 monthly for 800 minutes. Add-on packages of minutes and sharing plans are also available.

If you’re familiar with cellphones, the Jitterbug will be a confusing step back for you, even though its free operator service and comfortable earpiece are pluses. Some people will prefer the Jitterbug’s larger fonts and number keys to the Verizon Coupe’s smaller, more stylish build. Still, the Coupe is a good option for people who have at least some familiarity with technology and cellphones. Each in its own way does a good job of sticking to the basic task of handling phone calls.

Edited by Walter S. Mossberg

Email mossbergsolution@wsj.com.


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