Katherine Boehret

Loud-and-Clear Mobile Calls for Seniors

My grandmother, a college graduate and former reference librarian, recently walked out of an electronics store in frustration. She compared the techie conversations that were going on around her with people speaking in a different language. And she isn’t alone.

Though it isn’t always obvious, the technology industry sees senior citizens as a target demographic — especially where cellphones are concerned. Mobile phones could act as valuable lifelines in health-related situations and, at the very least, provide an easier way for relatives to keep in touch. Major cellphone carriers offer models that they say are easier for seniors to use thanks to big buttons and large screen fonts. But some companies go a step further. GreatCall Inc., for example, designed its Jitterbug cellphone specifically to appeal to non-techies, including — but not limited to — senior citizens. It shirks phone extras like Internet access for simplicity and includes a concierge service that does things like remotely adding numbers to the phone so users don’t have to do it.

This week, I took a look at a cellphone that was designed specifically for senior citizens: the ClarityLife C900. It’s the first cellphone from Clarity (clarityproducts.com), a division of Plantronics Inc. (PLT) that specializes in telephony (landlines and other products) for people with hearing loss. The cellphone incorporates features that are useful for someone who may be hard of hearing or using a hearing aid.

The C900 is a bulky slider phone with a top half that slides up, revealing a number keypad below; number keys each measure a half-inch square. This might be a deterrent for seniors who want their phone to look hip or slip easily into a pocket. But Clarity says the phone’s deliberately large size makes it easier to hold and use, and accommodates a roomy 2.5-inch screen.

I found the C900 relatively easy to navigate with sensible on-screen commands, though there were a few times when I couldn’t back out of a screen and had to close the slider to start over. Friends’ voices sounded loud and full when heard through this cellphone, though it lacks a speakerphone, which my grandparents could use for calling relatives and singing “Happy Birthday” together.

claritylife
The $270 ClarityLife C900 has oversized buttons and a red emergency button on the back that, when pressed, calls five contacts.

The C900 costs $270 — a steep price because it’s “unlocked,” or not tied to any one carrier, but according to Clarity’s research, senior citizens don’t like to get into long-term contracts like two-year deals. This unlocked model will work on any GSM network, like T-Mobile or AT&T (T), but buyers must take the phone to a carrier’s store to get it set up and working. The phone also could be added as one of the lines in an existing family plan.

People who would rather save money than avoid contracts can get the ClarityLife for $185 tied into a one-year service deal with T-Mobile. These monthly service prices range from $19 pay-as-you-go (20 cents a minute) to $99 for unlimited calling.

The hearing-related features on this cellphone include a 20-decibel speaker and a way to notify people of incoming calls using simultaneous ringing, vibrating and a flashing green light. All the buttons on the device make loud noises, including those that control volume. The C900 is also hearing-aid-compliant, meaning it won’t cause static interference when held up to an ear with a hearing aid.

The C900 has a large, red button on its back side that, when enabled and pressed, automatically calls and/or sends text messages to a list of five emergency contacts until it reaches someone. These contacts are notified via an automatic dialing system and must press “0″ when they answer to accept the emergency call so the system knows that a real person picked up, instead of a voicemail or answering machine. Five postcards with instructions come with this phone, and can be mailed to emergency contacts so they know what to do if they receive an emergency call from the C900 phone. Users could potentially add “911″ to their list of emergency callers.

Most people will likely use the C900 in its closed slider position, revealing just four buttons at a time. These oversized buttons can scroll through contacts, call friends and end calls. A feature called “Top 10″ lets users add their 10 most frequently called numbers in the order they prefer, which is a refreshing change from the alphabetical listing that most phones use.

The C900 accepts and sends SMS, or text messages, and comes loaded with nine canned text messages including the ominous, “I don’t have much time.” An extremely loud chime sounds when messages are received or sent.

Other helpful features include a hard button on the phone’s top edge that opens an alarm-clock function, and a button for an ultra-bright, built-in flashlight. This could come in handy, though it must be held down to stay on.

Clarity says that the C900′s battery life lasts for three hours of talk time or 150 hours in standby, and that it takes one hour to fully charge after the phone’s first-time-use four-hour charge. I left my fully charged C900 powered off for a couple weeks and it still had a full charge when I turned it back on again. This could be really helpful for people who forget to charge their phone, but want to grab it to take along on a trip.

A phonebook entry titled “Customer Care” comes preprogrammed on all ClarityLife C900s. This number is answered by Clarity’s customer-service team, people who are trained to consider a caller’s specific issues, such as hearing or memory loss. The representatives speak slowly, avoid tech jargon, and can use an amplifier to make their voices louder and easier to hear.

The ClarityLife C900 is expensive, but this phone’s hearing-targeted features will be appreciated by many seniors, as will its oversized buttons and easy-to-hold size and shape.

Write to Katherine Boehret at mossbergsolution@wsj.com


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