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Jitterbug Plus: A Social but Simple Cellphone for Seniors

My parents aren’t that interested in technology, but a cellphone is something they both wanted in case of an emergency. Even after buying the most basic handset, my brother and I had to add their contacts to the address book and show them — several times — how to navigate the menus. And still, if they ever do need to text us, they get a friend or colleague to help them.

They’re not alone, either. There are many people, especially older baby boomers, who find today’s mobiles to be confusing or complicated. But there are simpler solutions out there that include operator assistance and other helpful services in case of an emergency.

GreatCall is a company that specializes in easy-to-use phones for — but not limited to — senior citizens, and this week I tested its latest handset, the Jitterbug Plus. Like previous models, it features large buttons, simplified menus and operator service, and adds a louder speaker, longer battery life and a built-in camera.

The camera doesn’t take the best pictures, but it’s nice that GreatCall now offers a phone with that option. You can also share your photos via multimedia message or upload them to Facebook or other online services, and GreatCall’s operator service is a great source of help.

That said, I’d recommend the Jitterbug Plus only if you plan on making occasional calls or want access to GreatCall’s operator and emergency services, as the phone and monthly plans are a bit pricey.

The Jitterbug Plus usually costs $119; it’s currently on sale for $99 for a limited time, and does not require an annual contract. Plans start at $14.99 per month for 50 voice minutes, and run up to $79.99 per month for unlimited voice, text and voicemail. By comparison, Verizon and AT&T both have $50 monthly prepaid plans that include unlimited voice, text and Web, with basic handsets priced as low as $20.

The Jitterbug Plus is made by Samsung, and comes in gray or red. It looks and feels like a regular flip phone but has some design tweaks that make it easier to use. For example, it features Yes and No buttons that help you answer the onscreen questions for controlling the phone’s functions. Up and Down arrows also help you navigate the basic list-style menu.

It’s from this menu that you can choose the Camera option to start taking photos. The lens is located above the exterior display, and has a resolution of 1.3 megapixels. I took pictures outdoors and indoors, and the quality was mediocre. Images weren’t particularly sharp, and colors looked washed-out.

They may not be print-worthy, but you can still make out the objects in the image, so it’s a suitable stand-in if you don’t have your digital camera and want to capture photos of the grandkids and share them with friends and family.

GreatCall touts one-touch photo sharing, but I found that it’s not quite that simple. You can upload pictures to Facebook, Picasa and Shutterfly, but first you have to connect the Jitterbug Plus to these services. You can do this through GreatCall’s Web sitem or by calling customer service at 611. I did it online ,and it was a simple matter of entering my Facebook and Picasa login IDs and passwords.

Still, I couldn’t just upload a photo once I snapped the picture. Instead, I had to navigate back out to the main menu, go to My Photos, find the image, and then choose a sharing method. It would be nice if there was an option to do this immediately from the camera app to simplify the process.

As a phone, the Jitterbug Plus is excellent. GreatCall phones operate on Verizon’s network, and I tested the phone throughout San Francisco. I didn’t experience any dropped calls, and audio was clear, without any background noise or voice distortion. There was enough volume to hear callers in a room with the TV on, and outside on the street, as well. Friends and family also reported good sound, even when I turned the speakerphone on.

In my battery tests, the cellphone offered seven hours and 45 minutes of continuous talk time on a single charge, beating GreatCall’s estimate of five hours. Standby battery time is up to 25 days, so you don’t have to worry about charging it every day. However, I wish there was an easier way to check battery life. As it is, the phone doesn’t show the battery status anywhere on the screen; instead, it buries it under Phone Info in the menu.

The phone’s call quality and battery are standouts, but it’s GreatCall’s services that makes the Jitterbug Plus different. As with other Jitterbug models, you can dial “0″ to talk to an operator, available 24/7, who can help you make calls, send text messages, add names to your phone book and more, at no additional cost. (I also liked that I had the option of adding contacts to the address book through GreatCall’s Web site, instead of having to peck out each name and number using the phone’s alphanumeric keypad.)

I called the operator several times — to send texts and add contacts — and each time, someone picked up right away and handled my requests quickly and without problem. On my first call, the operator even went through the courtesy of asking me how I’d like to be addressed in future calls.

In addition, you can add services, such as GreatCall’s 5Star Urgent Response to talk to somebody if you find yourself in an unsafe situation. Health and medical apps are also available, such as LiveNurse, which connects you to a registered nurse if you need medical advice, and MedCoach for medication reminders.

Note that each app requires an additional monthly fee, ranging between $4 and $15. However, LiveNurse is included for free with the premium plans, which start at $39.99 per month.

GreatCall’s services can offer peace of mind to seniors and family members, and though some things could improved, overall, I found the Jitterbug Plus to be a well-designed and solid-performing handset that simplifies the cellphone experience for the older set.


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— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik