Walt Mossberg

Jitterbug Touch 2: Simple Touch at a Sluggish Speed

For some folks, jumping from a simple flip phone to a smartphone can be overwhelming. Not only do they have to figure out the icons, apps and settings, and learn to type on glass, but their service-plan costs often shoot up.

This can be true of late adopters at any age, but is especially problematic for some seniors who find it difficult to learn new systems and may lack the eye-hand coordination to manipulate many screens teeming with small icons.

Now there’s a new $140 Android smartphone that aims to ease the transition. It replaces the standard Android icon screens with scrolling lists of large-font text boxes representing favorite apps and contacts. Its service plans don’t require a contract and can cost as little as $20 a month for minimal voice, data and texting. And it includes free 24/7 customer service and several apps aimed at seniors, ranging from a paid emergency service to a free medication reminder.


The Jitterbug Touch 2’s home screen

This phone is called the Jitterbug Touch 2 and it comes from a San Diego company called GreatCall Inc., which specializes in mobile products and services for seniors. For years, the company has made simple standard cellphones with large buttons, backed up by patient customer service. Last year, the company dipped its toe into the smartphone pool with the first Jitterbug Touch model, which had a touch screen and a slide-out physical keyboard.

Now, GreatCall is replacing the Touch with a full-blown, all-touch model. The new Jitterbug can download and run a variety of Android apps, just as they were designed, including Facebook, Google Maps and Gmail. It has both front and rear cameras, Wi-Fi and other standard smartphone features.

I’ve been testing the Jitterbug Touch 2 and have come to a mixed conclusion. I like the simplified interface very much and think it serves its purpose admirably: Making it easy to navigate and operate Android. But in my tests, the phone was often sluggish and prone to crashes. And after a short while, it ran out of storage. All this made using the phone confusing and frustrating — exactly the opposite of GreatCall’s aim.

On many occasions, the phone presented a blank black or white screen before switching apps or returning to its home screen. Or it would show a spinning circle for long periods during these transitions. At times, scrolling was briefly jerky and the screen was momentarily unresponsive. These behaviors would likely undermine the confidence of a smartphone novice.

Apps like Google Chrome and even the home screen crashed. When I tried to download a simple solitaire game and then some other small apps, I was informed the phone had “insufficient storage” to install the apps. This was despite the fact that I had only added a couple of apps, like Facebook, and one email account, and had taken only a few photos and a single video of one minute and 22 seconds. I added no music or documents. You can increase the phone’s storage with a memory card, which isn’t included.

The company couldn’t explain the problems I ran into with two units it sent me. It insisted they weren’t typical. But it’s worth noting that the phone itself is a modestly equipped model made by Chinese phone maker Huawei and it runs a two-year-old version of Android. In addition, the simplified interface involves many changes to standard Android. GreatCall has altered such basic features as the lock screen, the launcher, the contact list and the dialer.

There’s no built-in way to expose the phone’s underlying standard Android interface, though I glimpsed it during one crash. Besides, doing so would defeat the purpose of simplifying the phone, even if it somehow improved performance.

The Jitterbug Touch 2 isn’t the only smartphone with a simplified interface. The Samsung Galaxy S4 offers an “Easy Mode” with large icons and text. But GreatCall says its studies show aging seniors are much more comfortable with its text panels than with icons of any size.

When it works smoothly, GreatCall’s interface is a pleasure to use. The main screen has two large tabs at the top: “Home” and “People.” The Home tab is a customizable scrolling list of your favorite apps. Each app is represented by a horizontal panel with the name of the app in big letters and a colorful illustrative icon. Phone calling is at the top, followed by Text Messages, Camera and Photo Album. A large text button at the bottom of the screen brings up a list of all the apps on the phone.

The People tab brings up a scrolling list of your favorite contacts, complete with small pictures of them when available. A button at the bottom brings up all your contacts. (It often took quite a while for the pokey phone to display the pictures of contacts.)

There’s also a special GreatCall button, which offers options including help and “featured apps” you can download from the Android app store. This screen has a button for general customer service and an operator service where humans will look up numbers and dial them for you. I found the agents, which GreatCall notes are based in the U.S., polite and helpful.


The Urgent Care app

The phone comes bundled with three GreatCall apps. One, called 5Star Urgent Response, is a $15-a-month service that connects you to a staff trained in handling emergencies. Urgent Care lets you look up medical symptoms, free of charge, or call a nurse, who can contact a doctor if needed, for $3.99 a call. MedCoach lets you list medical conditions, medications, doctors and can remind you to take medications.

The Jitterbug Touch 2 runs on Verizon’s slow 3G network. You can choose from a variety of monthly plans for voice minutes, data and text messaging. Depending on how many minutes, text messages, or megabytes of data you want, you can spend between $20 and $120 a month. The company says most of its customers use very modest amounts of these services and pay modest fees.

GreatCall has designed a very nice interface for aging seniors and other smartphone newcomers, and some helpful mobile services. It’s too bad the phone it runs on performs poorly.

Email Walt at mossberg@wsj.com.

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