Review: Simple Jitterbug Cell Phones Just Make Sense

After getting my hands on the two Jitterbug phones from GreatCall, I couldn't help asking myself, why don't more phones work like this?

Aimed at senior citizens, both handset models could teach the kids a thing or two about usability too. They may have one interface flaw, but that doesn't stop me from recommending both of them enthusiastically as low-usage phones for the cell-phone-phobic.

The two Jitterbug phones, the Dial and the OneTouch, look a little like some sort of 21st-century beauty product. They're big (4 by 2 by 1 inch, 4.4 ounces) and rounded, with a little black-and-white screen on the outside showing the time and date.

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Flip them open and you immediately hear the first bit of minor genius: a dial tone!

The earpiece is surrounded by a huge rubber cushion to protect hearing-aid-equipped ears. Text on the color internal screen is huge and clear, as are the number buttons.

Here's a bunch of design improvements that other manufacturers (including Samsung, who actually made these phones to GreatCall's specs) can learn.

First, the power button is clearly marked as "On/Off." Next, the phone's number is printed on the phone. To get assistance from a live operator (more on that later), all you have to do is dial "0."

To make things incredibly simple, the only buttons other than number keys inside the phone are "Yes," "No," and an up/down toggle. Pressing the up/down toggle cycles through your phone book.

The interface has an air of friendliness, with a line at the bottom of the screen that's always asking a question. Usually, that question is, "Call?" To start a call, press "Yes."

Even better, there isn't a single unexplained icon anywhere on, in, or within arm's length of the phone — not even in the manual.

The only difference between the two models is that the Dial has a full numerical keypad while the OneTouch does not. In fact, the OneTouch model has only three buttons: "Operator," "911," and a middle key you can customize when you order the phone, to say either "Home," "Friend," "Tow," "Work," or "My Choice."

It has a phone book you can scroll through, so it isn't as limited as, say, the LG Migo — but it makes a dandy safety phone.

The phones do have one flaw, though: The volume button is, insanely, on the outside of the flip, but works only with the flip open. That makes changing the volume rather awkward.

Almost everything else about the Jitterbug is designed for extreme ease of use. You can buy the phone with up to 15 numbers preprogrammed into the phone book.

To program new numbers, you can do it on the phone itself, call the operator to do it for you, or — get this — mail or fax your desired numbers to GreatCall.

GreatCall's operator service is also a stroke of genius; It provides real, hand-holding customer service for even the simplest functions, at the touch of a button.

Don't feel like dialing or want to dial a number using the OneTouch that isn't in the phone book? No problem. You can get the operator to connect you. Operator charges do add up, though: You use five prepaid minutes every time you call them.

Scared of voice-mail menus? The voice-mail system works entirely using yes/no questions. You have the option of accessing the call history and battery gauge by pressing the "no" button a few times, which is a little unintuitive, and the phone will tell you when the battery is running out.

Since the Jitterbug is a voice-only phone, voice quality is paramount here. Reception, I'm happy to say, is excellent, and the phone has analog roaming for fringe coverage areas.

The earpiece gets loud, but I'm surprised to say it's not thunderous; voices have a pretty rich sound, if just a touch muffled.

The speakerphone's one volume setting is quite loud indeed, and it tends to clip the speaker, creating a buzzing effect.

Transmissions sounded just plain terrific on the other end, practically land-line quality.

GreatCall sells its own hands-free car kit for $69; there's no regular hands-free jack.

Measuring battery life in a phone designed to be used so infrequently is difficult, because I use long, continuous calls to test talk time. So take our three-hour result with a grain of salt: The Jitterbug will almost definitely go several days without charging.

Still, I wish the phone was more insistent about asking you to charge it when the battery is low. Though it displays a "battery very low" message inside and out and beeps softly, I'd prefer it to demand more forcefully to be plugged in.

GreatCall is an mobile virtual network operator — a small service company using Sprint's wireless network — and the Jitterbug phones work exclusively with its own prepaid plans.

Plans run from $10 per month for 911 calls only up to $40 per month (that's 13.3 cents per minute) for 300 minutes.

You can also buy bundles, including a phone and a year's worth of minutes, at a discount, ranging from $23-58 for the year, depending on your plan.

If you need more minutes, they'll charge you $25 for additional 100-minute chunks (that's 25 cents per minute) or 35 cents per minute if you don't buy your time in advance.

Voice mail costs $3 a month, but it's free if you buy GreatCall service annually.

GreatCall has many more features coming for the Jitterbug phones in the next few months. Most notably, you'll be able to authorize a friend or family member to edit your phone list on a Web site, and you'll be able to activate VoiceSignal voice dialing to use with or without that car kit and the speakerphone.

The Jitterbug Dial and OneTouch phones cost $147 (direct), which I think is reasonable.

Although the odd, bulbous design may scare some people off, these phones for the senior set are surprisingly innovative.

Editor's rating: Four out of five stars

Benchmark test results:

Continuous talk time (Jitterbug OneTouch): 3 hours, 9 minutes
Continuous talk time (Jitterbug Dial): 3 hours, 5 minutes

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