Buying a new smartphone can be overwhelming.
Not only can the jargon make your head spin — megapixels, SIM cards, terabytes — but we all have different needs, personal preferences and budgets. Perhaps you've seen phones advertised specifically for older adults, often with bigger buttons, a louder ringer, or larger display. Is this something you should consider?
It's not a one-size-fits-all scenario. Because you're likely to be with this device a lot and for a few years, choosing the right phone is critical.
A smartphone is essentially a pocket-size internet-connected computer, along with a camera and camcorder, digital wallet, gaming system, health and fitness monitor, music player, navigation tool and much more.
(By the way, a megapixel is one million pixels, and camera phones are often measured this way, so a 12-megapixel camera can create images with 12 million megapixels. A SIM card, which stands for subscriber identity module card, is the chip inside your phone that stores your cellphone user information. And a terabyte, about 1 trillion bytes, is a way to measure data storage; 1,000 bytes is a kilobyte, 1 million bytes is a megabyte and 1 billion bytes is a gigabyte.)
Many flip or bar phones aren't capable of accessing email or making video calls, and because the numeric buttons also are used to type several letters each, like push-button landline phones, sending texts can be laborious. But if all that you want is to make and receive calls and maybe get some bigger buttons to press, a handful of mostly inexpensive, bare-bones cellphones are on the market.
Just make sure that the phone you buy won't become obsolete in the next year or two, a danger if you get one running on the 3G network, rather than the faster 4G LTE or 5G. AT&T will phase out its 3G network starting in February, T-Mobile reportedly expects to shut down both its T-Mobile and Sprint 3G networks between January and April and Verizon plans to shutter its network on the final day of 2022.
You have lots to consider, so we turned to a couple of experts for some answers.
10 budget-friendly phones
Not all phones work on all cellphone service providers’ networks, so be sure to ask before you buy.
5 lower-priced yet highly rated bare-bones phones:
• Alcatel GO FLIP 3, $100
• Kyocera DuraXV Extreme, $240
• Lively Flip, $99
• Sonim XP3, $189
• ZTE Cymbal Z-320, $74.99
5 lower-priced “bells and whistles” smartphones:
• BLU G91, $149
• Moto G Power, $189
• Lively Smart, $149
• OnePlus Nord N200 5G, $239.99
• Samsung Galaxy A32 5G, $282
Figure out your needs
Phones come in all shapes and sizes with different features and different prices. The first step is to assess your specific needs, says Ramon T. Llamas, research director for devices and displays at IDC, a research firm based in Framingham, Massachusetts.
"For example, what are you going to use the phone for? Do you need all the new bells and whistles, like 5G and augmented reality, or are the tried-and-true features enough for you, such as phone calls, texting and a camera?” Llamas asks.
If you don't need the latest iPhone or souped-up Android device and are simply looking at an emergency communication device to keep in your glove compartment, then a regular cellphone may be right for you.
The same can be said for budget: If you have only a few hundred dollars to spend, it will rule out the latest premium devices, such as iPhone 12 or Samsung Galaxy S21 5G, both starting at $799. More affordable devices exist, says Siddharth Lal, vice president of customer acquisition marketing at T-Mobile.
"For example, there's the well-loved Samsung Galaxy A32 5G [for $282] or the [$239.99] OnePlus Nord N200, which features a large display with triple rear cameras and a front-facing camera,” he says.
In addition to the cost of the phone itself, consider your budget for monthly service costs for voice calls, text messages and data, he says. You use data for web browsing, accessing email, downloading apps and other online activity.
Lal says his company's research found the 55-plus segment tends to be more “value conscious” than other consumers, which helped T-Mobile design more appropriate plans for the age group.
Consider accessibility, ease of use
The next consideration should be any accessibility features worth considering, whether tied to using the device, seeing the text or hearing the person you're talking with.
"Many senior citizens can use a mainstream smartphone with little to no issue, while others may benefit from additional features, such as bigger buttons, a larger screen and louder speaker,” Llamos says. “Since needs vary from one senior to the next, assess whether your needs merit a smartphone designed especially for seniors."
For example, some phones offer high-definition voice for those who are hard of hearing and speech-to-text features for those with arthritis, Parkinson's disease and other medical conditions that may make using a cellphone more difficult.
Virtual assistants, such as Google Assistant, are ideal to have in a smartphone since talking can be faster and more accurate than typing. And you don't need to break the bank for this feature: The $100 Alcatel GO FLIP 3 is a basic flip phone with large buttons, hearing aid compatibility and long battery life — nearly 22 days on standby — plus Google's integrated personal assistant.
Look for scam protection
"Also important is scam protection,” Lal says. “We know that older Americans are often being ‘gamed,’ and we offer a great service to prevent that with Scam Shield, which is included in all 55+ plans."
Other major phone carriers, such as T-Mobile and AT&T, offer similar services to help customers ward off robocallers and scammers, plus apps such as Nomorobo and YouMail work with any carrier.
Get to know your phone’s accessibility features
While accessibility features vary among devices, your smartphone has several aids designed to help you better use it.
For Apple iPhone and Android devices, go to Settings | Accessibility, and read what is most relevant to you. The sections are usually divided into Hearing, Physical/Dexterity and Vision.
A few examples:
- Assistive Touch/Haptic Touch/Vibration (iPhone, Android). Tweak how and where to touch the screen for some feedback.
- Button Assignment (iPhone, Android). Change what the side buttons on your phone do.
- Font Adjustment. Enlarge fonts in many apps, such as Mail, Messages or a web browser. Similarly, you can opt for Bolded Text; Grayscale, which strips color from various apps and menu screens; or High Contrast mode, which makes it easier to make out text and interface elements.
- Microphone. Tap this, usually in the top right of an onscreen keyboard for Android or the lower right of the keyboard for iPhone, when inside an email, text message or note. Begin speaking for your words to be transcribed into text.
- Mono Audio, Left/Right Balance, Hearing Aid Compatibility (iPhone, Android). Send same-channel audio to both ears or increase or decrease the volume in one ear. It supports Bluetooth hearing aids.
- Shake (iPhone, Android), Back Tap (iPhone), Touch and Hold Delay (Android). Interact with your device by shaking or tapping.
- Siri (iPhone) or Google Assistant (Android). Wake up the built-in and default personal assistants with a phrase — “Hey Siri” or “OK Google” — followed by a question or command.
- VoiceOver or Speak Screen (iPhone) or TalkBack (Android). Let your phone read text to you.
- Zoom. Magnify information on the screen (iPhone, Android), or use Magnify (iPhone) to turn your camera into a magnifying glass.
You also can set your phone’s LED light to flash when a call comes in instead of the phone just ringing. Or you might want to activate Live Transcribe (Android) or Closed Captioning (iPhone) when available on the content you’re consuming.
Marc Saltzman is a contributing writer who covers personal technology. His work also appears in USA Today and other national publications. He hosts the podcast series Tech It Out and is the author of several books, including Apple Watch for Dummies and Siri for Dummies.