Sweet and Simple: The Best Basic Phones for Our Dearest Dads
Dear Reader: We think your father probably represents a vast, under-served market sweet spot: the Boomers who regularly use cell phones and text, but have no need for a tricked-out convergent cell phone. Call them the silenced majority, if you will. It seems with all the smartphone mania of the past few years, cell makers threw the baby out with the bathwater, and have all but abandoned developing quality "feature" phones, as they're now called. They have the same flimsy designs and craptastic OSes they've had for the past five years, with perhaps a token media player, Web browser and camera thrown in. It's a shame. If the marketplace works anywhere as efficiently as economist Adam Smith proposed, some clever phone manufacturer is surely going to read your letter, realize the value of this market, design a spectacularly simple but good phone and make a killing. (We don't mean the Jitterbug, which, while perfect for some people, isn't right in this case.) Please let it be soon.
Until then, though, we do have a few suggestions to help out. Since you didn't say what service provider he uses and we suspect you aren't the only one with this dilemma, we went ahead and found the best "simple" phone for each of the big four U.S. carriers -- ones that are sturdy, stylish and simple, and that can be used internationally (with the exception of Sprint). Oh, and because we've been on the receiving end of plenty of pocket dialers, we only went with flip phones for easy, compact travel for your dad on-the-go.
AT&TPantech BreEZe II
Battery: 3 hours talk; 10 days standby.
To call it stylish would be a stretch; it's more like the classic blue blazer of cell phones -- totally appropriate, if uninspired. But of all the phones we looked at, none were as configurable, speedy and straightforward as the BreEZe II. (Yes, the EZ is deliberate and well-earned.) Honestly, we wish all feature phones were designed like this. It has "Breeze" and Advanced modes, with the former streamlining the menus so that even the most technophobic luddite can navigate comfortably. (Although to boost some fonts and fiddle with ringers, you need to go into advanced mode first. That's your job before handing it off to Dad.) It's also got a great keypad with plenty of space between buttons to prevent accidental button mashes, three programmable buttons at the base of the display for either functions or phone numbers, and plenty of volume output. The only button on the side is the volume rocker, which prevents Pops from getting flustered. Granted, it does feel rather plastic-y and lightweight, but it's not flimsy by any stretch and it should prove plenty durable. Audio quality was solid, though not the best of the bunch. This is the phone we'd buy our dad, if only we didn't hate AT&T's spotty service so much.
Battery: 5.8 hours talk; unknown standby (estimated 10-plus days).
If you've ever wondered why Sprint has a sickly business (HTC Evo aside), look no further than the fact that it doesn't even offer a single non-smartphone mobile that is quad band. Zip, nada, zilch. So, the only option we can suggest is for non-globetrotting types: the Sanyo 3810. In terms of navigation and actual use, the 3810 compares well with the Pantech in that it's snappy and easily customized, and offers gigantic fonts on its crisp, big display (the largest of the bunch). Beyond the mystery of its reflective face, which acts as a funhouse mirror, we're a little concerned about build quality; the glossy plastic body flexes a little too easily for comfort, as does the hinge. The buttons are big, well-spaced and feel nice, the layout is straightforward and logical, and -- with its nice user interface -- the phone seems very parent compatible. Its audio quality was also the best of all the phones we tested.
Battery: 4 hours talk, 12 days standby.
The smallest, sleekest and best made handset of the bunch, the 3711 has all the strengths -- and weaknesses -- of virtually any Nokia we've ever encountered. It feels solid and precise, with an elegant metal trim, a glossy black face and textured backing, and the hinge is spring-loaded to pop open fully. Unfortunately it has Nokia's stilted OS to deal with, which means sometimes confusing or bizarrely missing menu options. (Why can't we alter the exterior display from the asinine stacked clock?) We also worry that the font may be too small for some people, although when dialing it's enlarged, and the keypad is spaced well with the exception of the directional pad, which will surely confound some people. We do think someone with a modicum of cell phone experience will like it a lot and feel comfortable using it, especially as it has fantastic audio quality, despite some background hiss.
VerizonVerizon Wireless Escapade
Battery: 3.8 hours talk, 13 days standby.
Like the Nokia, the Escapade suffers from some unfortunate and ugly menu navigation quirks -- a hallmark of many Verizon feature phones -- and a front display that challenged even our relatively healthy vision. It's a decently sharp-looking phone, despite feeling slightly flimsy and lightweight. The smooth-surfaced metal keyboard worried us at first, but performs fine. However, the extra buttons on the side of the phone for the camera and voice dialing were too easy to mash when handling the phone, eliciting frequent beeps. Volume and font size are fine, on par with those of the Nokia, but do not constitute as friendly a choice as the Pantech or Sanyo. The audio quality is a little muffled but passable. We're told the Samsung Knack is usually the phone of choice for middle-aged Verizon user, but it felt cheap and flimsy to us. Plus, it can't go international, so we'd definitely opt for the Escapade instead -- despite our minor misgivings.