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It's been three years since Great Call's last new Jitterbug phone, but its newest model has been released.
The Jitterbug Plus is sleeker than previous models and it sports a narrower body. It also has a camera, which users can link to their Facebook accounts and upload photos directly.
But while incorporating Web 2.0 may be a good step forward, this phone skimps on a few fundamental needs. And if users are going to have to fork over $119 (or $99 for the introductory price), these missing features are more important than the capability to get someone to Like and comment on a photo of your grandson.
It's refreshing to see that with the Samsung Jitterbug Plus, the fanned-out, bulbous design has been done away with. The device is narrower and more aligned with today's flip phones. It measures 3.06 inches tall, 2.01 inches wide, and 0.77 inch thick, and it weighs 3.76 ounces.
It can tuck inside front and back jeans pockets, but it makes for a snug fit. Its plastic build is very smooth, as if it's coated with a thin layer of gloss, which gives it a slightly more luxurious feel.
On the front is a 1.3-inch display, which tells you the time, date, and day of the week in bold, black lettering. Directly on top of it is a small light that flashes every time a call comes in and above that is 1.3-megapixel camera. To its left is a volume rocker and to the right are a 3.5mm headphone jack and a Micro-USB port for charging.
On the back, at the very top center, is a small lanyard connector you can use to loop through a lanyard. Below that is the audio output speaker. To remove the back plate, the manual says you need to push against the plate and slide it down. This isn't as easy as it seems, however, and I eventually had to pry the plate off by sticking a small screwdriver in. I nearly split my nail trying to pry it off on my own.
When you open up the phone, you'll immediately hear a dial tone, much like when you pick up a landline phone. Once opened, you'll see the Plus' 2.2-inch internal display. Above the screen is an earpiece speaker grille. The screen has no icons, just a text menu that you scroll through using the physical up and down buttons. Your phone number is also displayed above the listed items.
The number pad is big and easy to read from far away. Even though they aren't particularly spaced out, each button is large and squarish, with raised borders. When in use, small white circles that surround the keys will light up for even more clarity in low-light conditions. In addition to the numbers, pound, and star keys, you'll get a yes and a no key (the former is essentially an OK key and the latter works similar to a Back key), a speaker key, and an on/off button.
The Jitterbug Plus includes the bare minimum for feature phones. Your phonebook can hold up to 50 contacts. When you order your device online, you can choose three numbers you plan on calling the most, and they will come preloaded into the handset.
There are four ways that you can add numbers into your contact list other than manually typing them in. You can call a GreatCall Operator by holding the 0-key down and they'll update it for you, go to MyGreatCall.com and enter your numbers online, fax GreatCall your numbers, or call customer service.
With your phone you can text, check voice mail, look up your call history, and connect with Bluetooth. Settings include five colors to customize your screen with (black, gray, green, blue, and red), seven ringtones that you can adjust at three different volumes (low, medium, and high).
There's also a calendar, but mind you, instead of seeing a graphic monthly calendar, you'll be taken to lists of specific days, weeks, or months that you'll need to scroll through. To add events to your calendar, you must sign up for the MyCalendar services, where you can go online and you (or a relative) can add events and set reminders for things like doctor's appointments and birthdays. Mind you, it takes a few minutes for what you add online to the calendar to show up on the phone.
The 1.3-megapixel camera has no editing options and no flash. To take a photo, use the yes button as a shutter key. You can choose to save or keep the photo, and if you want to forward it to anybody. When you set up your Plus, you also can choose if you want your pictures to upload to Facebook, Picasa, or Shutterfly. Just link these accounts together online or with the help of an operator, and the photos you choose to upload will appear on these sites in their own separate mobile uploads folder.
Because the device is aimed at senior citizens, Great Call has provided several emergency and wellness services that tie in with the handset. One is 5 Star Urgent Response. When you're in an emergency situation or feel the slightest bit endangered (Great Call reps say you can even call if you feel unsafe walking to your car at night), you can call an agent (a real person), who is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The agent can then analyze whatever situation you're in, track your location, stay on the line with you, and if need be, contact emergency response personnel.
Others include a hotline called LiveNurse, where you can talk to a registered nurse 24-7, and a wellness interactive "coaching" hotline that dispels tips on improving optimism and daily health. Other services include an automated reminder call for taking medication, and regular automated calls that will check on your well-being (for example, you'll get calls asking how you're sleeping and if you're eating well) in case your terrible children won't do it themselves.
I tested the Jitterbug Plus in San Francisco using Great Call's network (which piggybacks off of Verizon's). Although this device doesn't have a lot of things going for it, call quality was solid. Signal quality was strong, save for an incident where I dipped through a tunnel and my call was dropped. Even on low volume, voices sounded clear and full, and the speaker audio quality yielded similar results. My friends told me I sounded fine as well. My voice was easy to understand and loud but not overwhelming.
Listen now: Samsung GreatCall r220 (Jutterbug Plus) call quality sample
Given the low specs of the camera, photo quality was understandably poor. A 1.3-megapixel camera can be seen these days as a smartphone's front-facing camera, and even then they have basic options like zoom and flash. This, however, does not. Pictures, both indoor and outdoor, were grainy, had poor focus, and colors were muted.
Though it's neat that Facebook upload is integrated with the device, you kind of have to wonder what the point of showing off these pictures is, if they're going to look so bad. Back when everyone was on the same page and we all had low-quality cameras, social networks weren't as integral to our lives. I don't disapprove of having a camera at all, since they're useful in an emergency situation like snapping photos of a car accident or capturing a license plate, but providing a service that hooks up users' pictures to accounts like Shutterfly and Picasa seem pointless. Chances are if someone is technologically savvy enough to even have and use those accounts, they're going to want a better camera phone.
Even when keeping in mind that this handset wasn't meant to be the hottest thing on the market, I still had problems with it. One is that to check your battery life and signal quality, you had to choose Phone Info from the menu. There, it'll tell you your battery percentage and an adjective describing your signal, like "Strong." You can't check either of these off the home screen, and you can't check it during a call.
In addition, try as I might, I couldn't find any option to mute keypad tones, which was really annoying. At worst, it doesn't exist at all, which is a huge oversight. At best, the option is hidden somewhere and isn't intuitively accessible for the user.
Overall, though, the user experience is friendly, if not extremely inquisitive. As previously mentioned, you navigate through the phone with the yes and no buttons. So, for example, to open any app, the question "Select?" will pop up, and if you want to save a photo, you'll press yes to answer the question "Keep?" Though it doesn't seem like much, designing the UI this way opens a sort of faux-dialog with the device, making it seem more interactive and less machinelike.
During our battery drain tests, the handset lasted 7.62 hours. There's not much to do it on it, but after spending hours with it taking pictures and talking on the phone, my Plus showed 90 percent battery life. According to FCC radiation standards, the device has a digital SAR rating of 0.40W/kg.
Though I appreciate Great Call's consistent catering to an older market, the Jitterbug Plus misses the mark on some levels. True, its call quality is strong and it's easy to use, but so are a lot of feature phones out there. Other senior devices, like the PhoneEasy 740 by Doro, has an emergency call button, a better interface, and basic options like an alarm clock. And as far as priorities go, I'd rather have an alarm clock than the ability to upload pictures to Facebook. (Actually, throw in a graphic calendar, a calculator, and a flash while we're at it, too).
This handset alone retails for $119, with an introductory price of $99. An unlimited talk, data, and service plan costs $80 a month, plus a $35 one-time fee for set up. If you want to pick and choose certain services, each text will be 10 cents, LiveNurse is $4 a month, the medication calls cost $10 a month, and even voice mail costs $3 a month. All these will add up to one expensive package that may not be worth it.