What's the best smartphone for the elderly?

We can think of countless arguments we have had with our grandparents over tech-related issues, none more so than about mobile phones. To the youth of today, the older generation’s lack of proficiency with electronics can seem baffling.

It isn't until you are put into the shoes of an older person that you realise just how difficult to use a mobile phone really can be. Pocket-lint visited Emporia’s research labs at Cambridge University to be artificially aged well beyond our years - around the 70 to 80-year-old age bracket - in order to test out some present-gen smartphones and Emporia's own handset.

The ageing process

Emporia has several clever pieces of kit which can simulate different forms of ageing or disability. Most are geared towards either visual or motor impairment. For us, as glasses wearers already, we are used to the idea of having bad eyesight.

Hitting 40 puts you on the cusp of reading glasses age. As you get older, this can only going get worse. Emporia simulated this with a clever set of clear plastic lenses, which we wore over our own glasses. The lenses' vision deteriorates in stages, to the point where it is very difficult to see anything at all.

The idea is that they simulate things like internal parts of the eye becoming cloudy, eye conditions and typical effects of ageing on your vision. Emporia uses them to check how easy it is to identify details on a mobile phone screen or in its design.

As well as the glasses, there's a set of special gloves which can simulate reduced ability to grip and general reduced strength in the hands. It also mimics what it's like to have arthritis, which strikes us as being very unpleasant after wearing them for just five minutes.

Finally comes a sort of suit, which limits how much you can move your shoulder joints and elbows. This simulates ageing as well as injury and reduced movement. We tested all three with the Nokia Lumia 920, Nexus 4, iPhone 5 and BlackBerry Z10, as well as Emporia’s own Click handset.

Nexus 4

The glove test

The Nexus 4 is a total no-hoper if you have arthritis, or at least that was what the glove told us. The main issue we had with the phone was its slightly curved sides and how flat it sits on a table.

The same applied to the iPhone 5, although less than in the Nexus's case - it was difficult to get purchase on the phones and pick either of them up from the table.

We found ourselves repeatedly dropping the Nexus which, given its glass back, would likely lead to it cracking in the end.

The other problem we had with the Nexus was its side-mounted lock key. Because of our reduced ability to grip, locking and unlocking the phone from the side was quite difficult. The slick glass back also posed problems with it just slipping out of our hand.

The eyesight test

This relates much more to the accessibility of Android. We really didn’t spend enough time testing out all the features the operating system has, but the two really important touches are a font size you can change and screen magnification.

Being able to change the home screen background with Android is handy, as it is much easier to see app icons when they are set against a black background. The font size increase does, however, cause application names in the app drawer take up more space, leading to some odd glitches where the name is across two lines.

READ: Nexus 4 review

Talkback definitely helped and the magnification gestures option is also useful. It requires you to triple tap the screen and then pinch to zoom around the display. This is handy, as the restricted-movement gloves we were wearing while doing this test made multi-finger gestures quite difficult.

The suit test

This is a much harder test to carry out as the suit really just gives you an idea of what it is like to have your movement restricted. In every case using a phone was difficult.

As we said previously, the slick back and front on the Nexus 4 made holding it an issue and balancing the phone on our shoulder was a problem.

Nokia Lumia 920

The glove test

This is where the Lumia’s heft actually helped. The rounded shape to the phone made it much easier to grip and the heavily protruding keys on either side also made them easier to press.

We still prefer the idea of having a lock key on the top of the device as it seemed easier to us to make that kind of pinch motion while wearing the gloves.

That shiny back posed problems again, making the phone harder to grip when we were using it. We did find that its sheer size meant we could balance it nicely in our palm and use a one finger approach to navigation, however.

The eyesight test

Windows Phone 8 is pretty well geared up for those with bad eyesight, simply because of its big scalable live tiles that can be set off against a black background.

There are some silly touches though, like how the time, reception and Wi-Fi network are displayed in such a small font at the top. Each live tile also displays the name of the app in small text, even if you raise the text size in settings.

READ: Nokia Lumia 920 review

In fact, this text size increase is evident only when you're typing, which makes it virtually useless if you plan on doing anything else.

The suit test

We might have managed to pick up the Lumia 920, but getting it to our ear was another problem. It isn’t too heavy, but the lighter the phone the better in this case.

The ear to shoulder wedging technique we employed allowed us to grip the Lumia 920 nicely, but then not everyone may be able to do this. Ultimately, the phone could do with just being a bit lighter, simply because if you have difficulty moving joints, it is going to make muscles and limbs tired while holding it for long periods.

iPhone 5

The glove test

Apple’s handset was easier to pick up then the Nexus, although we aren’t really sure why as its edges are entirely flat, rather than with the slight bezel the Nexus has.

When we did have the phone in our hand, its compact size meant we could easily get fingers around the screen despite the restricted movement. It was also easier to grip, thanks to its width. The textured back makes a big difference as well, because the phone is less slippery than some of the competition.

For us, apart from the Emporia phone, this was the easiest to grip, with the Lumia closely following.

The eyesight test

Apple is leading the way with accessibility right now. Its system is slightly more complex than the competition, but it does mean you get a better experience once you have learnt it.

The gestures required involve three-finger taps and presses. It isn’t ideal, but we can see how it can be of benefit to those who have difficulty moving fingers.

READ: Apple iPhone 5 review

Being able to change the background again can help, as is the ability to alter font sizes. We could make things out on the iPhone with quite severe vision impairment glasses on, which is a testament to the thought Apple has put into its accessibility options.

The suit test

It is really difficult to make a decision here simply because, by this point in our testing, it was becoming clear that every phone - bar Emporia’s - was difficult to pick up and use from the off.

The iPhone handled just like the rest. We managed to get it to our ear, but we wouldn't advise carrying it about if you have issues with your shoulder or arms.

BlackBerry Z10

The glove test

It was nice to see that the straight black slab form factor of the Z10 handled well. It is wider than the iPhone, which makes it a bit easier to grab. The side-mounted buttons also give you a bit of purchase to grab on to.

We found the Z10 nice and easy to pick up, although its larger size does mean you have to bend your fingers more to use the screen. Really though, it handles very much the same as the iPhone 5, so it is a matter of choice.

The eyesight test

BlackBerry 10 uses a particularly small font, making it almost unusable without any accessibility options turned on. You can whack the font all the way up to 18 point and then the handset becomes much more usable. It does suffer from the Android issue where apps text on the home screen is too small.

READ: BlackBerry Z10 review

The magnify mode is very intuitive, involving two-finger scrolling to get you around while zoomed in parts of the screen. Not being able to adjust contrast is an issue, however.

The suit test

Our Z10 had a special flip cover on it for some parts of the test. Without it, the suit felt much the same as every other phone.

Put it on though and it gives you an additional surface to grip on to and, when flipped over, a matte, stickier surface so you can wedge the phone on your shoulder. It performed quite well here.

Emporia Click

The glove test

The thinner clamshell design of the Emporia made it much much easier to pick up. In fact, this was the only phone we can see not being a problem to grab from a table or other flat  surface for those who have issues with their hands.

The phone has a sort of lip on the split where it folds, so your fingers can easily grab on to it and then open the phone. The soft-touch material it's wrapped in is good and grippy as well.

Being particularly slim and having massive keys makes it predictably easy to use, but then this is a phone designed entirely with particular users in mind. What we weren’t prepared for was just how much easier it was going to be to use.

The eyesight test

Emporia’s phones are designed from the ground up with consideration for the sort of issues old age poses. In reality, this means getting rid of a lot of the functionality of a smartphone, simply because all that complexity is going to make accessibility difficult.

This means a really stripped-back user interface with clear simple icons, big text and everything offset against a black background. Even with our vision severely impaired, we managed to use the phone quite easily.

The big keys also make quite a significant difference. None of the keyboards on smartphones are made any larger by altering the font, so typing is difficult. The Emporia has nice big legible keys, set against black buttons, so you can read them. Simple but effective.

The suit test

The shape of the Emporia definitely made it easier to bring up to our ear. Clamshell-shaped phones are also better wedged against the shoulder.

This really depends on how your motion is impaired, but the general shape of the Emporia is just easier to grab on to and move about in your hands. It should, in theory, be beneficial to everyone, but we can’t be certain.

Verdict

As you would probably expect, the Emporia Click comes out on top here. It is a well thought out, innovative and helpful product that will enable many who would have struggled with any other phone to get the most from it.

However, being so accessible does mean that it is a really stripped-back experience. A nod has to be given to Apple here for the work it has done with accessibility, because it is very good. The same applies to Windows Phone 8, which, by its very nature, is easy to use for those with bad eyesight.

We say, give every phone a go and see which you can cope with. The Emporia won’t cause problems for most, but if you can manage the likes of the iPhone as well as get your head around iOS, which is much more complex, then you might be rewarded with a lot more functionality.