Help Me Help My Mom Pick Her Next Phone

By  |  Thursday, August 11, 2011 at 12:00 pm

My mom, sans BlackBerry.

My mother isn’t the sort of person who craves the latest smartphone just because it’s the latest smartphone. Actually, she remains smitten with her BlackBerry Curve 8900, which she’s had for a couple of years. But it’s developing an odd shadow effect on the screen, and so she rightly thinks she may be in the market for a new phone soon.

She asked me for advice on what to buy. And now I’m asking you for advice.

When it comes to decisions like this, I’m not a missionary. I don’t instinctively want to steer mom off the BlackBerry platform, or onto a particular OS. (For the record, I use an iPhone 4 most of the time, and a Verizon Fascinate some of them time.) I just want her to own a phone she’ll like at least as much as her BlackBerry.

Here’s what’s important to her:

  • She does a lot of e-mail on her phone.
  • She loves reading Kindle books on her BlackBerry. Very important to her.
  • She’d use a browser if she had a decent one.
  • She might dabble in Facebook.
  • She might take photos if her phone had a respectable camera.
  • She might well make video calls on Skype if she could.
  • She might listen to music if someone showed her the ropes. Video, probably not. (Unless it’s of her grandchildren.)
  • She’s not going to play games, do any social networking other than light Facebook use, or install apps willy-nilly.
  • I don’t think she’ll detect much of a difference between 3G and AT&T’s “4G”
  • As far as I know, she has no desire to leave AT&T. (I think she’s nearing the end of a two-year contract and might be able to wangle a new handset at full discount.)
  • I don’t think she has a specific price in mind. But when I mentioned phones being available for a penny on contract, she sounded happy. And when I talked about the iPhone 4 costing $199, she sounded alarmed.

I don’t think mom has had real hands-on experience with any modern smartphones. But my dad has (and likes) an HTC Aria, so she has some sense of the world beyond the Curve. And she told me she’s intrigued by touchscreens. She’s not adverse to trying something new.

These are her options as I see them:

Another BlackBerry.

She could get a new BlackBerry Curve 3G–very much like the phone she owns. It would be a boring decision, but a comfortably familiar, defensible one. And if she signed a new contract, she could get it for a penny. (I don’t think the Torch is a huge enough improvement over the Curve to make it a good choice–the Curve is better at being a classic BlackBerry than the Torch is.)

An iPhone 3GS.

I think this would please her nearly as much as an iPhone 4, and I know she’d be pleased by the price: $49, or one-quarter the cost of an iPhone 4. Once she got the knack of the on-screen keyboard, it would be an upgrade over her BlackBerry in just about every way: way better browser, better Kindle on a bigger screen, better camera, better Facebook. And the ability to get lots of great new apps for little or no money, some of which she’d probably like if she saw them.

Major downside of the 3GS: it’s can’t do Skype videocalls. I don’t think that’s a dealbreaker.

My iPhone 4.

If mom’s BlackBerry manages to cling to life until the next iPhone comes out–no, I’m not assuming I know which month that will be–I could generously give her my near-mint iPhone 4. In which case I’d have to endure the hardship of buying myself a new iPhone. I could probably live with that. (Alternative scenario: maybe the iPhone 4 or something like it will be $49 when the iPhone 5 comes out.)

An Android phone.

AT&T has some Android handsets for a mom-pleasing penny–not the big-name models, but the LG Phoenix and Motorola Flipside. But I don’t think Android in its always-vaguely-nerdy current form would please her as much as iOS.

A wild card.

AT&T also has two penny Windows Phone 7 phones: the Samsung Focus and HTC Surround. Certain things about Windows Phone are definitely mom-friendly, such as the emphasis on simplicity and built-in features over apps. But I worry that she’d find the flashy animation and big fonts grating. They make Windows Phone 7 feel like it’s trying a little to hard to appeal to a hip young person in a way that iOS and Android–and definitely BlackBerry OS–are not.

Dark horse contender: The HP Veer, yet another penny phone. It’s the closest thing currently available to a mashup of a BlackBerry and an iPhone, and WebOS feels like an OS mom might enjoy. (Note to self: Ask mom if a really little phone sounds cool, or limiting.)

And that’s about it, I think. Looks like a new Curve and an iPhone 3GS are the strongest contenders. And maybe the Veer. But I’m interested in alternate opinions–such as yours…


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22 Comments For This Post

  1. joec Says:

    Yeah but you left out the big picture item here: what about those monthly fees? Who cares about an upfront $199 in light of $70 a month?

    Why not just get any phone with a decent camera plus an iPad? As long as she has home internet and a wireless router, she can surf for nothing on a nice big device and save those monthly charges.

  2. Brian C Says:

    $199 is $199 even if I go out today and buy a new car.

  3. Chris Says:

    Im an android enthusiast but I would really go against buying her any of the penny android phones especially the flipside. For ease of use i would go with the blackberry and most likely the 3gs. It really hurts me to say that.

  4. Kyle Says:

    Wait until iPhone 5 comes out and pick up a cheap iPhone 4. I'm sure they'll drop to $99.

  5. Steven Groh Says:

    I would definitely say WP7. I own a Focus, and everything just seems to work. Other than app selection (which you said is not really an issue), it rivals the iPhone for smoothness and reliability. Plus, if she doesn't use it very heavily, she can get pretty good battery life. I managed to get almost 3 days once (though that was with VERY light use).

  6. Brian Giese Says:

    Harry you should spring for the iPhone 4 as a gift. If you don’t want to shell out $199 you can grab a refurbished iPhone 4 from the AT&T site for only $99

  7. David Sherman Says:

    I would get her another Curve. Why change it?

  8. Shawn Pickett Says:

    While I’m not an Iphone fan, you’ve got to respect the platform, smartphones wouldn’t be what they are today without the Iphone, however Apples stance on in app purchases and Kindles refusal to play ball may make that a non starter. My mom inherited my Droid 2 and likes it, but droids tend to be for people who like to fiddle with their tech. A friend recently got the Samsung Windows phone that AT&T offers and likes it, the only complaint is there is no way to manually enter an SSID, so if your Wi-Fi is not broadcasting it, you can’t get you phone on the network. If the in app purchases aren’t an issue, the Iphone is probably the best choice, their o/s is the one that just works. (though I’d never use one myself)

  9. e.Blue Says:

    Go for the Samsung Focus!…My wife is the BIGGEST technophobe in the world. After owning one since they were released, I even bought her one. She really seems to like it. Of course, she would tell people that it was an iPhone for the first few days, since that's what she thought all touchscreen phones were! The Kindle app on WP7 is really nice and the upcoming Skype integration should be killer since MS just bought Skype.

  10. John Baxter Says:

    First: I like some people immediately upon seeing their picture. Your mom is one of those people.

    Second: If the current phone hangs in there long enough, look at the new Win Phone 7.5 handsets this fall. I thought immediately of Win Phone 7–the (only) light Facebook use is a downside there, though.

    I don't think an iPhone 3GS would be a wrong choice, either.

  11. Amy Kremer Says:

    You are a great judge of people, John. She was my husband's boss for 12 years. He respected her tremendously, and our whole family adores her. She's the best!

  12. Susan Says:

    Have her try an Android. Biggest benefit foe older adults is "talking" to the phone, text, web using the built in speech recognition. No typing needed.

    I also agree with joec regarding the tablet. But if she travels a bit, the all in one phone solution might be better.

  13. ahow628 Says:

    One of two things:
    1) Get her whatever you have. That makes questions and troubleshooting far easier. Based on what you wrote, it sounds like an iPhone is the answer here.
    2) Get her what she just had. She will be familiar even if it is only similar (say BBOS 5 vs BBOS 7). That new BB Bold doesn't look half bad.

  14. Beth Says:

    I'm with Kyle. Wait a month or two and buy the iPhone 4 when the 5 comes out (or give her yours). All my technophobe people at work LOVE their iPhones. The power users love them, but even the ones who still don't understand the folder concept on their PCs (after 10 years) love them. That's some wonderful UI. And I'm *not* a Mac.

  15. George Hilbert Says:

    As much as I HATE to enrich S. Jobs any further, I recommend the iPhone (either yours or a new one) and the cheapest data plan AT&T offers. She will get her touch screen "curiosity" satisfied and will have a very short learning curve.

  16. J Chen Says:

    I would go with Windows Phone 7. My mom misplaces her reading glasses (often) and prefers bigger fonts because it's easier on her eyes.

  17. Gary Says:

    I agree with the suggestion to get the cheapest phone available and add an ipad. She'll love the ipad; email on the ipad is easy and superior to the blackberry, she'll be surprised and pleased.

  18. Tired_ Says:

    If she likes Kindle books, your iPhone 4 is the logical choice, in my opinion. I couldn't imagine reading a whole book on a lesser screen (like the 3GS you suggested), and my eyes are only 35 years old.

  19. Joe Halla Says:

    Iphone 4 , Blackberry or an android phone, in that order. I myself prefer Android, but that is because it is so highly customisable.

  20. Mike Says:

    I don't know whether it's available in the US but the HTC Desire Z would fit the bill. Basically a HTC Desire with an underneath flip-out QWERTY keyboard. I picked up one for my wife and she and just about everyone that uses it loves it. Either way if she does a lot of email get something with a real keyboard.

  21. William Says:

    I feel for ease of learning curve, please consider keeping your Mom on the BB platform. I am trying to look at this from the "User" point of view. I do the same for my ancestors. The new Bold 9930 is coming to VZ soon. I know it's "expensive", but it is more capable of fun, entertainment and work than most people want to acknowledge. My BB Bold is used for a DVR, Document creation, GPS, etc.. All major commands are voice activated. The Bold works on every cell phone network in the World. I've used my Bold as a speaker phone for conference calls on three continents. Good Luck to you both in whatever choice you make.

  22. Dave Says:

    I'm an Android guy (for phones), but for Mom I would wait a month and then get the iPhone4 cheap.