Digital Devices for Luddites

March 8, 2012 12:00 am

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NOBODY loves computers. I say this as someone who has led a life steeped in technology, and who considers the many computers I deal with every day to be truly revolutionary devices.

And yet: I can't love these complicated, all-too-dumb machines, and I often wish that they weren't as necessary as they are. When I'm dealing with a particularly thorny computer-related problem -- Why does that error message pop up every time I start up? Why did my desktop PC suddenly stop printing? -- I sometimes wonder about people who haven't spent their lives noodling with these things. What do you do when something goes wrong and you have absolutely no idea how to fix it?

As great as they are, many PCs and other related gadgets are, for large swaths of the population, simply too difficult to set up and to use. Over the last few weeks, I've been testing several devices that promise to make life easier for nontechies. These gadgets aim to ease people into the digital era -- many are designed for use by older adults. But in their simplicity, they could be helpful to people of all ages who aren't obsessed with machines.

Take, for instance, the Snapfon, which is marketed as "the cellphone for seniors." Over the past few years, I've gotten a chance to test many phones aimed at older consumers, including the popular Samsung Jitterbug, but I found the Snapfon by far the easiest to use. This is mainly because of its design: The Snapfon, about the size of a deck of cards, is dominated by a nine-digit number pad. The numbers are huge, and they're printed in high-contrast white ink against a dark gray background.

"The vast majority of our users are between the ages of 70 and 90," said Phil Sieg, the president of SeniorTech, the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that makes the Snapfon. The large numbers are easy on these users' eyes; even more helpful is the phone's "speaking keypad," which recites each number in a robotic voice when you press a button. (You can turn this feature off if you'd like.)

If you've ever used a telephone, you can use the Snapfon. Just dial your number and press the green O.K. button. That's it. There is no need to navigate any menus and no need to click any icons. True, the Snapfon isn't going to win any points for sex appeal, and its features are limited -- it can't display photos, there are no apps for it and it won't give you directions to the nearest mall. On the other hand, the Snapfon does have a big, easy-to-find button for emergencies. Press the S O S key on the back, and the phone will play a loud siren and call and text up to four emergency contacts. The Snapfon also allows you to send and receive texts and play FM and AM radio stations, and it has a small flashlight that makes it useful in the dark.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:07:58

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