Smartphones for Newbies

erica-manfred2Last week in  Aging With Geekitude, Erica nominated several gadgets for the “Ooh shiny!” awards? This week, she’s offering smartphone newbies a beginner course in terminology.

My colleague and Facebook friend Randi Kreger (a successful author whom I am in awe of because she has managed to figure out how to make a decent living as a writer even if she doesn’t know squat about technology) recently posted that she was planning to buy a new cellphone and asked her friends questions about what she should get. When I confidently told her to read my posts on Senior Planet, she said she had read them but was still clueless. “I have no idea what an Android is, let alone a SIM card,” she said, and asked plaintively, “Can’t you write a column on cellphones for the Amish?”

I realized that even though I’m a recovering technophobe, without realizing it I’d joined the ranks of the enemy and started spouting techno-speak.

I’m not so clued in myself it seems. I was horrified when I took an test on cellphone terminology today and only got nine questions right out of 16. So while I look for an advanced course, here’s a beginner version for newbies. If you think you’re geekier than me, take the test and post your results in the comments. Don’t cheat.

What newbies need to know:

Smartphones, dumb phones & semi-intelligent phones

A smartphone is basically a mobile computer with a touch screen – plus. The phone connects you to the Internet via cell or wifi signals and has a qwerty virtual keyboard that you can use to read and send emails, surf the web and post on social media. With the right apps you can also work with simplified word processing and spreadsheet documents. Smartphones are MP3 players, too – they can store and play your music library on the go – and their cameras are as good as or even better than some point-and-shoots. You can store a photo library on your phone and very easily send pictures you take via email or share them on social media.

The best thing about smartphones are the apps, which allow you to do everything but cook breakfast. Actually, you can cook breakfast using an app if you download one with recipes. Some people are skeptical about the usefulness of apps; don’t be. There are apps that can find your car; get you to where you’re going while avoiding traffic jams, tell you how lazy you are (ie: you only took 326 steps today?), pull up a recipe and make a shopping list from it. You can find apps for brain games, banking, booking travel, digital couponing and much, much more.

Here’s the latest smartphone my computer guru Kenny recommends.

A “semi-intelligent” phone, aka a “feature phone, has an actual qwerty keyboard — most are slide-out versions and tiny — that’s handy for texting and allows you to read your email and use the Internet at glacially slow speeds if you buy a data plan; these phones use a slower network. Your phone may take photos and do a few other “smart” things, but it doesn’t allow you to download apps. I used to have one and it was extremely frustrating, but for someone who just wants to text and make phone calls it might be perfect. I’d rather have a really dumb phone just for calls or a smartphone for everything. Here are some typical semi intelligent phones.

A dumb phone is an old-fashioned cellphone that is primarily for calls and has no Internet access or keyboard. It has a numeric keypad, and if you want to text, you have to tap out the letters on the number keys (you’ve probably done or still do this, so you know it can give you a major headache really fast). The major advantage of a dumb phone: It’s cheap and you won’t insult friends by staring at it all the time. Here’s a typical dumb phone, a TracFone from Walmart.

Smartphone operating systems (OS)

An operating system is the software that supports the phone’s functions. Android and iOS are the main ones. (There’s also Blackberry, Microsoft Windows and Amazon Fire but I’ll save them for another column.)

Android Eighty percent of smartphones use Google’s Android OS, which is pretty damned complicated; there are a ton of different menus and settings. I like my Android phone because I can put an animated wallpaper with waves crashing on a beach on my home screen, swap keyboards and use interchangeable chargers and batteries. I can change the settings to customize the phone for my needs. I also appreciate that a huge variety of phones use the Android operating system, from simple and inexpensive to complicated and very expensive ones.

iOS Only iPhones use Apple’s OS, which is more intuitive and user-friendly than Android. But iPhones are also more expensive than many Android phones, have built in batteries that can’t be swapped and different chargers for every generation of phone. One huge advantage of the iPhone is the endless selection of available apps, many of which are helpful for seniors, like apps that pair with your hearing aid. Apple supports app developers, and most apps are developed for iPhone first; eventually many make it to Android, but it can take time.

GSM versus CMDA

These are two different radio systems used in cell phones; a carrier uses one or the other. (You might also have heard of LTE, the newest system that eventually will replace CDMA – but hasn’t yet.)

GSM is the most common technology worldwide, so if you want a phone that you can use in Europe or Latin America, go for a carrier that uses GSM. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM, and Verizon and Sprint use CMDA. Only GSM phones have SIM cards.

SIM cards

Short for Subscriber Identity Module, a SIM is a small circuit board that a GSM phone uses to identify it to your carrier. If you swap the SIM in an unlocked GSM phone, your phone number, voice and data plans are swapped right along with it.

Locked versus Unlocked

A locked phone will only work with a specific carrier; an unlocked phone can be switched between carriers. A recent court ruling made it a lot easier to unlock phones, but make sure you’ve got the right technology. CMDA phones don’t use SIM cards, so an unlocked Verizon phone can only be used with another CMDA carrier, like Sprint. Unlocked AT&T phones can be used with T-Mobile, Straight talk and other GSM carriers.

Screen size

Like computer screens, smartphone screen sizes refer to the diagonal measurement. Smartphone screens used to come in tiny and tinier, 4” max, but they have been growing along with the size of the phones. Many Android phones have larger screens (the phones are nicknamed “phablets” – a combination of phone and tablet), and Apple is rumored to be introducing a large-screen phone this fall. Except for the Nexus 5, most large screen phones cost more than $500, but Nokia has introduced a new 6” Windows phone that’s quite inexpensive, the $229 Nokia Lumina 1320 ($229 with Cricket as the carrier, or $289 unlocked on Amazon – both are a really good buy). Screen visibility is determined partly by size, partly by resolution.


Manufacturers are building smartphones with more sophisticated cameras than ever, including stabilizers to reduce the effects of motion and more pixels. In fact, you may be able to just carry a phone and not bother with a camera. Here’s an article about the best smartphone cameras if that’s important to you.

Other Specifications

Phones also have different amounts of storage (determines how many songs and photos you can store), different processors (faster ones load web pages faster – and drain batteries), and more. Don’t worry about the specs. If you buy a good smartphone, it will probably meet your needs.

So, if you want to join the 21st Century, buy a smartphone. Otherwise be prepared to defend your choice of a dumb or semi-intelligent phone to your kids and more techie friends. Or just hide it in your pocket or purse and make calls in the bathroom.

See more Aging With Geekitude articles.

Erica Manfred is a journalist, essayist and humorist who writes about everything from dentistry to divorce to fantasy fiction. Friend her on Facebook.


6 responses to “Smartphones for Newbies

  1. Just a quick comment to point out that one can have the best of both worlds Ma’am. I am typing this on my Samsung Galaxy Stratosphere which, like my Droid2 Global before it, has a full qwerty keyboard as well as both cdma and gsm radios. I would highly recommend a global smartphone like these if traveling.
    Lovely article.

  2. just the information I needed but missed . .I bought an android, Galaxy S4mini,Samsung. glad to have done it . I like the camera and size of picture screen. use of apps is challenging. for example , Tango similar to skype is still a puzzle and so is use of listed tasks on My Device function. Certainly will feel smarter as soon as I learn to use functions well and better. when will you repeat the workshop?

    1. Hi Edelmira, is an article on the Senior Planet website and was never a workshop at the Senior Planet Exploration Center. However the Exploration Center does offer occasional smartphone related workshops. To stay up to date with the workshop schedule, click here to sign up for the weekly Explore NYC calendar email, which includes both Center and citywide events.

  3. Good article. Everyone’s pushing for Smartphones. But, often I find users to be not so smart, poking their noses and thumbs at their phones while on the street. That’s the dumbest thing one can do to perhaps jeopardize one’s safety, being oblivious to one’s surroundings, esp. these days and times. One will NOT know what hit him/her until he/she’s up there and meets some deity.

Leave a Reply

Senior Planet’s comments are open for all readers/subscribers; we love hearing from you! However, some comments are not welcome here as violations of our Comment Policy. If you would like to express a comment about Senior Planet locations or programs, please contact Want to continue the conversation? Start your own discussion on this topic on Senior Planet Community.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *