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Stop giving your unwanted tech to older relatives. It might not help as much as you think

Handing over your old phone to your older relatives is probably not the best way to get them online.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor on
Old people with smartphone
Getty Images / Geber86

In addition to their regular jobs, many ZDNET readers probably function as unofficial CIOs for their families and friends, dispensing advice on the purchase, setup, usage, and maintenance of all manner of consumer tech kit. 

A particular concern for these tech-savvy folks -- let's call them 'Family Information Officers' (FIOs) -- is getting the older generation (65+) onboard and comfortable with using digital devices and software to interact with a world that's rapidly ditching alternative analogue routes. 

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Banking is a good example: as society becomes increasingly cashless and banks close ever more brick-and-mortar branches, the pressure to switch to digital versions increases. 

Healthcare is another issue: access to medical services is rapidly moving online via mobile apps and websites, risking the exclusion of older people who lack smart devices or internet access, or the confidence and know-how to use them. A particular bugbear of mine is the multiplicity and user-opaque nature of many car-parking apps, and the widespread lack of cash or card options. 

Although most tech companies strive to make their products as usable as possible, few take explicit account of the over-65s. Also, the relentless pursuit of more features and functions in most devices continually adds to both the price and the user experience problem for older people.

One company specializing in tech for the older generation is Austria-based Emporia, which was founded in 1991 and now operates in over 30 European countries. Emporia offers a range of landline phones, smartphones and feature phones, and accessories. In 2022 the company added an Android tablet to its portfolio and also launched its first smartwatch, initially in Germany.

According to Emporia, 52 million people in Europe still lack an internet connection, with 9.6 million of them in the UK. And of the roughly 13 million people over 65 in the UK, less than 40% own a smartphone, the company says. So there's plenty of addressable market for a company that gets a mix of age-related products and services right. 

The company argues that, across Europe, about 50 million people over the age of 65 are excluded from digital applications because they do not own or don't know how to use a smartphone or tablet.

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Chris Millington, Emporia UK MD

Chris Millington, managing director at Emporia Telecom UK & Ireland.

Image: Emporia

At a press event in November 2022, Chris Millington, Emporia's managing director for UK and Ireland, outlined one way that things can go wrong when equipping older folks with smartphones. He calls it 'Hand Me Upping'. 

This happens when younger family members give their old phone to their parent or grandparent in an attempt at helping them get digitally connected. 

"So they give them a phone that's two or three years old and no longer updated or supported, doesn't work with banking apps and doesn't have an easy-to-use interface, and doesn't work very well in their life. They end up with this phone that, rather than encouraging them to be digitally connected, isolates them and makes them feel foolish because they have to ask for support all the time." 

Adding to the problem is the rapid evolution of mobile tech, which means that the younger generation quickly forget how things work on older devices, making it hard for them to support older users effectively. Far better, Millington says, to "recycle or trade in a used smartphone and to consider a tailored product that is geared towards the needs and wants of the mature user."

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Emporia offers budget/mainstream mobile hardware with three layers of age-friendly usability: a simplified user interface, a printed training book, and most recently, Coach -- a training app.

Emporia's UI overlay sits on top of Android on its smartphones and tablet, and provides large, clearly labelled, customizable buttons pointing to applications and key functions -- not unlike Android's Simple Mode. Here's the home screen on the 10.1-inch Emporia Tablet

Emporia Tablet home screen
Screenshot: Charles McLellan / ZDNET

And here's the All Apps list on the 5.5-inch Emporia Smart 5 phone: 

Emporia Smart 5 All Apps list
Image: Charles McLellan / ZDNET

There's no customization once you're into regular Android apps, beyond a bar at the top with a large Back button and icons to access the home screen and swipe through recently used apps.

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The second usability element is an unusual sight these days: a printed book that goes way beyond a traditional manual (which is also available), covering everything from setting up the device and connecting to Wi-Fi, to sections on Google Play Store and the internet, email and messaging, social media, photography and video, video calls, streaming with YouTube, and basic apps.

Emporia training book

Emporia's training book for its Tablet.

Images: Charles McLellan / ZDNET

The book is extremely popular with Emporia's target user base, Millington says, while acknowledging that it's expensive and that the content is static. 

Emporia Coach

Emporia's Coach app.

Images: Google / Emporia

The new Coach app is designed to address these problems, offering a 30-day training course that delivers chunks of learning in digestible daily chapters, with plenty of gamification to help make the process fun and engaging. Learning can proceed at the user's pace, with repeated use helping to build confidence with the device. A beginner course comes pre-installed on Emporia's Smart devices, with follow-up courses available for download. 

Here are some of Emporia's key products.

OS Android 10 | Screen 4.95-inch, 480 x 960 | Processor MediaTek MTK6739 | RAM 3GB | Storage 32GB | Networks 2G/3G/4G LTE | Wireless Bluetooth 4.0, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), NFC, GPS | Connections & ports USB-C, 3.5mm audio out, MicroSD card slot | Cameras 5MP (front), 13MP (back) | Battery capacity 2500mAh (removable) | Battery life 170 hours standby, 550 mins talk | Accessories charging cradle, battery covers (with/without emergency button) | Dust/water resistance IP54 | Dimensions 66mm x 138mm x 11mm | Weight 160g | Price £210 / €230

Equipped with physical Call and End keys to help older users who struggle with swiping a touch screen, this 5-inch 4G phone is easy to hold, hearing-aid compatible and relatively robust, with IP54 dust/water resistance. The battery is removable, delivering just over 9 hours of talk time, and there's an optional battery cover with an emergency call button. The latter calls up to five predefined contacts, automatically goes into loudspeaker mode, sends a prepared SMS to an emergency number, provides GPS co-ordinates, and activates a loud alarm tone.

OS Android 10 | Screen 5.5-inch, 720 x 1440 | Processor MediaTek MTK6762 | RAM 3GB | Storage 32GB | Networks 2G/3G/4G LTE | Wireless Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), NFC, GPS | Connections & ports USB-C, 3.5mm audio out, MicroSD card slot | Cameras 8MP (front), 13MP, 2MP, 2MP (back) | Battery capacity 3550mAh (removable) | Battery life 250h standby, 700 mins talk | Accessories charging cradle, battery covers (with/without emergency button)  | Dust/water resistance 1P54 | Dimensions 72mm x 150mm x 10mm | Weight 179g | Price £250 / €250


Emporia's Smart 5 is a step up from the Super Easy model, with a slightly larger, higher-resolution screen, a faster processor, more capable cameras and a Smartcover that gives access to selected functions such as call handling, favourite contacts, camera and torch when the cover is closed. As with the Super Easy, there's an optional version of the battery cover with an emergency button.

OS Android 11 | Screen 10.1-inch, 1200 x 1920 | Processor MediaTek MT8768 | RAM 4GB | Storage 32GB | Networks 2G/3G/4G LTE | Wireless Bluetooth 5.0, Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac), GPS | Connections & ports USB-C, 3.5mm audio out, MicroSD card slot | Cameras 5MP (front), 13MP (back) | Battery capacity 5000mAh | Accessories charging cradle with wall mount, optional keyboard case | Dimensions 243.7mm x 160mm x 8.5mm | Weight 560g | Price £330 / €300

This 4G LTE-connected tablet allows senior users to get online without the hassle of setting up fixed-line broadband and Wi-Fi at home, or signing in to Wi-Fi networks when they're out and about (Wi-Fi is also supported, of course). It comes with a charging cradle that can be wall-mounted, so if you remember to replace it, you'll always know where the device is. The cradle also enhances the tablet's speaker output when the device is docked. A keyboard case with a built-in kickstand is available as an optional extra (£100 on its own, or £50 if bought with the tablet).

Emporia Watch

4G LTE smartwatch (£250 / €250)

Emporia Watch
Emporia Mobile

Screen 1.1-inch, 240 x 240 | Processor Unisoc UWS6130E(W307) | RAM 1GB | Storage 1GB | Networks 2G/3G/4G LTE | Wireless Wi-Fi, GPS | Sensors 3-axis accelerometer, 6-axis gyroscope, heart rate & SpO2, body temperature | Audio speaker, mic | Battery capacity 600mAh | Dust/water resistance IP67 | Strap black silicone, leather (optional) | Dimensions 43.9mm x 14.8mm | Weight 51g | Price £250 / €250

The first smartwatch designed specifically for older users, Emporia Watch is a joint venture with German manufacturer Anio, which makes wearables for both children and seniors. Due to launch early in 2023, Emporia Watch is a 4G/VoLTE device, making it a standalone unit that does not rely on a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone. Functions include heart rate, blood oxygen and temperature monitoring, step counting and GPS tracking. A smartphone management app is available to adjust settings, and with permission, the watch can be configured to issue alerts to friends and family in the event of unusual activity. The Watch also features emergency dialing and an SOS button that calls up to three designated contacts.

Alternatives

Apple's cheapest new smartphone is the 4.7-inch iPhone SE, which starts at £449 in the UK -- just over twice the price of the 5-inch Emporia Super Easy. However, second-hand iPhone SEs can cost between £150 and £250 with 64GB of storage, and are a major competitor for Emporia, Millington says. 

The other European company specialising in tech for seniors is Sweden-based Doro, which also makes smartphones, feature phones, landline phones, a tablet, and a smartwatch. If you're investigating phones from mainstream phone-makers for your elderly family or friends, you'll need to juggle factors like the price point, device size, weight and ergonomics, touch-screen responsiveness, audio quality, IP rating, GPS support and more.

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