Let’s get this clear from the start. The Vodafone 155 is not one of the new breed of feature phones aping the functionality of more expensive smartphones. Where Nokia’s new Asha S40 handsets can surf the web, navigate, chat with iPhone and Android users on WhatsApp and even play Angry Birds, the £25 Vodafone 155 – built by Alcatel – is designed for one audience only: the elderly.
With its large buttons and minimal specs – there isn’t even a camera – it’s solely meant to act as an easy means of communications for people too confused by complicated software and small buttons. Essentially, it’s a home phone that can be taken anywhere – a real advantage that means you – or your relatives – only have to learn one phone interface…
At a glance, the Vodafone 155 almost seems like a caricature of a phone. Its enormous 0-9 keypad almost seems so over-sized as to be patronising, but as a mobile phone for someone who may never have used one before, it does make sense. The keys are huge, and tactile, with raised lettering so you can almost feel the numbers. And yet, the phone itself is far from gigantic. Its 110x 56 x 13 mm dimensions are positively flattering: it fits snugly in the palm of your hand, and its sturdy plastic casing will survive high drops.
Unusually, the sides of the phone are positively peppered with physical switches: typically this would be a bizarre move, but for the audience in mind it makes sense. Alongside the standard volume rocker and a 3.5mm headphone jack, there’s a sliding tog to lock and unlock the phone, as well as on to activate the flashlight on the top of the handset. Curiously, there’s a physical button to turn the FM radio on and off but we remain unconvinced that this is a feature elderly people demand in a mobile phone. Perhaps this button would have been better used as a speed dial key for a contact.
There’s one final button, found on the back of the phone, and it’s a rather unusual one. This SOS button can be used to trigger an emergency text sent to up to four contacts, and activates a siren alarm. It’s a useful extra feature for a vulnerable person, although the alarm really isn’t very loud: you probably wouldn’t hear it from the next room with the door closed, for instance. As for power, the 155 charges through a micro USB port on the bottom, but thoughtfully, a small dock is included. You can simply pop the 155 in to the cradle as though it were a typical wireless home phone and let it charge. The 1000mAh battery means it will run for days, if not weeks, on end.
We do have to take issue with Vodafone’s claim that the phone is ideal for those with seeing difficulties however. Yes, the buttons are big, and numbers are read out as you type, but the screen is so small as to be useless for anything other than dialling out. The iPhone’s extraordinary VoiceOver technology makes it the only phone worthwhile for those with impaired vision.
A phone for the elderly needs to be easy to use, but low prices and low-tech parts often result in convoluted interfaces, and sadly, that has happened here. Navigating the phone isn’t immediately intuitive, not least because the on-screen guides tell you to use the green call accept key for “OK”, when there is a perfectly serviceable “OK” button on the keypad. The on screen font for the time on the homescreen is unnecessarily difficult to read, and there’s a calendar which does nothing but show the days of the week – you can’t add events, and yet you can, strangley, play some basic games. As for text messaging, it’s back to the 1990s with no form of predictive messaging whatsoever: one push for A, two for B and so forth. As you might imagine, adding contacts is also fiddly.
A smarter solution would have been to create a two stage operating system. A set-up process where someone adept with gadgets can program in numbers, and then a more stripped down operating system with just a few core features: alarm, text messaging and calling. That’s all a phone like the 155 needs, and the extras Alcatel has thrown in only serve to detract from the experience…
While much of the design and thoughtful home dock accessory included make this an ideal mobile phone for an elderly relative, it could still be better. For £25, it almost seems as though too many features have been included.