Ask LH: What’s The Best Smartphone For People Who Aren’t Good With Tech?

Ask LH: What’s The Best Smartphone For People Who Aren’t Good With Tech?

Dear Lifehacker, My parents could really use an upgrade in the mobile phone department because they’re still using dumbphones. Is there a particular smartphone that’s better for non-tech savvy users? Sincerely, Luddite Phone

Dear LP,
Getting a non-tech savvy person into a smartphone isn’t an easy task. While it’s partially about finding a good fit on a usability level, it’s also just about figuring out which features really matter to that person. While you have a lot of options out there, we’ll stick to the big three here: Android, iPhone and Windows Phone.

Make Sure They Actually Want a Smartphone

It might sound silly to those of us who have had smartphones for a while, but the fact is not everyone wants one. Nor does everyone need one. In fact, for a lot of people, a dumbphone is still the best option.

A bunch of reasons exist for this. For one, smartphones are usually more expensive, because they come with a data plan that adds to the bill. As CNET points out, the bill alone is worth considering, and it’s a dealbreaker for many:

The bottom line is that iPhones and really any smartphone are expensive devices to own. So unless your parents plan to use the features of these device, it’s probably a waste of money. A less-expensive option for them would be to get a pay-as-you-go service on a basic feature phone and then buy a small tablet like the iPad Mini, the Nexus 7 Android tablet, or a Kindle Fire, which can be used on Wi-Fi networks for free. This way they can access the Internet and all kinds of apps, but they won’t have to pay for the expensive data services associated with owning a smartphone.

There’s also the simple fact that less tech-savvy people are less interested in technology. This means things like games, fancy apps or email with push notifications just don’t matter to them. While it’s great that the iPhone is easy to use, the fact that it has 900,000 apps means nothing to most people.

First, think about whether a smartphone is needed at all. If so, then it’s time to decide which smartphone will work best. If not, then it’s probably best to just save the cash and stick with the dumbphone.

Pick the Right Phone

The best smartphone for people who aren’t great with technology is really going to depend on a lot of factors.

For Those Who Want Email and Web Browsing: Windows Phone

As we’ve noted before, the Windows Phone is a really good option for people looking for what essentially amounts to a dumbphone that can also surf the web, check email and navigate you around town. The interface is easy to use at a glance, and someone coming from a dumbphone is not going to struggle too much.

The nice thing about the Windows Phone is that it’s a really good mix of the better features of the iPhone and Android. It has the ease of use of the iPhone, where anyone can pick it up and use it, but Windows Phones also have a bunch of model options, so they can find a bigger screen or nice hardware. Essentially, a Windows phone is a win-win for anyone who doesn’t really care that much about apps or features.

For Those Who Want Apps: The iPhone

The iPhone is nearly as simple as the Windows Phone, but it also comes packed with a gigantic app store. The iTunes App Store is a huge selling point for techies and non-techies alike. If they’re looking to download that new app they heard about from their friends, play the latest games and so on, then the iPhone does it better than anyone else.

On top of that, the iPhone 5 is also Wirecutter’s pick for best mobile phone. Even if you’re not a techie, most people understand how to use an iPhone in a couple of minutes. It might take a little work to get things like email, the calendar and contacts set up initially, but they won’t have to worry about it once it’s working.

The iPhone also hooks into Apple’s operating system and iTunes really well, so if you’re already using a Mac (or iTunes at the very least), an iPhone is dead-simple to set up and start using right away. They will also have access to Apple’s Genius Bar for any help they need, which might at least partially cut down on the tech support calls you have to deal with.

For Those Who Require Advanced Features: Android

We’ll be honest: despite our love for Android, it’s at the bottom of our list for the non-geeks among us. It’s a little bit harder to use, every handset is a little bit different, and you’re going to be on the hook for all that tech support. However, if your parents are extremely entrenched in the Google universe or require certain advanced features the iPhone doesn’t have, then obviously Android’s your best bet. However, you’ll probably find those features are the exact features non tech-savvy people don’t need.

That said, Android has come a long way in recent years, and manufacturers like Samsung are really trying to make their phones appealing to more than just the geek crowd. If you’re thinking about Android, maybe take them to the store and let them try it out first. It might be a fine choice — it’s just a little riskier, since Android is a bit more complicated than Windows Phone or the iPhone. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, of course — it’s what tech geeks like us love about it — but it might be a little overwhelming to the non tech-savvy crowd. (From my personal experience, my dad, who’s a smart enough guy but not remotely interested in tech, struggled to really appreciate anything about the Android phone he had for work).

So, what’s the bottom line? It really depends. As a universal recommendation, Windows Phone is definitely the easiest to use and has the right amount of features to make it useful without being overwhelming.

Of course, the iPhone and Android both have plenty of strengths, so it’s worth popping into a store with your parents and messing around with different phones for a little while before making that choice. You also want to consider one very simple thing: which phone do you know best? You’re likely on tech support duty, so you’ll want to pick the phone you can provide support for. If that’s not possible, then consider the smartphone that most of their friends have, because that means they will always have someone around to help with questions.

While you’re there, don’t forget that hardware is important too. Anyone upgrading from an indestructible brick of a Nokia dumbphone to an easy-to-destroy smartphone is probably a little hesitant. It might also be one of those instances where a smartphone case is a good idea.


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Pictures: Everett Collection/Shutterstock, Sklathill/Flickr, Carlos Varela/Flickr


  • See, as an iPhone user, I told them to get an android phone.

    1) they’re old, so they want bigger screens so they can make the text bigger

    2) they’re unexcited by technology so they should buy an option that is cheap.

    3) at most, they are going to take photos, calls, SMS, maps and MAYBE browse the web. Despite that it is more complicated, they’ll be able to do that.

    They both bought iPhones.

    • Do they have friends with iPhones? I find most non-tech savvy older people tend to just go with the safe option, which is usually what their friends have. That and the fact that they know the name well, and that sells it to them easier.

  • I’m going to strongly suggest Android here. Why? Customization.

    My mum got a smartphone (entry level HTC) at some point last year. She was very hesitant, as she’s not the most savvy of tech users, so I spent some time tweaking her device so it was more mum friendly.

    I replaced the dialer app with something else (because she’d always accidentally bump a name while trying to scroll and call someone she didn’t mean to). I also offered to change the launcher from Sense to something like Nova so we could ditch the Sense buttons she didn’t use and replace them with SMS buttons etc. (but she didn’t want that, she was happy with Sense(?)).

    If you get something like Tasker, or on{X}, you can tweak it even further to send an “I’m on my way home” message or start a 5 minute egg timer without going in to an app.

    Find out what your parents want, what they need and go from there. Don’t get them the latest greatest phone, and perhaps find one that has or can accept stock Android, as it saves buying a SGS 4 and having them ask “Where’s this feature?” when they get a new phone

  • My dad has never used a computer, but wanted to get started on the internet, so I got him an iPad.

    I have to say, the whole thing is working out much better than I planned, he is actually pretty confident with it and he hasn’t really had any problems aside from running out of data once. Since it is getting increasingly difficult to get a non-smartphone of any quality, I figured this would be a gateway for an iPhone.

    My point is, if someone relies on the phone getting them a tablet running the same OS might be a decent way to ease them into the smart phone era without having them get stuck when they really need to just make a call. In the case of my dad, there would have been too much to learn all at once, and he would have got frustrated when he tried to use it as a phone.

    I would tend to recommend the iPhone, you know exactly what you get and things like software updates are handled very well (do you really want to explain they can’t run an app because they have an old version of the OS?). The UI tends to be a bit more unified than Android and the core software tends to be a little simpler. Your milage may vary.

    • Much as I’m an MS fanboy, you’re right on that – a consistent UX between devices is what the older people want.

      Though I still laugh at my dad using an iPad… It’s even funnier than his one-fingered typing on a computer.

  • I agree with the article here. My mum often struggles with technology and she got a Windows Phone when she moved onto a smartphone. In terms of getting things done, it’s perfect for her. The biggest problem, though, is apps. She didn’t realise that apps were platform-specific and spent ages trying to download and Android app to much frustration… and now she wants an iPhone because she’s sick of not being able to use the apps she wants to.

    I’m curious to see which she prefers for basic features (calls, texts, web browsing).

  • My mum got an iPhone.

    She’s scared of technology, if there’s a learning curve she gives up. Her friends and my dad all have iPhones, so that’s familiar and comforting for her because she knows that if she’s ever stuck, anyone can help her.

    That and the fact that she doesn’t want to pay for a plan because she feels robbed if she doesn’t use her allocated value per month, so she’s on credit. She loves iMessage, she can keep in touch with her friends at home without spending any money.

  • Im 63 have an iphone 6 really easy to use got it last year except for setting up which took a while to sort out everything is going great

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