The Telstra's EasyCall 4 is a million miles from Samsung's Galaxy S8 or Apple's iPhone 7. But if your needs are basic or you're shopping for your kids, it might be the dumb phone that you've been looking for.
These days there's not a lot of demand for dumb phones. Today's teens want the bells and whistles of the latest smartphones, while many Baby Boomers have embraced technology and want to do more than simply make calls and send texts. Yet there are still pre-teens who don't need (or can't yet be trusted with) advanced smartphone features, along with those seniors who simply aren't interested in more than making the occasional call.
With the 2G shutdown rendering a generation of hand-me-down dumb phones obsolete, you might find yourself looking to buy a basic mobile phone for the first time in a long time. Your list of priorities will be very different than when buying a smartphone for yourself.
That was me on the weekend, looking to buy a budget emergency phone for my 13-year old son to occasionally carry when he's out with friends. Let's call him Mars – the codename we used at home when he was young and we didn't want him to know we were talking about him.
Unlike some of his friends, Mars doesn't need a mobile phone as a safety precaution when catching public transport to and from school. This phone might sit unused in the kitchen drawer for weeks at a time, so I wasn't keen to spend a lot of money.
Take it easy
In the end I settled on Telstra's $129 EasyCall 4 – one of the telco's cheaper pre-paid phones – with a $70, 12-month recharge. I was won over by the EasyCall 4's simplicity, long battery life and strong coverage which all mean that it's likely to come to Mars' aid when he needs it.
The EasyCall 4 is actually a rebadged ZTE Mobile T403. It's a 3G-only phone with a simple screen and basic operating system, which helps extend the battery life to 300 or 400 hours standby (depending on which fact sheet you read).
Unlike some of the cheaper pre-paid handsets such as the Telstra Cruise, the EasyCall 4 gets Telstra's "Blue Tick" for strong regional reception. It supports Telstra's 850MHz and 2100 MHz bands, although these days I think Telstra has retired its 2100 MHz 3G network. Strong regional coverage is important when Mars might need it on weekends away, but it's less of an issue if you're looking for a house-bound phone.
Part of the EasyCall 4's appeal is that it's so basic that hopefully Mars won't be tempted to use it except in emergencies. You can even lock it down so it can only call a specific list of numbers but I won't be going that far, at least not yet. I trust Mars to act responsibly and, while I've put all the important numbers in the phone's address book, it's impossible to say who else he might need to call in an emergency.
The phone doesn't have a camera, there's no QWERTY keyboard and you can't browse the web or download apps. The handset has a built-in torch and an FM radio, although I've put sticky tape over both these switches to ensure they're not turned on accidentally and left to run the battery flat.
I've made it clear that it's not Mars' phone, it's my phone and I will occasionally let him borrow it. He's not to give out the number to his friends, as they'll rarely be able to reach him on it. This way his little sister Venus will also be able to use it as an emergency phone – she's only 10 so if the EasyCall 4 can last until she's old enough to have a phone of her own then I'll consider it a worthwhile investment.
Keep it simple
Spend some time with the EasyCall 4 and you can tell it's primarily targeted at seniors. These days Baby Boomers tend to want more features, but they might see it as a handy basic phone for their parents.
The phone has large backlit buttons and an easy-to-read screen, plus by default it reads the numbers aloud as you dial (thankfully you can disable this). There's a physical sliding lock on the side of the phone, making it simple to use if you have poor vision, plus you can boost the size of the onscreen font.
It's easy to navigate through the menus to the address book, but there are also two dedicated speed dial buttons above the keypad. You'll also find an emergency switch on the back – flick it to call a pre-determined number and send texts to several others. It's disabled by default but switching it on makes the phone a handy make-shift panic button.
The phone comes with a lanyard with a quick-release for the handset and a secondary emergency release to reduce the risk of the lanyard being a choking hazard.
You can boost the phone's speaker volume, plus it includes T-Coil hearing aid support and there's also a Voice Broadcast feature that reads aloud the names of incoming callers and texters. Unfortunately with this enabled the phone doesn't actually ring or beep, it just speaks the name, so there's a greater chance of not hearing a call or message come in. Alternating between ringing and speaking the name would make more sense.
The phone charges via microUSB and comes with an AC adaptor as well as a charge cradle to sit on the kitchen bench. It's easy to get the phone in and out of the cradle and it makes a loud beep when you take it on or off so you know whether or not the phone is charging.
The sliding lock switch doesn't actually lock the keypad, presumably due to the ACMA's insistence that anyone be able to make an emergency call from any handset. While it's a noble idea it's not very practical on the EasyCall 4, the fact the keypad isn't locked means you can still accidentally wake the phone and pocket dial three-digit numbers such as 000.
If you press any digit it wakes up the phone's screen and it stays awake if the button is held down, meaning it's possible to run down the battery if the handset gets squashed in your pocket or bag. Having spent a day in Mars' bag, I found the still locked phone open to the menus and offering to change the language from English to Chinese – which shouldn't be possible when the phone was locked but still somehow happened anyway.
You'll find $10 wallet-style cases for the EasyCall 4/ ZTE T403 on eBay, with a protective front cover, and I'm thinking it might be a worthwhile investment to guard against accidental key presses.
Telstra's EasyCall 4 has lots of great features which make it simple to use for people whose sight and hearing aren't what they used to be. Pre-teens will likely hate the handset's lack of advanced features but, like me, you might see this as the phone's strength – if they wouldn't be caught dead seen using it in public then hopefully they'll only use their emergency phone in a real emergency.