Convincing my 79-year-old dad to try his first smartphone went surprisingly well

A Cingular Flip IV next to a Nokia G20
A Cingular Flip IV next to a Nokia G20 (Image credit: Michael Hicks/ Android Central)

When it comes to phones, Michael Hicks (my dad) compared himself to Gibbs from NCIS. Not the murder-solving or boat-building aspects of his life, but how he also hates relying on technology and prefers keeping things simple. It's not strictly true; my dad spends hours a day reading biographies and mystery novels on his Kindle Fire HD, plus streaming some Murdoch Mysteries on the side. But in most other respects, he avoids new technology like the plague.

Case in point: my father has used a flip phone for about a decade, and I'm not talking about a new-fangled foldable smartphone here. He got a Pantech Breeze III back in 2011, around the time I got my first iPhone, and he kept using it until this year, when AT&T shipped him a free Cingular Flip IV because it was deprecating its 3G network.

Modern smartphones aren't intuitive if you didn't spend the last decade learning all the new tricks.

Because of his technological aversion and general disinterest in smartphones, I've never been able to text with my dad (do you remember how obnoxious texting was on a keypad?), making it hard to get in touch with him when I don't have time to call. So given my new professional focus on the best Android phones, I thought I'd use this editorial as justification to sit down with my dad, show him how smartphones work, and convince him how useful one would be for his daily life.

All in all, it was a mixed bag. I found plenty of apps that would appeal to him, and in the end, he did admit he should finally get a proper smartphone. But there were plenty of "overwhelming" or "frustrating" aspects to smartphones that he wouldn't be able to navigate without my or my mom's help. At least not without plenty of practice.

Re-appreciating the magic of smartphones

My dad testing his first smartphone

Source: Michael Hicks/ Android Central (Image credit: Source: Michael Hicks/ Android Central)

I drove home with a bundle of Android phones — a Pixel 3a, OnePlus 7 Pro, Samsung Galaxy S9, and a Nokia G20 I recently reviewed — plus my old iPhone for backup. I suspected he would prefer a larger screen like the G20 or 7 Pro has, but I wondered if he would prefer flat or curved screens, and whether he would gravitate to Android 11 or Android 12.

But I also knew a smartphone newbie wouldn't appreciate the finer details, so I focused on showing him the appeal of the best Android apps. Instead of relying on the newspaper or TV for gradual information, or hunting-and-pecking on a laptop to look something up, he could access what he wanted in just a few taps. Or, even better, I could set up widgets for him, so he could see all the info he needed without having to hunt for it.

My dad loved Android 12 widgets more than apps

Source: Michael Hicks/ Android Central (Image credit: Source: Michael Hicks/ Android Central)

My dad checks the newspaper's national weather forecasts every day to see the conditions in cities where family members live, so I downloaded The Weather Channel and showed him how he could "favorite" certain city results. Next, I downloaded his bank and cable bill apps and showed how he could check balances or pay for monthly charges quite easily. He told me it seemed very convenient, but he'd miss going to the bank and talking to the tellers.

Since he enjoys Kindle and Prime Video apps so much on his Fire HD, I showed him how easy it is to read or watch his favorite content on a phone. The 5.6-inch Pixel 3a was too small for him — with a large enough text size for his eyes, it didn't fit enough words per page — but the 6.5-inch Nokia G20 worked. He liked the idea of reading while out and about without having to lug his Amazon tablet with him.

Google Assistant On Shelf

Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Nick Sutrich / Android Central)

Google Assistant made using a smartphone much less intimidating and more intuitive for my dad.

What really blew my dad away was the Google Assistant button on the G20. He loved having the option to ask it for sports results, and he preferred asking it for weather results than finding and opening the app. I showed him how to ask Google Assistant to start playing his favorite classical orchestras and concertos, which he appreciated even if the phone speakers didn't do them justice.

Once he accidentally tapped a "Tell me a joke" suggested response, he enjoyed the voice assistant tech more because it felt more like a friendly person he could ask for help. I took all of this as a good sign that he might be receptive to getting a smartphone. Then again, it seemed equally likely he'd enjoy a smart speaker or smart display instead — something built for providing hands-free information, without worrying about a tricky touchscreen.

Because as much as my dad enjoyed the benefits that smartphones provide, Android can be hard to master even for the tech-savvy but especially for the tech-averse.

Tricky tapping with no guidance

My dad testing his first smartphone

Source: Michael Hicks/ Android Central (Image credit: Source: Michael Hicks/ Android Central)

Believe it or not, my dad's new flip phone has Google Assistant and some other apps along with 4GB of RAM, not terrible for a $60 phone. But I personally took a long time figuring out how to access the apps, because I'd forgotten how to properly use a keypad nav system. For my dad, using a modern smartphone was a similar experience; he has no frame of reference for what gestures work or what to do if something goes wrong.

You know where to swipe your fingers to scroll a browser or to swipe out of an app. But my dad would swipe from the edge of the screen, exit an app, and not know how to get back; or he would start his swipe from the top banner of Chrome, then get frustrated that nothing moved. More importantly, many apps' or OS menus' buttons are way too small to tap easily when your hands aren't as steady as they used to be.

A physical back button is obsolete compared to gesture controls, but gestures are only intuitive if you're accustomed to them.

My dad's a super-smart guy, and he already figured out how to use Android-based Fire tablets on his own. But Amazon's limited app library and features made for a much more curated experience. Smartphones add more features using much less screen real estate, so each tap or gesture must be more accurate and informed. The more choices and customization options, the more a phone could be overwhelming for the unprepared.

A physical back button is obsolete compared to gesture controls, but gestures are only intuitive if you're accustomed to them. Something like an iPhone SE is way too last-gen for many of us, but it could be a better fit for my dad because it has a simple, eye-catching escape button if he taps the wrong thing. On the other hand, it's probably too small for him.

Choosing the best phones for seniors

A flip-phone sitting on top of several smartphones

Source: Michael Hicks/ Android Central (Image credit: Source: Michael Hicks/ Android Central)

Right off the bat, my dad's priorities for a smartphone differ wildly from most of our readers. For starters, he doesn't care much about battery life. Most of his outings are a few hours at most, and even if he's out all day, he's not going to use it that much away from home. So a battery workhorse like the G20 is mostly superfluous for him. He's also not going to care about getting the latest Snapdragon or Dimensity chipset; he's no gamer, and older or budget chipsets were plenty responsive to his Google Assistant questions.

Screen size is a tricky tightrope to walk. He preferred the larger screen sizes of the OnePlus 7 Pro and Nokia G20 for sight and navigation, but he also likes the idea of a phone he can carry while he goes for his daily runs. He's alternated between a Walkman, a portable radio, and an iPod Nano over the years, but a phone that can track his runs and pull up any music track with a command sounds appealing to him. So he needs a screen large enough for large text but small enough to hold comfortably.

Nokia G20 Review

Source: Michael Hicks / Android Central (Image credit: Source: Michael Hicks / Android Central)

As a side note, he thinks curved-edge displays look bad and make phones harder to hold, which shows you don't need to be an expert to drop some truth bombs. So whatever phone I help him pick, it'll likely be flat, with a grippy case or PopSocket added to help him keep a good hold on it.

Is iMessage along enough to make an iPhone the best pick? Or is a budget Android phone enough?

So here I sit, trying to figure out which should be my dad's first smartphone. I myself only recently switched to Android, but my family still uses iOS. If my dad's buying this so we all can message him, an iPhone would likely be better. Then again, an iPhone seems overqualified and overpriced for what my dad needs. I could probably buy him something like a Pixel 5a or Moto G Power at half the cost that will still make him much happier than his flip phone.

Do you have any recommendations for the best phones for seniors? Have you helped your elderly parents pick out smartphones in the past, and do you know what worked for them? Let me know in the comments!

Michael L Hicks
Senior Editor, VR/AR and fitness

Michael spent years freelancing on every tech topic under the sun before settling down on the real exciting stuff: virtual reality, fitness wearables, gaming, and how tech intersects with our world. He's a semi-reformed Apple-to-Android user who loves running, D&D, and Star Wars. Find him on Twitter at @Michael_L_Hicks.

  • If eyesight is a problem, larger screens will allow for larger fonts and still have a decent amount of text on the screen. This has to be balanced by the ability to hold the phone. Arthritis makes a big difference, as does tremors. Lack of conductivity, calluses and just worn down skin is a problem for all touch devices. I cannot get the fingerprint scanner to read my print without wetting or licking my finger first to give a little more texture for the scanner to work with. (Samsung under display note 10). Getting it in in the first place was long and frustrating. I don't even buy the phone until I have my Speck grip case in hand. Even then I have managed to drop the phone more in the last year than in all the years preceding. My fingers are callused from decades of diabetic testing, and may or may not register at all depending. Still wouldn't trade the smartphone for an older model.
  • Thanks for your thoughts! I'm definitely going to look at Speck cases for whichever phone we choose, and I hadn't thought about fingerprinting being a problem for older hands. Face ID would be more useful in that case.
  • Well you could just make the time to call him on his new flip. Talking doesn't really take much more time than txting. Making the switch at his age is going to take a lot of time and effort on his part and if he is disinterested you are asking a lot.
  • You've never been on a Hicks family call, those average about an hour :). I think he's very interested in the features of smartphones but intimidated by the mechanics. But I'm hoping if we give him a phone with an easy-to-use OS and he gets used to it, it could be helpful for his day-to-day life.
  • My mom is hard of hearing and prefers texting. Plus you can text 4-5 times a day in the time it takes to call and just say hello... multiple small exchanges are sometimes more appreciatedl. Depends on the people, both call + texts are usually better too, that's what I aim for.
  • My parents are also in their 70s - the first thing I did was get them a simple to use 3g smartphone that was not hooked up to a network. A big-box store was having a clearance, and for my purposes of getting them used to a touchscreen we didn't need service. I set them both up with gmail accounts. My mom is good on a desktop, but hand held devices can be troublesome. We both have sight issues, but the condition effects us differently. Getting them used to the hand held device was tricky. My dad loves to watch movies, so I set up an old tablet I had so he could watch movies. He is getting better at websearches on a desktop, and liked the ease of watching a movie sort of 'in-private' - he can be immersed in the sound with headphones and hold the tablet as close as he wanted. I bought him his own 8" tablet because I realized that if he is comfortable with an android tablet, he'll be fine with his smartphone. He also likes to read, so his phone and tablet both have Google Books on them. My mom now loves to use hers for games. Dad picked his own smartphone out after he got fed up with his flip phone never telling how many minutes he had left. Neither of them uses the phone for actual phone calls very long - so a battery also isn't as important. My dad didn't want a huge screen, he likes to put his in his pocket, so he bought himself a rather smallish Nokia that fits in his shirt pocket. My mom didn't want one at all, but I had 2 - I broke one and bought a second one while the first one was getting repaired. When my first one came back, I set it up for her. We need larger screens, and she loves puzzle games, so she is pretty happy with her Moto G6 Play. Pretty large screen, I boosted the text size, she can play her games, and the battery isn't great but works for her. It lasts pretty long on standby, so long as she doesn't play a lot of games. The one and most important thing the two phones have in common - the circle/triangle/square. The circle takes you to the opening screen, the triangle takes you back a page and the square allows you to show the windows/apps that are open already, like the min/max on a computer. Moto has some cool features, too - karate chop flashlight, flip for silence, wrist twist for camera, and others. Android 10 and 11 allow you to keep your triangle/circle/square so you don'thave to learn gestures. If your dad is using a Fire, he's already used to Android - so you need to find a phone that is easy to personalize. My Moto's are super easy to personalize, last a long time, and are great if you don't want to spend a lot. The extra special Moto-gestures are pretty easy to get used to and are helpful when older eyes need an extra bright light, the karate chop is super useful. LGs and Nokias are weird about personalizing and they subcategorize your apps into folders, which are hard to read/see. Android allows you to adjust icon and font size. Motorolas also don't categorize your apps for you, so they are all laid out on the app screen alphbetically. You can also increase the number of 'desktops' - so each one of mine is set up with different app shortcuts. There's a games and movie app screen, a 'work' screen with tools for my job, there's one for shopping, and there's one for weather and news. You can create icons for calling or texting specific people. It's very customizable. I like the value of the phone and the flexibility in OS for making adjustments for sight issues, the special Moto gestures are fun. I'm a Moto fan because of the ease of use, they seem to think of user experience more than other phones. They don't want to make it so difficult you can't figure it out, and they have an app that teaches you how to use the gestures.
  • Thanks for your story! Seems like a Moto phone really could be a good pick for him.
  • What a detailed and thoughtful comment! Your parents are very fortunate to have you to help them.
  • I've been handling smartphones for the elderly around me for 5+ yrs. What works:
    1- start simple. Don't try to have them do everything a smartphone can do, just the basics to start with: calling/texting, messaging, social media, weather, simple games, news.
    2- lots of them are already proficient with a tablet. Set up and teach them about the phone's hotspot function, so the "what's your wifi password" hunt whenever they're at friends'... dies.
    3- most of the success is hard work. import their contacts, email accounts, bank accounts, utilities, lock up the home screen, get remote access at least to their accounts (if possible to their phones)...
    4- for extreme cases, BIG Launcher works very well, ditto the companion BIG SMS and... there's another one.
    5- Bottom nav buttons are a must-have. Some launchers/OEMs still have the option.
    6- Assistants are hit-or-miss, lots of people can't grok the need to enunciate clearly w/o ahing and mmming, loud TV in the background is an issue...
  • I'd seriously recommend a Windows Phone for intuitive UI for a first time smartphone user, but....Oh well. Lest you think I'm a senior Luddite, my current and still working stable of devices:
    1 Windows desktop
    2 Windows laptops
    2 Surface Pros
    2 other brand Windows 8" and 10" tablets
    5 Windows phones
    2 Android phones
    2 Android tablets When I went to the phone store to get my first smartphone in, 2012 I think, I walked up to an Android phone and couldn't figure out what all those very similar looking icons meant, let alone be able to see them well. Same thing with the iPhone. I walked up to the Windows phone. I looked at the screen. There was a box with a telephone in it big enough for me to see what it was unequivocally. Same for Mail and enough of the rest that my decision was made for me by the ease of use. Good suggestions above for making it readable, simple, and easy to handle. Several of my out of service phones are used as "tiny tablets" and emergency dialers in areas of the house, just set up on the home wifi. That's a good way to introduce whichever phone and OS without pressure.
  • So, I guess at 73, I'm supposed to wait for someone to show me a smart phone? Guess I better back up in time. I guess I'm also too blind to see a small screen and my fingers are too damaged for fingerprint readers to recognize.
    Guess I'm too old to hike in bear country too, too hold to pull a big trailer through the mountains of ID, WY, MT, UT, CO. Guess I'm too old to live alone, basically in the middle of nowhere.
    Guess there are too many old people and too many young Whippersnappers. (Been waiting all my life to use that word, but it is now or never; might keel over dead any second.)
  • How did he get the Nokia to have the Lens button on the search bar? Cos it's not so on mine
  • “…Is iMessage along enough…” should read “..alone…” not along. Also, do not pick on 70plus folks thinking them lacking. Myself late 70s, and many of my friends and relatives are there as well. We are all very tech savvy and many of us worked in the tech field. It is not age it is ones refusal learning. The ole “we did not have it growing up…” excuse does not hold water. Gazillion of folks did not grow up with natural gas having used coal, without central air we used fans, as in Chicago. Myself I lose patience with ole-farts not wanting to move into the 21 century. Folks this is the time we live in we do not live in the past, get over it,
  • Your dad sounds like an awesome guy. I'm 56 and I purchased my first smartphone in 2016. I was perfectly happy with the Samsung E1050 I was using, but my wife and kids wanted me to be a part of their WhatsApp group. I just recently upgraded the smartphone I bought in 2016 to a OnePlus Nord. A little overkill for my needs, but at least it's future proof.
  • Samsung phones come with a built-in easy mode that is basically made for seniors. Big buttons and simplified interface along with larger font.
  • I also can't stand those "for seniors..." whatever they're being offered, as if we're all a bunch of ______. Lumping anyone into a group that way isn't right, nice, or fair.
    That said, there are people who have challenges regardless of age and it's ok to recognize that it's true for them.
    To this day, not everyone has internet access, not everyone has laptops/desktops/tablets, not everyone has grown up with or worked in an environment where they could become familiar with these things, not everyone who doesn't already know where to look for tutorials and other info will be able to find it on their own, not everyone has an offspring who's able to help their dad decide whether he wants to join the revolution. So far as the writers dad goes, what might work would be to get an inexpensive 8" android tablet with LTE capability. Dad's already sort of familiar with "tablet" usage thru his Kindle. Build on that familiarity by setting up the tablet with the apps he'll use and thinks he might like. He can use it on the home wifi and play with it til he can get around and back comfortably. Then whenever he chooses a phone (this is assuming android), when he goes to set that phone up, I expect that he'll be greeted with a notice like "We see that you already have...Would you like to...?" and he'll find himself in much more familiar territory.
  • My dad is in his 80s and loves his note 9. He even burnt in the screen because he likes it at max brightness. Only uses Google assistant to navigate which is kinda funny.
  • The article hints at ageism. Sounds like if you are old you need a simple phone because of your limited mental abilities. As a senior I take offense.
  • My mother is 78 and she has used smart phones, tablets and other gadgets for some time and she just can't get enough of them. She's even using Google Translate, Photos, Maps, Duo, Signal and other apps.
    She's suffering from hearing loss and the accessibility features on her Samsung phone is making her daily routines a bit easier.
    Some mobiles have "easy modes" which makes it a bit..well..easier to use the UI. It's a nice feature for both young and old.