Review: The Emporia SMART.5 – a $270 phone your grandparents will love
The Emporia Smart.5 aims to be approachable to the most novice of users, and on that point, it largely succeeds.
KnowTechie is no stranger to phone reviews. For the most part, the devices that land upon our doorsteps are mass-market people-pleasers, with little to pigeon-hole them into a particular niche. The Emporia SMART.5 is different.
You see, this is a phone aimed squarely at the older generation. The device, with its chunky plastic frame and mega-simplified UI, isn’t shy about this. And I must admit, my curiosity was piqued.
Here’s the thing: When your intended customers are seventy and above, you can’t make any assumptions about their technical competency. Please don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to lazily paint all seniors as inept. Rather, I’m saying there’s a broad distribution of abilities.
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Some, like my 96-year-old nan, can Snapchat with the best of Gen-Z. For others, this phone may be their first-ever smartphone, and even their first ever internet-connected device. The latter will require more hand-holding and a simpler, gentler experience.
In some ways, Emporia has a bigger challenge on its hands than any other phone company, and I wanted to see how they translated the Android UI to this audience. Without spoiling the ending, I was largely impressed.
No, it’s not a particularly fast phone. Its specs are within what you’d expect in the sub-$100 range. Nor is it particularly beautiful. The UI is defined by a chunky, flat aesthetic that reminded me slightly of the Windows 95-era educational software I used at school.
But then again, it’s not all that concerned with speed or beauty. The Emporia Smart.5 aims to be approachable to the most novice of users, and on that point, it largely succeeds.
Why this Caught my Eye
This phone caught my attention for another reason. Christmas is coming up, and if you’re looking to buy a smartphone for an older relative, there aren’t any great options.
Android can be relatively complex, and the fact that experiences differ between vendors makes it hard to provide long-distance technical support. iOS does a better job of hiding that complexity, but it still shows up in ways that can confound non-digital natives.
A great example is its app tracking consent boxes. If you’ve never used a computer or smartphone before, this pop-up might make you feel concerned or confounded.
And then we have the devices themselves. As I’ve written previously, cheap Android phones can be terrible to use, even for those with modest needs. A sluggish processor and crap screen will infuriate an 85-year-old just as much as an 18-year-old.
They’re also glacially slow to receive software updates, adding unwelcome security concerns, unless you pick an Android One device. These are few and far between.
iPhones are slightly better, offering a consistently solid experience across the board, but even the cheapest new phone from Apple’s stable costs much more than an entry-level iPhone. And if you opt for an older device, you’ll have to contend with a shorter life span in terms of software and hardware support.
So, there aren’t that many great options. But how does the Emporia SMART.5 fare?
Poking and Prodding the Emporia SMART.5
Most typical smartphone reviews focus heavily on specs. For obvious reasons, this isn’t a typical smartphone, and so we’ll gloss over the technical nitty-gritty.
Either way, it’s hardly anything to write home about. Powering the device is a MediaTek Helio P22 processor with eight cores clocked at 1.8GHz. That’s paired with 3GB of RAM and 32GB of internal storage.
The P22 is almost four years old at this point, and even during its heyday, wasn’t much of a speed demon. Still, for the stated purpose, it’s more than adequate. It’s hard to imagine the intended users racking up frags in Call of Duty: Mobile.
There’s none of the snappy responsiveness expected from the latest-and-greatest flagships, but that’s fine. Web browsing and social apps load fast enough, and this is more than capable for the types of basic smartphone that its intended audience will perform.
The screen lacks the vivid richness of an LED display, with colours missing the sharp fidelity found on pricier mass-market devices, and it’s not especially high-resolution. However, it’s decently bright, with solid viewing angles. And its generous 5.5-inch display makes it easy to read emails and web pages.
Perhaps surprisingly, the Emporia SMART.5 comes with three rear-facing cameras, headlined by a 13MP main camera and two 2MP secondary cameras (a portrait lens and one for close-up macro shots). As depicted, these produced flat, grainy images. Again, will the intended user care? The answer is, most likely, no.
On paper, this feels like an entry-level $99/£99 handset. But its shortcomings are alleviated by the UI, which aims to remove the complexity of Android at every turn.
This becomes most apparent when the device is fully set-up, and you’re the home screen is populated with a flurry of big, bold, and eminently pressable icons.
This is an area where the Emporia SMART.5 performs extremely well. It makes no assumptions about the competence of its users.
Perhaps the most strikingly illustrative example of this fact is the virtual keyboard, where the backspace button is replaced by a large red button that reads “delete.” The familiar return key, meanwhile, is brightly-coloured green and says “next.” It couldn’t be simpler.
But Emporia wasn’t able to fully remove every trace of the stock Android experience, and I was confronted with the mainstream Android UI when performing tasks like transferring images from a gallery or fiddling with Bluetooth settings.
The Emporia SMART.5 comes with a bundled “smart” case, which offers a decent level of protection when thrown in a handbag, and allows users to access common functions of the device (like the phone) quickly.
There’s also a built-in SOS button, which automatically calls up to five pre-defined numbers, and blasts out an emergency SMS containing the user’s location.
Battery life is solid. Although its 3,550mAh battery sits on the small side, its power-sipping CPU means it can last for several days between charges. It also wins points for the inclusion of USB-C, which is a bit less fiddly than the older (and cheaper) microUSB standard.
Would I buy this for a relative?
That’s the million dollar (well, $270) question. The phone’s specs (which you can read about in its datasheet) are basic, but formidable enough for day-to-day usage, and it’s hard to imagine a device that’s more accessible.
This fact is reinforced by the inclusion of a nearly-150 page instruction guide that lays out the phone’s features in plainly-written, straightforward English.
It’s basic, sure, but hardly compromised and I seldom felt like the phone was too underpowered to perform. I have concerns about longevity, particularly with respect to future software and security updates.
Android phones are hit-and-miss at the best of times, and the dated Helio P22 chip means it will likely miss out on future version releases. But those concerns are alleviated by the low price, which undercuts Apple’s cheapest model, the iPhone SE 2020 by a wide margin.
This phone is unique in the fact that I feel as though I could give it to any smartphone newcomer and they could intuitively figure it out themselves. That’s unique.
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