Can't Find Little Johnny? Ring His Cell
By David Pogue
Some people, no doubt, are shocked
by the very question. Why on earth would an elementary schooler need a cellphone?
Whatever happened to responsible parental supervision, making children earn
their rewards, and sending them to play stickball outside?
But millions of other parents see the appeal immediately. They'd argue that in
the modern world, parent-child separations occur almost every day, brought about
by play dates, after-school activities, getting lost at the mall, parents
working late and the shuttling between divorced spouses. In these situations, a
cellphone could be a nerve-calming lifeline.
But not a traditional cellphone. Security is one reason; you don't want
heavy-breathing strangers calling them up and luring them to shadowy places.
Complexity is another; goodness knows there are plenty of adults who find modern
And then there's the service cost. These days, cellphones are sellphones, black
holes for money spent on ring tones, photos and text messages.
No, if you're going to issue your child a cellphone, it had better be
ultra-simple, ultra-limited, ultra-rugged and ultra-parent-controlled.
In other words, something like the Enfora TicTalk, the Firefly or the Verizon LG
Migo. Each can dial only a handful of phone numbers that you, the all-knowing
guardian, have programmed. They're designed exclusively for voice calls; they
can't download ringers, send text messages, do e-mail, take pictures, check
voice mail or get on the Web.
The Firefly, for example, is a tiny capsule clad in blue translucent plastic
($50 after rebate and two-year Cingular contract, or $100 from Target or
fireflymobile.com). Two big buttons bear icons resembling the gender symbols on
public restrooms. A lost or lonely tot can press the female-looking button and
then Talk, and presto: it's Mom on Line 1.
A book-icon button summons a list of 20 additional numbers, each identified by a
one-word label (DADCELL, GRANDMA or whatever). There's also a small emergency
button on the side that when pressed for several seconds and then confirmed by
the Talk button, dials 911.
Otherwise, your young executive-to-be can't call anyone else. In fact, you can
even limit incoming calls to those preprogrammed numbers.
Each number can set off a different cheesy, single-note ring tone and a
different backlight color on the two-line L.C.D. screen. There's also a Firefly
button that does nothing but start a tiny show of multicolored L.E.D. lights
that shine through the case.
VERIZON'S Migo ($100 with two-year contract) is also a great-looking, diminutive
capsule designed for small hands. Instead of Mom and Pop icons, though, it bears
four big buttons labeled 1, 2, 3 and 4. Your offspring will just have to learn
which button dials which person.
Dwarfing them all, though, is a central button that's preset to dial 911. It may
be a marketing move intended to calm neurotic parents, but it's a bad
technological move; your child will live in terror of hitting it by accident. If
you're smart, you'll exploit the option to reprogram it so that it dials you
instead, making it, in effect, a fifth speed-dial button.
The Migo is by far the most cellphonish of the group. It has a speakerphone, a
vibrate mode, polyphonic ring tones, and much better sound quality than its
rivals. It's also a Verizon phone, meaning it stands the best chance of working
anywhere in the country. (Then again, who cares about national coverage on a
kiddie phone, as long as it works in your neighborhood? Even these days, it's
rare to see unaccompanied second graders making business trips.)
Parents should know, however, that the Migo receives all incoming calls, not
just those from numbers in its own phone book. Anyone can call in. On one hand,
clever yakaholics can therefore bypass all the parental limits by simply asking
their friends to initiate the calls. On the other hand, it means that you can
still reach your darling even when you don't happen to be at your regular phone.
The third phone for tots, the TicTalk ($100), takes a radically different
approach. It doesn't look anything like a phone; in fact, it most resembles a
stopwatch - a cheap-feeling, plastic one. You're supposed to hold it out like a
walkie-talkie, not up to your head. (And if you do hold it to your head, a loud
electrostatic buzzing interferes with the conversation.)
The TicTalk isn't for any old young people; it's a phone for young nerds. You've
never seen a less efficient phone operating system. It takes two steps just to
turn the thing on.
But that's nothing compared with the hassle involved in placing a call (there
are no speed-dial buttons). You press one of two unlabeled buttons to summon the
main menu, scroll down twice to highlight "Phone-Anytime" in a menu, push the
scroller to open the list of preprogrammed numbers (up to 12), scroll down to
the one you want to call, and finally push the scroller to dial. Try remembering
how to do all that while you're lost, chasing a missed bus or being kidnapped.
Truth is, the TicTalk's primary mission has nothing to do with emergencies.
Instead, it's designed, believe it or not, as an educational tool. It has six
simple Leapfrog math, spelling and science games with Space Invaders-style
graphics and recorded spoken instructions. High scores earn "reward minutes"
that are good for nonessential phone time spent gabbing with friends. (A
separate parent-approved phone book lists up to 10 of these secondary contacts.)
It's the cellular version of "No dessert until you eat your broccoli."
Now, quick-witted readers might already be thinking: "Hold on. If there's no
number pad, how are you supposed to enter the approved phone numbers?"
The TicTalk's Web site (mytictalk.com) lets you type in the authorized phone
numbers using your computer keyboard. Your changes magically appear on the phone
a minute later.
The site also lets you set up off-limits hours - so that the phone won't even
operate during the school day, for example, and reward calls end at bedtime. You
can also plug weekly classroom spelling words into the TicTalk's Hangman game,
program To Do or Calendar items (which appear when the phone turns on), or even
send one-way text messages to the phone ("Big Brother is watching you! Love,
Programming the Migo and Firefly doesn't require a computer, but that's not
necessarily a good thing. Instead, you have to plug in the names and numbers
right there on the phone - which, remember, doesn't have a number pad. On the
Firefly, you cycle through the numbers and alphabet by pressing the <- and ->
buttons about six thousand times; on the Migo, you use the 1, 2, 3 and 4
buttons, pressing each several times to cycle through a set of numbers or
letters. To enter Verizon's toll-free number (800-922-0204), for example, you'd
press 3344333111141142. Get it?
All three phones have headphone jacks, which is a little scary; the world may
not be ready for 6-year-olds conducting those demented one-way conversations in
public, like their un-self-conscious parents in the business world ("No can do!
Fax it ASAP!").
And speaking of maturity: Firefly says its phone is intended for "8- to
12-year-olds." Truth is, though, these phones won't fly with anyone for whom
cellphones are symbols of status and independence. Or, as one tweenager put it
in an online review: "No kid in their right mind would carry around this
cellphone. They would get made fun of every second of the day!" So, 5 to 10 is a
more plausible age group for these phones, as Enfora and Verizon suggest. (Then
again, these limited, idiotproof phones might also appeal to certain
technophobic or disabled adults.)
If you've accepted the concept of kindergartners' packing cellphones, your next
challenge is coping with the pricing. You have to pay in advance for TicTalk
talk time, and it's expensive: 25 cents a minute. The minutes expire after 90
days. You can pay for the Firefly either using that prepaid
25-cents-per-expiring-minute scheme, or by signing up for a regular Cingular
voice plan. To use the Migo, you sign up for any existing Verizon plan; most
people make it part of a family plan (that is, $10 additional a month).
The TicTalk's educational slant and organizer features may provide academic
encouragement to budding gadget freaks; the Firefly's bold Mom and Dad icons
(and incoming-call restrictions) may make it the best bet for very young
callers. But Verizon's stylish Migo offers the best phone construction, sound
quality and phone features.
Whichever you choose, you should accompany the gift with a chat about
responsibility, safety and caring for possessions. This is one toy you don't
want left on the bus.