Cell Phones For The Sandlot

Simplified models let parents limit a child's call list and talk time


For many parents, the idea of a wireless phone for pre-teeners sets off an approach-avoidance conflict. It's appealing to be able to reach your kids in an emergency or just tell them you're running late. But cell phones also can be an opportunity for mischief as well as sky-high bills. And the many tiny buttons on most handsets would be difficult for small children to use.

Two new products -- the Firefly from Firefly Mobile, and TicTalk from Enfora -- aim to address these concerns. They follow different paths to the goal of letting parents control whom their kids talk to and how much time they spend on the phone. This restricted use will probably limit the market for these phones mostly to kids age 10 and under. (For a review of prepaid plans for teens, see "Prepaid Cell Plans Sound Better".)

Of the two products, I suspect that Firefly, a brightly colored semi-transparent phone with five big lighted buttons on the front, will appeal more to kids, but parents may find the setup process discouraging. TicTalk is a bit drab, but it offers better parental controls, with easier setup via a Web page.

The charm of Firefly, intended for children as young as 6, is extreme simplicity. Two of the buttons on the front are the standard green and red phone buttons for initiating and ending calls. A third brings up the phone book. The remaining two have icons that represent mom and dad, and you program them to dial with one click. There are also three buttons on the left to control volume and the backlight, and one on the right that dials 911 when you hold it down.

THE HEADACHE FOR PARENTS is that these limited controls must be used to do all the password-protected programming, too. Entering the numbers for the Mom and Dad keys requires using the other keys to pick digits that appear on the tiny three-line monochrome display. A similar method is used to add up to 20 numbers to a phone book -- the only numbers the phone can call or receive calls from. Then you have to pick letters to name the entry, a process that makes entering data with a standard keypad seem elegant. (Firefly plans to add a Web-based alternative.) The Firefly costs $100, including 30 minutes of talk time. Additional prepaid time may be purchased online for 25 cents per minute in increments of $25.

The grey-and-black TicTalk, available this fall for under $100 with calls costing 25 cents a minute in $15 increments, looks like an oversize digital stopwatch. It's aimed at older children than Firefly's market. TicTalk's greater width would be a challenge for the littlest hands. And with only three controls -- volume buttons on the left and a three-way rocker switch on the right whose function changes depending on the current menu -- it's a bit harder to use.

Setup, however, is done from a PC on a Web site, with enough options to satisfy control-freak parents. You can enter up to 13 numbers the child can call or get calls from at any time, plus 10 numbers with limited time allowances. You can also restrict the hours during which these minutes can be used. And calls from unrestricted numbers -- parents, other relatives, nannies -- will interrupt a lower-priority, restricted call.

Parents can also use the Web site to create to-do lists and calendar items that will appear on the TicTalk. And they can send text messages the child can reply to with one of four canned responses. (Since there's no keypad, you can't send a regular text message from either of these phones.)

One downside for the child: The TicTalk has the potential to become an always-on, nagging parent. This is only partly offset by a collection of educational games from LeapFrog (LF ), most of which are too relentlessly didactic to be much fun.

Balancing a parent's desire for control with a child's need for space is one of the toughest aspects of raising kids. For primary-schoolers, TicTalk and Firefly strike a good balance, offering them a way to commune with friends on a restricted basis while providing parents with some peace of mind.

For a collection of past columns and online-only reviews of technology products, click here

By Stephen H. Wildstrom

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