Feature phones get new functions

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Feature phones get new functions

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Samsung Master, LG’s Wine Sherbet

Old-fashioned feature phones are not only surviving the era of smartphones thanks to demand from older customers but they’re also getting some smarter functions.

Mobile phone makers in Korea continue to roll out - if only periodically - new 2G or 3G phones whose main functions are calls, text messages and photographs. Samsung Electronics yesterday released Samsung Master, its first feature phone in more than five months since the A300 SHW-A300K came out in December.

The world’s largest smartphone vendor calls the feature phones its Minimal Folder lineup. It released the first model in the Minimal Folder lineup, the SHW-A310S, in 2011.

The newer feature phones are now being given some technologies associated with smartphones. Samsung Master, which works on either 2G or 3G networks, features a pace counter with which the user can monitor his or her physical activities. It also has a leather cover similar to that of the Galaxy Note 3.

Some of its functions are so new that they aren’t yet featured on a lot of smartphones. Its acquaintance alarm function, for instance, manages the usage of the phone. If the phone is unused for a certain period of time, which could mean the user has been involved in a dangerous situation, the alarm notifies a family member or acquaintances designated in advance so they can check on the user. This feature may be useful for children worried about elderly parents.

It also has a special ringing function that, after a set number of rings, gets louder and louder until it reaches 70 decibels. It has a 3-megapixel camera.

“Samsung Master is easy to handle,” said an official from Samsung Electronics. “It is a product for customers who prefer a simple and practical feature phone.”

LG Electronics released a feature phone called Wine Sherbet last year. The 3G phone is loaded with an FM radio, a GPS-based SOS safety function, electronic dictionary and MP3 player, among other functions.

Additions to feature phone lineups are not as frequent as with the sleeker smartphones, but sales are healthy. SK Telecom, the country’s largest mobile carrier, says only 2 or 3 percent of the mobile phones it sold last year were feature phones, but in January, sales surged to 8.7 percent and then to 8.8 percent in February.

The increasing saturation of the smartphone market is a factor.

“Nearly everyone that wanted to switch from a feature phone to a smartphone has done so,” said Kevin Song, an analyst with Shinhan Investment, “and this shows more clearly than before there is a steady demand for feature phones.”

Feature phones are preferred by older customers who don’t use multimedia functions.

Low cost is another draw. LTE or 4G service, used by most smartphones these days, is usually in the range of 50,000 won to 70,000 won ($48 to $68) monthly. Feature phones can be used with 10,000 won to 20,000 won monthly plans.

The popularity of the so-called thrift phones, or phones provided by smaller mobile operators called mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), is also boosting the popularity of feature phones. Focused on cheap services, the MVNOs are providing many feature phone lines.

Some market watchers predict phone manufacturers and mobile operators will maintain a minimum amount of feature phones to offer.

“We will make a feature phone as long as there is demand,” said an official from Samsung Electronics.

BY MOON GWANG-LIP [joe@joongang.co.kr]

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