As internet safety and digital literacy advocates, we stay current on the technology that is available to youth, and their family, when it comes to keeping the online world safer and more secure. In late 2020, we became aware of a new cellphone on the market called Pinwheel https://pinwheel.com
Pinwheel is advertised to be a child’s “first phone that grows with your child.” What we read about the Pinwheel intrigued us enough to connect with the company directly, to see if they would send us a phone to test and evaluate. As many of our followers know, we are big believers in, Don’t tell us something is going to work, show us it works. Sometimes things that are promised by vendors in their advertising, are not necessarily what happens in real life.
After connecting with Pinwheel, they were excited to send us their phone for our testing and evaluation. We must recognize Pinwheel for taking us up on this offer. Even though we stated that we would be brutally honest about our testing and evaluation of their product publicly, they welcomed the opportunity for us to test their phone. It has been our experience that other tech vendors have shied away from this type of critical review when offered.
Within a short amount of time, we received our package from Pinwheel that contained two phones for our testing and evaluation:
Phone #1: The Pinwheel Slim (Samsung-A015) $149.00 US – Approximately $190.00 + taxes Canadian (2020)
Although both phones would fit well in the hands of most youth, there is no doubt that the Pinwheel Slim is smaller and lighter than the rugged model. Having said this, the rugged model is very ruggedized and felt like a small tank in the palm of our hand. We conducted a drop test of 2 feet, 4 feet, 6 feet, and 8 feet with the rugged phone onto the asphalt, and there was no visible damage, and it still operated within all specifications after each drop. Given that Pinwheel also advertised that their rugged phone was waterproof, we submerged the phone in a sink of water for 5 minutes to replicate a drop in a puddle, bathtub, sink, or any other body of water. Again, the phone functioned without any performance issues when pulled from the water.
As most parents know, most youth, especially those under the age of 16yrs, don’t necessarily treat their phones with the greatest of care, thus why we believe that the Pinwheel Rugged would be best suited for younger youth.
Connectivity in Canada:
Given that we are from Canada, Pinwheel was also very interested in their phone, and services would be congruent and work with cellular carriers up here in the Great White North. The answer is, YES it does. For the test and evaluation of both phones, we used a SIM card ($10 + tax) from a Canadian company called Public Mobile that piggybacks on the Telus cellular network ($15 a month + tax). Connectivity and sound were above average with both phones.
It should be noted that both phones also have the ability to connect and work via Wi-Fi, and the cameras on both phones took very clear pictures and video.
Preparing the Phone and Pinwheel Software
What makes the Pinwheel different from other parent filtering and monitoring apps that integrate with the Android software operating system (OS) – the Pinwheel phone uses its own unique operating system, utilizing Android hardware, and not the Android OS which is actually uninstalled from the phone. It’s not an app, but an operating system that allows Pinwheel to completely sandbox and scaffold the phone, thus allowing full control of the phone by the parent.
Prior to activating the phone, the parent must first create and set up their “Caregiver Portal” page. This portal allows the parent to manage all the capabilities and features that this phone, and the Pinwheel operating system, has to offer which include:
What apps and features, all curated by Pinwheel, are available during the day – 7 days a week, via their onboard scheduling software.
A parent-controlled “safelist” only calls and texts, which also allows the ability to dial 9-1-1 at any time
All text message history and viewing by parents
No web access or web browsing capability
No unapproved games
No ad-driven apps
No unapproved social media
No unapproved contacts
No spam calls or texts from unapproved phone numbers
Live GPS location of the phone, which we found was very accurate
Pinwheel freely admits that they are still in their “Beta” trial mode. We took delivery of the phone just before Christmas and activated it just after Christmas. It appears that this phone became a very popular Christmas gift, which resulted in their servers not being able to handle the large influx of new customers, including ourselves, which resulted in us not being able to test or evaluate many of the options available on the Caregiver Portal for several weeks. It should be noted that this challenge has now been rectified, and Pinwheel should be transitioning out of their beta trial in the late spring or early summer of 2021 for full consumer use.
Presently, Pinwheel doesn’t offer online tutorials on its Caregiver Portal set-up, and we hope that that this will be a feature that is added to their activation process. Although we are technically savvy, setting up the Caregiver Portal, and its multitude of options, wasn’t very intuitive, and therefore will likely be very frustrating to those parents who may not be tech-savvy. As a result, we believe that with the capabilities and features that this phone provides to parents, there should be a video tutorial menu added, to help guide parents on what each function does, and how to set them up on the Caregiver Portal.
Test and Evaluation of The Phone and The Parent Control Functions:
We love identifying any workarounds that allow us to bypass parental controls and filters. Other than dialing out to 9-1-1, we could not send or receive phone calls from numbers that are not approved on the Caregiver Portal Safelist. Nice feature! Other things we attempted:
We tried to defeat the GPS location beacon when the phone was turned on, we could not do so unless we removed the SIM card or turned the phone off.
We attempted to access the Google Play Store, and other sites, in an attempt to access and download apps or to just surf the web; not only couldn’t we do so, but the phone doesn’t allow the user to browse the web.
We attempted to bypass the time modes that we set to see if we could operate the device’s parental controlled apps outside of scheduled times, we couldn’t do so. However, it is important to note, from a safety standpoint, that we could still access 9-1-1 or the parent’s phone number at any time.
Overall, this phone does exactly what the vendor says it does. Given that the Pinwheel phone is still in its infancy, it is expected that there will continue to be some understandable growing pains and challenges, such as those that we mentioned above. It’s a phone that is completely sandboxed and scaffolded with the Pinwheel’s operating system, which is fully controlled by the parent. Yes, it looks and feels like a smartphone, which it is, but given the Pinwheel operating system, it’s more like a smarter phone rather than a fully functioning smartphone. Think of the Pinwheel as a youth’s first smarter phone with training wheels.
We acknowledge that the Pinwheel phone will probably be labeled as a “helicopter parenting” tool by its critics. Given the ages that this phone is designed for, pre-teens and younger teens, we would agree. However, in some circumstances, such a phone would be reasonable and warranted in our opinion, especially with younger youth. In our opinion, the Pinwheel phone is not designed for older teens who have shown good digital literacy, digital maturity, and learned respect for technology; it’s our opinion that these teens have earned the privilege to possess a fully functioning smartphone where appropriate and reasonable to do so.
From our testing, when you factor in the costs of shipping, duty, phone, SIM card, and mobile carrier, a Canadian parent is looking at approximately $300.00 + GST for the Pinwheel Slim phone and $417.00 + GST for the Pinwheel Rugged phone. There is also a further $19.00 + GST monthly access fee for the Caregiver Portal, which is needed to make the phone function as advertised.
The phone costs $149.00 – $249.00 USD plus the Pinwheel parent portal is $14.99 USD a month + whatever cellular plan you choose (typically will be cheaper than what is available in Canada).
We know that some parents are now thinking, “well, if you are not going to provide your kid with a fully functioning smartphone, why not just buy them a flip phone because they are cheaper than the Pinwheel phone.” We agree, a flip phone is always an option, but we can share with the reader, based upon our experience, it is not uncommon that a youth with a flip phone will often be ridiculed by their peers. This is a real concern that some parents may not understand, or even concern themselves with, but it is a big deal to the child. In our opinion, the Pinwheel phone does overcome this peer perception challenge.
We were very impressed with the functionality of the pinwheel phone, what it does, and why it was created. Having said this, we would currently consider this a premium phone given its pricing in Canada. However, as the old saying goes, “you get what you pay for”. As a parent, if you are looking for a first phone, that looks, feels, and functions like a smartphone, provides full parental scaffolded control, and you are willing to pay the costs associated with importing and possessing one here in Canada, then you will likely not be disappointed with the Pinwheel as your child’s first smarter phone. We also hope that Pinwheel can bring the pricing of their phone down here in Canada, to make it more cost affordable to a larger cohort of parents.
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