Should I buy my mother an iMac?
September 2, 2009 12:32 AM   Subscribe

Should I get my aging, computer-clumsy mother an iMac, or just buy her a bigger screen for her Windows machine?

My mother uses her computer to play bridge, read her email (via Gmail), do her banking, and occasionally write letters. She is really bad at computer hygiene and I've had to clean viruses off her computer more than once - she will click on things that tell her to click them. This scares me, because she also uses her computer to do her banking.

I've suggested getting her an iMac, and she's cool with the idea. A larger screen would be part of the package, and that would definitely help her. The advantages of getting a Mac are that it comes with Applecare and it's less likely she'll install malware. The downside is that she's not great with computers and she might find the learning curve too steep. I know that the cost of an iMac will pay for a lot of computer support - but would that be as good as Applecare for someone who just needs her hand held?

What are people's thoughts on this?
posted by Joe in Australia to Computers & Internet (35 answers total)
If she just uses her browser to play bridge and uses internet banking, then yes, it's worth it to save her from malware by changeing her OS. If she does anything else in Windows, then it just might be too much for her to make such a drastic change. If she writes her letters in MSword or some other MS Office program, then you should definitely set her up with office for Mac.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:40 AM on September 2, 2009

Get her an iMac, and drag everything out of the dock except for her bridge game, Safari (set to open up to, and the word processor. We got my mom an iMac a few years ago and she loves it—it's the first computer she's not afraid to use.

My dad got an iMac and loves it, but he also signed up for that year-of-lessons thing that the Apple Store offers (but that sounds like overkill for what your mom is interested in doing with the machine).

But, AppleCare on the other hand I would get for her because it's like 3 years of insurance for the iMac—anything goes wrong (ex: hard drive dying) and she's covered.
posted by blueberry at 12:48 AM on September 2, 2009

(Also, with the bigger screen, my mom found it helpful to bump up the size of the cursor via the Universal Access control panel—and we changed the settings in Safari so the default text sizes would be a lot larger)
posted by blueberry at 12:51 AM on September 2, 2009

I would just craigslist a used imac 20", one of the white can get them for super cheap now. And just clean it up and set up like blueberry said.

I would just go used and skip the apple care personally, I would just shoot for cheap. That's me though, i've never been huge on applecare
posted by mattsweaters at 1:01 AM on September 2, 2009

A new iMac would be a tragic waste for someone who just plays bridge and checks her mail.
I'd get her a 3 or 4-year old iMac like mattsweaters suggested.
posted by dunkadunc at 1:04 AM on September 2, 2009

Nthing all of the above. An older Mac, as long as it's post-Intel changeover. Don't mess around with the pre-Intel ones, since software support and compatibility is fading on those.

But even the very first Intel-based Mac runs the latest OS perfectly well today.
posted by rokusan at 4:11 AM on September 2, 2009

Nthing slightly older Intel iMac. Also get her a standard two-button mouse (or use the one from her PC) so she isn't weirded out by the change to a Mac mouse.
posted by dayintoday at 5:26 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I switched my tech-phobic mom from a PC to an iMac a couple of years ago. As her primary source of tech support, I have never, ever regretted doing so. Call volume here at FCM tech services was drastically reduced; consumer satisfaction (and actual use of the machine) greatly increased.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:29 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I too would skip the Applecare. They don't "hold your hand" for tech support questions. The program is really just to fix hardware that fails.

A new iMac has a 1 year warranty already. All told, there have been 2 dozen iMacs in my universe over the past half dozen years, and I've never seen one -- I mean this -- go down due to a hardware failure. Not one.

It's your $250 or whatever they charge for Applecare these days. I think it's a ripoff even for laptops, but certainly for desktops in non-critical settings.
posted by fourcheesemac at 5:32 AM on September 2, 2009

I'm not sure - I've been using computers for about twenty years, but as that's twenty years of Windows, I find using a Mac very hard. If you will make the change, try putting a mouse with the right click button in there.
posted by mippy at 5:33 AM on September 2, 2009

My 80-year old grandmother switched to a Mac a few years ago. I wasn't sure how well she would be able to handle the transition, until we were in an Apple store one day and I saw her instructing other people on how to use the Mac. She'll never go back to Windows, which I'm grateful for. I get almost no technical support calls from her anymore.
posted by whatideserve at 6:14 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

My mom also made the switch when I bought a Macbook for them this past Christmas. Between the intuitiveness and the classes/help at the local Apple store that she's taken advantage of, I also get zero tech support requests any more. She even started buying OTHER gadgets on her own now, like her new cell phone.

Now I feel left out.
posted by kcm at 6:51 AM on September 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Alternatively, set her up with a stripped down version of Ubuntu, booting from a read-only image (probably from the 8.04 LTS version) on her existing PC. Spend the $200-300 on a better display, set her up with a Google Docs account and you're done. That's just saved you more than $1000 and secured her from almost all of the common problems that afflict windows PCs.
posted by bonehead at 6:55 AM on September 2, 2009

I have successfully introduced technophobes to Linux with little trouble, if
a) they do everything in the web browser and maybe one or two other apps
b) they don't have to do the initial install or setup
c) they don't already know another OS very well

The ones who find a new OS hard are not technophobes, but people who know just enough of the minutiae of how to do things in their customary OS, but not enough of the general computer knowledge to apply any of their experience to a new OS.

(no judgement here mind you, not everyone needs to be an expert at every technology they use)

Linux is famously a usability disaster (better recently, granted). Back in the '80s most everyone used TTY interfaces. People learn what they need to learn in order to get value from a computer. It is never the first system that is really frustrating, but more the second third etc. People hate having to re-learn a new way to do things they already knew in a different context.
posted by idiopath at 6:59 AM on September 2, 2009

I also recommend Ubuntu. It's free, and highly unlikely that she will click on a virus.

But if cost is no issue, then go for the iMac. I'm not sure if either platform has a good native Bridge app though.
posted by glenno86 at 7:15 AM on September 2, 2009

I'd install Ubuntu via Wubi first. See if she digs it. Cost: 30 minute of time. Maybe 20¢ for a CD.

If she likes it, get a new monitor. Cost: +$300.

If she dislikes it, drive her to an Mac retailer and have her try one of those, and if she likes it, buy it. Cost: $1400 and 2 hours of time.
posted by cmiller at 7:24 AM on September 2, 2009

A new system is not much benefit if the user shies away from the new controls. And as has been mentioned before, the Mac is not immune from attacks and malicious webware; it just has a lower incidence (and smaller userbase.) Unless your mother is willing to take a class on using MacOS X I'd lean more to a new PC with the proper amount of lockdown (Regular user account, Firefox with Adblock, NoScript, Flashblock etc.)
posted by Hardcore Poser at 7:58 AM on September 2, 2009

On a Mac you could also use the Parental Controls to restrict what apps she can run, then remove all apps except Safari and Bridge (etc) from the Dock. It would help cut down on the confusion.
posted by bengarland at 8:16 AM on September 2, 2009

My Mom is a not super savvy computer user who has really enjoyed her iMac and my Dad recently switched from PC-land to a large iMac and has been quite happy. Hes very tech-grounchy and once we got over the few bumps, he seems happier. Since I have Macs, doing tech support with them has been very easy and in both cases I've been able to help them set up their computer so the "out of the box" experience for them is better [adblock on firefox, removing stuff they don't need from the dock].

I'd agree with the folks in this thread who say that a post-Intel iMac with a big screen is likely to be cheap and a decent choice. I've also enjoyed being able to do screensharing with them via Skype or iChat [set up an account for them that they don't even use unless they need me to look at something] which can help with the few tech mysteries that I couldn't already handle. The neat thing about getting someone a computer that is a little less scary -- I've had a very hard time dealing with students and folks at the libraries I work in who find Windows' constant "your computer may be in danger!" messages a little confusing -- is that they're more inclined to play around and maybe learn a few more things while they're there.
posted by jessamyn at 8:25 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

An anecdote on internet banking: About 6 years ago our credit card numbers were acquired by someone who quickly ran up the max. damage they could (thankfully the credit limit was small and the card co. acknowledged it was not our fault.) The PC was secured as well as could be at the time (tools like NoScript and Adblock weren't around then, but securing PCs was part of what I did) and still they got our number. How? Most likely a small online retailer; the only small one that we had used that year. This was around the time small web shops were beginning to be hacked en masse with newer attacks like SQL injections, for which many small online shops were grossly unprepared.

And of course since then the types of attacks have multiplied and the total number of attacks has gone up almost exponentially. Macs again aren't immune; they've had trojans spread via video codecs, something that many Mac users would willingly download.

After the card was cancelled I decided the risks of online banking were too large and tried an alternative; telephone banking. And promptly discovered that I could do transactions in less than half the time. A little sticky note with the menu choices I use all the time stays by the phone, and things couldn't be easier. To make things just that little bit more secure I make sure to use the one corded phone in the house. Perhaps this might be a
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:30 AM on September 2, 2009

(good time to preview. Grr...)
(continuing that unfinished sentence above...)

Perhaps this might be a good thing to consider for her banking needs too.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 8:33 AM on September 2, 2009

Get a used white iMac, Intel Core 2 Duo (late 2006 model).
posted by D.C. at 8:40 AM on September 2, 2009

Another member of the "I switched my mom to an iMac, and am happy for it" club.

Nthing a Core 2 Duo or later iMac. A G4 or G5, or even a Core Duo (without the 2) won't have the forward compatibility you need - the Core 2 Duo will run the just-released Snow Leopard very well.

Depending on the nature of your "client", and how close she is to an Apple Store, classes may be in order - some are free, or you can get personal attention with a yearly subscription. I've seen some people start going to classes so that they can learn how to make photo albums of their kids / grandkids / etc., and highly enjoyed it.

My usual fee for such a consulting service is a home-cooked meal by Mom, and I still think I come out ahead on the deal. ;-)
posted by GJSchaller at 9:36 AM on September 2, 2009

I'm quite miffed by folks who think MacOS is less intuitive than Windows. Everything is literally right there or there's a search bar under "Help" at the top for anything/everything they could ever want.

The UI is incredibly friendly/straight-forward and with a much lesser likelihood that they would randomly end up changing or deleting necessary files. There are just as many classes if, if not more, on how to navigate through Windows -- so think like someone that hasn't been using the same OS for 10+ years and hardly has any discrimination or real knowledge of what an OS is/does.

Zambrano - is that a joke?
posted by june made him a gemini at 10:12 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Taking classes to run a computer? It's ridiculous.

I was late to the computer game. I found mice really confusing at the age of 19 (the way you could rotate the mouse so pushing the mouse north made the cursor move northeast for example). I had geeky room-mates who got me into Linux as a computer illiterate. After figuring Linux out first, Mac and WIndows were increadibly annoying and hard to use. Macs are not harder to learn than Windows. They are both easier than Linux, but by smaller and smaller degrees (I am talking normal functional use here, not installation and setup).

If someone is computer illiterate, really any OS will do, they probably won't even need classes.

If they kind of sort of know how to get by in one OS, every other OS will be an unusable pain in the ass until they take a class, or put some devoted effort into learning it.
posted by idiopath at 10:15 AM on September 2, 2009

I've converted a number of older-people-who-were-used-to-Windows people to Mac OS X and the success rate is very high.

My theory is that, since computer usage is an adult-learned skill for them, they're relying on memorized actions instead of innate understanding of how to interface with a operating system. Therefore, the difficulty in switching is simply one of repetition. Simplify the interface as much as possible and give them an ordered "what to click in what order" list and you'll find your ongoing support will be minimal.

You'll still have to council her on the horrors of phishing emails, though...
posted by maniactown at 10:31 AM on September 2, 2009

I'm quite miffed by folks who think MacOS is less intuitive than Windows.

Every computer interface is unintuitive. Sit a 75-year-old in front of one for the first time and every OS will confuse them. As idiopath says, one of the biggest challenges we had with my Grandfather was not how to use a spreadsheet, but how to use a mouse. The windows metaphor, used in all OS's was a huge source of confusion. Put him in front of a maximized single window, however, and he could make sense of it.

Macs have their interface weirdnesses, just as does Windows. I actually find the Ubuntu Nautalis shell to be one of the simpler, lowest-gotcha interfaces for new users.
posted by bonehead at 10:34 AM on September 2, 2009

In a manner of speaking, they are less intuitive.

The only intuitive interface is the nipple, everything else is learned. But let's call expectation from previous learning a kind of intuition.

Something that looks and acts suspiciously like what you understand that behaves in a significantly different manner is almost the definition of counterintuitive. Your second operating system will be the least intuitive one you ever use.
posted by idiopath at 10:46 AM on September 2, 2009

There might be a learning curve and that could be an issue. I'd get the iMac though for safety reasons. She isn't doing anything complex and probably interacts mostly with the browser anyway. If she can't hack MacOSX, you can always just install Windows on it instead and you won't need to buy a new box.
posted by chairface at 10:48 AM on September 2, 2009

As has been mentioned in various ways above, but is worth repeating:

Apple tech support is good with or without AppleCare. AppleCare is basically an extended warranty (i.e. gravy for Apple).
posted by GPF at 11:31 AM on September 2, 2009

If she's already got a monitor, save yourself some money and just buy a Mini. A great benefit of having a Mini is that you can easily take it into the Apple Store and pop it on the counter at the genius bar if there's ever a problem. Tech support at the genius bar is really impressive considering that it's free, or you can pay for Apple Care, which is superb.

I love my Mini!

Here's a refurbished Mini for $499. The last time I bought a refurbished Mac, it lasted five years before I finally sold it... so I wouldn't think twice about buying another one that way.

posted by 2oh1 at 12:08 PM on September 2, 2009

When old people get old (as they're wont to do) the inevitable degredation in eyesight creates an interesting phenomenon: switching from a somewhat-blurry but low-resolution monitor to a crystal-clear but higher-resolution monitor makes it harder to use the computer. What may happen here (as it did for my father) is your switch to a higher-resolution LCD screen (as on the iMac) will just cause them to run the resolution lower, resulting in a worse picture than an old CRT.

The only solution to this I have found (other than accepting that they'll run their LCD at a non-native resolution) is to help them set up the operating system so that everything -- EVERYTHING -- is scaled up huge. Mac OSX is particularly good at this.

So, here's what I recommend: first, go to an Apple store and fool around with an iMac until you understand how to make everything huge. Then bring her there, and show that to her, and see what she thinks. If she's enthusiastic, buy it; if not, just buy her a larger cheapie CRT screen and either stick with the current computer or give her a mac mini (depending on how open she is to change.)
posted by davejay at 3:06 PM on September 2, 2009

Every computer interface is unintuitive.

Quoted for truth. The key point regarding that has also already been made:

The ones who find a new OS hard are not technophobes, but people who know just enough of the minutiae of how to do things in their customary OS, but not enough of the general computer knowledge to apply any of their experience to a new OS.

Put another way, inertia is hard to overcome. If a person has learned all they want to about computers, giving them a new interface won't fly.


Re: Courses. I'm not sure what the differences are from Zambrano's area to mine, but I can say that here in Winnipeg seniors regularly attend courses on intro computing whether run by the library, seniors lodges or the community organizations. There is a lot of interest among seniors, especially when the grandkids start asking to send them messages online (or show them what they've done.) Having said that, there are always people in any group that won't get much benefit from courses due to resistance, fear of computers, social anxiety, whatever. If someone falls in that group, all the more reason to not make them switch.

Please don't misconstrue the reason for my status quo point of view. I love the Mac OS; I think in many places it's more intuitive, better laid out and designed with more elegance than Windows can ever aspire to be. But I didn't give it to my grandfather who already had gone through a tough time with the basics of Windows, and if the OP's grandmother is similar I wouldn't recommend it here either.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 3:42 PM on September 2, 2009

Sorry; mother, that is.
posted by Hardcore Poser at 3:43 PM on September 2, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice. The consensus from people who have bought their relatives Macs seems to be that it greatly reduces tech support calls - which I admit are an issue - and that the learning curve isn't too steep. So I think I'll buy one and hope for the best.
posted by Joe in Australia at 5:45 AM on September 8, 2009

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