Grandfather's first laptop
November 21, 2009 11:13 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for recommendations on setting up a new laptop for my 92 year old grandfather. He is essentially a "first timer" to modern computers, having never used a computer with a modern operating system and internet access, so any ideas to make it simpler and safer for him are welcome.

Relevant details:

Gramps: He's 92 years old, and the last time he owned a computer was probably in the early 1990's, and it was running MS-DOS / Win 3.11. As far as I know, he's never used anything more "online" than a BBS. He is "aware" of the internet and web, though, as he watches quite a bit of TV. He recently expressed interest in a netbook or similar that he could keep next to his favorite TV watching seat. His eyes and hearing, while diminished a bit at his age, should be up to the task of using the computer we got for him. His fine motor control is a bit lacking, but the keyboard keys are large enough, and we're getting a wireless mouse just in case the touchpad is an issue.

Laptop: Since the netbooks mostly had too small of a screen for his eyes, we ended up with a 15.4" Celeron-based Acer with a steal of a price from Best Buy ($249!). It has Windows 7 installed, and for now, at least, I think we'd rather keep that than install a flavor of Linux.

My google-fu has mostly failed me, and I haven't found much related on AskMefi (a couple posts about first timer users and children). Essentially, what I'm looking for is software recommendations, tips and tricks, and even hardware and accessories to help him ease into using his first modern computer. A few things that have come to mind:

Browser: What's the best browser and combination of plugins to help him avoid scams, unwanted pop-ups / redirects, and other generally malicious sites, but still leaves the browser easily usable and not confusing? NoScript in FireFox, for instance, is awesome for me, but it seems to boggle many people who aren't aware of exactly what it's doing.

E-mail: Best client or webmail to help him avoid scams and such, but also very simple to use to keep in contact with family and friends.

Security software (antivirus, anti-spyware, etc): Which ones are the best mix of safe, lightweight, and non-intrusive? Basically, what works without getting all up in his (or the laptop's) grill?

Accessibility: Any programs you have experience with that make the computer easier to use for someone of his age? Launchers, desktop mods, etc.

Any other general software recommendations are welcome (or any important areas you think I've omitted), and personal tips and tricks you've seen or used would be great. He has a "lap table" that should be big enough to the laptop with room to spare for a wireless mouse, but if you have a accessory that you think is the bee's knees, definitely link it! Heck, even simple games you think a senior might be interested in would be of interest.

And with that, I've popped my AskMefi question cherry. Thanks everyone! One of these days, I'll get around to doing an FPP too!
posted by XcentricOrbit to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
We have had good experiences with various c.80 years old grandparents, recommending macs. Less nonsense on board, fewer glitches, better security and nice software.
posted by Namlit at 11:53 AM on November 21, 2009

I have installed Chrome on our home laptops (and at work), and it's pretty safe. My wife, who is not computer savvy, can use it.

And let's face it: your grandfather is probably only going to visit a couple of websites, right? And those websites are going to be safe. He's hardly going to be trolling for porn or gambling or whatever, and you can also set up something on the Windows 7 firewall that blocks certain IP address ranges.

AVG free is a decent anti-virus software.

While it's not exactly intuitive, gmail is also a lot simpler than many other web services such as Yahoo Mail and Windows Live Mail.

It might be simpler to just use your web browser as the primary interface. Use the bookmarks bar to install navigation buttons such as "Email", "New York Times", and "Google search".
posted by KokuRyu at 11:57 AM on November 21, 2009

I really don't think you want Windows on there, and your questions about security and spyware and such pretty much explains why. As a rank beginner, there's no way he's going to know what to click and not click, and you can't give him a useful crash course in every internet scam overnight.

I'd Ubuntu that puppy, fast, and show him the one single "Yes, go ahead and update!" button that he should always click. Done.

I think Firefox and AdBlockPlus is all you really need for a decent experience. NoScript, as you say, is a little geeky and not really necessary for simple safety, especially with Windows out of the mix.

Remember to install VNC server so you can connect and see/fix whatever he has trouble with.
posted by rokusan at 11:59 AM on November 21, 2009

I agree with Koku on using the Firefox bookmarks bar to keep things, too, even things that are not web pages. Throw a folder or two on there (many people never realize the bar can contain folders) called "News" and "Weather" and "Woodworking" or whatever he likes, full of sites.

Later, show him how to Organize Bookmarks.
posted by rokusan at 12:01 PM on November 21, 2009

Firefox with Adblock plus. His email should be Gmail, it has good spam filtering. Make sure you increase the default font. You may want to use a one of the special themes for people with poor eyesight.
posted by fifilaru at 12:24 PM on November 21, 2009

Ditch the Acer and get a Litl. Seriously. It fits your grandpa's needs like a glove and you can get a refund if you (or him) are not satisfied at all. Check it out, I bet you'll be impressed.
posted by jgwong at 12:42 PM on November 21, 2009 [1 favorite]

How about Eldy, if you're able to download it in the US? It's software specifically designed to make computer use easy for seniors.
posted by essexjan at 1:00 PM on November 21, 2009

My father was about 70 when we got him his first computer. He has problems with fine motor skills due to a previous illness. And, he wears trifocal lenses.

We started him with a laptop, because he was a full-time RVer. He now has a desktop and lives in a 65+ community, and I get to know his friends' computer setups as well as his own. A few things we learned:

1. With fine motor skill problems, your hands shake when you try to do something that requires a light touch. So, the keyboard and mouse are difficult to get right. My dad tried out the touchpad, but that didn't work for him. A mouse was difficult, too, because when he tried to click one mouse button, both fingers would go down (so, he'd click both buttons). The best solution was the navigation button that is built into IBM and Dell laptops (the thing between the letters G and H). He had one with his laptop and loved it best. When he moved to a desktop, he started with a mouse. We reversed the mouse buttons, so that the primary click button is the right one (like left-handed mouse users do). This allows him to position his hand so that his index finger is on the right button, thus all other fingers are not on the mouse. We also set it so that everything is a single-click instead of double-click (he couldn't do the double-click fast enough), and slowed the mouse click speed.

2. The keyboard is an issue. What I think of as a "good" keyboard is one that requires a light touch. For fine motor skill problems, you want the opposite -- keys that are hard to push down. Pushing down harder keeps the hands from shaking. He's getting along ok with the keyboard that came with his computer, but I know my dad will have a tough time as he gets older. I've looked at "clicky keyboards" and we also looked at the touch screens. Eventually we'll do one of those.

3. Trifocals offer yet another challenge. The screen must be at a specific height to see things through the correct part of the lens. Expect to try out several things to get it right. My dad ultimately got a widescreen flat monitor with his desktop, but for the laptop we fiddled with both the position of it and the display size (monitor settings) to find the right mix.

4. We installed Firefox for my dad. We keep the bookmarks open on the side, and set up his bookmarks with all the stuff he wanted to see. We set up a Google account for him, and he now uses Gmail, the iGoogle page as his home page, Google News with local news also showing.

5. He has Microsoft Defender, but that's it for spyware/virus protection. He's tried McAfee and Norton, but the warning messages and updates and such were problematic because he is inexperienced and cannot tell easily the difference between a major problem and just an FYI dialog popup box. McAfee in particular was making the Internet a hellish experience.

6. Do not underestimate older people's ability to pick up this stuff quickly. You'll be on-call support for a while, but the calls will taper off, and the questions will get increasingly complex when the do come. I never had a way to virtually go to his computer (like NetMeeting), but sometimes wished I did. However, now he happily browses the Internet, checks his banking online, sends the occasional email, downloads music to his iPod, organizes photos from his digital camera and prints them on his photo-quality color printer, boasts about his big monitor and fast computer, complains about the "slow" high-speed wireless service....

6a. During those support calls you'll get, get used to things being described in a whole new way. These words have no meaning at first: Button, desktop, window, browser, pane, scroll, bookmark. Computer and Internet are interchangeable words, as are window and screen and monitor. The computer is anthropomorphic. My very favorite moment was this conversation (I'll type it as it sounded, so you'll see what I mean):
Dad: "What's logan?"

Me: "Logan? I don't know. Sometimes I see things described as 'logan green'. I think there's a restaurant called Logan's. Why?"

Dad: "Why would the computer ask me about logan?"

Me: ???

Dad: "It said logan and password."

Me: "Login! That's spelled like one word, but it's two words: Log in. It means the name you use to get to the website. Where were you logging in?"

Dad: "The New York Times."
posted by Houstonian at 1:00 PM on November 21, 2009 [8 favorites]

My parents (70) had an old windows computer that had become so bogged down with spyware and viruses that it became impossible to use. As in, it took 20 minutes to open certain programs. And then they kept using for about 2 years afterward. Finally, when my son was born I wanted them to be able to iChat with us so I bought them a MacBook. My dad couldn't stand it and promptly went out and got his own Windows Vista machine. My mom almost* never asks me for technical support on the Mac but my dad literally calls me once a week about something he doesn't understand about Vista, even though I haven't used Windows in years. Not wanting to repeat the tired Mac vs. PC debate but this seems relevant to your question and fielding Windows related questions from an older person who doesn't understand computers is making me crazy.

*The other day Mom called and asked me to help her set up some sewing machine software on her computer. Great, no problem, let's start screen sharing which she was able to figure out easily. Within about 10 seconds I figured it out. "Mom, this is PC software, it won't work unless you boot up Microsoft Windows."

"I know, that's why I just bought Microsoft."

"Um, I'm not seeing it here Mom, are you sure?"

"Yeah, it cost me $300. I just installed it."

"Wait, did you mean you bought Microsoft Office? I don't think that's going to work."

If you get your grandfather up and running, I will pay for his Metafilter account.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:22 PM on November 21, 2009 [4 favorites]

We have had good experiences with various c.80 years old grandparents, recommending macs. Less nonsense on board, fewer glitches, better security and nice software.

I'm under the impression the computer's been bought.

I suggest asking him what he needs to know first.Then work off that.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:53 PM on November 21, 2009

Don't bother with the various free antivirus software packages that are available. Microsoft recently released its own free antivirus called Microsoft Security Essentials which should work better than AVG, et al.
posted by zixyer at 2:03 PM on November 21, 2009

I have an 85 year old aunt.

The key for her was making sure she didn't have to remember how to do anything.

I set the machine so that closing the lid sleeps it, and opening the lid takes it back to the desktop. I turned on some of the accessibility features (search for "make the computer easier to see" in the search bar) like a thicker focus border, etc and put shortcuts to the Magnifier in the taskbar.
I installed on it and put a shortcut to the website on her desktop so me or my cousins can access her system remotely to fix things.

I disabled the logon screen and I set up her machine so that it loads Firefox and her email (thunderbird) on startup. When she wants email, she clicks the taskbar button on the right. When she wants the internet, she clicks the taskbar button on the left. I've pinned some of her shortcuts (news, weather, etc) to the taskbar icon for Firefox so she can select them from a jump list.

Her printer is networked and is on all the time. I added the Universal Print add-on and enabled the toolbar button in Firefox, all she needs to do is click the printer and it starts printing.
I installed Adblock and forecastfox addons.

Then I printed up some basic instructions - "to start the computer, open the lid. To stop the computer, close the lid. If something doesn't work, press this button, wait for it to turn off, then turn it on again. If that doesn't work, call for help".

Then I sent instructions to her sisters and family so that everyone did everything the same way - no "claude sent pictures in a zip file while maggie attaches them all in one email".

Good luck, if your experience with your grandfather is like mine with my aunt, the calls will be infrequent and he'll really enjoy it.
posted by disclaimer at 2:37 PM on November 21, 2009 [3 favorites]

Giving Windows to a newbie, especially an old newbie, in this day and age, is cruel and unusual punishment. Listen to rokusan.
posted by flabdablet at 5:03 PM on November 21, 2009

I came in to see if a Mac had been suggested, saw that a Windows PC had already been bought, so wasn't going to comment until I saw this:

"He's hardly going to be trolling for porn or gambling or whatever."

So I thought I'd just say that, in a few years of doing residential & broadband customer faults, my experience was that the machines most likely to be loaded down with malware from & bookmarks to porn and gambling sites belonged to:
  1. Teenage boys living at home with their parents,
  2. Older retired men (& generally the older they were, the more porn bookmarks / toolbars / drive-by malware were found), and
  3. Male bosses and office managers (mostly gambling sites, but also with a heavy lean towards more … um, 'specialised' … porn sites).
Now, obviously nobody wants to think of their fathers and grandfathers like that, but I'd recommend installing some fairly unobtrusive antivirus and anti-malware software, turning down the reporting so it's minimally annoying, and not thinking too deeply beyond that ;-)

And keep away from their browser bookmarks & history when you're working on the machine…
posted by Pinback at 5:18 PM on November 21, 2009

Windows 7 should be fine. Lock down his account (ie no admin) and install AV software (Microsoft Security Essentials is great). Set him on OpenDNS and Firefox with adblock. Oh and set the UI to 125% or 150%.

If you just want to sandbox him to the net, I'd try installing something like Moblin (if that runs on non-netbooks).
posted by wongcorgi at 5:23 PM on November 21, 2009

I'm not your grandfather's age, but I'm closer to him than I am to your father. Many of the suggestions above are good, but they mostly come from younger people who imagine what it's like to be old. Let me toss you some old geezer thoughts.

First, about glasses. You have mentioned his eyes, but you haven't mentioned what his sight issues are. If he is like me, he wears glasses that are either bi- or tri-focal. These are great for his daily use, but are not good for computer work. He should see his optometrist and get glasses that have a single correction for the distance between his eyes and the computer screen. Have him take his laptop with him so he can show how he uses it and where it is in relation to his eyes. I have a desktop computer and sit in front of a 17" monitor. I know my eyes are 27" from the screen. My optometrist prescribed lenses for that distance and I can sit for hours without discomfort and without having to flop my head around to align the skinny little part of the "regular" glasses that has the middle-ground correction. I just make sure my computer glasses are kept next to the computer.

I agree that Firefox and Gmail are a good combination. I use Trend Micro for security. It costs a little bit for an annual subscription, but won't break the bank. It works in the background and gives you as many or as few reports as you want.

I suggest getting an inexpensive webcam for him (and for you if you don't have one). It is especially useful with Google Chat. You can look in on him by simply having a chat session, allowing you to see and hear him better than by phone or email. If he can learn to open tabs, he can talk to you and bring up a problem site in another tab. By pointing the webcam at the screen or keyboard, you might be able to do a little IT for him from a distance.

I don't agree that he is only going to look at two or three sites or cruise for porn. I have at least 40 active bookmarks and my wife has (on her own separate computer) over 100. Take the time to show him how to browse safely, how to bookmark and how to retrieve. Discuss his interests and set up a few bookmarks for him. I suggest starting him with, say, Neatorama, Mental Floss and Letters of Note. Ask him what he might be interested in and Google some sites that might interest him. Show him how to Google and then stand back.

I trust he has broadband. If so, he does not need more than the slowest broadband that may be offered by his provider. Not to be insensitive, but he has the time to let humongous files download and the cost difference may be a benefit to him. I do not suggest dial-up if he can possibly escape it, as none of us has that much time. :-)

Last, be patient. It may take a learning curve that is longer than yours, but it will be worth it.
posted by Old Geezer at 7:22 PM on November 21, 2009 [2 favorites]

I would at first delete any programs he doesn't need. The less options the better at the beginning. You can reload them later once he's comfortable if he wants them.
posted by Emilyisnow at 10:50 PM on November 21, 2009

Thanks for the answers so far, everyone!

To clear up a few possible questions in the mix:

-Laptop has already been purchased, so alternate hardware suggestions, while appreciated, are moot. For now, at least. If it turns out that he's using it all the time, but the laptop or OS are hindering him, we'll definitely look into other options (Mac, or that neat Litl that jgwong suggested).

-Windows 7 is staying on it for now, unless it becomes entirely too much of a hassle). I love my Linux too (I run CentOS on my home server, and manage two Red Hat servers at work), but my father and mother, who gramps is living with, are Windows users, and will be the ones helping him on a day to day basis. Dad is very computer savvy (he had me swapping memory DIP chips in his XT when I was just a tyke), but he's set in his Windows ways.

-I live within driving distance, and see him three or four times a month, so I'll be able to do some coaching and tech support frequently. But the ideas for things like gotomypc and webcam chat through Google are awesome; I'll definitely set something like that up! Luckily the laptop has a webcam built-in!

-He'll have great broadband access (for the US, anyway; 10Mb).

Oh, and AWESOME catch on the glasses, Old Geezer and Houstonian; I hadn't even considered that! He does wear bi-focals, so we'll see how comfortable he is at first, and take a trip to the optometrist if he has any issues.

And thank you so much, Old Geezer. I really appreciate the... well... old geezer perspective!

Eldy looks pretty interesting; I'm going to give it a try and see how much help it will be. So far on the list, I've got Firefox with AdBlock and Web of Trust (I've been giving it a go, and I think the color-coded "safety levels" that it adds will help), MS Security Essentials (haven't tried it myself, but I'm interested to see how unobtrusive it will be; will look into Trend Micro as well), GMail for his email (too bad all combinations of his name are already taken), and will set up as much ease of use functions (whether UI changes or just shortcuts / bookmarks) as I can.

Thanks again, to all! I really appreciate all of the responses.
posted by XcentricOrbit at 1:15 AM on November 22, 2009

You can set the screen DPI to be larger than the standard to make the text and windows of everything larger.
posted by ijoyner at 4:49 AM on November 22, 2009

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