Computers for the over 60 set
April 12, 2010 11:05 AM   Subscribe

My mom and step dad will shortly be needing a new computer and are planning on shopping this weekend. . . .

They currently have a 7-year old laptop (PC) with Window 2000 or 2003. Mostly they read their email, do a little web surfing, use Turbo Tax & Its Deductible and light document/spreadsheet stuff. They have a fax/copier/printer, a GPS system, Palm OS and a (I think) Canon camera all used through or connected at various times to the laptop. They also have WiFi through their cable hookup.

They are both retired professionals and sort of computer literate but a new computer should not heavy learning curve or they just won't bother (I currently have custody of mom's 3 yr old Palm OS because it was 'too complicated to mess with'). Step dad is heading for his 2nd hip replacement surgery in 12 days so portability would be a good thing.

I (and a sibling) have spent many hours cleaning up their current computer from spyware, adware etc. because neither one remembers to update the software. They also don't care to do the numerous Windows updates -- my mother called them 'a pain in the ass'.

I had previously suggested getting a new laptop *and* a netbook so they could have better access and usability but now I am seriously thinking of taking mom down to an Apple store to check out the iPad.

Askme, is that a good or bad idea?? If it is totally unthinkable, please give me suggestions on alternatives.
posted by jaimystery to Computers & Internet (31 answers total)
I have relatives with identical requirements/situations, and I always recommend Apple to them. Sure, it's more expensive, but if all they're going to be doing is reading e-mail and web surfing, then it's pretty indestructible for those tasks. You can install MS Office and they'll be good to go. Having set up the OS to update automatically helps. I've just gotten tired of having them ask me to look at their system, go into config.sys, and find a billion spyware/adware programs that start up.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 11:12 AM on April 12, 2010

The iPad would be ideal for almost everything except Turbo Tax, which of course must run Windows.

Bear in mind that an iPad needs to be synced with iTunes running on a PC or Mac before it can be used.
posted by Mwongozi at 11:17 AM on April 12, 2010

Mwongozi, the iPad is not a standalone system? And that is excellent info on Turbo Tax. I think the iPad will probably not work for them based on that alone.
posted by jaimystery at 11:19 AM on April 12, 2010

What about a netbook? Does the same basic functions, runs Turbotax and now that you're on to Windows Vista or 7, most of those tasks they don't do are automated! I've got my mom on a Vista netbook and she's had zero problems since she got it.
posted by Hiker at 11:21 AM on April 12, 2010

If my parents are anything to go by, an Apple is a good idea, especially if you can help them out. They will be frustrated at first, but if you can show them in person or via iChat screen sharing, it's much easier to provide them with free tech support. I refused to help my dad with computer stuff if he bought another PC (which, surprisingly, worked) and he really likes it now. A basic MacBook will be a good one for them.
posted by theredpen at 11:21 AM on April 12, 2010

I was in the exact same situation with my parents. Constantly updating their desktop PC, running spyware scans, virus scans, cleaning up various messes they had unintentionally created, repairing things they had unintentionally broken.

I bought a white Macbook on their behalf two years ago and I've never *once* had to help them out with it. They just 'got it' straight away. For bonus points, install Firefox with Adblock.

I hear the iPad is the ideal 'Mom and Dad' computer, though I personally don't have any hands-on experience with it yet.

tl;dr Yes, 100% get them a Mac. You won't regret it.
posted by ReiToei at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2010

I'd get a basic $999 MacBook and an iPad along with it. It's like having a laptop and a netbook with something better and easier than a netbook. Based on your parameters, though, Apple is definitely the way to go.
posted by The Michael The at 11:22 AM on April 12, 2010

Forgot to add, my parents are both in their 60's too :)
posted by ReiToei at 11:23 AM on April 12, 2010

I'd suggest the Apple Route, Look for a refurbished, or used Mac Mini, getting a cheap LCD and a keyboard is the only cost, and you have a full fledged Strong Apple system (for what they're using it for) at half the cost of a new Mac. Craigslist and eBay are full of great condition used Mac Minis The iPad wouldn't be a good choice for them based on the need for turbotax alone. But I'd argue that if YOU had a mac that they can sync with (maybe you're in the market for an Apple), getting them an iPAD would be a good choice. (tax season is once a year, and depending on their location), they can do them at your place.
posted by lonemantis at 11:24 AM on April 12, 2010

2nd the Mac - get the white MacBook and applecare. I think that it'll fit their needs better than an iPad, and they'll immediately have a community of people to help them debug. An iPad will not work with a printer, gps, etc.

Don't get a netbook. Arthritis plus tiny keys is a terrible combination. Bad eyesight plus tiny monitors is also a terrible combination.
posted by tmcw at 11:26 AM on April 12, 2010

Oh! The other think about a mac, (if you or a friend has a mac), tech support is just an iChat session with screen sharing away. Lord knows how many times I've been actual tech support for my parents 700 miles away. Screen Sharing via iChat is worth the price of admission. :-) Good Luck!
posted by lonemantis at 11:26 AM on April 12, 2010

I've been using the web-based version of Turbo tax on my Mac for the past few years, so don't let that hold you back.
posted by COBRA! at 11:29 AM on April 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've got nothing against Apple, but the UI is pretty different, and it will take some retraining, even if it is more intuitive in a lot of ways. My parents had trouble transitioning from Windows 98 to XP -- a Mac was more or less out of the question ('where's the start button?'). Maybe you can take someone to an Apple Store and let them play around and see, first?

My vote: cheap laptop. Set automatic updates = on and get them Chrome.
posted by Valet at 11:31 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

2nding MacBook. If they live reasonably close to an Apple store and are remotely interested in getting more out of their computer/feeling more comfortable with computery things/doing creative projects or photo things with the software that comes on their Mac then I would recommend checking out OnetoOne, which are Apple's in store tutorial lessons. It's like $100 for a year.
Also, unless I'm missing something, TurboTax makes software for Macs.
posted by Ginkgo at 11:34 AM on April 12, 2010

Anecdata: I switched my mom over to a Mac Mini four years ago for her web/GMail needs. There have been a few "How do I [thing I did on a PC] on a Mac?" questions, but zero tech support calls of any kind. (Well, maybe one, but I don't even remember what the issue was anymore.) My folks now use iPhoto, iTunes, Firefox, and MS Office just fine. It was the best money I've ever spent on my own mental health.
posted by The Lurkers Support Me in Email at 11:36 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

The iPad would be ideal for almost everything except Turbo Tax, which of course must run Windows.

TurboTax has a native Mac version, and runs perfectly well as a web app on Safari.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:36 AM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

I convinced my father to buy my sister a Macbook on the grounds that I was getting really tired of constantly having to clean spyware off of it. My tech support time, and his, went to basically zero.

And of course Turbotax has a Mac version - otherwise I just did my taxes on a hallucination, which would be cool but is probably not valid for the IRS.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:42 AM on April 12, 2010

Have them try out an iPad. Working IT for a law firm and then dealing with computers and people at home with my family and the GF's family, wow, easier and simpler is better. One day, 90% of computers will be general appliances. Yeah, as a Linux guy (no longer on the desktop, but it's good for servers) freedom, blah blah, but really, no one cares, they want it to work and not be hard to figure out.

Worst case scenario, they don't like it and you just gave yourself the perfect excuse to get yourself a new toy (inherit the iPad) or you sell it on eBay for almost what you paid for it.

Or try an entry level refurb MacBook.
posted by Brian Puccio at 11:43 AM on April 12, 2010

MacBook, and if the rumors (ahem) are correct, new ones are out this week, meaning that a current one, esp. refurb MAY go down in price.

I am holding out getting one for my wife, in that we have both become accustomed to the illuminated keyboard on my aluminum Macbook, and I want to get hers with one of those.

Your parents may appreciate that feature, also.
posted by Danf at 12:02 PM on April 12, 2010

All three (divorced+re-partnered, sexagenarian) of my parents are gaga for Apple's One-to-One training -- and so I, as their former go-to tech support, am even more gaga for it. I hardly knew about it and wouldn't have recommended it, but I guess they got the upsell when they bought their MacBooks and everybody's happy.

I also use TurboTax online, and based on this post about TurboTax not-online, it sounds like I have a much better experience than the people who use that.
posted by xueexueg at 12:17 PM on April 12, 2010

Bear in mind that an iPad needs to be synced with iTunes running on a PC or Mac before it can be used.

I believe that they can do this for you at the Apple Store.
posted by kirkaracha at 12:44 PM on April 12, 2010

The ipad might be good until they get to a site that requires flash. I think a mac book will be a better choice.
posted by majortom1981 at 12:47 PM on April 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

My Mum had always been adverse to all computer related things until I got her an iMac. Once I explained the basics a few times and set up the Mail program, she needed very little help. It has a giant, colourful screen but takes up very little room. The next year she hinted about wanting an iPod (when she saw her hairdresser using one).

If I were buying one for her now, I'd really lean towards the iPad and an Airport. I think she would find it less intimidating and I think most retired people don't need to multi-task.
posted by bonobothegreat at 1:00 PM on April 12, 2010

I just got my inlaws a Dell Studio Hybrid desktop. You can get one fairly well stocked with a monitor for around $500.
posted by cmicali at 1:13 PM on April 12, 2010

I get a little tense at the "hey, let's get the old folks something that the cool kids like because the cool kids like it" train that usually follows any question about parents and computers. While the iPad might be right for them, it might not. Same with a netbook, any other Apple thingy, Ubuntu or whatever other suggestions are normally thrown out there.

I'm quite sure they're unhappy with any 7-year-old laptop. That doesn't mean they need to be shifted to another platform, OS or form factor. They're the ones that will use it. What are they comfortable with?

Among the options they should be looking at is a small laptop that's a step above netbook (11- to 13-inch screen). And no matter what they get, automatic updates on.
posted by sageleaf at 1:23 PM on April 12, 2010

My wife loves her 13" MacBook. When I bought it for her, I gave her parents our old Windows laptop, sanitized and set to do all the important updates, etc. with no intervention. I did every single thing I could to make using it as idiot-proof as possible. I sent a thick stack of detailed instructions explaining, step-by-step, with screenshots, how to do every major task they would need to perform.

When they get here in a few weeks, I will be tasked with fixing it, updating it, clearing the camera memory card by uploading all of the pictures they have taken since our last meeting, and reinstalling a few things. I really, really wish I could have given them the Mac instead. When my current MacBook Pro is up for replacement, I will be sorely tempted to hand it over to them (or at least sell it / trade it for a MacBook I can give to them). There is a bit of a learning curve but it isn't that bad if you keep them on the Apple software, because all of it is intended to work together seamlessly. I really prefer Firefox, Picasa, and Thunderbird, but any Mac I gave to my in-laws would be defaulted to Safari, iPhoto and Mail, simply for the ease of use. Put the most-often-used apps directly in the Dock and set it to always show. Your worries about viruses, spyware, etc. are essentially zero. Most non-hardware fixes can be done remotely via Screen Sharing as discussed above.

I have played with an iPad. I would definitely not buy one for my own parents or in-laws unless they had some hands-on time with it first to see whether they would actually use it or if it would be too much trouble for them to get used to. It is nice and portable, but it's also expensive enough that my own in-laws would probably feel self-conscious about taking it anywhere, and (given my father-in-laws propensity to drop things) the possibility of breakage would be a major concern.

A $200 netbook would probably meet most of my in-laws needs, except for the problem of limited storage for photos and the virus issue (for Windows-based netbooks anyway). A Linux-based one would be a no-go for them; I have no experience with the builds they use, and from my own experience supporting them on even a simple, friendly build like Ubuntu wouldn't work because of software issues and because I would not be able to talk them through anything over the phone unless I had an identical UI to look at when explaining things (something I can easily do on a Mac or Windows).
posted by caution live frogs at 2:38 PM on April 12, 2010

I will also throw in my love for my MacBook!
I will absolutely NOT let my mother buy another PC when her current one dies. I hope it dies soon so she, too, can enjoy the ease of use of a Mac! I wish all of my older relatives would get one. It's ready to go when you get it and tweaking it is easy, too. I have Microsoft office and Firefox installed so it's not so different than my techie husband's PC. Just easier for me!
I'd highly recommend any apple laptop!
posted by LilBit at 3:41 PM on April 12, 2010

you can do turbo tax online...

Mac... always, especially for someone older...
posted by HuronBob at 6:05 PM on April 12, 2010

Good god yes get them a Mac of some sort. I did so for my mom (and, hell, my grandmother) and the tech support went from "How do I make it stop sucking so much?" twice a week to "How do I do a cool thing?" once a month. My experiences are not unique.
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:17 AM on April 13, 2010

Thanks to everyone for your help. If I could mark everyone with "best answer", I would.

I will definitely be taking Mom down to an Apple store to try out the white macbook and play with an iPad. She might still end up with a PC laptop (they don't have the space for a desktop) but I will give it a good shot.
posted by jaimystery at 6:35 AM on April 13, 2010

Hey. . .refurb MacBook Pros just went down around $100 in price, with the refresh of the line.
posted by Danf at 1:55 PM on April 13, 2010

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