Ubuntu laptop for Grandma?
July 1, 2010 7:25 PM   Subscribe

Replacing my laptop, and planning to give current laptop to my 85 yr old mother so she can email and chat with me, her grandchildren, and her great-grandchildren, and receive photo's. Is ubuntu a viable OS for her?

Here is what I want to do:
It's a 5 year old Gateway Laptop with 1.6 ghz AMD Turion64 processor; 1gb ram, and existing 80 gb hard drive that I plan on removing and replacing with a 20gb hd from an even older laptop. Both hard drives work, and I see me needing the 80gb for backup more than she needs it for space. The CD/DVD drive does not work, and I'm not replacing it. Everything else works fine.

Mom isn't particularly bright, and is easily confused. I see Windows being more difficult for her to work with than Linux. She has never used a home computer, in fact has refused to try. I thought maybe receiving a free one might interest her, as well as the prospect of having more contact with geographically distant family. Internet connection will be DSL. I live thousands of miles away, but my son lives near her and is geeky enough to handle any problems that arise.

I would like to know if this sounds appropriate and viable, or should I re-think either the OS (or the whole idea). I welcome suggestions from anyone who has experience in setting up a computer for an elderly person and has suggestions or cautions. What release of Ubuntu (or Linux in general) should I install? Is this a crazy idea?

Thanks for any and all input.
posted by batikrose to Computers & Internet (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I think it's very do-able, especially since she's starting from zero on any os, so to speak. Linux takes care of having to constantly worry about her security, as well. One thing to be aware of is any wireless that may or may not be involved. Linux can still be flakey with wireless.
posted by smoke at 7:29 PM on July 1, 2010

Turn it into basically an appliance. Remove all desktop icons except the three that are needed. Make sure it boots to the desktop and is configured to connect. Label the icons clearly and make sure they start up to the right mode of each app. Show her the X to close and how to shut down. Simplify. Make it friendly. Have patience and good luck.
posted by sammyo at 7:32 PM on July 1, 2010 [2 favorites]

The differences you see as relevant between OSes are probably not going to be important to your mother. Removing everything but the icon that brings up gmail (or whatever) is the critical part.

That being said, if she has never used a computer before, she might have problems you don't expect. I have vivid memories of helping a (not so old) person who had not used a computer before. She was a secretary and could type well and do all other normal things. But she could not move the mouse so that the pointer moved where she wanted. If she did, she couldn't hold it steady while clicking. Double clicking was right out.

I guess what I'm saying is that you're worrying about the things that make little difference (yes Ubuntu is fine, my gut agrees with yours that it's better for her than Windows, just use the latest LTS) and the things that will blindside you you'll just have to handle by spending time with her. It is really too bad that you are far away. Can you visit for a while?
posted by fritley at 7:35 PM on July 1, 2010

I think a lot of this will depend on your grandmother -- this would be so far beyond my grandmother (she's 90).

Does she know how to type? Has she ever used a computer?

My dad is an incredibly bright guy -- PhD, professor, renowned in his field -- but getting him to even use a cell phone has been an incredible chore. So to with any kind of IM programme on his mac.. my mother in contrast has taken to it like a duck to water.. they're both 60.

So before you go ahead with this, I think you need to first evaluate what are your grandmother's basic capacities and comfort level. If it's not dramatically better/easier than having her grandkids call her once a week, I think you ought to reconsider.

For photos -- by her a digital photo frame and (presuming she's not in an area with free wifi), send her SD cards once in a while to change out.. that is much more 'appliance like' than what you are suggesting, I think.

I've fiddled with computers my entire life, and any flavour of Linux, OS X, or Windows still throws up stuff that would be unbelievably frustrating if I didn't have years of experience to draw upon.
posted by modernnomad at 7:42 PM on July 1, 2010

Best answer: I see Windows being more difficult for her to work with than Linux.

I teach older people how to use computers. I am also an open source afficianado. I do not want to rain on your parade, but I want to toss out a few other things you'll need to think about.

1. If something goes wrong, does your son know enough about Linux to help her?
2. Can you lock down the computer enough so that she can't get to anything that would break things
3. if the CD drive doesn't work, will you remove it or otherwise put something on it that indicates THIS DOES NOT WORK
4. does she have any friends who use computers
5. Are you paying for her DSL and will you or your son set it up for her when the tech says to insert the CD and click on My Computer?

Really to me the idea of someone who is new to computers being able to handle chat seems far-fetched. My 85 year old landlady has been doing email (with gmail) for close to a year now and still can't remember how to delete messages. That said, having something where you could do video chat [i.e. not typing based but "hey let's talk like we're on the phone" would probably be nice and appreciated.

The big deal about Linux [and again, I use Ubuntu at home] is that you're not going to be able to get her a friendly book that will help her with it, esp if you lock it down as people are suggesting. I see where your motivation is coming from, but I'd be inclined to suggest getting an old $100 iMac that has a simple interface and is much harder to break. A ;ot of this depends on how much your son really wants to get involved with this. I work with a lot of older peopel with well-meaning relatives who have a computer in their house that confuses them and so mostly they come use a computer at the library or at my weekely drop-in time. So, I am not saying that it can't work, it can, but that you need to be a little more confident that this solves a problem for her and that you can configure it in such a way that it's not a series of accidents waiting to happen.
posted by jessamyn at 7:52 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am no slouch on computers and tech in general, but I've had a lot of grief with video chatting under Ubuntu. Drivers aren't always easy to find, sometimes the mic just stops working, video was never as smooth as under Windows. Your mileage may vary, though, as I'm not nearly as smart as I think I am sometimes.
posted by monkeymadness at 8:05 PM on July 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mom isn't particularly bright, and is easily confused.

I don't think it's a good idea. The first time she encounters a missing plugin while online, or asked to enter the root password so that packages can be updated, she'll probably end up giving up on computing. It sounds like your mom needs a Mac (it's the default old parents/grandparents computer among all my friends).
posted by halogen at 8:09 PM on July 1, 2010

My 70 year old father was switched to Ubuntu 2.5 years ago and I haven't looked back. My support time is almost zero.
posted by cowmix at 9:14 PM on July 1, 2010

Hmmm.... count me in as a strong "agree". Ubuntu is a good choice for most people, except for the fact that "most people" have already been exposed/familiarized with windows. I think you're given a unique opportunity. Linux/Ubuntu is so infinitely customizable that you'll be able to give grandma exactly what she needs- no more, no less. The big question mark with windows based machines is the fact that websites can mess up your day, but on linux that's not an issue. I'd vote 100% in favor of the ubuntu solution.
posted by Shiva88 at 9:14 PM on July 1, 2010

If it were me, I'd get her an ipad. It's as simple as possible and can do all of what you want except for the video chat. I imagine someone will come out with a webcam for the thing at some point (I'm surprised it's not out already).

No viruses, and the app installs and updates are dead simple. You have no access to its filesystem, so she's not likely to delete anything like the OS files (which my mom did once).

If you get her the AT&T version, you could do away with DSL too.
posted by DrumsIntheDeep at 9:28 PM on July 1, 2010

You might also want to take a look at the Ubuntu Netbook version. Big Favorites, Internet, Graphics buttons down the left side, rest of screen with big fat icons. 90% of what she'd need woult be right in front of her. If you're tech enough, turn off the update manager and ssh in once in a while to run the updates manually. Create an account for yourself first, then another that doesn't have the custom admin privileges available (generally any other user you create but the first one). I doubt it would ever even ask her do do anything adminy. Downside... she'll try a friends computer and be all confused because it's so difficult, and her friends will come over and be jealous.
posted by zengargoyle at 10:11 PM on July 1, 2010

If I read this correctly, the OP isn't looking to buy another device but to use an existing old laptop.

Does your mother have other friends who use computers? In time, will she become interested in a computer other than as a way to connect with you? How/when will she use the computer, given that it doesn't ring like a phone and needs to be booted up and shut down occasionally?
posted by Obscure Reference at 2:07 AM on July 2, 2010

Best answer: I wouldn't use the Netbook edition. As in, I use it, but I wouldn't recommend it for your mum. I think the trick to this is configuration.

I think Linux is ideal for this kind of very limited use-case. The stuff about installation and troubleshooting is a red herring. It doesn't matter how tricky it is to set up, you will do ALL of that, so that when she gets it it will be a case of "click this then click that".

Setting the computer up for her:
She doesn't have a password, she never logs in. Make it so. Give her an empty desktop, set default download locations so it doesn't show up directly on the desktop (so it naturally stays clean). Put shortcuts on the desktop to the things she wants to do. Consider having a separate shortcut for email and Internet even if she uses webmail. Think about how you label the icons for her - it's not a web browser, it's the Internet. Also, expand the font and icon size. On the physical side, older people aren't used to double-clicking, so you might want to set things to open on single-click.

Preparing her for the computer:
She isn't root, so she isn't going to break it. So tell her to relax about that. All she needs to know is that you jab the power button and wait for it to switch off on its own. I've found that introducing someone to Solitaire is a good way to increase their comfort with the machine and also improve their mouse dexterity. Write down click-by-click instructions on a piece of paper in your own handwriting for each of the things she wants to do. The clean desktop you set up? Tell her where the pictures from the Internet have gone! Sit down and work through everything you can think of to do with the computer with her. Start with the computer switched off, end with the computer switched off, to make sure you've caught every possible step where she could get stuck.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:10 AM on July 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Isn't Linux stable enough that the OS could stay running for weeks at a time? The computer probably has a sleep function. Not having to start up and shut down would make things even easier for this user.
posted by megatherium at 2:41 AM on July 2, 2010

I'd say yes. I've been using it for about 2 years now. When I started it was still a bit of a pain, but I hardly ever use any pain-in-the ass command line stuff now. Pretty much everything just works. It's also notably faster than windows, esp on old/ limited 'pooters.
posted by rhymer at 2:48 AM on July 2, 2010

My mother is about the same age as a yours and has a similar lack of experience with computers. She's been using Ubuntu for the last two years or so. I installed it for her after she was getting really frustrated learning how to use Windows. It sounds stupid to somebody who's used to Windows, but the difference between the GNOME top panel vs. the Windows start menu, Places vs, My Computer and how they organize menus makes a a lot of difference for somebody who's trying to learn from scratch. (She's still learning, and I still get a lot of calls - mostly word processor stuff - but she is using the computer now.)

However, if she doesn't want a computer and is opposed to the idea, this may not make a difference. My mom wanted to be able to use a word processor and organize her photos, and went out and bought a computer on her own. (It also may have made a difference psychologically that did something to the computer that was supposed to make it easier.)
posted by nangar at 6:22 AM on July 2, 2010

Response by poster: So, I am not saying that it can't work, it can, but that you need to be a little more confident that this solves a problem for her and that you can configure it in such a way that it's not a series of accidents waiting to happen.

This seems to me to be the bottom line, and what I need to consider most. i.e. will this end up just being an additional stressor, rather than a solution to a problem that exists only in MY mind. Between her reluctance to use a computer, and my 88 yr old father who just "might" decide to play with it and get into things "under the hood" during one of his lucid moments ... well, I really need to think this one through, and also be available for a week or so on-site should I decide to follow through.

I greatly appreciate all the suggestions, and regardless of whether I give it to my Mom, I will set it up per all the ideas, and give it to "someone" who needs - and wants - a basic computer. Or maybe my almost 5 yr old grandson.

Thanks for all the input.
posted by batikrose at 11:23 AM on July 2, 2010

As mentioned above, the fact that your mother hasn't already been exposed to Windows makes Linux a really good choice here. (i.e., obviously, if it were someone already exposed to Windows and set in their ways, it would be more trouble than it's worth, for everyone, for them to re-learn Linux versions of their Windows knowledge.)

I set my mother up with Puppy Linux*. She wasn't used to Microsoft products so had nothing in the way of preconceptions. It took literally a couple of days for her to go from calling me every five minutes, worried, to installing things I hadn't showed her!

Sidebar but, Jessamyn, there are loads of newbie Linux books. Loads of Ubuntu newbie books, even. The main concern I'd have with books on beginning Linux would be, is it a recent book; for this particular case, is the type clear/big enough. (Quick search yielded these.)

On balance batikrose I'd say give it a go if you have the time to spare. If you have more money than time I think Macs are fine here (i.e., not mac-ist!). Worth a shot!

*I chose Puppy Linux because it works on very constrained, outdated hardware -- we're talking P2, ten years old HW here -- and the OS is really stripped down to appliance-level. The only thing that recommends against Puppy here though, is you would have to force it to use a non-root account for the default. Not difficult, but Ubuntu might fit your needs better than it fit my mother's. Also to be fair my mother's younger than yours but she was totally clueless about computers, even a little afraid of them.
posted by blue funk at 8:51 PM on July 2, 2010

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