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December 1, 2011 6:45 PM   Subscribe

Help me pick out a new computer for my mom!

Mom needs a reliable, easy-to-use laptop for word processing, web browsing, iTunes, and maybe some very basic photo editing software. She is very intimidated by technology, and lives far away from me, so I can't just come over and troubleshoot one afternoon.

She currently has an HP Mini that has never worked very well for her, although she has a hard time communicating why. I suspect some of her problems may be because the Mini doesn't really have enough memory to handle iTunes, but I can't do more than speculate.

A refurbished MacBook seems like an obvious choice (to me, a lifelong Mac user), but it seems like an awfully expensive solution for her needs. Also, she lives in a pretty out-of-the-way place, so her local repair options are pretty much limited to PCs. On the other hand, the reliability of the Mac (at least in my experience) could make it worth the extra outlay.

I don't think an iPad will work, because Pages just isn't a very good word processor. I mean, it's usable, but for the price of the device, I would just as soon get her a basic PC laptop and Word with no learning curve.

So what else could I be considering besides a refurbished MacBook?
posted by elizeh to Computers & Internet (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
How much of a budget are you looking at here? Lenovos are pretty solid machines and you can get them for about $400-$500. Something like this Lenovo laptop may be a good idea.

Dells are also probably a good choice.

I would stay away from Sony Vaios. They're good machines, but they come loaded with a lot of bloatware that might make life a bit harder for your mother.
posted by astapasta24 at 7:17 PM on December 1, 2011

Response by poster: The refurbished MacBook is $700, so less than that.
posted by elizeh at 7:20 PM on December 1, 2011

Best answer: As any laptop purchase involving ParentsAfraidOfComputers, buying the hardware is only a small part of the solution. You need to look at this from a holistic perspective. So any Windows PC laptop from a major brand with the following spec should work:

13~15" screen: older people have worse eye sight and netbooks suck in this regard. Any investment in screen quality pays off handsomely.

SSD drive: because the laptop will be faster, more quit, function longer and generate less heat.

Ergonomic keyboard: older people have trouble with tiny keys and weird keyboard layouts. Shouldn't be a problem with a 13~15" laptop.

Initial Windows decrapifying: buying a major brand laptop means having a Windows installation that's full of crapware, resource hogs, etc. You should at least minimize stuff that autostarts. Again, the SSD drive will make a huge difference in improving performance.

Basic applications setup: make sure her browser, MS Word and other, frequently used, applications are set up properly wrt to usability and security. The more you do now, the less you have to fix later.

Windows Support: sorry but you simply cannot avoid this. You will need to regularly give your mom's laptop a checkup and fix malware/performance/usability issues. Free software solutions such as TeamViewer makes this super easy.

Weight: Unless your mother actually uses the laptop outside the house, don't bother with ultra-light laptops because you can spend the money on performance or build quality. Actually, even a laptop that weighs ~2.5 kg is very much manageable.

As for RAM and CPU: any intel i5 will work. 4GB RAM should be considered a minimum with windows 7.

iTunes: is still a piece of crap on Windows and a resource hog. Not much you can do here.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 7:26 PM on December 1, 2011 [1 favorite]

A family member recently bought a 15" notebook to replace her desktop with a 17" crt. The notebook is way easier for her to read. Partially because it is the lower resolution model.

She got a pretty standard Dell Inspiron. Comes with numeric keypad, and a Mac-like chicklet keyboard. No complaints. I was sure Windows 7 would be a nightmare for her to transition to, but similarly, no complaints.
posted by gjc at 7:34 PM on December 1, 2011

Refurb or used MacMini. I got one for my mom last Christmas and it has been perfect. The new ones are currently $599, I got one still in the box from Ebay for ~$300 iirc.
posted by sophist at 8:00 PM on December 1, 2011

I set Mum up with Ubuntu. It worked fine. Way less support required than Dad needed for his Windows box, and having ssh and vnc servers inbuilt made remote support secure and easy.

That was before Ubuntu lost the plot, though; if Mum were still alive I'd probably have her using Mint by now.
posted by flabdablet at 11:49 PM on December 1, 2011

Minor nitpick but Windows 7 runs perfectly fine with 2GB. I've been doing that for years and I use my computer for far heavier tasks than she does.

If you can afford 4GB then great, but it's not going to impact her experience as much as, say, an SSD.

I've no experience with Team Viewer but found LogMeIn Free to be perfect when doing remote desktop support.

Also, remember to set her up with an account separate to the administrator one. This means that if UAC fires up, she needs to enter a password. My parents know the password but since it pops up rarely for them they always (rightly) treat it with suspicion.
posted by mr_silver at 3:04 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thank you for all the helpful answers! I have never shopped for a PC before, so I really appreciate it. And I didn't realize that there were affordable options like Team Viewer out there that I could use to help her--this will definitely make both our lives easier.

Some maybe-obvious-to-you questions:

What do I need to be looking for in an SSD? I am just looking at the Best Buy website, and either none of the laptops have them, or I don't know the correct combination of letters to look for. :) Or do I need to buy that separately?

What's the difference between i5 and i3? I see a lot of both.

How do I decrapify Windows? I understand the principle, but don't know what I should be looking for on a PC.

We use Macs at home, one running Windows. Can I still use Team Viewer or LogMeIn to connect to her PC?

Why should I set her up with a separate account? I'm not averse to it, I just want to understand the reasoning.
posted by elizeh at 6:57 AM on December 2, 2011

Is there a locally-owned computer shop in your area? I would strongly recommend them over BestBuy and there's a much better chance that they could set up the system for you - including de-crappifying it, or just setting it up fresh with no crap in the first place. :)
posted by jillithd at 7:04 AM on December 2, 2011

Best answer: For a computer that isn't going to be used heavily, I don't see any reason why an SSD or anything more than an i3 is necessary. Maxing out the RAM just makes sense, since RAM is so cheap these days.

Separate accounts: when Windows is first run by the end user, it asks them to set up an account. This is a user account with administrator privileges. But more importantly, the actual Administrator account is not enabled. At a minimm, what you need to do is go in and set a password for the Administrator account so that if the computer goes funny, you can log in as the Administrator and fix things.

I personally don't care for UAC. In its regular form, it pops up far too frequently to be of any use. It turns into rote "if I do anything I need to enter my password" button pushing. I like to set it down a couple of notches, to the point where I can safely tell them that if this pops up, they should think twice or call me.
posted by gjc at 7:14 AM on December 2, 2011

Best answer: I use LogMeIn across dozens of PCs and Macs under one account. It is a lifesaver, and dead simple to setup and use on either platform. I will say the plugin for Firefox (on either system) is still my preferred way to connect, because they have never come up with an official solution for Chrome - other than the Java plugin that I don't like using.

Most of my recent experience has been with Mac, but PCs are still a pain to admin. My best advice - set up a Dropbox account and teach her to save files in there. That way when you have to wipe the whole thing, you have an automatic and painless backup. I also think SSDs are great, but probably expensive overkill for this use.

I would also not have Best Buy do anything to the computer, if you buy it from there. Not that the work wouldn't be fine, but it is not a good value.
posted by shinynewnick at 7:19 AM on December 2, 2011

Best answer: Any of these would be more than adequate (probably WAY more -- there are others on the same site for $350 that would also work fine). I would also spring for another $80 and buy a clean copy of Windows 7.

Avira Antivirus (which is free) has never let me down in 4 years of using it, and it's maintenance-free.
posted by coolguymichael at 11:59 AM on December 2, 2011

Avoid any anti virus software which has a non-standard (read: custom and unique) user interface as it tells you where the developers priorities (incorrectly) are.

An anti-virus app should never been seen, be low on memory and low on disk space. Something with a custom UI clearly isn't designed with those things in mind and should be avoided.

I use Microsoft Security Essentials.
posted by mr_silver at 2:11 PM on December 7, 2011

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