HAL-lite for Mom
December 21, 2011 9:06 PM   Subscribe

What netbook should I buy for my mother who has very limited experience with computers?

My choice of retailers is limited to those operating in Sydney (Australia).

I don't want to buy a macbook (too expensive, something under A$500 would be nice), and I would like to be able to install Ubuntu on it to minimize most common maintenance issues. She will be using it to read news on a handful of websites (I'll create bookmarks), access e-mail (I'll configure Thunderbird), and use Skype to video chat with me. That's pretty much all for now.

The idea is to configure everything for her while she is here in Sydney so that she can just take it back to India next month and only needs to plug it in.
posted by vidur to Computers & Internet (33 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
An iPad.
posted by Threeway Handshake at 9:16 PM on December 21, 2011 [8 favorites]

posted by nathancaswell at 9:18 PM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: iPad starts at A$579 here, unfortunately. Is there a decent Android alternative?
posted by vidur at 9:21 PM on December 21, 2011

I was also going to suggest an iPad. We just bought one for my mother and she's taken to it quite well.
posted by gerryblog at 9:22 PM on December 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

Seriously, iPad or other tablet device. This is what they were born to do.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 9:23 PM on December 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Have you considered a Chromebook?
posted by VoteBrian at 9:25 PM on December 21, 2011

You should be able to get a refurbished iPad 2 from Apple for less than $500, or a used iPad 1 or 2 for less than that on Craigslist.

Also, is a computer (or tablet) something that your mother wants, or something that you want her to have?
posted by Joleta at 9:28 PM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

For me, not constantly having to provide tech support to my dad on his iPad is worth far more than the difference in price between a netbook and an iPad. Try finding a refurb, or maybe your mom can throw in the extra $80? It really does sound like a perfect fit for what she wants to use it for.

If that wont work: It was four years ago, but I had an Asus Eee netbook that I quite liked. But I had tons of Linux experience. Not sure I'd recommend it for my parents.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:34 PM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: It is something that she wants (Skype video chat converted her). She has used my macbook as well as my ubuntu laptop and is reasonably comfortable with both.

I don't think Craigslist is popular in Sydney, and my experience with Gumtree has not been very good. Prices for refurbished iPads in Australia are not very attractive.
posted by vidur at 9:38 PM on December 21, 2011

Yeah, I bought my mom an iPad and she hasn't even touched her laptop in over a year, and I've never once heard from her on tech support issues (except when my dad installed the new version of iOS and 'lost' all her stuff, which was easy to fix)
posted by empath at 9:38 PM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Chromebooks are apparently unavailable in Australia.

I know iPad is great (bought one recently for FIL), but is there any other tablet that can be a decent alternative? It is hard to tell just from the specs, and I'd trust AskMe over random online reviews anyday.
posted by vidur at 9:52 PM on December 21, 2011

I read as many of the tablet reviews as I can, and nothing has convinced me there is a decent iPad competitor out yet.
posted by backwards guitar at 9:56 PM on December 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Netbooks are not for people who aren't really good at computers. Netbooks are for people who already have at least one computer, and feel like maybe they should have another one, because they can get it cheaply. Netbooks are for people who enjoy tinkering and seeing how to fix what they broke last with recent tinkering. Netbooks are for people who want to see how well they can get Mac OS running on hardware it isn't meant for, mostly because they can.

Don't get a netbook for someone who isn't good at computers. They're fragile, cheap, a pain to type on, have inconveniently small screens (both physically and in terms of resolution), and ugh I just wish that everyone would join Dell in leaving that portion of the computer market to finish sucking at everything already.

And there isn't a "tablet market." There is an iPad market, and a number of other companies making products that get returned very quickly, because they are not iPads in a number of very important ways (virtually none of them having to do with hardware specs).

Just get her an iPad. They're so nice, and you'll never have to do tech support again in all likelihood.
posted by DoctorFedora at 9:57 PM on December 21, 2011 [5 favorites]

Sorry to join the pile-on, but you would be better off getting her an iPad. Perfect for what she wants to do, especially the video chat. I have looked at a few other tablet reviews (the HP thing and the Kindle Fire), and they always come out unfavourably compared to the iPad. IIRC its partly due to overall ease of use, but critically, on the responsiveness of the touchpad itself.
posted by Joh at 10:35 PM on December 21, 2011 [3 favorites]

Yeah, the only thing I can think of that matches what you're after (other than price) is an iPad. By and large it will just work and both you and she will never have to ever really do anything to it other than use it. These are big pluses.
posted by mleigh at 12:54 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

For what you want to do (news, email, Skype, set-it-and-forget-it, minimal support) the additional A$80 over your budget is totally worth it. Of course if there's a used market for iPads in your area (local classifieds? university bulletin boards in areas where starving students live?) that might be a source to meet your budget.

I looked into the same options and came to the same conclusion - netbooks are not for new to computer types, Android tablets just don't do the easy-to-use-and-maintain well. The most difficult thing would be to explain how to install apps.
posted by scooterdog at 4:10 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I know iPad is great (bought one recently for FIL), but is there any other tablet that can be a decent alternative?

I have no idea if it will do Skype, which I understand is the key feature for you, but I spent good time yesterday with a Kindle Fire, which it turns out is AWESOME for everything except reading books - which is, happily, not on your list anyway.
posted by DarlingBri at 5:22 AM on December 22, 2011

iPads do video Skype, at least if it's the newer revision (my girlfriend uses it all the time).
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:33 AM on December 22, 2011

I know iPad is great (bought one recently for FIL), but is there any other tablet that can be a decent alternative? It is hard to tell just from the specs, and I'd trust AskMe over random online reviews anyday.

Look at the Asus Transformer (sorry not an Australia link). You can purchase a keyboard attachment if your mom wants/needs to do longer typing (tho the keyboard is expensive as it also comes with an extended battery)
posted by ennui.bz at 6:19 AM on December 22, 2011

(also, be careful with versions of Skype, versions on different platforms can have very different feature sets. the Android Skype may not have video like IPad skype or PC/Mac skype)
posted by ennui.bz at 6:22 AM on December 22, 2011

(also also, the netbooks, if they are Intel Atom are all basically the same on the inside... I think the biggest buying factor is how maddening the keyboard is... which is totally subjective. But, anything Intel Atom based should be fairly well Ubuntu supported. The trickiest question is the WiFi card, which is sometimes hard to know ahead of time (and also easily replaceable if it comes to it))
posted by ennui.bz at 6:25 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

HP Touchpad? Since their firesale they've been pretty cheap on eBay- ~$200USD. It isn't an iPad, but I've been reasonably happy with mine.

Otherwise, I'd say just get an older Lenovo refurb and ubuntu that up.

Is there a reason people don't install Chromium and just MAKE a chromebook, btw? They've always seemed too pricey for what is essentially the most netbooky of netbooks.
posted by Vhanudux at 7:15 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

iPads are great and all, but all the Kool-Aid drinking is making me kinda nauseous...it's pretty clear that an iPad is not an option for the OP.

Asus EEE PCs are fairly solid for netbooks, in my experience - which is only running Windows fwiw.

I don't know if Lenovo is (a) available in Australia or (b) makes the form-factor you're looking for, but I've had generally good luck running Ubuntu on my Thinkpad. They may be more expensive than what you're looking for (my Thinkpad cost ~$800, but is a 15-inch model).

And a slightly-out there suggestion would be a Mac Mini (~$599 here, refurbished sometimes available for less). My folks wanted a netbook but also wanted an Apple, and an Air was out of their price range. So I scrounged an old LCD monitor from work (with permission!) and hooked it up to a Mac Mini. It's not a laptop by any stretch, but it's not a big burden to move around either. Again, not sure if this is even remotely a good possibility for your mom.

Good luck!
posted by brackish.line at 7:16 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Forgot to add this:

Ubuntu Forums List of Fully Functional Linux Laptops

Click "Last" to view the most recent posts. You can search this thread for "netbook" or for particular models you're interested in.
posted by brackish.line at 7:19 AM on December 22, 2011

Best answer: I know iPad is great (bought one recently for FIL), but is there any other tablet that can be a decent alternative?

Android tablets are in a bit of a funny place right now, because Ice Cream Sandwich - Android 4.0 - is designed to work on phones and tablets, and changes the interface somewhat. Which is bad, in the sense that anything you buy now will be a little outdated in the near future, but good in the sense that the prices are already starting to slide a little.

With that in mind, I'd second looking at the ASUS EeePad transformer - in particular if she would benefit from being able to turn it into a keyboarded device for e.g. regular emailing. The pad + keyboard seems to be hovering around AU$500 for the 32GB version. There's a version with a slide-out keyboard as well - the EeePad Slider, but it seems to be slightly to expensive in Australia still - maybe import-only? The Transformer's specs are getting a bit venerable but I'm assuming your mother won't need a quad-core processor. Also worth looking at is the Samsung Galaxy Tab, which comes in a regular and smaller 8.9" screen version.

Alternatively, if you want to go back to the netbook option - and it sounds like you know your way around Ubuntu Linux, which might be a better option for remote management - the ASUS Eee PC range has offered models preloaded with Ubuntu. I don't know if the configuration is available in Australia, but it means that drivers should be available. The 10-inch "Seashell" models basically differ on whether they have an Intel Atom N455 or N570 (single or dual-core) processor - the 1015PX is probably the sweet spot between cost and performance, and is apparently about AUS$350. If she is looking for a larger screen, there are also 12.1 models", but they are appreciably heftier - that's the Chromebook form factor (or, he said with a manly tear, the 12" Powerbook factor WHY DID YOU HAVE TO TAKE MY BABY AWAY, APPLE). As Doctorfedora says, a significantly smaller screen/keyboard than 10.1" starts getting less usable. These chipsets are going to be sundowned by Cedar Trail, but I doubt that will be a huge problem for your mother.
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:19 AM on December 22, 2011

If an iPad is too pricey, does the Kindle do what she wants most? I really like the swipe action of the iPad touch interface. But I find the iPad to be a shopping conduit for Apple's iTunes store. Same with the Kindle and Amazon, but Amazon is clearly subsidizing the cost.
posted by theora55 at 7:21 AM on December 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'd say probably not the Kindle Fire - you need a US billing address to use the Amazon app store at present, and apps on alternate app stores may not work because of the Fire's slightly unconventional hardware setup. And, if you're going to have it shipped to Australia to be rooted and then sent back to India, it starts to feel like more complexity than is strictly necessary.
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:41 AM on December 22, 2011

You say she's comfortable with your laptop, but has she ever tried typing on a netbook? I would take her somewhere where she can actually try out a display model, and see if she is comfortable with the entire experience. Or maybe a friend has one she can borrow for a day?

I have also seen too many non-computer people fall in love with the experience, and then have regrets about the undersized, underpowered "beginner" computer/laptop/netbook that they bought.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:56 AM on December 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

nthing Chromebook. It's really maintenance free - it updates itself automatically, instant on, and the battery lasts 8+ hours. You can find them for around USD$250 (the Samsung Series 5) if you catch a deal (not sure what prices are like in AUS). If it's not out yet I bet it's coming very soon (although maybe not in time for christmas)

I don't think you'll be able to use Skype, but you will be able to use Google Talk, which is just as good and which she can use to video chat with you very easily. And most likely Skype will be available at some point.
posted by iamscott at 8:08 AM on December 22, 2011

Vhandux: The pedant's answer is that Chomium isn't quite the same thing as Chrome OS - so, a Chromebook is not quite running Chromium, and it performs slightly differently. You can certainly put Chromium on a netbook, though, with the odd hardware concern - instructions here.
posted by running order squabble fest at 8:40 AM on December 22, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks folks. I haven't made up my mind yet (also need to discuss with mrs. vidur), but thank you all for the suggestions.

I will take mom to a store to try out some netbooks and tablets. The pricing and retailing of electronics items is really weird in Australia (and I have no idea why), so I'll have to physically go to a couple of stores to check that out anyway.

After reading all the suggestions, I am leaning towards getting a tablet.
posted by vidur at 10:02 AM on December 22, 2011

Best answer: If you do end up with a netbook, I'm very happy with my Asus eeePC 1015PX running Windows 7 Home Premium. I upgraded the RAM to 2GB (max it accepts) and have an 8GB SD card for readyboost, and it's... a perfectly functional tiny Windows box. Linux on netbooks is great and all (I had Ubuntu on here before I gave in to Windows in order to have Evernote and Outlook), but for your mother I suspect Windows' familiarity would provide some comfort.

It's taken a good drop from 8' with only a bit of cosmetic damage, too.

The bad news is that they look to be around AU$ 400, only come with Windows 7 Starter, so figure $80 for Home Premium, $40 for 2GB of RAM (because there's only one slot), and you're in iPad territory.
posted by mendel at 12:05 PM on December 22, 2011

Best answer: I have an eeePC and it's great.

That said, netbooks are going out. (And my mom's asked for one too!) Last time I went to Best Buy they only had 3, set away on a display, where they used to have about a dozen.

Also, my eeePC came with only a gig of RAM, and I took out that chip and put in a 2 gig chip, the maximum the system can support. I'd highly recommend doing that. It required a small bit of BIOS tweaking for the system to recognize the new RAM as 2 gigs.

I have small hands and easily adjusted to the netbook's keyboard. My typing was awkward for a couple of weeks until I got used to it.

SuperSquirrel: " I have also seen too many non-computer people fall in love with the experience, and then have regrets about the undersized, underpowered "beginner" computer/laptop/netbook that they bought."

I would think this would mostly be a factor if the person has never owned a laptop before. I have had 3 laptops and a netbook in my life, and while I loved my gaming laptop, my netbook sure beats carrying around a 9-pound laptop, and with all the stuff available on the internet now (like Google docs, for example) I certainly don't miss all the extraneous CD-based software. I love being able to pick up my netbook with one hand, and it can do everything an iPad can and more for half the price.
posted by IndigoRain at 7:12 PM on December 22, 2011

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