Mother, do you think it's good enough for you?
January 12, 2012 11:26 AM   Subscribe

Balancing function and price: What's the best (and least expensive) Mom Computer, especially if we're trying to go Mac?

Oh hey it's another tech question about my mom. I suppose this is basically the same question as this previous AskMe, but we're 2.5 years ahead and my mom is a little more advanced. Also, we've historically been a Mac family, though not in the last five years or so, so the learning curve shouldn't be bad.

My mom's last several computers have all been hand-me-down PCs. She gets very frustrated, and rightfully so, because for one reason or another they've all had kludgy internet and work verrrrry slooooowly. For someone on the low end of the computer spectrum, this is a huge barrier for her; she gives up very easily, and consequently she avoids using things like streaming Netflix. So between the size, tidiness and streamlined UI, I think it's time to go Mac.

She does your basic Gmail, Word, iTunes and web browsing, and she likes YouTube videos. She may eventually upload photos, but she will never use Photoshop.

So: what era should we be looking at? Is there a good way to keep it under $400? Are the Intel Core 2 Duos (2006 or so) good enough to last for maybe four years or more?

Or should we go another way -- PC laptop, etc.? (My husband wants to get her a netbook, but she will NEVER take it anywhere, and I would rather she have a nice big screen.)

Also, now that I think about it: she's 61 and has rapidly advancing arthritis in her fingers. What's the best keyboard -- do the low-profile Mac ones work better? Does the placement of laptop keyboards (e.g. with several inches of computer body and a trackpad) make things more uncomfortable for people with arthritis?

posted by Madamina to Computers & Internet (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Could you up your budget a bit and consider the least expensive iPad? (I've just watched my 70-something dad adapt really well to it.)
posted by BlahLaLa at 11:37 AM on January 12, 2012

Would you consider a ChromeBook? Aside from iTunes, it sounds like it would be a perfect fit.

I really want to get one of these for my grandma
posted by trunk muffins at 11:39 AM on January 12, 2012

I still have one of the first Intel Macbooks, I think, from 2006. I've upgraded the RAM as much as I can. It is still chugging along, but it is pretty slow now. It doesn't play especially well with streaming video and I don't think it will run the latest OSX, even just doing basic browsing/word processing/ media doing things. iTunes also is pretty sluggish now on it too. I'm planning on replacing it soon. I think you'd need to go newer.
posted by SoftRain at 11:39 AM on January 12, 2012

iPad? The screen is small, but it's easy to pinch-and-zoom if that's an issue. It would cover all your requirements and you can get a refurbed new one for just over $400. They don't require a computer as of the latest update either. It has the bonus of being super portable. (That's a benefit that you don't know you missed until you have one.)

The only drawback I can see is if she does a lot of text entry. There are Word apps out there, but no official MS one yet (Apple's Pages seems to work for many people, though.) Also, she'll want a bluetooth keyboard in that case (there are several that are integrated with a case, which might work.)
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 11:48 AM on January 12, 2012

Seconding a Chromebook. My brother and I chipped in for one for our Mom for Christmas -- it's been great. It's cheap, fast, quiet, lightweight, simple, secure, and can back up vital data to the web, so if it ever gets lost or broken or stolen you can get a new one and sync it back just like it was. There are some downsides -- you can't install third-party programs like iTunes or Photoshop, and the lack of a desktop metaphor can be a little disconcerting at first. But there are plenty of web-based alternatives for most essential desktop software. And the time saved not having to troubleshoot viruses and glitches over the phone makes it worth it almost all by itself.
posted by Rhaomi at 11:55 AM on January 12, 2012

$400 is not going to buy you a lot of Mac.

You could check out the deals on used/refurbished macs at low end mac but you're probably not going to see anything less than three or four years old in your budget.

These machines hold their value. I've owned three Mac laptops: the first two each lasted about six years and probably could have kept going -- the third is two years old and going strong.
posted by gauche at 12:00 PM on January 12, 2012

Used Macs sell for absurdly high prices and aren't usually aren't a great value. You can get an old, quite capable desktop PC for virtually nothing while any Intel-based Mac, no matter how creaky and underpowered, will still cost at least a few hundred bucks. For that reason it's almost always better to buy Macs new.

If you absolutely can't afford the cheapest Mac (the $600 Mac Mini, I think), I'd go with a used PC or an iPad. I believe iPads can be used with inexpensive bluetooth keyboards. I'll bet your mom would love one.
posted by The Lamplighter at 12:14 PM on January 12, 2012

You should be able to get a used Mac mini and a decent sized monitor for under $500.
posted by wongcorgi at 12:17 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

Does the placement of laptop keyboards (e.g. with several inches of computer body and a trackpad) make things more uncomfortable for people with arthritis?

In my experience, yes. I have mild arthritis and find a separate keyboard, mouse and screen very much easier. But I'm working on the computer hours at a time; it may not matter so much for a casual user.

Some of the time I use the laptop without attachments sitting in an armchair, but being at a table is better, and for work I generally put the laptop in a dock with ergonomic keyboard and separate screen. With the dock I also use two mice so neither hand gets overused.

My laptop is a four-year-old Thinkpad T61 and it's still plenty fast enough for me and for what your mom does, including streaming Netflix videos.
posted by anadem at 12:31 PM on January 12, 2012

Looking quickly at ebay, even one of the later "white top" Mac minis is almost at the limit of your budget, and you still need a monitor etc on top of that. I wouldn't want to go much older than that. I do think that an iPad might be a viable alternative if you can stump up the money. Or keep your ear to the ground for a friend's castoff.
posted by adamrice at 12:46 PM on January 12, 2012

Used mac mini from 2010 ($300-350) + 20" external monitor ($90). You're not going to find a decent condition mac laptop that can stream video in your price range.
posted by asphericalcow at 1:33 PM on January 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

For someone with limited finger mobility, I think a tablet could be very frustrating. If you want to go this route, I'd suggest taking her to an Apple store and begin certain that she's ok with typing on a screen first. It's nowhere near as easy or as comfortable as using a keyboard.

The weight of a tablet, even at a pound or so, is also enough to cause wrist strain. My wife has found her hands go numb after holding them for a short while. she has RSI and arthritis issues.

If you want a Mac, I'd look at a used mini.
posted by bonehead at 1:53 PM on January 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

The new Minis are so much better than the old ones. If you can, get a new base-model Mini and then replace the RAM ($30-40) - 2gb is very inadequate for Lion. That'll last for four years no problem.
posted by The Lamplighter at 2:18 PM on January 12, 2012

I love my iPad but can't imaging my mother using it. It's just too finicky.

I'd try to get a mini but whatever Mac you get, put Neo Office on it and set as the default for PowerPoint files (because old people LOVE their sideshows). Also put Perian on it.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:42 PM on January 12, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks -- I'd started replying several hours ago but got swept up into something else.

When we got our iPad 2 several months ago, she was actually much more intrigued than I'd anticipated, and she played with it fairly easily. I have a Bluetooth keyboard to go with it, so I'm reasonably comfortable with that setup; she would absolutely not do touchscreen typing.

But I do question how well it would work as a standalone computer (for her, at least). I suppose she could just have her podcasts directly on that, but I want her to be able to leave the "computer" where it is, not take it in the car and have to set it back up again at home/worry about leaving it in the car. (Per this question, she does pretty well with her iPod Nano.)

She would never use a computer (or iPad) at anything other than a desk, no matter how many times we tempt her with being able to watch Netflix in bed.

I'm leaning toward the Mac Mini now -- I suppose we could just use her existing monitor, which isn't that large but would be adequate for now.

I WISH I WISH I WISH that we could go out and just buy her something new, for god's sake. Her whole house is a monument to stuff that was obtained because "it'll be good enough" but then spends the rest of its days (well past its usefulness) being a source of complaints. Blergh.
posted by Madamina at 4:56 PM on January 12, 2012

What does she have currently? It sounds like it's a desktop of some sort. How about spending the $400 to upgrade the existing system? Nice big 24" monitor (or possibly even 26"), more RAM, more ergonomic keyboard, trackball mouse, possibly Windows 7 but at the very least a fresh (re-)install of the OS. Nth-ing a Mac mini, but given the budget constraints, it's possible the money would be better spent on a quality monitor (& etc) that's not just 'good enough'.
posted by fragmede at 1:09 AM on January 13, 2012

If you're in a metropolitan area you can find good quality used mini's on clist for less than 500.
posted by edbles at 4:03 AM on January 13, 2012

My 83 year old mother loves her iMac - I would check some place like MegMacs - they have a used iMac Core 2 Duo 2.16GHz 24" for $590 right now, but you may watch for better deals. I know that's above your budget, but that would be a good machine to last her for quite a while.
posted by nightwood at 7:01 AM on January 13, 2012

I want her to be able to leave the "computer" where it is, not take it in the car and have to set it back up again at home/worry about leaving it in the car.

I don't understand. Why can't she just leave it at home? Why would she have to "set it back up again" (assuming an iPad)? My husband takes his back and forth to work every day. Opens the case (with a built in Bluetooth keyboard) and BOOM, it's "set up."
posted by desjardins at 9:42 AM on January 13, 2012

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