January 4, 2013 3:50 AM   Subscribe

Ubuntu for the elderly?

A while ago my sister gave my mother (who just hit the big eight-zero) a relatively modern Compaq laptop with Windows 7 installed, and a whole bunch of movies on there for her to watch.

Well, it's languished in the corner near mum's telly for long enough and I took it off her tonight with the intention of doing...something.

Firstly, it's full of bloatware and the copy of Windows 7 is not legit so I'm currently installing Ubuntu 12.10 on it.

But...what next? My idea is to find some kind of "codger-friendly" interface for Ubuntu and to that end I've been looking at a thing called "Eldy" but apparently it's shit. So does anybody have any ideas?

Mum isn't TOTALLY computer-illiterate. She knows what a window is and how to use a mouse and keyboard and click on things but I'll be honest, as a Windows boy I find Ubuntu to be pretty counterintuitive and annoying and anything I do to Ubuntu is just going to be reflecting my own levels of comfort with a Windows-esque system.

So I was hoping some of you fine folk might have taken on a similar project, setting up computers for the elderly - intimidated by technology - and making it user-friendly and accessible and fun and compelling and EASY. I want it simple as opening a book or turning on a telly (well, not quite, but y'know) and I want to load it with movies and fun little games and gidgets.

Difficultly level: It won't be for email or internetting. Mum doesn't have an internet connection but I'll be able to grab the laptop and update/install stuff whenever required.

Basically just a media centre with some other interesting interactive stuff on it and whatever bits and pieces seem good. Mum isn't senile or stupid but I don't want her to have to click on too many different things to do stuff so I pretty much want everything she's ever going to use to be sitting right there on the desktop, ready to go.

I know this is a pretty vaguey question and it's also hastily-typed so I apologise for gibbering, but I'd love to hear any and all feedback from Mefites who have set up computers for the elderly and easily frightened. Lessons learned, things they wish they'd done, things they do consistently with great success, recommended software and applications, etc.

Thanks guys!
posted by turgid dahlia 2 to Computers & Internet (10 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I use Ubuntu on an old netbook that was too slow for Windows and I am not a computer person. I find Ubuntu to be fine (I'm using it now). It doesn't use as much memory. The problem I do find is that for some media Ubuntu doesn't work as well. For instance I can't (or haven't figured out how) to use Itunes on it. It's ok for Hulu and it does pretty well for Youtube videos. Ubuntu offers its own version of games but I really don't play them. I don't know what you want to use for a media player but if you go on Ubuntu's forums there are lots of people who can help you.

If your mom was using it for the internet and/or open office, it's pretty good.

Edited to add - if she's using it as a dvd player I think she'll be fine.
posted by lasamana at 4:22 AM on January 4, 2013

Given those reqs I would say either just run windows media center on it, or install the stuff, hide the startbutton and toolbar and give her 4 icons on the desktop (set to extra-large icons).
These would be your media player, a folder called "games" with shortcuts to a couple of games, a folder called Photos (also set screensaver to photos) and your shutdown/hibernate button. Maybe a document editor might be good there, ask her to write you her stories and recipes? Would your mom like one of those desktop pets?
posted by Iteki at 4:57 AM on January 4, 2013

In my experience, you have much better odds of VLC playing a random media file than Windows Media Center, so that might be an option with Ubuntu. You want to install the Xubuntu desktop (XFCE) though and not use the default Unity interface from 12.10. Xubuntu is much more like a traditional Windows 7 desktop environment. Set up VLC, maybe add solitaire and a few other games that she will enjoy and add links right on the desktop to anything she might want to do with the box.
posted by COD at 5:16 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

My first recommendation would actually be to use Ubuntu 12.04 rather than 12.10, the latter is a less stable/more experimental version, and 12.04 is the long term release which already has a significant number of bugs ironed out. With either version its pretty important to hook it up to the internet after an install to get all the latest updates.

I don't actually think Ubuntu is such a bad idea for a project like this, if your mom isn't already used to the Windows way of things she doesn't have to re-learn everything [which is usually the hassle for the less tech-savvy]. You could make individual folders on the desktop: Movies/TV Shows/Books/Games/etc and give them unique icons, and embiggen them to make the layout friendlier. If you stick with Unity you can also customize the toolbar and remove everything she wont use/pin the stuff she does want to use often.

Rythmbox is the default music player on Ubuntu, and for video I recommend VLC on any platform, as long as you set up the file associations to always open with VLC then it should be simple enough for her to use I assume?

Other than that, I'm not really sure what she's interested in using it for? My relatives in that age group all seem to use their computers for emailing, internetting [articles/skype], and countless hours of Popcap-like games - movie/music/tv consumption not so much. Gaming on Linux isn't at the Windows level [yet!] but most Popcap games should run fine under WINE, if you're willing to spend some time setting them up for her: I believe PlayOnLinux has some pre-configured settings for the most popular Popcap games so you don't have to fiddle around with the WINE settings yourself.
posted by xqwzts at 5:23 AM on January 4, 2013 [2 favorites]

Personally, I'd first try to sidestep the issue by asking your sister about the Windows 7 license situation - if it's a matter of one of the many ways the Windows DRM can break itself, you may well have a legitimate license. If that turns out to be the case, you should grab a clean retail copy of Win7 (googling Windows 7 ISO digital river should get you official direct download links in some forum post) and use that to blow away the existing OS and reinstall (which will omit the bloatware).

On to Ubuntu:

For media playback, I'd recommend VLC - others may be able to speak to whether mplayer now has superior DVD playback capabilities given its DVD navigation library project. There are a number of iTunes/Media Monkey-like programs for audio library management and playback, and I suspect you will need to experiment with them to find one that is appropriate for your use case (I love Amarok, but installing all the required KDE stuff can be off-putting). Also you can configure Ubuntu to look a lot like Windows (making it behave that way is harder), and you might consider e.g. Xubuntu - or better yet, Linux Mint (a Ubuntu derivative) - for simplicity.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 6:08 AM on January 4, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers so far everybody.

I understand that VLC is legit and already have it ready to go, but is there such a thing as a media player for Ubuntu that would display thumbnails (custom or not) of the movies and shows I am going to put on the PC? So say mum could click on the program and it would come up with some nice-sized thumbs of the DVD cases and the like?

Or will I have to get custom icons for each movie and have them launched from a folder as per normal routine?
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 6:25 AM on January 4, 2013

If still going the Linux route, Zorin or Mint might be a better fit for someone already used to the Windows GUI.

Another option if just going the media center route would be Mythbuntu (RIP Mythdora). It could work for video and pictures only.
posted by samsara at 7:39 AM on January 4, 2013

My mom, who's about your mum's age and at similar level of computer literacy, was in a similar situation after she bought a used computer a few years ago. She got really frustrated with it and stopped trying to use it. I tried installing Ubuntu on it, and she actually got some use out of it.

Despite having success with this myself, there are a couple reasons this might not work as well for you and your mom:
  1. What made Ubuntu more intuitive was the GNOME interface, and specifically the GNOME top bar, not anything about Ubuntu in particular. The top bar stays visible when you have windows open and is approximately the same as what's accessible via the start button in Windows. Files are accessible by clicking "Places" on top bar, and applications by clicking "Applications", which are then organized by category "OffIce", "Graphics", "Sound & Video", etc. It avoids having to futz around with the Start menu and "My Computer". It's a really simple thing, but it made the difference between my mom using the computer versus not. Ubuntu doesn't use GNOME anymore; they've switched to new GUI called Unity, and they still seem to be trying to get the kinks out of it. So actually I'd recommend Linux Mint, which is similar to Ubuntu, but still uses a version of GNOME.
  2. The main reason I did this was because I use Ubuntu myself. This meant when she was having problems with something, I could open the same application in the same GUI and replicate the problem, and walk her through exactly how to fix it. I was having trouble remembering exactly how to do stuff Windows. If you're unfamiliar with Ubuntu, and you find it unintuitive yourself, you're going to have the reverse problem. So, in your case, Iteki's suggestion would likely be better.
I didn't actually do a lot of customizing, other than fiddling with "appearance" a bit.

Anyway, good luck.
posted by nangar at 7:41 AM on January 4, 2013

Best answer: For the "Media Center" part of it, maybe try XBMC?
posted by chazlarson at 10:38 AM on January 4, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks again all.

After fiddling with Ubuntu for ages to get it looking and feeling good, chazlarson's recommendation of XBMC really did the trick. I've set the laptop to boot directly into XBMC (took yonks to get HDMI audio/video outputs working properly though), and trimmed down XBMC so it only has "Videos" as an option. Mum can click in there and bang, all her favourite movies and with thumbnails to boot.

I'll hook it all up for her tomorrow and once she's been using it for a few weeks and is comfortable with it (and if she's interested) I can configure it to boot into Ubuntu proper so she just has to click on XBMC in there, or have a play around if she's so inclined.

Inspector.Gadget: yeah I wanted to just stick with Windows 7 but I guarantee the copy that was already installed was a dodgy one. I'm not worried about dodgy software but I wanted to minimise the possibility of annoying popups and blah blah.
posted by turgid dahlia 2 at 4:29 AM on January 5, 2013

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