Best desktop computer for the technologically inept?
December 15, 2015 10:55 PM   Subscribe

My mom needs a new desktop computer. She is not savvy at all with technology and seems to get viruses on her computer quite often, and her printer keeps breaking.

I'm not sure what's going on there, but she wants to buy a new one and is thinking of just picking one up from Fry's or something. I haven't gone desktop shopping in a while so I would love some suggestions for good desktop systems that are currently out there. She's considering a Mac but I advised against it since she's used to using Windows. But I do hear that there aren't as many viruses with Macs so maybe that would be good for her?

I bought my last laptop from Lenovo and I customized it online and ordered it that way. I don't know if there is something similar for desktops. She really just needs something simple, as she pretty much just checks email and watches shows on her computer.
posted by massofintuition to Technology (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like she'd be a candidate for an iPad and a keyboard case IMO.
posted by Hermione Granger at 11:00 PM on December 15, 2015 [10 favorites]

What does she actually do with her computer? Does she have broad creative needs or would a web browser and an office suite be sufficient? Does she like playing with new software or does she need an Internet appliance that Just Works?

I'm a serious computer user but I get a lot of mileage out of my Chromebook, and a Chromebox on her desk would be cheap and easy to maintain. If she's more of the latter sort of user, it might be sufficient.
posted by qbject at 11:06 PM on December 15, 2015

Response by poster: She checks emails, watches shows, looks at some news sites, etc. No gaming or graphic design or anything that I would consider to be more intensive computer work. She definitely needs something that just works and that is hard to break.
posted by massofintuition at 11:20 PM on December 15, 2015

Nothing you described requires a desktop computer. Or even a laptop. Consider an iPad. It can do all of those things simply. I got one for my very technically inexperienced mother four years ago and the only tech support we've had to provide is replacing the charging cable at one point. She's essentially unwilling to learn anything new (for example she still doesn't know that the triangle on the remote control means "play") and yet she uses the iPad every day, and even email—a task she found overwhelmingly complicated on her old Windows computer. I think a big part of her ability comes from tablets showing only a single app at a time with a streamlined interface.

However if no one else in the family uses Apple products I might reconsider. In my case, she has lots of support if she has questions. Possibly an Android tablet if you're more Android people.
posted by Ookseer at 11:38 PM on December 15, 2015 [2 favorites]

I think a Mac is the way to go. Either an ipad as suggested above, or the most basic kind of Macbook Air (which iirc doesn't cost that much more than an ipad anyway).

If my mum can work out how to use an iPhone, i think your mum will be fine to work out how to use OS-X.
posted by kinddieserzeit at 11:45 PM on December 15, 2015

Yep, chromebox.
posted by kickingtheground at 12:08 AM on December 16, 2015

It is worth noting that if cost is an issue, a basic desktop PC can be had for much less than any new Mac. That being said, macs are great computers and very user friendly. Selecting a new Mac is also relatively simple compared to the myriad options in the PC world.

Anyway, if going in the PC route, I'd suggest looking for something with an i3, 8 gigs of ram, and preferably an ssd. That should be more than enough for basic needs.
posted by mosschief at 12:13 AM on December 16, 2015

posted by gorcha at 12:17 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

A word about Fry's (bless them...) in this arena - NO. I can't remember why, but I had looooong discussions with the techs there about a year ago over something I bought elsewhere that did not work and was looking to replace. They were very helpful! As someone that usually invests in Apple products (they last longer, imhe) they convinced me they had nothing better to offer. They were right.

Your mom wants some kind of Mac desk top, or Mac mini if they still do that. I HATE THE IPAD. We still have iPhones and Mac book pro's, but we got a second hand but brand new galaxy note tablet from a friend instead of another iPad tablet.

I think your mom wants a computer, not a tablet. I think your mom would do better with a Mac because she can't intelligently avoid all of the adverts and such that put viruses and bullshit on your device (the galaxy is SHIT for this, but if you lock it down like Fort Knox with the parental controls it's fine...) For real, your mom wants an apple product. Something that does not require too much thinking when it comes to her personal info and such. Get her a Mac desktop. It's expensive at first, but should remain functional for about 8 years - this is my experience with ALL laptops and desktops from Mac. iPhones can go about 4 years without software out pacing the hardware. iPads are somewhat worthless. Ours broke when it should not have, and I don't know anyone still using a first or second generation iPad today, about 6 years on.

If your mom has issues with viruses (security, basically) because she obvs can't figure out how to lock that down considering how commercialized the Internet has become (our galaxy tablet comes with fucking advertising on the home screen - HOLY SH$T!!) then your mom needs a Mac.

Getting something google (chrome) or Amazon (fire) will just increase her security problems. Anything windows based can eff off. Their income streams from advertising and the like are too complicated for your mom to deal with.

Apple is going this way, too, sadly. But at a slower pace.

Keep it easy and secure. Go refurbished to save money.
posted by jbenben at 12:33 AM on December 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

For the uses she has, there should be no difficulty for a Windows user to navigate the OS X environment. She'll need to get used to having the menu at the top of the screen and to the dockbar at bottom. The aha for most: using the spacebar to peek at a file.
posted by megatherium at 1:16 AM on December 16, 2015

Okay, she wants a simple and secure computer, and there are several ways to accomplish that.
Yes, I'll come right out and say it: she'll find Linux Mint at least as easy to use as OSX, because it's very similar to XP and Win7, and she'll have the same advantage of wayyy less virus and malware risks. A Linux system that's well set up is very hard to break for a user with normal user rights. But this would only be a good solution if you, or someone else in her family or social circle, would be willing and able to set her up.
posted by Too-Ticky at 1:27 AM on December 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

posted by egypturnash at 1:30 AM on December 16, 2015

posted by persona au gratin at 1:39 AM on December 16, 2015

Your mother's own usage patterns and behavior online are a much greater determinant of her vulnerability to virus and malware than the choice of hardware and operating system.

If she does the same things with a new system, she'll very likely continue to allow viruses and malware to infect it.

Much of that comes down to: Stop clicking on so many random links.

(Display size needs to meet her requirements and her preferences. This may eliminate the small screen of iPads or other tablets. Ditto the physical keyboard available for tablets.)

Viruses and malware are organized criminal business products. People are in it for the money. The prevalence of viruses and malware targeting any software platform is directly related to the number of systems using that platform. Hence, Windows is the biggest target because the financial returns are likely to be greater.

Email containing malware can infect a system when the contents of that email are displayed. Most email programs default to displaying message content even before a user clicks to open that message. A good number, however, allow that to be disabled, so only the subject line is shown until the user explicitly opens the message. Find your mother one of these programs and configure it correctly.

Links in email are a common way to spread malware. The link shown in an email does not need to reflect that actual URL. So, people click on a link that appears to be legitimate and innocuous and find their browser going to an attack site that quickly infects their machine.

To help avoid this, hovering the mouse cursor over the link in the email often displays the exact URL, either in the app's status bar or in a popup. If that URL is nothing like the link in the mail, or if it is in any way suspicious, don't click on it.

Ad blocking plugins should be used in browsers. Web sites typically do not produce the ads displayed on their pages. Instead, they contract with ad syndication services that distribute the ads from their own servers. Compromised ad servers are a known source of attack, delivering malware contained in the ads. So, block the ads.

Unfortunately, Microsoft's replacement for Internet Explorer (which *should not* be used in any case), the Edge browser, does not yet included the capability to add plugins. Firefox and Google Chrome do, as well as, I believe, Apple's Safari.

I think the Windows versus OS X question should be decided by cost and your mother's flexibility. If she'd find it difficult to adapt to using OS X, avoid it. (If an Apple store is nearby, visit one and play with the machines on display.)

In either case, *buy* anti-virus and anti-malware software. Don't rely on the free versions. Set the software to do real-time scanning. Set it to install updates as they are available. (These updates enable the software to deal with new attacks. If you don't update them, they can't attempt to defend against those new attacks.)

Likewise, update the operating system and the other installed software as the updates are offered.

Linux is a fine platform. I'm using it right now. Its smaller base of users means any given Linux machine is less likely to be a target of an attack. Linux, is not, though, magically resistant to viruses and malware.

However, the adjustment of moving to Linux can be jarring for many people. Someone who is wary of moving from Windows to OS X likely needs to avoid Linux, as well. (Ditto if *you* are uncomfortable installing Linux and being the de factor support person.)
posted by justcorbly at 3:34 AM on December 16, 2015

Chromebox or Chromebook, seriously. It's the ideal intermediary stage between a mobile OS and a full Windows or Mac.

As someone egos been a Windows user for years but had to work with Macs occasionally, do not discount that learning curve. It is steep. Chrome OS seems to take its ui design cues more from Windows and is super easy to use. It does only a few things, but it does those things quickly and easily and viruses are not a problem.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:11 AM on December 16, 2015

Nthing Chromebox! Got a sweet chromebox for $125 (already had the monitor) and now a chromebook for $150. They boot in less than 10 seconds, super easy to learn, very fast to browse with. Virtually impossible to get a virus. I have had PCs and Macs but I hope to never have to go back to either. For most of the people I know Chrome would be a much superior product at a fraction of the price.
posted by jcworth at 5:03 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I was in the same situation as you. Got my mother in law an iPad Air and never looked back. It fit the job perfectly. She spends all day in some casino app and is happy as a clam. Just lock the App Store down with a password so she doesn't go nuts with in-app purchases.
posted by JoeZydeco at 5:08 AM on December 16, 2015

Chromebook all they way. They are super cheap and pretty much zero maintenance.
posted by srboisvert at 6:08 AM on December 16, 2015

Nthing Chromebook.
posted by Obscure Reference at 6:12 AM on December 16, 2015

Another vote for iPad here. She'll be able to do email and watch her shows in her favorite chair. She'll only need to charge it every few days, probably. No significant viruses exist for it. IOS has many built-in accessibility features good for elderly or disabled users. It doesn't even have moving parts except for buttons. She may want a keyboard case with it if she doesn't want to type on a touchscreen.
posted by ejs at 6:52 AM on December 16, 2015

I do hear that there aren't as many viruses with Macs so maybe that would be good for her?

If you can afford it, I would consider this. Also, it sounds like you're maybe her main tech support? You might consider getting a decent laptop so that she can bring it somewhere (a friends, a tech shop)if she does have problems. I'm on Team Mac generally mainly because I deal with novice computers every week helping them with their computers and figuring out what went wrong. If you're not going to be able to change her behavior (and look with most people you can't, this doesn't make them bad people it just means they have different priorities) then you need to get them something that is more bulletproof. There are "switch" guides to give to people who are moving over from PCs. I think you could make the argument that going from an older PC to a Windows 10 environment is going to be a learning curve no matter what anyhow.

Macs are mostly impervious to viruses and the worst thing that happens to them are weird toolbars showing up on the browsers and home page redirects. That is it. They do not get turned into zombie bot armies when used in a normal fashion. You can read the links about "viruses/malware for Macs" if you Google and it's just a completely different scale of a problem. Sure it happens, but very very rarely and you don't have to rely on the user to do software updates or stay on top of anti-virus protection. To me the extra you pay for the computer makes this all worth it.

Chromebooks have advantages but the main disadvantage is all the data going through Google and they're network machines mainly so they work optimally when they have an always on connection to the internet. Don't know what her setup is but it's worth keeping that in mind. I'd also consider a whole system upgrade and get her a bulletproof printer like one of the brother series you see suggested here all the time that Just Work.
posted by jessamyn at 7:02 AM on December 16, 2015 [1 favorite]

Nthing an iPad.

You can get a refurbished one from Apple for about 15% off. They're as good as new and come with a year of AppleCare. The 16GB ones are probably too small these days, but any of the others should be fine. If there are newer features she needs, like split-screen, check this article for the models that support it.
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 7:58 AM on December 16, 2015

I'm usually quick to recommend Macs (or even iPads) for just about anyone. But in this case, I have two other suggestions:

-Chromebook. Get one with the biggest screen you can if she wants that "desktop feel." I use a Mac for my "real" computer stuff, but I have a Chromebook I use for web browsing, emails, and streaming video. I have been incredibly impressed with its capabilities and stability. A major plus is price. You can get one with a big screen for well under $300. And it's not going to get viruses.

-Now, a totally out-of-the-box suggestion. My step-dad got my mom (both in their 80s) the Wow! Computer for Senior Citizens. The tech specs are nothing to brag about. But it runs a custom Linux based OS especially designed to be very easy to use. I confess I have not really used it more than five minutes, but it seems pretty good for the basics. On the plus side: It's got a big, bright 22 inch touch screen, and also has a mouse and keyboard. The home screen has quick links to popular sites and email, displays the local weather, etc. The software gets automatically updated. It has a DVD/CD drive. You can pay for extended support for $10 a month and/or you (or someone else) can be a "Tech Buddy" which sets it up so you can remotely access the computer to offer support. But these computers are not cheap. The website lists it at $1099, but I have heard that you can get a couple hundred off just by being a tough customer. As I said, I can't really give this computer a personal recommendation, because I haven't used it enough. My folks seem to like it fine, but due to my mom's health she doesn't really use it much either. Just something to add to the mix.
posted by The Deej at 8:10 AM on December 16, 2015

Some good suggestions upthread, but a dissenting opinion:

This is less about OS and platform than it is about her understanding and avoiding virus-enabling behavior, and about mitigating the consequences when she screws up.

The former is, at a fundamental level, understanding what actions mean "show me these bytes" and what actions mean "do what these bytes say to do" (and that the latter is the express train to virustown unless you know and trust where those bytes came from).

Software can make this easier by making "do what these bytes say to do" require a separate, explicit, deliberate action. (Windows UAC and browser plugins like NoScript and Ghostery can help in this regard.)

Using IOS on Mac or (especially) any of the UNIX-y things can be helpful because they tend to make a clear distinction between "show this" and "run this" in cases where Windows (via "file associations" and "Open") obscures it. It also means a good chance that when you say "do what these (malware-y) bytes say to do", the computer will say "I don't know how." But virus-enabling behavior will still bite you in the end, regardless of platform (unless the platform is so locked-down as to be useless for general-purpose computing).

For mitigating consequences, I'd suggest imaging the disk and having an easy way to restore it when it is (or you suspect it is) infected. Things like Clonezilla or Norton Ghost are useful for this.
posted by sourcequench at 8:40 AM on December 16, 2015

iPad. You can set it to back itself up to iCloud. There are no viruses. If she wants a big screen there is the iPad Pro now. There is a huge amount of cheap high-quality software for it. All the mainstream printers support AirPrint now from iPad (you probably need a new printer by the sound of it anyway, and they are cheap).
posted by w0mbat at 12:09 PM on December 16, 2015

Mac, running as a standard user (ie, not the admin account) with automatic software updates enabled. A locked-down windows machine might also do the trick, but I've never done that, so I don't know how much hassle it is.

Or, a Chromebook/box.

iPad might work too, but even with your mother's limited usage, giving up a mouse/keyboard could be too much of a hassle.
posted by Good Brain at 4:54 PM on December 16, 2015

If she already has a monitor, a Chromebit will work, and it will only cost you around $85. You might need to add a USB hub, though, since it only has one port.
posted by shponglespore at 5:44 PM on December 16, 2015

the problem with ChromeOS is that she won't be able to print to a usb printer, only networked printers. you would never think a modern OS couldn't do that, but...
posted by at 6:47 PM on December 16, 2015

Response by poster: Wow, thank you for all the suggestions, everyone. I think I am leaning toward a Mac, at this point. It'll be more expensive, but I don't know if I'll be able to change her virusy ways. And I find my own Windows desktop to be temperamental and laggy at times and I need to find ways to troubleshoot it and she would have no idea how to do that on her own. I really want something for her that just works and is smooth as possible, since, yes, she does call on me as her main tech support, and I'm not even that techy.
posted by massofintuition at 1:35 AM on December 17, 2015

Install TeamViewer on her Mac and your devices. If something goes wrong, you can connect from your computer, tablet or phone and diagnose the problem quickly.

It's saved me hundreds of hours on the phone. Now when I speak to my parents we chat about the things we want to chat about and, at the same time, I fix their computer.
posted by mr_silver at 3:13 AM on December 20, 2015

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