Is Outlook the Best Option?
August 7, 2008 11:13 AM   Subscribe

What email program should my older mother use on her new Windows machine?

My 65 year-old mother's computer died and her new one arrived a few minutes ago. It's running Windows XP Pro, I believe. She uses it to look at her money on Quicken, play casino video games off of CDs and check email.

She was using some very old version of Outlook before. It always had problems that she had trouble with like non-clickable links and not loading images or opening images. It's interface was cluttered with all kinds of functions she doesn't need. Her email consists of maybe 10 messages a day, mostly forwards from her friends which often include images. She doesn't use a RSS reader, calendars or any Office programs. She's gotten pretty good on the computer for someone who only started a few years ago (she's not hunting and pecking anymore) but I think a simpler interface will help her.

I'm a Mac person and, although I am often forced to help her on Windows, I don't really know what I'm doing. What email program should I tell her to use? I am in charge of setting it up so whatever I tell her is "email" she will use. I simply switched her default browser to Firefox and she didn't care. I'm thinking of Thunderbird (she doesn't like webmail or web applications) but have no experience with it. What email program should I install for her or will whatever comes with it be fine and un-complicated?

Bonus question: She insists on having Norton and Spysweeper on there. I tried to get her to use something else less bloated/horrible and she refused. Those programs crippled her last computer (but it was super old and pieced together by my dad). She just paid for new subscriptions so are there any steps to make it work well but not kill this new machine? I've read a lot about it but could stand to do some more research for specific steps.
posted by Bunglegirl to Computers & Internet (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Seriously, Gmail. It's what my 65 year old mother uses and it's just so easy.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:22 AM on August 7, 2008

Best answer: Thunderbird should be fine; it's not radically different (is any email program?) from Outlook. Yes, Gmail or Hotmail would be better (she's not going to lose everything when Norton next kills her machine) but failing that, go with Thunderbird. Sit with her and go through all the common tasks. Make sure she knows about the junk filter and anything she might not have seen in her old Outlook.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 11:25 AM on August 7, 2008

Response by poster: She has an address through her internet provider (Comcast) so she wants to receive email at that address and not have to change. I made her give up AOL about 3 years ago and she complained about changing her address despite the fact that only about 10 people email her.

I have a Gmail account but I use it as a backup/spam account so I'm not familiar with POP or IMAP and Gmail. I could be convinced...
posted by Bunglegirl at 11:27 AM on August 7, 2008

Seconding Gmail. There is, IIRC, some functionality in Firefox 3 to allow pages to operate as independent, standalone apps, without the Firefox chrome and toolbars. I can't find anything online about it right now, but someone else must know what I am talking about. Perhaps set up her Gmail page that way, so it looks like a separate "Gmail Program"?
posted by Rock Steady at 11:30 AM on August 7, 2008

My 65 year old mother uses Thunderbird with no issues. Gmail is easy but AFAIK it won't work as a front-end for any random address; it's POP and IMAP functionality is only for accessing gmail mail. Google may prove me wrong though.

Norton is a bloated piece of shit, and it will cripple the new machine just as it did the old one. The windows firewall and a free anti-virus programs will do everything it does, minus the headaches. Avoid it at all costs.
posted by bizwank at 11:32 AM on August 7, 2008

Stay away from Outlook. It's inappropriately complicated for your mom, and hard for you to fix if it breaks. As for Thunderbird, I taught an 85-year-old to use it confidently, and it wasn't even that hard.

But GMail would be better. Most online applications do stink, but GMail is an exception. A little persuasion now will save you both a lot of frustration in the long run.
posted by gum at 11:34 AM on August 7, 2008

A third recommendation for Gmail. It's dead simple, and you can get your own account so you have access to the same interface, for tech support purposes. Thunderbird is not a bad option, if she insists on a desktop solution, but Gmail is simpler.

As for the anti-virus/spyware, I'd go with AVG Free and Sygate. AVG Free is bloatier these days than it used to be, but it's still not as bad as Norton/Symantec (the consumer versions, that is). I'd install these and disable/remove the Norton stuff.

There are several threads on AskMe about people switching to AVG Free (or other non-Norton antivirus products). Print a few out for her, maybe? Symantec's corporate products seem pretty good to me. But their consumer stuff is bloatware and incredibly processor intensive. It's just crap--and expensive crap, at that.
posted by wheat at 11:40 AM on August 7, 2008

Got my 65-year-old Mom on Thunderbird with a Gmail account. Explaining the Gmail account, I told her that even if she moved and had to get a different Internet provider, she wouldn't have to change her e-mail address again. That pretty much sold her. That and the spam filtering. (I have her password and go into her account every once in a while and un-flag some of the false positives.)
posted by kindall at 11:45 AM on August 7, 2008

Best answer: I have a gmail account of that I use to log into gmail, but I send and receive mail to and from using a POP3 account from that same gmail and it works well. I suck out loud at anything mail related (seriously, it's as if that section of my reasonably technical brain simply does not exist) so it couldn't have been that hard to set up.

The gmail alert plugin can sit in her sys tray next to the clock, tell her when she has new mail, and is easy to click to open a tab with gmail in it.

Gmail: Made for Moms.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:46 AM on August 7, 2008

Gmail. I have several of my decades-old addresses being forwarded to it, so there is no need for anyone to change email addresses.

Place to get started shunting other email addresses to Gmail:

As a bonus, Gmail also allows you to reply to messages with other email addresses in "From," but it'll require verification:

As for Norton and ilk, since she already paid for the subscription, she might as well use it. It's definitely better than nothing. I'm assuming this is some newfangled package that's a combination AV-firewall-etc., because a firewall is absolutely necessary on top of an antivirus.
posted by Ky at 11:50 AM on August 7, 2008

Oops, forgot to make those into links. :( Sorry.
posted by Ky at 11:51 AM on August 7, 2008

Gmail is pretty good, although the feature where it groups messages in a thread together can take some getting used to.

You can tell gmail to pull her email in via POP, which is what I'm doing now. It works pretty well, but sometimes, I find that there's a considerable delay in when my mail to my primary address gets sucked into gmail. I'll eventually fix this by way of a .forward, but I don't know if that's an option for you.
posted by Citrus at 11:52 AM on August 7, 2008

@Rock Steady: You're thinking of Prism, which is indeed a wonderful thing.

Thunderbird is probably the best desktop solution for your needs. It can be a bit buggy here and there, but since Mozilla is actually working on it again, I wouldn't worry too much about it.
posted by sinfony at 12:29 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Great responses, you guys are awesome!

I think I will set up her new Gmail to also have her Comcast email coming in. We reset the password on there yesterday so she can access the account online. She hates passwords and refuses to remember even one which is why I have a hard copy "passwords" folder for her so I can look it up when we need to. She will want to get email from her frequent flyer account and I'm not sure what official emails she gets or has signed up for. The old computer is totally dead so I can't check, although at some point I may take out the hard drive to recover some photos for her on there.

The Gmail alert plugin sounds great, Darlingbri. I'll look for that.

Ky, I'm not sure what version of Norton she has since she keeps updating online. I imagine there will be a lot of trouble for me trying to download the program for her. I would guess she has a basic version or home version--whatever they sell to people that don't know better. Is there a firewall built in that comes with Windows if she doesn't have the right Norton?
posted by Bunglegirl at 12:49 PM on August 7, 2008

Best answer: Yes, XP has a built-in firewall. I recommend it over the overly done and unstable 3rd party firewalls. Start > Control Panel > Windows Firewall

FWIW, I find Eudora and Thuderbird to have the dumbest-downed interfaces available.

You may want to make her account a limited account and keep another account as an admin to install software and make changes. That stops 99% of security threats right there.
posted by damn dirty ape at 1:24 PM on August 7, 2008

As long as her XP is up to date, there's a built in firewall (it was introduced in Service Pack 2), although you may want to check and make sure it's still on.
posted by sinfony at 1:25 PM on August 7, 2008

Windows XP's firewall is definitely basic, but better than nothing. It's just Windows Firewall in Settings > Control Panel.

Judging from the products shown on the main Symantec Norton website, it looks like there are two basic packages--one with a firewall and one that's mainly just the antivirus. If you still have the packaging from the original computer, it might say what type was originally installed. Thing is, even if she has only Norton AV 2008, it already comes with spyware protection, so you could skip Spysweeper. Probably. (I don't use either myself. ;) )

I don't know how Norton subscription updates work; it's probably more seamless than my NOD32, which requires a new username/password for updates every renewal. If your grandmother didn't get email notifications from Norton, then besides trying to poke customer support (good luck there), I don't know what else you can do to figure out what Norton she had.

Backup plan: Good vendors will have some kind of recovery disc available with new systems. Typically, using this will clean off a drive but also remove all data--this is a big advantage for using an online mail service like Gmail, which can be accessed anywhere there is a Web connection. Normally I would make a drive image immediately after setting up a new computer the way I like it and making sure everything works perfectly, but you probably don't have the tools available. Hopefully there is a recovery disc.

There's also something called System Restore in Windows XP; it's not fool-proof, but it can help with system errors. [Start] > Programs > Accessories > System Tools > System Restore. Before every major software installation, make a restore point so you can "undo" changes if it screws up.
posted by Ky at 1:31 PM on August 7, 2008

Response by poster: Just opened it and the sticker on it says Windows Vista Business PRO OEMAct. She's going to be annoyed that it's not XP. I'm annoyed that the quote was for XP. That's what you get when your brother sells you a computer!

I assume Vista must have a firewall too. I'll sort that out.

I use Mail in OSX and I wish she had something as simple and clean as that. I would love to put her on a Mac but she already thinks $500 is too much for a computer. Besides, Quicken for Macs as awful and I figure that running it in bootcamp or parallels might be too confusing for her.
posted by Bunglegirl at 1:52 PM on August 7, 2008

I'm not the OP, but I hope my question is pertinent. I'll be making similar changes in the near future.

Is there zero concern that if you go to gmail, so that your mail is stored (on google's servers, not locally, then someday google might:

-start charging a lot of money, or

-lose some of your mail, or

-stop upgrading gmail if needed (say, by not providing gmail-compatible software for the new Shanghai 2020 computer we're all going to be using).
posted by JimN2TAW at 1:53 PM on August 7, 2008

I use Mail in OSX and I wish she had something as simple and clean as that.

Vista comes with Windows Mail, which is the next-gen Outlook Express.
posted by damn dirty ape at 2:01 PM on August 7, 2008

Response by poster: Arg. Turned the thing on and despite what it says on the outside it is XP.
posted by Bunglegirl at 2:06 PM on August 7, 2008

JimN2TAW, there is no guarantee. But then, there's no guarantee that they're never going to start charging your to use Google search, either. However, it is very unlikely because both are ad supported. IMHO one is as unlikely as the other.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:13 PM on August 7, 2008


Internet economics is exceptionally cutthroat. Rest assured that Google would never start explicitly charging for their existing services, because somewhere someone will suddenly start a new competing free service, and "free" tends to go a very long ways in online business... meaning Google would lose a massive chunk of its users. It's happened many times before in Internet history. Such services that started charging after the fact quickly drop out of the online market. As Darlingbri commented, the ad revenues should support them; at most, they could increase ads.

For your second question, there's no guarantee that Gmail won't lose email, but usually if there are email problems, it's in the routing and lost packets and all that transportation mess between the sending server and Gmail's final destination server, with a few ISP problems tossed in for good measure.

Comment: I know there's a setting so that Gmail will essentially mirror all your forwarded email and not truly "download" them and delete them off the original email servers. This is a good background security check in that, should Gmail ever be inaccessible or you do lose messages in Gmail, you can still log onto your original email accounts and view messages there.

Per your third question, competitive online technologies never stop evolving. Ever. And Google has shown that it's willing to up the ante on innovation (even with some controversial items). But make no mistake--there's far less risk of Gmail becoming incompatible with new computers than an online software becoming incompatible with new browsers, since that's what you're really using for Gmail. Of course, how the new Internet hyperconnected devices will behave in the future, none of us know.

And there's no point in worrying about it. Do what you can to backup material you want to save, watch the winds for technological evolution, and that's about all you can do.
posted by Ky at 2:38 PM on August 7, 2008

*Sigh.* There are millions of older people who would really benefit from an extremely simple email program. One that has only four buttons:

- Reply
- Forward
- Delete
- Write

It would be terrific. Unfortunately I've never found it.
posted by exphysicist345 at 3:52 PM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

One problem with gmail, at least for me, is that it freezes frequently and stalls when loading mail. If your mom is anything like my mom, that kind of behavior will freak her out. I agree with everyone recommending Thunderbird. You can easily export all her Outlook addresses, mail and other stuff into it , set it up with her Comcast account, and it's so very easy to use. Good luck, whatever you do.
posted by Lynsey at 4:11 PM on August 7, 2008

What email program should I tell her to use?

Thunderbird, wired into a Gmail account via IMAP. Way smoother than POP3.

If she insists on continuing to use her Comcast mail address as well, don't make Thunderbird do that; just make the Gmail account pull the Comcast mails via POP3. This way, what she sees on the Gmail web interface while she's out and about will always square with what she sees in Thunderbird when she's at home.
posted by flabdablet at 6:16 PM on August 7, 2008

It would be terrific. Unfortunately I've never found it.

If you right-click on the toolbar in Thunderbird and select Customize, you should be able to strip it down this far.
posted by flabdablet at 6:17 PM on August 7, 2008

Oh, yeah: anybody with concerns that Google might one day drop all their mails into the bit bucket can use their Gmail account via Thunderbird and IMAP, and tell Thunderbird to cache the Inbox locally.
posted by flabdablet at 6:19 PM on August 7, 2008

whatever they sell to people that don't know better

That's their entire business model, right there.
posted by flabdablet at 6:22 PM on August 7, 2008

Norton is a bloated piece of shit, and it will cripple the new machine just as it did the old one. The windows firewall and a free anti-virus programs will do everything it does, minus the headaches. Avoid it at all costs.

Repeated for emphasis. AVG 8 Free works far better, and includes anti-spyware.

Stay away from Outlook. It's inappropriately complicated for your mom, and hard for you to fix if when it breaks.
posted by flabdablet at 6:27 PM on August 7, 2008

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