What is the perfect computer for Grandma?

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grandmaEven 10 yrs after it was originally posted, I continue to receive emails and comments about my review of the Mailstation email appliance. For example, the other day I received this email:

Hi Julie,
My mom just turned 95 and is sharper than I. She has a mymailstation for emailing, which is a larger portion of her life. Is there another gadget available that has email capabilities as well as document writing capabilities?
I’m afraid a computer would be too much for her to learn. This would allow her to write family histories and heritage outlines for her all of us to keep.

That got me to thinking about the availability of computers or devices for people that don’t really need a full blown computer. What options are out there?

I was chatting with John when I received that email from Lee. I asked him about the One Laptop per Child device (OLPC) because I couldn’t remember the name of it. He mentioned that he didn’t think it was all that great of a computer. He mentioned that it has a poor keyboard and display. At $199.00 it seems like it might be a good deal though. I told him that I thought another alternative could be something similar to the Palm Audrey or Apple eMate. Unfortunately, these are both orphaned devices.

Another idea that I thought of that actually might already be possible, would be a netbook with a specialized OS that has a really easy to use email client, games and a word processor. Everything else could be turned off so it would not be accessible.

Jeanne’s grandma (pictured above) is going to be 93 in a month or so and she has a regular desktop computer that she uses with AOL to email family and friends. Like Lee’s mother, she’s sharp as a tack. But what about those people that only want to email and save some text documents without all the other features to get in their way? I’m sure many of you out there have the answers, so let’s help Lee with some solutions!

16 thoughts on “What is the perfect computer for Grandma?”

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  2. I’ll note that these devices keep being a little too niche to survive (though it is interesting that the Peek email-only not-a-pda has lasted for two years.) I’d suggest a Mac instead (a mac mini and decent sized flat screen, if cost is an issue) – features like “magnify screen on hotkey” and screen-reading/voice activation turn out to be quite helpful to many seniors (that’s one of the big wins of the Kindle, too – not having to buy rare “large print” editions, just setting it to large text, is a boon to both eyestrain and dignity.)

    1. @_Mark_ A Mac or a PC would be great *IF* there was a way to turn off everything BUT what is needed. For example, configure it so that when you boot up, the only options you have are big icons for Email, Games and a Word Processor and nothing else. That way they can’t goof things up on accident.

    2. I have a Macbook air and am ready after a few months, to get rid of it.
      After using a Dell with Microsoft photo gallery that allowed me to share pics, Google search, and emails, I find the Mac impossible to learn, it seems it requires a whole lot of setting up which I cannot understand. Today I imported a couple of photos from my little camera, I was unable to locate them, let alone share them. After struggling for about an hour to find them I finally decided I had to change it for something easier.

  3. Ricky Buchanan’s wonderful “AT Mac” blog has a great post about using Parental Controls to simplify the Mac interface:


    The DreamScreen and Lighthouse SQ7 also have potential for elders:


    Don’t forget that most elders also have reduced dexterity…on the other hand, so do a lot of RSI-affected teenagers, so with luck input device design will start being more responsive to the way human hands actually work (touch screens are not always the answer).

  4. Just wanted to comment on the OLPC (since I have one): The keyboard is designed to be rugged, and to be usable by small hands. It succeeds in these areas. However it is _horrible_ for anyone with normal sized hands, and has one of the worst ‘key feels’ out there. (Rubber bumps. That’s all I have to say.)

    It is a usable keyboard, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

    The display, on the other hand, is absolutely amazing (especially under strong lighting, which most LCDs fail at) with the one cravat that it creates a slight moire pattern when the backlight is on.

    It’s usable as an internet station, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone’s grandma, both for the keyboard, and just because of the total size of the device: It is small, and designed for little hands with sharp eyes. Bigger hands will have trouble, and not-so-sharp eyes may have trouble with parts of it.

    My recommendation would be either a Mac Mini or a similar small format PC. The Mini I would lock down using the parental controls, a PC I’d look for a Linux distro with a ‘kisok’ mode.

  5. For a Mac, you can make a new user and enable Parental Control for that user.
    Set the user to use Simple Finder.
    Then check ‘Only allow selected applications’
    Check off the desired apps (email, browser, text editor, games, etc)

    Now set that as the default user, and the Mac shoud do what you’re looking for. You can get an older iMac for pretty cheap that would handle all this easily.

  6. My mother isnt interested learning how to use email and uses the telephone for regular contact with family. But I thought it might be nice set something up for her to see photos. Looked around for an easy-to-use PC but couldnt find anything. Instead bought a large 22″ screen (easy on the eyes) and attached an eeePC box to the back of it. Wrote a couple of custom scripts to check an email address retrieve them and then add any attached photos to the screen saver which runs constantly. The eeePC even shuts down at night and starts up automatically (bios timer) which saves on power. So Mum has to do absolutely nothing and her family can send her photos as easy as emailing them to an address. While not a solution for everyone my Mother loves it. If only the digital frame builders included this sort of functionality in a decent sized frame (22″ please, 8″ is rubbish) then this sort of customised solution wouldn’t be necessary.

  7. I would buy a netbook (or something with a larger screen) and install gOS on it. gOS is an (I believe) Ubuntu derivative that is very easy to use.

    Another option is Mint Linux.

  8. Nettop, such as Eee box or similar is the way to go. Maybe see if you can get one with a Quick boot or XMB a la HP and Sony Vaio? Usually these start up instead of the actual OS and have very few options (email, videos, music). There is also a program which I can’t recall the name of that is designed for netbooks and boots up the web browser only.

  9. My dad, 82, has a mailbug, and they’ve paid $10/mo for years for the dial up service. Now understand that there is a computer in the same room that my mom uses, but its useless to my dad. Basically I would love a Linux distro that just boots to a simple email program and makes it hard to exit, screw up, etc.

  10. I’m surprised no one mentioned Presto from HP. When my grandmother’s eye sight started to fail and email got too hard, my Dad bought her a Presto. She gets pictures from her grandchildren, and messages from her few friends on email. I was so impressed I got one for my in laws, who have never used a computer. http://www.presto.com While this is not a computer per se, it is a great, cost-effective way for non-technical people to stay in close contact with the digital generations.

  11. Claire Strodtbeck

    I’m not one to recommend Apple to anyone, but a used Mac with the aforementioned limited account configuration would be perfect for someone who doesn’t even want to know their computer can do anything but email, web browsing, and word processing.

    My 733MHz PowerMac G4 ran Leopard beautifully (I’ve since upgraded with a Sonnet 1.7GHz G4). If you’re fine running Tiger, I found it snappy enough even on a 500MHz iBook G4 – a G4 iMac would be perfect for an older person, since the display is large and very easy to tilt and move around with one hand and very little force.

  12. As Jill mentioned above, Presto is a great solutoin (full-disclosure…I work for Presto!).

    It’s great for those who have trouble getting emails and attached photos on emails. You simple send them an email and it prints it out for them automatically. Hope that helps.

  13. Acer revo is a good budget choice. cheap! Then hook it up to the 40″ LCD panel in the living room… old people can’t see good, don’t you dare give ’em piddly little 19 inch screens to decipher.

  14. I know this is an old blog post. I found this searching for a very simple computer that would just run solitaire for my father in law, who only used a computer for that.

    We just set up a computer for my mother in law. What we did was opened the box before we took it to her and we deleted all the shortcuts off the desktop and task bar except email and Google Chrome. We set Chrome to default to the main Google search page.

    Now when we open it up and set it up at their house, we will just have to help her set up the email account.

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