NWR Ask the wine-pages encyclopedia: computers for tech-illiterate

Has anyone had any experience of buying a computer for computer-illiterate old relations?

They can manage Gmail and some web-browsing, but not really much more.

I'm wondering if a Chromebook might be the best option, not least as - from what I read - they're largely self maintaining when it comes to updates & security. They also seem to be quite a bit cheaper than Windows equivalents.

Pretty sure a Chromebook would drive me mad, but it's not for me.

Anyone any experience of a similar situation, and any suggestions?

Tom Cannavan


I resisted Chromebook and similar because I was scared-off by the idea of having to be connected to the Internet to do anything meaningful, but last year I basically moved all of my files onto google drive, so I have virtually nothing on my hard disk and work purely from google drive, which AFAIK is basically as if I am using a Chromebook in terms of storage and how and when files are accessed (there are local copies you can work on if not connected, and these simply synch next time you are connected). Of course I am running mostly my own windows applications on my machines rather than cloud-based apps, which would be a big difference. It's been a boon really, and I am slowly coming round to the idea of cloud-based everything, making the idea of Chromebook more appealing. As far as I know it is also very fast and simple, and the O/S and security does update itself without bothering the user, because the 'desktop' is actually in the cloud too, not on individual machines.
Not recently, given both parents deceased however the biggest issue was avoiding scammers as we had no control over the old man's inbox and it can be very hard to educate them in how to avoid cons. The biggest issue with Chromebook (other than the above) is the size of screen and keyboard - how is the eyesight and dexterity of the digits? The other possible solution might be a tablet - the iPad is somewhat more expensive and maybe difficult to understand initially, but definitely not as prone to update issues generally. If the user can adapt to the touch screen there is also the benefit of facetime - though if that means regular 30 minute chats about the iPad you might regret it.

Tom Cannavan

In the latter years of their lives it was a real struggle to buy suitable technologies for my parents, both in their 80s. TV sets and digi-boxes, both driven by menus and with streamings services on tap, etc. are wonderful, but absolutely bewlidering when it was time to replace their set. Same went for a mobile phone and basically any tech. I remember when buying them a mobile I did consider some models that were specifically designed for older people, with big buttons and really stripped down to basically making calls with no screen as such, but in the end compromised on a basic Nokia that wasn't too fancy. Maybe there is something out there specifically for silver surfers?

The fact that nothing comes with a printed manual these days is another big problem.
The tablet may well be worth a look. Lenovo Yoga ones in our family - you may just need to set up the email accounts etc. Father also pecks at a Tesco tablet though I think they are not offering those anymore.
I think Peter makes about all the relevant points here. I would agree that a Chromebook or iPad Pro with a keyboard is probably the best way to go for someone who needs straightforward connectivity. Vision and dexterity is of course the next problem which is why I suggest the ipad pro - it's a big device.

Laptops are all well and good but they easily become overwhelming and it's significantly easier to create problems. I too would caution encouraging internet banking and such things if you're not in a position for education on security to be retained.

If price is an issue, a chromebook is a pretty easy choice in my opinion.
My Mum and Dad sound like they have very similar competences to your relatives, Andrew. But I think it all comes down to very specific needs of the persons concerned. From having seen my parents try to interact with my phone to view pictures, I am not at all convinced that anything having only a touchscreen would work. It turned out that weight was also a big issue as my Mum is quite weak now, and it must be possible to pass it across the room. But having a large screen size is not important for them. I considered a Chromebook, but in the end my Dad insisted on Windows 10, as he though he was already used to 7. I was not convinced, as really all he uses is the browser, but that is what we got a few weeks ago (Aldi special), and we seem to be alright so far.

I personally think it is good to have a fast system. My parents insisted that speed was not important, but I think that faster computers are easier to use because you get more rapid feedback on what you do. You can see better when you have done the right thing, and if you get an error message you know which action it was related to. Sadly however for us, in practice smaller and lighter computers tend to be less powerful.

Another serious option for someone who only uses a browser is Linux. Ubuntu is good in that it does not, like Windows, seem to pop up "helpful" messages and alerts all over the place, which my Dad finds very disconcerting. It just sits there and waits to be told what to do.

Also I think it is important for an older relative to get a system that you can easily support, if you are willing to do that. For me, remote access to my Dad's machine is incredibly useful, as often he does not have the vocabulary to describe what is happening. TightVNC worked a treat with his Windows 7, but I have yet to get it working with 10. If you cannot get remote access, you should ideally be familiar with the system yourself.

Good luck Andrew! It's not easy buying a computer for someone else.
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My mother did well initially with a Mac, but eventually gave up at the point when she couldn't easily sit down and use a desktop - I did suggest moving to a laptop or tablet but the idea of learning a new machine with newer OS put her off; to be honest I think it was more a lack of confidence than anything else.
Tom's comments about getting technology for parents resonate with me - my mother had a lot of problems with her new TV and its menus, and I had to check the setup and arrange that she could manage with just the on/off and 1,2,3,4 buttons (I don't think she ever sampled any of the other channels...)
One of the problems she suffered from was that with her reduced mobility she would hold the remote in one hand and press with the fingers of her other hand, which seemed to significantly increase the probability of pressing a button more than once (a problem she had with the burglar alarm as well until they provided a little swipe device); when there were only single digit channels that was no problem but moving to digital ...

I actually have problems myself with menus at times - both in my house and at my mothers the arrangement means we have to use rather smaller screens than seem to be normal these days, so I need to get relatively close in order to get the menu legible!
Thanks everyone. That's very useful.

Tablets have been ruled out: partly because of the issue Steve mentions of using touch screens, but mainly because they're terrified they'll sit on it: the number of reading glasses that get destroyed that way is remarkable ...

I've ruled out Apple and Linux (although I understand the chromebook *is* Linux) because I'm not familiar with them, and will have to support them.

I agree about menus on everything. Particularly TVs and their like, where the remotes are so often unresponsive that I often end up going past what I wanted.
By the way, people may not know, but one can plug a proper keyboard into an iPad/iPhone if you have the USB adapter.

Surely the sitting problem can be addressed through use of a rugged case?

I also wonder how well a Chromebook would take to being sat on....
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The free version of TeamViewer works really well, and has proved invaluable to me on a few occasions. I have it running on phone, laptop and two desktops.
Thanks Tom. I'll have another go with VNC, which in the past I have found to be simple and reliable - sonething that works when fancier solutions fail - but might try that if need be
Please let use know what you eventually go for Andrew, and how it works out. If Windows 10 is an option (and by elimination it sounds like it probably is) I could update you on how myparents are getting on with it.

So far, despite some initial issues (including a big Windiws uograde) they can use it for what they need - gmail, online shopping on familiar sites etc. As they needed it just before we were leaving for a trip abroad, I set the machine up, posted it to them, and have only supported them by telephone so far.
TO add the the chorus - in this position, I would only consider iPad or - if pushed - Mac. The ipad pro with the keyboard is excellent. Relatives who never got on with computers at all tell me how easy the ipad is to use. My wife’s 94 year old grandfather facetimes and browses happily - in spite of never having worked with a keyboard in his life.

Much as I am emotionally wildly in favour of nerdier alternatives like the chromebook or a laptop running ubuntu - the expectations that you will be able to support them, and the anger that gets directed *at you* when things don’t work precisely as imagined, always pushes me back to apple. As an additional benefit - they seem to really take privacy seriously, which is probably even more necessary for technological neophytes taking their first steps on the internet.
Had a look at a few chromebooks, but was disappointed by the apparent build quality of them. I guess that most manufacturers regard them as unlikely to be used for anything other than as second computers for use on the move, which would also explain why they were all pretty small.

And the "small" turned out to be an issue. Having been told they just wanted a cheap laptop, it turns out that laptop screens aren't good for old eyes.

On a wander round John Lewis, a HP all-in-one iMac-alike (Windows10), proved to be very attractive to them (think cartoon character with eyes out on stalks on spotting a true love), and I couldn't sway their attention from it. I have to admit that the screen does look particularly good, and it was a breeze to set up. For me, 4 USB ports seemed a bit stingy when two are taken up by mouse & keyboard (Costco had an almost identical HP, but with wireless mouse & keyboard, for £50 extra), but that's not an issue in this case.
If only my parents were able/willing to have a desktop machine with a mouse, decent keyboard and screen, I am sure they would find it easier to use than their cheap laptop. But they insisted on having something to use while plonked in their comfy chairs. Fair enough I suppose - they are obviously not as mobile as your relatives, Andrew, if you went to John Lewis together.

There were problems with Tight VNC, but TeamViewer looks like should fit the bill from trials at home with my computer. Needs to wait until my next visit to them though, as after half an hour on the phone I failed to talk my Dad through downloading it and installing it. Managed to get as far as the installation dialog, which required clicking on ONE button, but when he tried "nothing happened".

Tom Cannavan

One of the things I do not miss at all about supporting IT is crawling around on the floor checking/plugging in cables.

My stint was telephone based whilst working in MIS at the University of Glasgow, where all the programmers/analysts of my grade had to do a half-day per fortnight to support the one full-time guy. So no crawling under desks, but how I dreaded that half-day coming around...
You were lucky!!!

In the days before electronic delivery of reports to branches, they were printed and despatched by van and aeroplane (to London, Channel Islands and Highlands and Islands) so imagine trying to fix the broken main accounting program at 2am with an operator phoning every 10 minutes telling you the plane is waiting on the runway.
And once on the way in to a callout I was stopped by the police for speeding and when asked where I was going, in such a hurry, in the middle of the night, I responded to him by asking if he wanted to get money out of Cashline tomorrow then he better get a move on. He told me I better get going then, but keep to the speed limit. :p:cool: