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Here's the best computer for seniors and elderly parents

Surprise: It might be something other than a computer.

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Alistair Berg/Getty Images

What's the best computer for an older person, someone in their 60s, 70s, 80s or beyond? That's a tricky question, and it's not meant to suggest that elderly users are somehow limited in their skills or capabilities. These generations simply didn't have the benefit of growing up surrounded by screens, and they may have specific challenges associated with age.

I'm seeing this firsthand with my own parents, who are both in their 80s. Although they've owned and used computers for decades, modern technology seems to cause them more and more confusion. That's frustrating for them, of course, but also for me, because it's difficult to offer assistance from afar.

Read more: This is hands-down the easiest way to remotely fix a Mac during quarantine

So let's say you've got a parent struggling with an older computer, one that "takes 10 minutes to start up" or won't connect to the printer or maybe even has a virus. Or perhaps Mom or Dad never really bothered with a computer, but now wants to look at grandkid photos, participate in family Zoom meetings and all that. Whatever the situation, you may find yourself wondering what's the best PC to buy for aging parents, or to recommend they buy for themselves.

I have some ideas.

The best PC for older parents: Something other than a PC?

My advice: Forget the traditional Windows-powered desktop or laptop. It's overkill, especially considering the relatively modest needs of older users. Indeed, most retirees want things like email, Facebook, basic web browsing and -- if they're anything like my dad -- solitaire. Maybe throw a simple word processor into that mix.

You know what they don't need? Drivers. Viruses and spyware. Blue screens of death, which are rare but still happen. And all the little idiosyncrasies that can cause confusion, like the sign-in screen, Windows updates and Microsoft's utterly perplexing OneDrive integration. 

Meanwhile, if you choose a system with a traditional hard drive rather than a solid-state drive, Windows will still be pretty slow to boot and shut down.

Read more: Tired of dealing with a slow PC? Here are 6 steps to fix it yourself

All this adds up to my overwhelming preference: Instead of steering your parents to a new PC, steer them to a Chromebook or tablet-keyboard combo.

The Chromebook option

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The Asus Chromebook Flip is one example of a computer that might be ideal for aging parents.

Joshua Goldman/CNET

Just as Chromebooks can be great systems for students, so do they work well for seniors. (Not school seniors, mind you; the elder kind.) These are some of the advantages:

  • They boot quickly.
  • They're effectively impervious to viruses (though not phishing, so make sure Mom and Dad know what to watch for).
  • Generally speaking, they're inexpensive -- usually anywhere from $200-$400 depending on size and features.
  • Voice commands: You can say "OK, Google" from the launcher to invoke Google's voice-powered assistant -- the same one that might already be familiar from a phone and/or smart speaker.
  • Tight integration with everything Google: Gmail, Drive, Calendar and so on. That means any document created in, say, Google Docs is automatically archived to Drive. It's like full-time, automatic backup for nearly everything the user does.

Now for the downsides:

  • There's a bit of a learning curve, especially if Mom and Dad are already accustomed to Windows.
  • Printing can be a challenge. Chrome OS doesn't support nearly as many printer models as Windows does. An for those it does support, setup isn't always easy. Here's how to print from a Chromebook.
  • Gmail is really a terrible mail client, at least when accessed via the Web (which is how it's done on a Chromebook). It's ugly and nonintuitive, and likely to cause confusion. But if your folks already use, say, Outlook or Yahoo, it's a simple matter to access those services in the Chrome browser.

Need help choosing a model? Here's the CNET roundup of the best Chromebooks for 2020.

Read more: The best cheap laptops and Chromebooks for 2020  

The iPad option

My hands-down favorite choice for parents? An iPad ($356 at eBay) and keyboard. Here's why:

  • Zero boot time. Press a button, it's on.
  • Likewise, almost zero load time for apps. Modern iPads are extremely fast.
  • Effectively impervious to viruses (but phishing is still a danger, same as with Chromebooks).
  • iPadOS is easy to learn and use. Tap Mail, you've got mail. Tap Facebook, you've got Facebook. In fact, if you're buying for someone who's already comfortable with an iPhone, they'll be able to learn the basics of an iPad in minutes.
  • Speaking of email, I'd argue that Apple's Mail app on an iPad is arguably the single best email client, period. It's clean, super-easy to navigate and formats attached photos beautifully.
  • Word processing is freely available via Apple Pages and even Word for iPad.

There are some disadvantages, of course:

  • iPads can be expensive, especially if you opt for a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. (I'd argue that the current, entry-level iPad 10.2 model is sufficient for just about everything, though definitely a little cramped for word processing.)
  • Neither a keyboard nor the Apple Pencil is included.
  • While it's very similar to iPhone, some of the more advanced features can be triggered accidentally, and confusing to deactivate.
  • Printing can be a challenge; you need an AirPrint-compatible printer. But assuming both iPad and printer are on the same Wi-Fi network, there's no setup required; you just tap Print and you're good to go.

My top pick for parents is the iPad 10.2, which starts at $329 but occasionally goes on sale for less at stores like Amazon, Best Buy and Target. (At this writing, for example, it's currently $279 at Amazon.)  

As for the keyboard, one option is a keyboard case, one that will prop up the iPad at a comfortable viewing angle (much like a laptop) while affording some protection and portability. This MMK iPad Keyboard Case, for example, is available in several different colors and sells for about $37.   

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An inexpensive keyboard case like this offers protection, portability... and a keyboard!

MMK

That's just one possibility of many; an iPad can work with just about any Bluetooth keyboard. Mom or Dad might be more comfortable with something a bit wider to better accommodate touch-typing. (Any keyboard sized to match the iPad 10.2 will be a little narrower than standard.)

iPad alternatives: Fire tablets and more

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The Amazon Fire HD 10

David Carnoy/CNET

Why not a non-Apple tablet and keyboard? Absolutely, that's an option as well. You can pick up something like an Amazon Fire HD 10 for $150 -- less if you wait for one of Amazon's sales, which happen every 6-8 weeks or so.

The newest Fire HD 10 tablet also basically doubles as an Echo Show display when docked in the optional Show Mode Charging Dock, which could be a nice bonus for some folks 

However, the Fire interface isn't quite as user-friendly as the iPad's, and while Amazon's Appstore has plenty of popular apps, it's neither as extensive as Apple's iPad offerings, nor that of Google's Android. (The FireOS is an Android variant, but it's not identical, so regular Android apps won't run on Amazon tablets.)

Why not a Windows tablet like the Surface Go 2? It will definitely boot and shut down faster thanks to its solid-state storage, but it's still basically a Windows laptop, with few of the senior-friendly amenities of a tablet. I'm not saying it's a bad product, merely that I think older users are better served elsewhere.

So, bottom line, my personal recommendation is a Chromebook or an iPad. If you've come up with a different PC-for-parents solution, share it in the comments!

This article was published previously and is updated periodically.