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How to buy a new PC for your parents

Older computer users have different needs. The big question: Do they actually need a PC at all?

If you're lucky enough to have parents in their 60s, 70s, 80s or beyond, you've probably encountered certain, let's say, challenges with regard to their computer skills.

See if any of this sounds familiar:

"The computer takes 10 minutes to start up."

"The printer won't print"

"I think I have a virus."

"How do I look at the photos you sent me?"

"I can't find the file I downloaded."

Speaking from personal experience, questions and problems like these can be difficult to resolve, especially for parents who live far away. And when you're in charge of tech support, you might think the easiest answer is a new PC. After all, that will at least solve the performance problems and virus infections, right?

Meanwhile, set-in-their-ways parents might be clinging to seriously old and/or outdated hardware that just plain needs replacing. 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 a suggestion, and it requires some explaining.

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, and modern PCs are still fraught with the kinds of issues identified above.

Consider what most retirees need or want from a computer. Email. Web access. Facebook and YouTube. Maybe a simple word processor.

You know what they don't need? Drivers. Viruses and malware. Blue Screens of Death. And all the little idiosyncrasies that plague Windows users, novice and expert alike. (Examples? The sign-in screen. File associations. Windows updates. And don't get me started on Settings vs. Control Panel.)

OK, boot times tend to be shorter, especially if the system has a solid-state drive instead of a hard drive, but Windows always gets slower over time. Always.

All this adds up to my recommendation: Instead of steering your parents to a new PC, steer them to a Chromebook or a tablet and keyboard.

The Chromebook option

Just as Chromebooks make great PCs for students, so do they work well for seniors. (Not school seniors, mind you, but the elder kind.) These are the advantages:

  • They boot quickly.
  • They're effectively impervious to viruses (though not phishing, so make sure Mom and Dad know to watch for).
  • Generally speaking, they're very 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.
  • 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 allow for USB connections, but it does support wireless printing -- provided your printer supports Google Cloud Print. And even if it does, 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 non-intuitive, and likely to cause confusion. But if your folks already use, say, Outlook or Yahoo, it's a simple matter to connect to those services.

The tablet option

My favorite choice for parents: an iPad and a keyboard. Could be a keyboard case or, arguably better, a full-size Bluetooth keyboard that just lives on the desk. Here's what I love about this solution:

  • Zero boot time. Press a button, it's on.
  • Likewise, almost zero load time for apps. Modern tablets are extremely fast.
  • Effectively impervious to viruses (but same warning as above regarding phishing).
  • iOS is really, really easy to learn and use. Tap Mail, you've got mail. Tap Facebook, you've got Facebook.
  • 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.

And the disadvantages:

  • iPads are expensive, especially if you opt for a 12.9-inch iPad Pro. (I'd argue that the 9.7-inch model is more than sufficient for everything except extensive word processing.)
  • Keyboard not included.
  • Same as above regarding printing: You basically 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.

Why not an Android tablet and keyboard? Absolutely, that's an option as well. You can pick up something like a Samsung Galaxy Tab S2 ( $348 at Walmart) for around $300, or a Lenovo Tab 2 A10 for just $150. I do think the Android learning curve is a bit steeper, the OS a little less elegant -- and there's still the risk of viruses, though much less than with Windows. Plus, printing can still be a challenge.

Why not a Windows tablet like the Surface? Because that's still essentially a Windows laptop, with all the same Windows issues to deal with. I'm not saying it's a bad product, merely that the senior-friendly advantages of a tablet lie in an Android model or iPad.

And that's my take. If you have a better way to resolve the PC-for-parents conundrum, share it in the comments!