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Can a Mac make me a hero to my in-laws?

Last week, CNET News' Daniel Terdiman wrote about getting his in-laws online for the first time. Now he's turning to Apple to make it easier.

After a less-than-stellar first attempt to get his in-laws online for the first time from the off-the-grid, 4,000-feet elevation house they've lived in for more than 30 years, CNET News reporter Daniel Terdiman and his wife are returning to the mountain this week with a new Mac to help make the process better. And what could be better than a great view to go with your Internet? Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

Could a Mac be what it takes to get my in-laws to love the Internet?

Last week, I had the very rare opportunity to help get my in-laws, who live off-the-grid at 4,000 feet in the middle of a national forest, online for the first time and, my wife and I hoped, to instantly end more than 30 years of their being cut off from media innovations.

As I wrote afterward though, their initial experience was quite a bit less than stellar, mainly due to the vagaries of navigating what seem like fairly restrictive download threshold policies implemented by their satellite Internet vendor, HughesNet: After hitting the download limit of 200 megabytes in one day--which I'm certain we actually didn't hit--the connection slowed to less than 2Kbps.

But there were other problems, too, that had to do with what it takes to make a 2-year-old Windows machine that's never been online safe for play dates with the Internet. And for my in-laws, who had no experience whatsoever with downloading security updates, and XP Service Packs, and virus protection, I can only imagine how daunting it must have seemed. Even for me, a longtime computer user--albeit a Mac loyalist--it was confusing.

While my wife and I were on hand the day Hughes came to install the satellite, we had only that one day up on the mountain to help get things set up properly. But given that we ended up wasting hours trying, and failing, to download those security patches and virus protection packages, we weren't able to get much done before we had to leave. We couldn't even get their new Gmail account working.

But we have a plan. And it involves a computer that simply doesn't require security download after service pack download to be safe online.

Monday, a new (well, refurbished) MacBook arrived at my house, and over the next couple of days, my wife and I are going to load that computer up with as much necessary and fun software (starting with OpenOffice) as we can find, and then cart it back up to her parents' with us later this week. In addition, we're going to bring them an Airport Extreme so that they can use that new computer wirelessly all around their mountaintop property.

After all, while they may not understand the sense of freedom that a wireless Internet connection provides, we hope they will soon realize that sitting on their deck, looking down over the treetops at their stellar view, is a much better place to be online than stuffed into the tiny windowless office where they have their PC.

As for Hughes, after I contacted them last week to comment for the story I was writing, I was told by someone in their public relations department that the company would do what it can to help my in-laws. I'm not entirely sure what that means, but sure enough, the in-laws did get a phone call from someone in tech support, offering to work through any residual issues.

Originally, that call was supposed to happen Monday, but I suggested that they postpone it until Thursday when my wife and I will be back up on the mountain, so that we can help diagnose the problem and describe it to the technician.

That's important since, as I wrote previously, my in-laws don't have anything to compare their online experience to, and therefore would likely have trouble describing exactly what the problem is. But I can: Even before being booted to under-2Kbps speeds for supposedly going over the 200MB download threshold their account allows, the top speed they were getting on their 1.0 Mbps account was about 13 Kbps. Hardly high speed. So, we'll have to see if Hughes can do something about that.

Still, on Sunday, as my wife and I were hanging out, spending a little time online, an e-mail popped into her in-box. It was from the in-laws. And for us, having spent the last nine years working hard to get them to embrace the Internet as a way to stay in touch with us--and the rest of her family--it was a rather big moment.

If you have suggestions of important software that we should put on their new Mac--especially if it's free--please send them to me by Tuesday evening.

On June 22, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and South and North Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.