by Harry Guinness on
If you’ve any interest in writing nicely then a $1 ballpoint won’t cut it, you need to look at a fountain pen.
Trying to find a way to introduce someone to the internet and the digital world when it’s foreign to them (and they don’t like computers) is tough. But you can make that task easier by picking the right hardware.
Recently I’ve been reflecting on the ways in which I’ve done just that for two such people, an older member of my family and a close friend. Both are in their early 80s, and both have gone out of their way to avoid any kind of technology more complex than a flip-open cell phone. Please believe me when I say I have no wish to disparage these people or anyone like them: they’re intelligent, thoughtful folks who simply lack the experience with computers and mobile tech that we sometimes take for granted.
That gap in experience and expectation can make it frustrating to teach someone how to use technology that’s been building on itself for decades—what seems natural and even intuitive to us might not be so intuitive to them, thanks to lack of experience. Selecting the right tools is essential to making that learning process easier, and making sure that the recipient doesn’t give up.
A tablet is a natural form factor for a technological beginner. A big touchscreen makes the primary interaction method obvious and immediate, putting everything right in front of the user and generally including text labels. There are some elements of common mobile interfaces that aren’t entirely intuitive, like the notification drawer or switching between tasks without going back to the homescreen, but a big, finger-friendly interface (and importantly, one that’s much easier to read than a smartphone) helps immensely.
Though I’m personally more comfortable with Android, I have no reservations recommending Apple hardware in this case. Android tablets are more complex, with more things that can go wrong… and as of late, there haven’t been a whole lot of high-quality options on the market anyway. Apple’s iPads, while more expensive than some of the Android alternatives, benefit from a simpler and more streamlined interface. The single home button alone (as opposed to three on-screen buttons that can get mixed up with the app that’s currently running) is a huge improvement in terms of simplicity.
The iPad also has a more robust selection of apps in general, and tablet-tuned apps in particular. That’s a desirable feature if you expect the recipient to grow in their understanding of basic tech principles. Even so, there’s not a whole lot that a beginner can do to an iPad in terms of software that will irreversibly mess it up—the odd malicious app and the general danger of the web notwithstanding. Compared to, say, a Microsoft Surface running a full version of Windows, there aren’t many settings or options that one might accidentally apply that will negatively affect its usability.
In the service of simplicity, I recommend getting an LTE-equipped iPad, if you can afford the extra expense and the ongoing data plan. Always having a connection without the need to manually connect to a Wi-Fi network is a huge plus for a new user; the gadget just “has the internet” all the time. An LTE-equipped does run the risk of hitting a data cap if the user gets on a YouTube or Netflix binge, but the built-in data limits and warnings in iOS can be configured to minimize that risk.
If your user’s needs include a more conventional computer experience, one with a full keyboard and a dedicated full-power web browser, I recommend getting a small desktop running Google’s ChromeOS. Why a desktop? If you don’t need the portability of a laptop (and beginner users generally rely on this new tech so infrequently that they don’t), then the straightforward layout of monitor, keyboard, and mouse is much easier to understand and use than a laptop keyboard and touchpad. The mouse in particular is a big step up versus modern touchpads, which often omit distinct and easy-to-grasp primary and secondary buttons and a visible indicator for a scrolling. If you’re trying to get someone acclimated to a conventional “full-power PC” environment, the desktop is a much more friendly place to learn it.
So why ChromeOS over Windows or macOS? Again, it’s much, much simpler. While Chrome will take a lot more learning than an iPad, it’s more friendly for beginners by an order of magnitude than either of the more mainstream desktop operating systems. With essentially only one primary program, the web browser, beginner users will need to learn only the main interface and a couple of other extras like the search menu and the Settings menu. Many of the most popular “apps” for Chrome are simply shortcuts to web services, and the user’s favorite websites can be turned into shortcuts on the main OS bar with just a couple of clicks. The same features that might make Chrome a deal-breaker for more advanced users are a blessing for someone who’s just starting out.
In terms of management, ChromeOS is a lot more desirable, too. For example, a single setting controls the text size across both websites and the general OS interface—something that’s much less centralized and more confusing on Windows. ChromeOS updates itself quickly and easily, works with either a central and obvious Google account or without any passwords at all in Guest Mode, and can be “powerwashed” in about five minutes if you need to completely reset the software. Google’s own remote desktop client, Chrome Remote Desktop, is easy to install and access if you want to help out from far away.
It doesn’t hurt that Chromebox hardware is pretty cheap; you can find low-end boxes for around $200, which include support for an HDMI monitor, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth. The Asus model I selected can even be mounted to the back of a VESA-compatible monitor for an “all-in-one” form factor. (If you’re willing to spend a little more, iMac-style all-in-one Chrome hardware is also available.) You’ll need a local network, either Wi-Fi or Ethernet, to get them connected. But once that’s done and you’ve spent a few hours familiarizing them with browser basics, the user should be able to handle the rest on their own.
If you’re trying to give someone access to the wider internet and a tablet or a ChromeOS device simply isn’t an option, you can try using a smart TV with its own apps. This isn’t an ideal solution, because smart TVs are almost entirely about content consumption in video and audio form. Trying to get news, weather, et cetera on the platform is less straightforward than doing a simple web search.
But smart TVs do have one thing going for them: they’re TVs. A remote control layout is a lot easier to grasp for some people, even with the whiz-bang interfaces of some modern TV sets. Roku-powered TVs in particular are a good example. With only four directional buttons, a central “OK” button, home and back, and the obvious power and volume controls, it’s easy to get around the super-simple tile-based UI.
For users who primarily want to access the web for video content like YouTube or Netflix, a smart TV combines the maximum amount of accessibility with the minimum amount of adaptation. The hardest part of the acclimation process will be logging in to various services. Smart TVs are also generally updated automatically—usually when the screen isn’t even on—and are more or less impossible to mess up. The big downside versus a tablet or a low-power desktop is that most models can’t be used to access standard websites or social networks… but then that might also be a positive, depending on your situation.
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