Technology changes fast, but what seniors need from a tablet is pretty constant. This guide will help you choose one!
A couple of weeks ago I was at a friend’s house and we were reminiscing about old times. She pulled out a family album and we started laughing and joking at the old photos – especially the clothes and hairstyles from the 80s!
Along came her 3-year-old who seemed interested. He put his finger on a photo and started swiping to the right. When nothing happened he seemed confused.
“He’s so used to using an iPad,” his mother explained.
I was astonished – for different reasons. He thought he could ‘swipe’ and see different images! It was unimaginable to me that the child had never come across a printed photo before, but I was also amazed that he had jumped right into the digital world at such a young age.
I had to learn about computers when I was an adult, and that made everything so much harder. And it isn’t going to get easier – the pace of change is so fast and there are new companies, new devices, new apps all the time. Five of the top ten companies in the world didn’t exist a decade ago! Now Facebook, Google and the rest are an important part of everyday life.
Just this week, my brother contacted me with the idea of getting our mother a tablet for her birthday. She’s nearly 60 – what’s the best tablet for someone of her age? I didn’t know, and I didn’t find a really good, up to date website to help me answer that question.
So I thought I’d better write one!
What is a Tablet and What Can It Do For Me?
Imagine four computers spread out on a table, as in the picture. Behind the large one (at the back) is a large box, out of which come lots of cables connecting the box to a large screen (e.g. 22 inches) and a keyboard. That’s called a desktop computer and you can do pretty much anything with it – surf the net, do your finances, play Minesweeper, write a book. I’m using one now to write this article.
On the far left of the table is a little smartphone, e.g. an iPhone. It’s four or five inches long. You can do some things on it, like surf the net (but with everything squashed up or things missing), get an overview of your finances (though the screen is too small to do serious work), or send a short email. The main advantage here is that it’s light, portable, and you can make phone calls. (If you’ve heard of phablets, they are out-sized smartphones).
On the right is a laptop or notebook – that’s a mobile version of a desktop, with a built-in keyboard so you can work on the train or in a hotel room. But it’s cumbersome and expensive compared to an equally-powerful desktop.
They all have advantages and disadvantages, but in this article the focus is on tablets (shown between the phone and desktop).
The essence of a tablet is that it’s a thin rectangle with a touchscreen and a small number of physical buttons. It’s between 7 and 10 inches long, normally. It doesn’t come with a keyboard or mouse – you touch the screen to type or run software. That makes it portable, like a phone. You can read the news on a tablet in the kitchen while making a cup of coffee, then stroll onto your porch and sit down – all without worrying about cables or wires.
And you can buy a keyboard that will work with a tablet, so if you don’t like typing on the screen, you can still send emails and do some writing on a tablet. You can also get special pens, called a stylus, that let you tap on the screen – that can be very convenient. But once you get the hang of tapping on the screen, it’s really quite easy.
For most senior citizens, the most important uses of a computer are
- reading and sending emails
- watching movies or Youtube videos
- catching up with friends and family on Facebook
- reading books
- checking things on Google
- reading websites
Tablets are PERFECT for all of these. The proof? My mother never puts hers down!
In this guide we’ll review the pros and cons of a few tablets specially designed for seniors, and a few mass-market tablets that are also perfect for elderly and retired people.
1. AARP RealPad
If the American Association of Retired Persons made a tablet, you’d think it would be pretty suitable for retired people. Wouldn’t you?
Well, they did make a tablet, and they did a pretty good job of it. It is – in theory – ready to go right out of the box – no need to mess about updating software or going through complicated loading screens. You do need a wifi connection though, and you do need to set up a Google account (Google make the Android software that powers the tablet). So the annoying parts of setting up software are kept to a minimum, but they are still present. That’s a shame, but all tablets are like that.
The icons (the little pictures that show you your choices) are large, so they’ll be easier to see.
It weighs 14oz, which is quite light for a tablet – that’s important because you if tablets are too heavy you’ll need to put them down and rest your arms all the time. (By the way, whichever tablet you buy, you should get a stand to go with it.)
It has a good camera so you can take photos and do video chats with your family.
Is it easy to use? Yes, and the support is first class. It comes with step-by-step videos – you can tap on the video and learn how to do various things (e.g. How to send an email). They really tried to make this tablet easy for beginners.
But if you get stuck, there’s a 24/7 hotline you can call and they will help you through whatever problem you are having.
It also has the normal features of a tablet, like a headphones jack so you can put headphones on and turn the volume up without disturbing other people, and it has Bluetooth (a local wireless network like Wifi), so you can add a keyboard if you want.
The AARP RealPad has lots of useful apps installed already – everything from email apps to YouTube to Facebook – even checkers, chess, and Mahjong. There are language learning apps and brain-training games.
As you get more confident with it, it will allow you to do more and more things. As AARP’s Anne Marie Kilgallon told Forbes, “We really had to play a fine balance of making sure it was simple and easy to use out of the box and making sure that the tablet could grow with them [seniors] as they got better at using it.”
- You need wifi
- If you know a bit about computers, you might find some of the ‘helpful’ pop-ups annoying
Summary – If you find technology overwhelming or scary, this tablet is the answer.
2. Amazon Fire HD
This is a ‘normal’ tablet, meaning it isn’t specifically designed for older people. It comes in an 8-inch version or a 10-inch version. Either one is fine – choose the larger one if you will watch lots of videos, and the smaller one if you want something lighter and more portable.
They are made by Amazon, and they integrate very well with other services offered by Amazon, the world’s largest shop. For example, it’s really easy to watch the many movies or listen to the countless songs that Amazon have in their collection.
They’re quite powerful, too, and not very expensive. The first point might not seem too relevant if you’re just using a tablet for Facebook. But buying a powerful tablet today means it will still be useful for a few years. One of the problems in the world of technology is that what’s good today is obsolete tomorrow. With one of these Amazon tablets, you’re good for at least 3 years.
The screen is very nice, and you get quite good battery life. It should work for 8 hours before you have to plug it in again.
An Amazon tablet is a great option if reading books is important to you – the Amazon shop has more than a million books and it’s easy to buy them and read them. You can also get audiobooks.
One of the outstanding features of the Amazon tablets – and really the main reason they are in this list – is the customer support. There’s a button called ‘Mayday’ – pressing it connects you to a customer service operator. They can help you with any problem you have – they can even look at your screen (if you want) to show you exactly what to do next.
For example, if the customer service operator tells you to ‘hit the back button’ and you don’t understand what he means, he can draw a line on your screen and show you exactly what he means! It’s really super.
- It doesn’t have as many extra apps as an iPad.
3. An Apple iPad
Apple tablets are quite suitable for seniors because they are well designed and it’s hard to make a mess of the software.
What you get is a light, balanced tablet that is easy to hold, and an attractive screen. As always, you touch the screen to do what you want, and then there is one physical button next to the screen – pressing this takes you back to the main menu. So if you get stuck or lost, you just press the button and go ‘home’.
One problem with some tablets is that you can make all kinds of changes. But making those changes is a risk – you could accidentally break something. Apple don’t let you make many changes, and certainly don’t let you delete the apps they give you. That’s annoying, but also reassuring. It’s very hard to do something that ruins an Apple tablet.
Perhaps the main reason to buy an Apple product is the millions and millions of apps they have – many are exclusive to Apple. Whatever you can think of – there’s an app for that. You might not find the same app on the other tablets. (Though the major apps like Google, Chrome, Facebook, etc are universal.)
So in many ways, they are great for seniors. They don’t have built-in customer support, but if there’s an Apple Store near you, the employees are normally friendly and happy to help.
Apple is also really good at making their devices friendly for people with bad vision or hearing. There are features on the tablet that will make text bigger, read out what’s on the screen, and you can even just talk to the tablet and tell it what you want!
As good as those features are, if you don’t know anything about computers you’ll have to ask someone else to set them up for you. It’s not hard to do it if you have a big of computer knowledge, but it’s not as easy as just turning on the AARP.
Oh, one other great feature of the Apple devices is a program called Facetime. Getting it started is easier than making a phone call. If your family also have an Apple device – phone, tablet, it doesn’t matter – you can launch FaceTime and instantly do a video chat with them. No complicated software, no passwords, just right down to business! That’s a winning feature.
Apple iPads come in different sizes – there’s a Mini version which is just under 8 inches, and one called the iPad Air 2 which is 9.4 inches. They’re both really good, but they are expected to release the iPad Air 3 a few weeks after I will publish this article. You might want to buy that one, or it might push down the price of the Air 2, making it even more attractive.
Downsides: a bit expensive
4. The Microsoft Surface Pro 4
I’ve written a lot about the Surface Pro 4 recently – it’s the best tablet for business people, for students, and pretty much the best for anyone.
The downside is the price – it’s one of the most expensive tablets.
The benefit for seniors, though, is that it is a tablet that is as powerful and flexible as a normal desktop computer. If you already know how to use a Windows computer – you can use this!
Buy the keyboard (that doubles as a screen cover) and you can use it like a desktop. Detach the keyboard and you can use it like a tablet.
For that reason, I’m including it in this list. Plus it’s so powerful that you really can use it to do ANYTHING.
Be warned though, it’s quite large – over 12 inches, so it’s not like holding a book in your hand.
Its size will be a boon for some people and a bust for others, but the only real downside is the price.
Summary – So What Did I Buy For My Mother?
If you’re the inquisitive (nosy?) type you might be wondering what my brother and I chose for my mother. Well, we couldn’t agree, so we ended up buying her both an Amazon Fire and an iPad Mini. She loves them both! She often does FaceTime chats with me on her iPad, while she watches TV shows on the Amazon.
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