September 2015 - CusterAgency

Protecting human assets (Pt. 2): Be wary of computers marketed to seniors

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Part 2 of a 2 Part Series

It’s hard enough for the average user to stay safe online.

For those who don’t fall into the tech-savvy demographic, it can become nightmarish.

In this column, Part 2 of our series on protecting human assets in a technological world, we focus on the elderly. While there are plenty of seniors who are passionate about the newest technology, many are content to minimize or eliminate their use of the Internet. A 2014 survey found that while close to 90 percent of millennials own smartphones, the number drops to under 40 percent for those over age 65.

If you try to persuade an elderly relative into getting more connected with technology, understand that your efforts may be a double-edged sword. While you might feel frustrated that your parents can’t see your latest tweet every 10 seconds, it can be dangerous to throw an inexperienced user into the depths of the technological wasteland without the right equipment. Someone just learning to navigate the Internet is a minnow swimming with sharks. The elderly are high-value targets by scammers for this very reason.

The key to getting seniors connected while keeping them safe is to find a happy medium, a device that allows the new user to experience what technology has to offer without creating frustration or danger.

One option is a type of computer designed for the elderly. Companies such as Telikin and The Wow Computer have popped up recently, selling computers with ultrasimplified user interfaces to get seniors performing basic tasks such as sending emails and browsing the web. Telikin claims it’s “the world’s easiest computer.” The Wow Computer advertises that its product is “so easy to use, you won’t have to ask your children or grandchildren for help.”

But do these products do the job? Are they worth the price?

These computers often come in the form of all-in-one touchscreen units with large-print icons designed to make navigation easy. If you want to send an email, you just push the big button that says “E-Mail.” Press “Search” and the user can open a web browser. It’s all reminiscent of a late-’90s AOL interface. It makes basic tasks effortless while preventing the user from feeling that he or she may break something.

What’s under the hood? As it turns out, these machines are similar and share similar prices. The Telikin Elite II holds an MSRP of $1,249. That’s almost as much as a new i7 iMac. If you’re expecting similar components to the iMac, however, think again. The Telikin Elite II comes equipped with an Intel Celeron processor, a 500GB SATA hard drive and a mere 2GB of RAM.

These are extremely low-budget parts for a 2015 computer. A traditional desktop with these same components sells for around $200 at Wal-Mart.

Perhaps the custom operating system justifies the other $1,049? As it turns out, all these machines run versions of Linux, the free open-source operating system used on everything from desktops to DVRs. The manufacturer has simply added a user interface to an existing framework.

On the plus side, Linux is generally extremely secure and has a lower malware risk than Windows or Mac computers. Even so, while these systems may indeed make using the Internet easier for seniors, it’s hard to justify needless spending on old hardware and free operating systems. Everything offered by these machines can be replicated at home for a fraction of the cost.

Because Linux is free, you can legally download your flavor (known as a “distribution”) of choice, burn it onto a CD or DVD, and install it on almost any PC — even one with relatively poor specs. There are even Linux distributions preconfigured for the elderly, such as “Eldy Linux,” which has the very same kind of simplified, large button interface. With a $100 Craigslist, computer and a free copy of Eldy Linux, the same experience of a Telikin can be re-created for next to nothing. Even paying a technology consultant to do the installation is far cheaper than buying a specialized computer for seniors.

Want to try it yourself? The official documentation for Ubuntu, the most common Linux distribution, offers a straightforward tutorial on how to turn a downloaded distribution into a Linux installation disc. Check it out at https://help.ubuntu.com/community/BurningIsoHowto.

A decade ago, today’s world of Internet-connected refrigerators, wireless battery charging, and the ubiquitous social encouragement to publicly share every thought would have felt like the setting of a science-fiction novel. At the turn of the millennium, the worst trap a user could expect to fall into was replying to an email from a foreign prince wanting to share bank accounts. Today malware can automatically install itself onto a computer, silently conduct a wire transfer, and then use that device to hack somebody else — no prince required.

For seniors, a simplified Linux system might be a viable alternative to a traditional computer both in security and user-friendliness. Read beyond the advertising and examine exactly what you’re buying, or you might waste money on a Pinto advertised as a Porsche. Install Linux yourself or hire a competent tech person to do so, and you’ll end up with a better product at a fraction of the cost.

Written in collaboration with Dylan Evans, Reveal’s vice president of operations.

This article originally appeared on the IdahoStatesman website.