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November 26, 2013

Finding the right PC for Mom

With Windows 8.1 newly released and the holiday season looming, I’ve been thinking about helping my mom upgrade to a new PC. It’s tempting to just pick out something I like and hand it over. But even Santa needs a few parameters sometimes.

So I sat down and talked to my mom about what she wants and needs in a PC. I also looked at her current PC situation. I may have given up the element of surprise, but having these conversations up front made it easy for me to match Mom up with a PC that was the most appropriate, comfortable, and enjoyable for her to use.

What do you want to do with your PC?

As a Microsoft employee, I use 3-5 different PCs every day. Some have to stand up to the demands of my professional life, and others I use to unwind with a movie after work, or manage my music collection. My mom, on the other hand, is happily retired. She didn’t know a RAM from a rom-com, but she didn’t have to when I showed her this checklist of common activities.

If you want to…

…your PC needs:

Store and edit photos

Sufficient memory (RAM) and hard disk space for photos

Store and edit videos

Sufficient memory (RAM), hard disk space, and a graphics card for video editing and storage

Browse the Internet, use email, and do some social networking

Sufficient processor speed and memory (RAM)

Listen to music and watch TV or DVDs

An optical drive with DVD read/write capability; quality speakers

Use the PC wirelessly

A wireless card

Play games online

Sufficient processor speed and memory (RAM), a video card, and ports for game controllers

Video chat online

A webcam; sufficient processor speed

Mom isn’t DJing wedding receptions or fighting the zombie apocalypse with other gamers, so her PC needs are relatively simple. But she’s been using a Windows 7 PC for a long time, and I piqued her interest with several Windows 8.1 apps she wasn’t familiar with:

  • The Kindle app can sync with a Kindle device, so Mom’s entire book collection is available on both her Kindle and her PC. She can stop reading on one device and pick up where she left off on the other… and if she’s traveling, she only needs to bring one of them with her.
  • Mom’s been putzing around with a VCR since I was a sullen teen, but the Netflix and Hulu Plus apps introduced her to the world of streaming video on demand. As a bonus, both were so intuitive she figured them out for herself!
  • When I went off to college 20-mumble years ago, I had to rely on care packages and collect calls to communicate with my family. But when my sister recently moved cross-country, Mom wanted to set up Skype. Mom’s older, obsolete computer doesn’t have a webcam, or the processor speed to make this efficient, but with a new PC she’ll be able to video-call Sis every week. Or…every day.

Where do you want to use your PC?

My multiple PCs include a classic desktop, a laptop, a Surface tablet, and my newest acquisition—an all-in-one with a touchscreen monitor that I use at the office. I have one of everything! But if your parents are only using a PC at home, a desktop might be sufficient. If your mom or dad plans to use the PC throughout the house, or elsewhere—like at a coffee shop or on vacation—a laptop or tablet might be better.

Space is a consideration, too. Mom downsized to a much smaller house when Sis and I left the nest, but then she set up her “home office” on a makeshift desk in the bedroom closet. She has a desktop and a large tube monitor crammed in there, and her chair is a bamboo end table she placed in front of it. When I pointed out that she could use a laptop anywhere—like sitting comfortably on the couch—she knew she’d enjoy that a lot more (plus, it’ll free up that closet!).

Getting a feel for it

It’s easy to research and purchase a new PC online. But for an older parent, I’d also recommend going to an electronics store with them, so they can get up close and personal with different PCs. Some questions to ask while you’re doing so:

  • Can you comfortably see objects and read text on the screen? A combination of screen size and accessibility features like larger text size in Windows can make objects on the screen much easier to see.
  • Do you need the PC to be lightweight and portable? Can you use a keyboard and mouse? My mom has rheumatoid arthritis, so when we tried different laptops, we were looking for one she could carry easily, but that still had an ergonomic keyboard she could use most comfortably.
  • How about a touch screen? You can totally use Windows 8.1 with a mouse. But it’s just plain more fun with a touchscreen. When I showed Mom how to play Fruit Ninja and Wordament on my Surface, she immediately wanted those games (and the touch functionality) for herself.
  • How does the keyboard feel? What sort of mouse feels right? Wireless keyboards and mice are available if you don’t want to deal with multiple cords, and ergonomic versions can be more comfortable to use. Likewise, some people swear by the Touch Cover for the Surface, and I loved the colors, but I ended up buying a separate Type Cover for mine, because I have clumsy mitten fingers. Possibly inherited.

While you’re shopping, think about other accessories your folks might need:

  • Want Internet service throughout the house? Get a wireless router and make sure it’s easy to set up, especially if you’re going to be helping. It’s also a good idea to help your parents secure their wireless network with a password. And it’s an exceptionally good idea to write that password down somewhere safe where Mom can find it again if anything goes wrong. I’m just saying.
  • How about a webcam? Many—but not all—PCs have built-in cameras, for video chatting or just taking still pictures. Make sure your parents have one if they want one, and show them how to turn it off when they choose.

More decision-making tools

If you’ve already had these conversations with your parents, and gone to the store to check out some PCs—or, if you can’t do that because you live 1,000 miles away—we can still help make choosing easier.

If your parents already know roughly what they want, try these resources to compare and research the finer details:

  • The Windows PCs page on the Windows website shows all the different types of Windows 8.1 PCs and devices that are available.
  • Our buying guide describes the pros and cons of different PC types—desktop vs. tablet, laptop vs. all-in-one.
  • And if you’ve read this far, why take one woman’s advice when you can hear what the whole Windows team thinks? Here are our PC recommendations by type!

Feeling overwhelmed? That’s okay; we have a tool for that too. The PC Selector is like filling out a magazine quiz to match yourself up with your Windows 8.1 BFF. (It also asks questions that can be sensitive to pose to a parent, like how much they might want to spend on a PC.)

When it comes to parents and PCs, it can feel like you’ve been drafted as their personal support tech. But with some advance planning and exploration, you can help Mom and Dad, Meemaw and Poppy, or Great-Aunt Olga find the perfect PC that does everything they need it to.