• Tech
  • Tablets

Why I Just Bought iPads for My Retired Parents

5 minute read

More and more these days, the phone calls I receive from Mom or Dad have nothing to do with the grandkids or my writing career or our plans to visit Florida.

They’re calling for tech support.

“The printer won’t print!”

“Why am I getting this strange message on my screen?”

“AOL is acting funny.” (Yeah, AOL. I know.)

In recent years I’ve dealt with a Geek Squad’s worth of parental computer meltdowns. Some minor (outdated printer drivers, missing file attachments), some major (Ebola-grade viruses), but all of them frustrating for everyone. For my part, I feel badly that my retired parents — who, seriously, shouldn’t have to wait 10 minutes for the laptop to boot — have to deal with this seemingly endless hassle-fest. I’m a tech expert, a tech blogger, for pete’s sake. Can’t I just wave a magic wand and make them go away? (The hassles, not the parents!)

I just did. Amazing son that I am, I just bought them each an iPad Air and Bluetooth keyboard case. (Note to Mom and Dad: Thanks for college. We’re square now.)

Why the shift from a desktop computer? My parents have used some form of Windows-powered computer for the better part of 20 years — though I never did introduce them to Windows 8. Like a lot of seniors I know, they’re already nervous about “pressing the wrong button” on the computer. A change as drastic as Windows 8’s new, Start Button-less interface would require a lot of re-learning and, let’s face it, cause a serious uptick in the number of tech-support calls I got from Mom and Dad.

My point is, my parents were at least conversant with Windows, if not tolerant of its perpetual annoyances. But I’d had enough of those problems. And so I gave some strategic thought to what they — what any seniors — really need from a computer. A Web browser, of course. E-mail. Facebook. Dad likes to manage his banking; Mom takes notes for lectures and book groups.

Light bulb! These two don’t need computers at all. They need tablets, which can handle these and other computing basics without breaking a sweat (or contracting a virus). Just add a keyboard for tapping out documents and e-mail, and presto: tons of basic-computing problems disappear.

Tablets take zero seconds to boot or shut down. Literally zero. You press a button, it’s ready for action. Press again, the screen goes dark. (Okay, technically it’s going in and out of sleep mode, but you rarely need to actually power down a tablet. And even if you do, it powers up again fairly quickly.) As for apps, tap one and it loads, bam. Seriously, spend a week with a tablet, then try going back to your PC. You’ll wonder how you ever tolerated such lethargy.

Driver updates? No such thing on a tablet. Virus threats? Non-existent. (Just make sure to educate parents on the dangers of phishing, a security threat that strikes via e-mail.) Crashes and lockups? No software is perfect, but no Android or iOS tablet ever suffered a Blue Screen of Death.

Meanwhile, Apple offers word processing, spreadsheet, and presentation apps free of charge to iPad users, while Google makes its Docs, Sheets, and Slides apps free for the Android crowd. Even Microsoft’s Office apps have gone mostly free for iOS, with Android versions coming soon. When you go tablet, your software costs drop considerably. And no more anti-virus subscription, either! (See above.)

Granted, tablets aren’t perfect PC surrogates. They have comparatively small screens, so they’re less than ideal for the visually challenged. Printing remains an obstacle, at least for some documents, as my Dad recently discovered when trying to print a Delta boarding pass. And even with a keyboard, productive word processing seems elusive — in part due to the smaller workspace, in part because there’s no mouse.

These are, thankfully, surmountable issues. Some Android tablets can already work with a mouse, but more tablet makers would be wise to consider these hiccups in developing future models. In the meantime, there are plenty of perfectly good tablet options for seniors. My top pick is what I already got for the folks: Apple’s iPad Air. It’s the no-brainer choice for anyone who also uses an iPhone, but the real advantage is the huge selection of keyboard cases — one for nearly every budget and typing preference.

There are similar senior-friendly benefits to be found in the likes of Amazon’s Kindle Fire HD (or HDX) 8.9, Google’s Nexus 9, and Samsung’s Galaxy Note 10.1, though you’ll want to investigate keyboard options before pulling the trigger. Any Bluetooth keyboard will work, but if you want something that doubles as a case or cover, you may find fewer options.

Why no Microsoft Surface or other Windows-powered model? Simple: You’re still dealing with the frustrations of Windows, to say nothing of the steep-ish learning curve of Windows 8. Microsoft’s return-to-form Windows 10, due in 2015, should lessen that curve, but does a grandparent even need a desktop operating system anymore? I think not. Most seniors just want to read and send e-mail, enjoy the Web, and maybe watch some videos of the grandkids. Windows (and, for that matter, Mac OS X) is overkill for that stuff, while a tablet delivers speed, simplicity, and security. Even a big phablet like the iPhone 6 Plus or Galaxy Note 4 might offer seniors a respite from the plodding, unpredictable PC, as they afford most of the same capabilities as a tablet and a reasonably roomy screen.

Me, I’m looking forward to more meaningful conversations with Mom and Dad, and fewer about troublesome printers.

The 50 Best iPad Apps

1Password. 1Password creates hard-to-crack passwords for your online accounts and hides them all behind one, secure master password (don’t forget your master password). Aside from just login credentials, you can use 1Password to protect your credit cards, passport, bank account numbers and even notes you don’t want falling into the wrong hands.AgileBits
Allrecipes. Referencing an iPad while cooking is usually far less cumbersome than using a computer, and the free Allrecipes app puts thousands of recipes and step-by-step videos at your fingertips. You can even sync recipes and ingredients with your Allrecipes.com account’s recipe box and shopping lists.Allrecipes
BaconReader for Reddit. Reddit — the self-proclaimed front page of the Internet — gets a glossy makeover with BaconReader. The app lets you cruise subreddits, follow friends, use multiple accounts and upload photos that you can draw all over using the iPad’s touchscreen.OneLouder
BlogPad Pro for WordPress. If you maintain a WordPress site, the $5 BlogPad Pro app deserves a spot on your iPad. The visual editor sports a ton of features, there’s an offline mode and the conflict-management feature prevents you from accidentally overwriting someone else’s work if you’re both trying to work on a post at the same time.Macroweb Ltd
Catalog Spree. Under normal circumstances, you’d need a pickup truck to lug 350 catalogs around. The free Catalog Spree app shrinks 350 popular catalogs into digital form and lets you swipe through pages and pages of potential purchases without breaking a sweat.Padopolis
Chrome. If you use Google’s Chrome web browser on your computer, loading the free app onto your iPad is a no-brainer simply for the ability to synchronize your browsing history, passwords and bookmarks. Incognito Mode gives you the option of browsing more privately, there’s a feature that helps you cut down on mobile data use, and you can search by voice.Google
Dictionary.com Dictionary & Thesaurus. Dictionary.com’s iPad app boasts audio pronunciations, daily content (Word of the Day, slideshows and more) and over 2 million definitions. Perhaps best of all, most of the content can be accessed offline, so if you’re in an area without connectivity, you’ll still be able to look stuff up.Dictionary.com
Fan TV. There’s no shortage of streaming TV and movie services available, but launching separate apps for each one quickly gets cumbersome. The free Fan TV app acts like a slick launchpad to other popular streaming apps, letting you find and watch what you want with minimal fuss.Fanhattan
Fantastical 2. Fantasical 2 is a feature-full calendar app that lets you add reminders, tasks and to-dos using natural language phrases. You can event set up geofences to have the app remind you of certain events or tasks when you enter a certain area, such as your home or office. And like any good calendar app, it plays nicely with Exchange, Google Calendar and iCloud.Flexibits
Feedly Reader. Some of us like to read our news the (relatively) old-fashioned way. Thankfully, cruising your RSS feeds is a breeze with Feedly. The free app presents your favorite news sources in a slick card-like interface, highlights which posts are popular with other users and lets you browse for additional sources to add to your collection.Feedly
FitStar Personal Trainer. FitStar looks to play the role of your virtual personal trainer by way of its “dynamic progression algorithm,” which adjusts the difficulty of your workouts alongside your fitness level and goals. The app can be cast to your TV set if you’ve got an Apple TV box, and the workouts are hosted by NFL great Tony Gonzalez.FitStar
Flipboard. One of the best-looking apps on our list, Flipboard bills itself as “your personal magazine.” Browse handpicked articles on various topics and pipe in updates from your Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr accounts for a one-stop shop that caters to your interests.Flipboard
Friendly+ for Facebook. If you’re not too keen on Facebook’s own iPad app, you might consider ponying up a couple bucks for the Friendly+ app. It presents Facebook in a simple, well-laid-out interface and includes extras such as a PIN code lock, multiple account support and custom-configured birthday reminders. There’s a free, ad-supported version as well.Friendly App Studio
GarageBand. Apple’s GarageBand app lets you indulge your inner Van Halen by laying down up to 32 music tracks containing just about any instrument you could imagine. Connect four iPhones, iPads or iPod Touches over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth to record you and your bandmates at the same time, then share your finished creation on various social networks.Apple
Genius Scan+. Genius Scan+ helps you tame that mountain of paperwork, digitizing it so you can quickly deal with it later — much, much later. The app detects the edges of documents when you snap a photo, and can then save them as PDF files and back them up to popular online storage services. A free, feature-limited version is available as well.The Grizzly Labs
Google Maps. The reigning champion of helping you get from point A to point B, Google Maps is a must-download. Sure, the app helps you get where you’re going (or figure out where you are), but it also pulls in restaurant recommendations leveraged by Google’s purchase of Zagat, and real-time traffic information leveraged by Google’s purchase of Waze. If your iPad’s got a cellular connection, you can use Google Maps as a GPS system, too.Google
Hangouts. Assuming you have a Google account and friends who have Google accounts, the Hangouts app is an easy way to keep in touch with everyone. Let your fingers do the talking with the IM-like chat features, then switch to free group video calling with up to 10 people once the discussion really gets going.Google
Hipmunk Hotels & Flights. Hipmunk takes the traditional flight-search model and turns it on its head, showing options sorted first by “agony,” then by price and other factors. You’re treated to a grid of at-a-glance info about which flights and hotels have Wi-Fi, which flights have long layovers, and a “heatmap” of hotel options that shows you how close each hotel is to the action — all in a fun, easy-to-use interface.Hipmunk
Houzz Interior Design Ideas. If you’re looking for a little inspiration when decorating your home, the super-slick Houzz app has it. Well, it doesn’t have a little inspiration, actually: It has a lot of it. There are over 4.5 million photos of rooms, furniture and other products, all of which you can clip and save to a virtual scrapbook.Houzz
iA Writer. When all you want to do is indulge in a bit of distraction-free writing, the sparse-yet-useful iA Writer has you covered. You can focus on as few as three lines when writing on your iPad, and files can be saved via iCloud or Dropbox to be accessed on your iPhone or other devices. The app’s special keyboard sports arrow keys and direct access to punctuation, too.Information Architects
iHeartRadio. If you’re listening to the radio, there’s a good chance you’re listening to a station owned by Clear Channel. The iHeartRadio app offers live streaming from thousands of Clear Channel stations, on-demand talk shows and the ability to create your own station from over 18 million songs.iHeartRadio
IM+ Pro7. If there’s an instant messaging service out there that’s even moderately popular, chances are IM+ Pro7 works with it. Whether your friends use Facebook, Skype, Google, AIM, Yahoo or one of several others, you’ll be able to communicate with each other without juggling a bunch of different apps.SHAPE GmbH
IMDb Movies & TV. Spend enough time in front of your TV and you’ll eventually want to know why that person in that one show or movie looks so familiar. The free IMDb (Internet Movie Database) app has info on over 2 million TV shows and movies and over 4 million actors, directors and crew members.IMDb
Intellicast HD. Weather apps are a dime a dozen (most are free, actually), but Intellicast HD has some of the best-looking, most up-to-date weather maps around. You’ll know exactly what’s headed your way, and how bad it’s going to be once it hits. The app is free; an extra two bucks gets you access to real-time, high-resolution radar feeds and some other goodies.WSI Corporation
Jinni My TV & Movie Guide. The promise of personalized TV and movie recommendations always seems to be something of a letdown. Jinni provides a ray of hope, though, analyzing thousands of data points while hooking into your favorite streaming services and your cable provider to serve up a watch list you might actually want to watch.Jinni
Kindle. There are several worthwhile e-book reading apps to choose from, but Amazon’s Kindle platform gets the nod thanks to its availability on just about every other device on the market. If it’s rectangular, has a screen of some type and connects to the Internet, you can probably use it to read a Kindle book.Amazon
Mailbox. Mailbox looks to tame your Gmail inbox by letting you quickly archive emails with a swipe or turn them into task-like entities to deal with later. The app’s design emphasizes speed and simplicity, helping you to slice through your mountain of messages in a matter of minutes. Yes, you’re basically engaging in digital procrastination, but at least it’ll help you feel somewhat organized. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of reaching inbox zero, if only for a short while.Dropbox
Mint Personal Finance. Instead of downloading separate apps to keep track of each credit card and bank account you own, try Mint. The free app connects to all your accounts and displays your balances, lets you customize a budget and shows your spending trends organized by category.Intuit
Morning. If you check your iPad first thing in the morning, why not get an overview of what you actually have to do each day? The Morning app shows you weather, reminders, traffic along your commute, news, calendar items, stock prices and more, all tucked into a handsome card-like grid that’s available in multiple colorful themes.Tamper
Notability. In the old days, to get your written notes synchronized with an audio recording, you used to have to spend over a hundred bucks on a fancy pen and paper combo. Notability now offers similar functionality in an inexpensive app. Take notes while your iPad records the audio, then play it all back later. Your notes will reveal themselves in time with what’s being played back on the audio recording.Ginger Labs
Paper by FiftyThree. Paper is a free iPad app with a simple interface that lets you write, sketch and paint in virtual notebooks. It may not seem like rocket science, but realistically replicating the feel of various writing and art utensils on a tablet screen is a complicated feat that Paper pulls off with style.FiftyThree
PCalc. If you’re going to load a calculator onto something the size of a tablet, you might as well go big. At $10, PCalc isn’t your ordinary calculator: It’s like a scientific calculator that fell in radioactive goop and now has superpowers. At the same time, however, it’s functional as a straightforward calculator for those of us who aren’t especially mathletic.TLA Systems
PDFpen. PDFpen is a great go-to app for dealing with complex PDF files, letting you edit documents, create notes and sign forms with ease. And if you’re a Mac user, the app is available for your computer as well, working with Dropbox and iCloud to sync your documents between your iPad and your Mac.SmileOnMyMac
Photo Editor by Aviary. For a free image editor, this app from Aviary sports a wealth of features. Aside from being able to crop and rotate your photos, there’s red-eye reduction, blemish removal, teeth whitening and more. You can add doodles, text and stickers to liven up your images as well.Aviary
Pinterest. Pinterest, the web’s most popular pin board, makes for a great couch companion. Pass the time browsing your friends’ pins, or pin things from around the web for projects or vacation ideas that you’d like to revisit later.Pinterest
Pocket. Pocket lets you grab various bits from around the web — articles, videos, images and more — and save them for later perusal. The free app takes text articles and strips out all the ads, buttons and other digital detritus to present a clean, easy-on-the-eyes reading experience.Read It Later
Procreate. Procreate is not to be confused with a baby-making app. Despite the silly name, this app helps you make some serious art: With 120 brushes and over a hundred layers, Procreate turns your iPad into a digital canvas that can be manipulated almost as well as the real thing. You can even record your paintings as high-definition videos, playing back each stroke as it happens.Savage Interactive
Recorder Plus + HD. Recorder Plus + HD is a full-featured audio recording app that lets you record sound files limited only by the available space on your iPad. And if you need to edit those long files, there’s a built-in audio editor that’s easy to use thanks to the iPad’s touchscreen. You can even share your audio files directly over your Wi-Fi network. There’s a free version with fewer features, as well.TurboKey Studio
Scribd. Do you like e-books? Do you not like having to pay $10 for each one? Scribd is like a Netflix for e-books, giving you unlimited access to over 100,000 tomes for nine bucks a month. If you read books like people binge-watch movies and TV on Netflix or download music all day on Spotify, Scribd is worth a closer look.Scribd
Songza. Sometimes you don’t want to put too much thought into your music. In that spirit, Songza offers up mood-based playlists cobbled together by music professionals. Stream a mix for working out or driving or unwinding or singing in the shower. The moods can get as specific as you like, and the service is free and unlimited if you’re willing to put up with some intermittent ads.Songza Media
Spotify. For $10 a month, Spotify acts like a giant music store where you download as much music as you want for offline playback from your phone, tablet or computer. There’s also a streaming radio option, and if you don’t want to pony up $10 a month for the premium version, there’s an ad-supported version that lets you listen to any song for free.Spotify
StumbleUpon. StumbleUpon has long perfected the art of serving up random items of interest on the web to users who just want something to do. Choose an interest, hit the big Stumble button and give a thumbs-up or thumbs-down to whatever is presented to you. Repeat.StumbleUpon
Team Stream HD. Bleacher Report’s Team Stream app has a pretty fitting name. You pick your favorite sports teams and the app serves up a heaping helping of scores, tweets, articles, videos and photos in short order. You can set yourself up to get various notifications as they happen, and easily share updates over social media and via text messages to your friends.BleacherReport
Titan Downloader. The free Titan Downloader app features a built-in web browser that lets you save video files you find on various sites for playback at a later time. You can queue up multiple videos to play one after another and set a pass-code lock to prevent others from accessing your collection.Connect Technology
TripIt. As a TripIt user, you can make travel bookings and forward the confirmation emails from your airline, hotel, car-rental service and more to plans@tripit.com; those bookings will then be organized into a coherent itinerary available from within the free app.TripIt
Tumblr. Tumblr is a weird, wild, wonderful collection of musings, images and videos — the Internet is a better place for it. And the official Tumblr app pays the site a great service by being just as straightforward and well-polished. You can use it to share just about anything with a few taps, while keeping tabs on multiple blogs and all your messages. It works offline when you don’t have a connection, too.Tumblr
TuneIn. Think of the free TuneIn app as being able to turn your iPad into a radio capable of pulling in almost any station from anywhere in the world. The service boasts over 100,000 live radio station feeds and 2 million podcasts to choose from.TuneIn
Tweetbot for Twitter. There are plenty of free ways to interact with Twitter, but the $3 Tweetbot app is well worth the price of admission, with an eye-popping design, time-saving gestures that you can customize to perform various tricks and connections to several third-party web services.Tapbots
Vodio. In case you hadn’t noticed, there are a lot of videos on the web. Vodio stitches together the videos people are actually watching, and organizes them into various categories so you can watch the ones that interest you. The app even suggests videos to you based on the types of videos you watch on Twitter and Facebook, getting smarter over time.Vodio Labs
Yelp. If you’re on vacation or new in town (or even not-so-new in town) and you want to learn about what’s around you — shops, restaurants, dry cleaners, gas stations, bars, you name it — Yelp has you covered, complete with user reviews so you can separate the good from the bad.Yelp

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com