Are you ready for that 3am phone call? No, not the call from JSOC hoping to get approval to chopper in DEVGRU to take out a Tier 1 operative (what that means even we don't know). What we're talking about is that 3am call from your sobbing parent, sibling or acquaintance desperately asking for your help with a computer.
It. Gets. Old.
Let's admit it, for those computer-phobes, a personal computer with a fully featured and robust operating system isn't right for either them or you. As wonderful as a PC with a real operating system is, there's maintenance to be done, patches and drivers to be installed, and enough dials, knobs and gauges that a computer-phobic cyberklutz can really bork things up faster than you can say right-click.
But in a world where not having access to email, Facebook, and the Internet puts you as far off the grid as the Unabomber, is there a way for these folks to have an easy, trouble-free computing lifestyle?
To find out, we looked at three machines -- the Telikin Touch, the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook and Apple's iPad 2 -- that just might be idiot-proof enough to keep even a complete computer-dufus from screwing things up.
The Telikin is billed as "quite possibly the world's easiest computer". And we can see why. Originally aimed at non-tech-savvy elderly folk who want a computing experience without having to dial-a-nerd every day, the Telikin offers a custom-designed OS to do just a few things, but do them easily.
The Telikin Touch itself is an off-the-shelf, 18-inch MSI all-in-one with a dual-core Atom, a 320GB hard drive, 2GB of RAM and Wi-Fi. The Telikin's performance isn't horribly slow, but it's certainly not as responsive as the other two devices we're reviewing here and can lag on occasion. The Telikin's main selling point is its ease of use and senior-friendliness. The unit comes with a USB keyboard sporting very large letters, and there is an option for a keyboard with even larger letters. The OS itself is a variant of Linux that's been tweaked to display big, friendly buttons on one side for email, browsing and games.
The buttons are large enough that the screen's touch capability works surprisingly well. The touch screen doesn't support flick-based scrolling, but the big buttons and a UI that's never hidden ensure that the newb can't get lost.
The Telikin supports Skype, Facebook, POP-based and IMAP-based email systems. We did hit a snag here: We let the Telikin configure our Hotmail account, but it biffed on the outgoing mail port. We corrected it easily, but this would leave a computer-newb stumped for months. The iPad 2 got this right, while the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook didn't have native client support for Hotmail.
Another big fail for the Telikin came soon after our first boot: a LibreOffice fatal error and occasional hard locks. The error message itself is enough to send a computer-phobe cowering in a closet, but the hard locks? Inexcusable. We thought it was all over for the Telikin but a call to the company resulted in a tech logging into the machine remotely and applying a quick patch. From that point on, the error messages and lockups went away. We almost wondered if the company planned this as a way to showcase its tech support-but no, that's too Machiavellian even for us. The machine comes with free 60-day VIP support, whereby you don't have to wait in the queue to have issues fixed. After the 60-day period is up, you can still get free support and a tech will still remote in, but you have to wait longer on the phone. There's also the ability to back up your data remotely to Telikin's servers for $US10 a month, and that includes the VIP support treatment.
Maintenance of the unit should be fairly painless, as updates are pushed out by Telikin as needed, and the company promises to offer updates for the life of the unit.
In ease-of-use, the Telikin is extremely simple-perhaps easier than the iPad for some. In our attachment test, we could open PDF and Word files without issue, but Zip files confused it.
The Telikin's main weakness is in gaming. There are a handful of games that come installed with the OS, but the rest will have to be Flash-based. That's not bad for a casual gamer, but the optimised iPad 2 games are far stronger. The machine has its strengths, though. The 18-inch screen is certainly easier for folks with vision issues, and the real keyboard is appreciated.
In video consumption, we could watch Flash-based videos on Vimeo and YouTube, but sadly, the Telikin failed on both Netflix and Hulu.
We're still a bit leery about the initial error and locks, but frankly, this isn't a bad solution for a senior who wants a bigger screen, full keyboard, and doesn't mind something that's not as polished or extensible as the iPad 2.
Samsung Series 5 Chromebook
Of all the devices here, people likely have the most difficulty understanding the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook. Running Google's Chrome OS, the Series 5 looks like a netbook, but it's not. The secret sauce is Google's Chrome OS. Built around a very lightweight Linux core, Chrome OS is just enough OS to talk to the hardware, run a browser, and that's it. There's no desktop and no icons to be tapped or dragged -- it's all browser, all the time.
Frankly, that's what we thought made the Chromebook the perfect computer-phobe tool. He or she can't get lost in some menu or goof up a setting because there are very few options to tweak, and you can't exit from the browser. Even though Intel's lowly dual-core Atom powers the Series 5, the Chromebook has a responsive feel to it and will boot in four seconds-on the rare occasions that it even powers down. Most of the time it'll be in instant-on mode, which works wonderfully.
With its nice, spacious keyboard (which lacks a Caps Lock key, apparently to prevent SHOUTING on the Internet), the Series 5 is a truly unique piece of mobile hardware for someone with basic needs. But will this nerdware work for a non-nerd? Yes and no.
One knock against it: It's really optimised for living the Google lifestyle of Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs. Yeah, it'll work for Yahoo or Hotmail, and anything else that runs in a browser, but it's got an obvious affinity for all things G. The nature of Chrome OS makes it almost entirely reliant upon internet access and cloud storage -- just a smattering of apps work offline. That cuts both ways. If the Series 5 eats a cup of coffee, no data is lost. Buy another one and you're up and running in 60 seconds. Without Internet, though, you're SOL (a 3G model sells for $US100 more, plus the cost of a data plan).
Since it's really nothing but a browser, it's not surprising that the Series 5 offers excellent browsing and webmail support. We were able to watch videos on YouTube without hitches, but not on Vimeo. Video chat is limited to Google Talk, so Skype lovers need not apply.
Casual gaming on the Series 5 is actually pretty good. It's certainly better than on the Telikin, which is limited to a few built-in games, as well as Flash-based and Java-based games. Google has been pushing more Chrome-based games, and it shows with such winners as Angry Birds. Still, the selection pales in comparison to the iPad 2's rich experience.
Media handling on the Chromebook is disappointing. Chrome OS can now read an SD card in the Chromebook's slot, but we could only upload the files to Picasa. People have figured out ways to creatively move files to the SSD, but that definitely ain't an undertaking for newbs.
We did a simple attachment test to see how well the Series 5 could handle a Word, Zip, and PDF file attachment in a mail file when viewed from, say, Hotmail and not Gmail. The Series 5 handled the PDF just fine as an attachment download, but the Zip and Word files threw it for a loop. To open the Word file, you'd need to upload it to Google Docs-not exactly newb-friendly.
We don't discount the Series 5's usefulness, though. It's maintenance free, with updates pushed out automatically by Google, but the Series 5 is probably suited for slightly more advanced computer-phobes, if not outright nerds.
Apple iPad 2
The shining symbol of the "post‑PC" era is the tablet, and its most prominent representative is Apple's iconic iPad 2. That's one of the reasons we picked the iPad 2 as the tablet to test in this showdown over more feature-rich, but also more complicated Android tablets. We had high expectations that the iPad 2 would solve our computer-phobe problems. Part of that comes from a user interface so easy even a Mac user can handle it.
Right out of the gate we hit a snag: setup and maintenance. You don't just start using your iPad 2, you must connect it to a PC with iTunes running. What if you don't have a PC or Mac? You're SOL.
Far worse is the iPad 2's need to continually run home to mummy. Updates, for example, can only be applied through iTunes, and for us that was problematic. We eventually gave up trying to download a 647MB patch, leaving the iPad open to a very serious security certificate hack. Sigh. Fortunately, Apple is hoping to fix the iPad's reliance on another computer for future updates, but at press time, no such fix was available.
As is, though, the iPad 2's polish makes it a serious contender for computer-phobes. It's easy to set up for email, the browser is fairly powerful, and the extensibility through apps for just about anything you want to do makes it the most feature-rich device in this roundup. Out of the box, for example, you can't open Zip files or do video Skype, but a few free apps later, and your problems are solved. The killer feature of the iPad 2 is in gaming, though. A computer-phobe may check email or browse a bit, but the games are likely to suck them in. With its vast application bazaar, the iPad 2 is one of the strongest casual gaming platforms available today.
So what doesn't work for a computer-phobe? While it's a good media consumption device, you can't copy photos to it without either using a computer or paying for a special adaptor. The lack of a real keyboard is also going to deter those who want an email device more than a browsing or gaming device. A Bluetooth keyboard can be added, but that increases the cost.
And for the computer-phobe who wants to use a device for long stretches of time, the iPad 2 can be a bit heavy to hold and the 9.7-inch screen a bit small-although the font size scales up nicely for those with vision issues. The screen's relatively low 1024x768 resolution also offended our high-tech tastes but a computer-phobe is unlikely ever to notice. Plus, the iPad 2 has the advantage of being more agnostic when it comes to web services, unlike the Samsung Series 5.
Yes, there's a lot of win for the iPad 2 here. From its super application bazaar, to its offline capability and its overly simplistic interface, the iPad is clearly the leading device for a computer-phobe-if Apple could, um, actually not require you to own a PC to use this, um, post-PC device.
The Easy Answer
Let's be straight, there isn't a device here that we didn't find wanting in some capacity or another. From the Samsung Series 5's mediocre handling of media, to the iPad 2's requirement that you use another computer just to turn it on, to the Telikin's out-of-the-box error messages, not one of these machines is the perfect solution for the computer-phobe in your life. Let's face it, if completely trouble-free computing existed, there would be no computer-phobes.
Still, these devices do get closer to trouble-free computing than a full-fledged PC, each in its own way. The Telikin Touch seems perfect for the audience it was originally created for: computer-newb seniors who want a mouse and keyboard and access to a tech who can fix any issue remotely. The Samsung Series 5 is fast, responsive, and likely impossible to break, and it's a good compromise for the phobe who wants a keyboard, mobility, and zero maintenance. The iPad 2, for its part, offers portability and the offline functionality that the Series 5 can't, and its gaming and extensible app support is superb.
So can we declare a winner? Honestly, we think we can. Keep in mind that each solution has serious faults, but we think the all-around computer-phobe is best served by the iPad 2. We make that decision based on its agnostic web services support, its rich gaming, and its ability to meet a computer-phobe's evolving needs-because let's face it, the more comfortable a person gets with computing, the more they tend to want to do. For example, on the iPad 2 you can edit photos and video locally; not so on either the Telikin Touch or Series 5. And let's not forget the generous functionality offered through apps. The iPad 2's extensibility (with the help of an optional Bluetooth keyboard, of course) gives it a leg up over both the Series 5 and the Telikin. The only big fail for the iPad 2 where computer-phobes are concerned is that they may have to come to your house to update their devices on your PC once every few months. Still, that's a hell of a lot better than regular 3am phone calls.
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