Digital Devices for Luddites

NOBODY loves computers. I say this as someone who has led a life steeped in technology, and who considers the many computers I deal with every day to be truly revolutionary devices.

And yet: I can't love these complicated, all-too-dumb machines, and I often wish that they weren't as necessary as they are. When I'm dealing with a particularly thorny computer-related problem -- Why does that error message pop up every time I start up? Why did my desktop PC suddenly stop printing? -- I sometimes wonder about people who haven't spent their lives noodling with these things. What do you do when something goes wrong and you have absolutely no idea how to fix it?

As great as they are, many PCs and other related gadgets are, for large swaths of the population, simply too difficult to set up and to use. Over the last few weeks, I've been testing several devices that promise to make life easier for nontechies. These gadgets aim to ease people into the digital era -- many are designed for use by older adults. But in their simplicity, they could be helpful to people of all ages who aren't obsessed with machines.

Take, for instance, the Snapfon, which is marketed as "the cellphone for seniors." Over the past few years, I've gotten a chance to test many phones aimed at older consumers, including the popular Samsung Jitterbug, but I found the Snapfon by far the easiest to use. This is mainly because of its design: The Snapfon, about the size of a deck of cards, is dominated by a nine-digit number pad. The numbers are huge, and they're printed in high-contrast white ink against a dark gray background.

"The vast majority of our users are between the ages of 70 and 90," said Phil Sieg, the president of SeniorTech, the Chattanooga, Tenn.-based company that makes the Snapfon. The large numbers are easy on these users' eyes; even more helpful is the phone's "speaking keypad," which recites each number in a robotic voice when you press a button. (You can turn this feature off if you'd like.)

If you've ever used a telephone, you can use the Snapfon. Just dial your number and press the green O.K. button. That's it. There is no need to navigate any menus and no need to click any icons. True, the Snapfon isn't going to win any points for sex appeal, and its features are limited -- it can't display photos, there are no apps for it and it won't give you directions to the nearest mall. On the other hand, the Snapfon does have a big, easy-to-find button for emergencies. Press the S O S key on the back, and the phone will play a loud siren and call and text up to four emergency contacts. The Snapfon also allows you to send and receive texts and play FM and AM radio stations, and it has a small flashlight that makes it useful in the dark.

It sells for about $60 without a service plan. With a plan (which starts at $10 a month, and goes up to about $40 a month for unlimited talk and text time), the phone goes for about $30.

I also tested the Telikin home PC, another nifty device aimed at tech novices. The Telikin, which sells for about $700, is a full-fledged home computer designed to be extremely easy to use. Instead of running Windows or the Mac operating system, it has its own custom user interface that does away with multiple on-screen icons and application windows. When you turn on the Telikin, you're presented with a menu of about a dozen main functions: e-mail, contacts, calendar, video chat, Web, games and so on. Press one of these buttons (either with the included mouse or just by touching the screen), and your full screen is taken over by the program in question.

This full-screen computing philosophy, which eliminates any other distracting windows vying for your attention, will feel limited and sluggish to people who expect a lot of power and functionality from PCs, but for those who just want to get a few tasks done, it can prove quite handy. And because the Telikin can't run most programs downloaded from the Web, it is also nearly immune to viruses and other digital nasties. (On the other hand, this may mean that it won't be able to run certain specialized applications you need, either.)

I'm not among the Telikin's target audience, and I sometimes found myself frustrated by its limitations. But I do see its appeal. It comes with a clear, precise instruction manual that explains how to get the machine up and running quickly. Even better, it also comes with a two-month subscription to a V.I.P. support hot line, where operators will answer any question you have about the computer.

"Folks that are technophobes, they need to talk to someone who will not make them feel dumb," said Mike Tudisco, the chief operating officer of Venture 3 Systems, which makes the Telikin. Mr. Tudisco said that the company's support representatives are trained to deal with people who have very basic questions about computers, "people who don't know where the 'at' key is, or who don't know how to use a mouse." (An optional subscription to the V.I.P. support line is about $10 a month after the first two months.)

One of Telikin's best features is video chat: with a built-in camera and microphone, the computer makes it easy to stay in touch with your friends and relatives using Skype.

Another gadget I used, though, can do the same thing without a computer. The telyHD, which sells for about $250, allows you to make Skype calls from your TV. The device, a small camera and microphone, sits on top of your television. It's fantastically simple to set up and use: you just plug in two cables, and enter your Skype user name and password on the TV screen using the device's remote. And then begin your call.

While I found the quality of the video calls to be adequate for the most part -- like all Skype calls, there was a fair bit of fuzziness and sometimes a lag on the line -- I did notice that the telyHD is highly sensitive to changes in light. In the evening, I had to bring an extra lamp into my living room so my parents could see my son tooling around. I suspect others will have to do the same because, after all, most people don't keep the TV room very bright.

My favorite thing about the telyHD was its remote. It has just a handful of buttons, including a direction pad to make your selections on screen and one big button to hang up a call. Compared with the series of menus, mouse clicks and passwords my parents need to go through when starting Skype on their home computer, beginning a call on this thing is a dream.

It's my mom's birthday this month. Of all the gifts I could think to give her, an easy way to start a video call with her grandson might be the best of all.

First Published 2012-03-07 23:07:58