How the iPad Can Be a Senior Saver

No keyboard or mouse, intuitive touch-screen tools can help older consumers stay connected anywhere.

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I wasn't the first kid on my block to have an iPad. I was the oldest kid. And it's not been easy. I've had to struggle with admiring onlookers who profess jealousy that I have such a neat toy. And at times, it has been hard to find more than five or six hours of enjoyable daily activities to do on my iPad. But I've persevered and while I've just scratched the surface, it is clear that the iPad can be an invaluable tool for older users. As the first mass-market tablet computer, it will be followed in short order by competing tablets from many providers, mostly in the PC (as opposed to Apple) world. This will lower prices and increase features. 

[See 5 Ways to Join the Personal Technology Party.] I do not own Apple stock and am not recommending the company. I am recommending its approach to providing easy access to online information. And I'm recommending that older consumers take a serious look at this tool. You may think the computer age has passed you by but the iPad makes a strong case that what's passed you by is the high-tech "members only" phase of that age.

What the iPad has done, better than other computing devices, is make the technology invisible. You don't need to repair a car in order to drive it, and you shouldn't need to be a computer jockey in order to turn one on and use it. But it's pretty much been a rite of passage that you needed to understand hard drive storage sizes, the brawn of your central processor, and the speed of your Internet connections. Not so with the iPad. You turn it on and it works. There is no boot-up time lag. It's ready to go as soon as you turn it on. If you have an intuitive sense of how something should be done on an iPad, there's a good chance that's exactly how you do it. As with the smaller iPhone, you don't type in commands but use your fingers on a touch-sensitive screen. No keyboard. No mouse.

By providing Internet and e-mail access, and a full range of media capabilities that can be remotely downloaded, the iPad can help seniors avoid becoming isolated. If you can't get to the library, the video store or the newsstand, they can come to you. Such remote access, via an intuitive device that is easy to use, will become a big deal. Prices for everything will fall, just as they have for other digital communications devices.

Entire industries will adopt tablet computing and develop ways to use it to increase and improve their relations with customers. Health care, in particular, will make enormous use of this mobile device. Doctors and other care providers will enter medical records directly into a tablet, and patients will be able to see all their records easily, including x-rays and MRIs, and share them with other doctors and family members if they wish.

First off, though, there's the reality of what the iPad isn't. It's not a phone. Yet. This hasn't bothered me because, as it turns out, I don't really need a phone that much when I'm out of the house. Other then making outbound calls in an emergency, I'd just as soon turn my phone off and concentrate on other activities. I find that a lot of older folks feel the same way. Even younger people seem to use their phones for everything except talking.

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A second thing that the iPad can't do is multitask. This, too, has proven a wonderful product benefit for my underdeveloped mobile computing skills.  I don't need to be downloading some mission-critical document for an upcoming meeting while making online travel reservations and chatting with a buddy about whether Tiger Woods will win four more major golf championships and tie Jack Nicklaus' record. Doing one thing at a time is OK by me. Based on research about how seniors interact with new technology, it's likely to be OK with them, too.

Before telling you what the iPad will do, you need to know a bit about costs and communications capabilities. The cheapest iPad is $499; the most expensive is $829. For the extra money, you get more memory or better online access or both. I don't think you need to pay an extra $200 for the bigger memory because it's hard to store a whole lot on the iPad and you can back up the whole thing anyway on a home computer if you wish.

I do think better online access is worth $130. At least it's worth it to me. Actually, it will cost you a lot more than that but it's still something you should consider. The basic iPad connects to the Internet via wireless networks. There are zillions of WiFi networks around these days, many are free, and they're even pretty easy to set up in your home if you've already got Internet service. When you turn your iPad on, it automatically looks for nearby WiFi networks and connecting is simple.

For $130 more, you get an iPad that connects to AT&T's 3G network. This is an always-on connection and it provides you online access wherever you are. Actually, that last sentence deserves an asterisk. There are some areas in the U.S. that do not get great 3G service from AT&T and you should make sure you're not spending a lot of time in one before buying an iPad. If you do pop for the 3G iPad, you will need to pay AT&T monthly access fees that can be as high as $25. So, that $130 extra charge for 3G access could actually turn into a bill of at least $430 in your first year, with possibly higher charges for very heavy 3G use. (Your iPad will default to WiFi use if you're on a wireless network, so it's not so hard to manage your 3G use to avoid the heaviest usage fees.)

This is a lot of money, and if you need to justify the expense, you certainly should do some homework. The iPad doesn't use software the same way a computer does. Instead, it uses task-specific applications that have been written for the iPad and which can be downloaded from Apple's "app" store. There are a lot of good free applications and a growing number of imaginative fee-based ones. Prices typically are a few bucks, but the apps I'm discussing here are all free.

When I leave the house with my iPad, I can get e-mail and Internet access wherever I go. It took me about five minutes to map my e-mail to the iPad. During a recent car trip through some mountainous and sparsely populated areas, I continued to have access while the car was moving. Among the free apps that come bundled with the iPad is a mapping feature that does away with most of the need for a GPS (global positioning system) unit. There are paid apps with trip direction, real time traffic mapping, and other GPS capabilities.

Other free apps include television programs from ABC that allows me to watch its shows for free. The video quality is comparable to high definition. Plug in some earphones and the audio quality is just as good. The Netflix app lets you stream movies to your iPad as part of a Netflix subscription. I'm not much of a You Tube user but millions of people are, and the iPad comes loaded with a You Tube icon. If you want to use the device as an iPod and play all your music on it, you can. It also can be home to all of your still photos.

The rectangular screen -- about 5.8 by 7.8 inches -- is large enough to provide a very satisfying viewing experience. The iPad and other tablet computers will accelerate the evolution of video viewing. Why pay for access to 500 cable channels that you don't use when you can have a satisfying video-on-demand experience and pay only for what you want to watch?

I have used other e-book readers and the iPad is, for me, a better experience. The screen is bigger. The touch screen allows you to turn the pages by swiping your finger over the screen. The pages visually "turn," just like an actual book. You can look up the meaning of any word with an embedded dictionary. And, unlike other e-book readers, I can also use the Internet and go online to answer the questions that invariably pop up when I read.

Also, because the screen is backlighted, I can read a book in low light -- a feature not found on other e-readers. So I can read in bed with all the lights off, without bothering my sleeping wife. Downloading a new book is easy and prices are lower than printed books. Libraries already offer free check-outs of e-books, and I'd expect them to provide similar services for the iPad. Apple does not have as extensive a selection of e-books as Amazon does for its Kindle reader. But there's a free Kindle app for the iPad that allows all Kindle books to be read on the iPad.

Are there flaws with the iPad and, in particular, with the AT&T network that for now is the only way to get 3G access? You bet. That's especially true with more sophisticated users. But the product will evolve and improve. And for older consumers, it offers an already attractive glimpse into how they can stay connected in a world that increasingly requires such access.

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