10 Must-Have iPad Apps for Seniors

Simple and free ways to open the door to new online technology.

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The Apple iPad can be a wonderful way to connect older users to the digital world. Without more devices like the iPad, the nation's fastest-growing demographic group—people over 65 and over 85—will not participate as online devices become society's dominant means of communicating.

As with Apple's iPhone, the appeal of the product is not only its hardware but the seemingly endless flow of clever and useful software applications, universally known as "apps." These can be easily downloaded and automatically installed from a connection to Apple's iTunes store. Most cost a few dollars, and many are free.

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"The potential of iPads to benefit seniors cannot be understated," Dan Cohen, a social worker who founded Apps for All, writes via E-mail. "To my surprise (and delight!), the most beneficial aspect of apps is the creation of a new common ground between older persons, their children, and their grandchildren ... The key to success with the iPad is to identify apps of interest to seniors, not razzle-dazzling them with one's favorite apps. What is (or was) their favorite hobby, interest, sport? Zoom into Google Earth's aerial view, or Mapquest's street view of their childhood home and school and you'll bring a smile to their face."

"The apps are what put the iPad over the top," agrees Elie Gindi, founder of Eldergadget. "They allow baby boomers and seniors to customize it to their specific needs, whether it be as a note pad on which you can take written notes like a paper pad using 'Penultimate,' or as a collection of apps to help you with mood lifting, relaxing, or memory, like one of my favorites, 'healthful apps'. There are apps for turning on and off the alarm system to your house created by several alarm companies, and apps for keeping up on the news like 'Newsy'."

Here are 10 "starter" apps that come recommended by online reviews and experts who focus on how older people use technology. They provide a basic introduction to the iPad's varied uses. Chances are, many of them are already loaded onto iPads at Apple stores and other retail outlets, so you can use them when you visit the store. I recommend an extended hands-on session before you buy an iPad.

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These apps, in no particular order, are all free to download so there's no risk of being out of any money for something you wind up not liking. To find an app on the iPad, touch its pre-loaded App Store icon and enter the app name in the search bar:

ABC. The stunning quality of iPad videos is showcased by this app, which lets viewers watch recent ABC shows at no charge. The iPad speaker produces decent sound. Connect earphones for excellent audio quality.

Netflix. Most people use Netflix to order movies and other videos on DVD. This iPad app makes it easy to get many movies and TV shows streamed directly to the iPad for immediate viewing. Although the app itself is free, you need a paid Netflix account to download videos.

NPR. Get free access to NPR programming, including radio broadcasts and text versions of NPR stories.

iBooks. This is Apple's E-book app. Look for free books to download from Apple's iTunes store. Use the iBooks controls to change type size and lighting and see if online reading is for you. Apple does not have as broad of an E-book selection as Amazon, but you can download a free Kindle reader app that connects to Amazon and lets you read Kindle purchases.

Google Earth. Cohen is right. Being able to see just about every location in the world is awesome. With the GPS capabilities of the iPad, you can always know where you are and how to get where you want to go. Use this app in conjunction with the Maps feature that is already loaded on the iPad.

Zinio. This app provides free access to the current feature stories in a number of magazines. These periodicals are leading the way with visually lush and typographically crisp iPad editions. Of course, the magazines are hoping you will purchase paid online subscriptions after seeing their free selections.

The Weather Channel. Find weather conditions and forecasts in any ZIP code, including maps, radar sweeps, and weather videos. WeatherBug is another recommended free weather app.

Virtuoso. This app is just a simple introduction to the amazing world of music accessible via the iPad. Use the Virtuoso keyboard to play the piano by yourself or set up this app to let you play a duet with the person sitting across from you.

Epicurious. Find recipes plus their ingredients. Build a shopping list. Search for foods you like and see them used in recipes. Develop a list of favorites. If you're a foodie, Epicurious will whet your appetite for the growing volume of iPad food and nutrition apps.

Pandora. More music, via Internet radio. Use Pandora to find the music you like from the countless radio broadcasts that are now available online.

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Basic iPad Background Information

Unlike a desktop or even portable notebook computer, the wireless iPad largely bypasses the numbing computer learning curve. There's nothing to connect or plug in, other than the battery charger. Its sensitive touch screen lets you access programs and features by touching prompts on the screen, so you don't need to remember all those computer access codes and typed commands.

Despite all its ease-of-use press clippings, the iPad will be foreign to non-computer users. You may need help getting started. I'd recommend finding a friend or family member who already has an iPad. In five minutes, they can have you up and running. An Apple store is the next best place to get hands-on help or take a class. There is lots of online help as well, from Apple, many other websites and user forums, and YouTube videos. Still, if you don't know the questions to ask, online help can be daunting.

I've had an iPad for about five months. I have found it very easy to use, and have been pleasantly surprised by its high-quality video and audio capabilities. It turns on instantly and is ready to go in a few seconds. Its back-lit book reader is, for me, superior to the Kindle and other E-readers. I can do basic E-mail and communications work anywhere I can get online (which is most everywhere these days). It stores and plays my videos (including photos) and music. I can play free video games and puzzles to my heart's content. It is adequate for Web browsing, but not outstanding. The on-screen keyboard is fine for E-mails and short writing work, but I prefer a real keyboard for extended writing sessions.

Apple is the first company to provide a mass-market tablet computer. If you are more comfortable with a PC than an Apple, you won't have long to wait before PC makers unveil their own tablets. For now, the iPad is the only game in town.

When they arrive, the new PC tablets will probably cost less than the iPad, which will set you back from about $500 to $800 depending on the features you select. My iPad has what's called 3G access, for which I paid extra. The less expensive iPads will work only with wireless (Wi-Fi) networks that connect the machines to the Internet. If you have high-speed Internet access in your home, and you or a technically adept friend can set up a wireless network in your home, you wouldn't need to spring for a 3G iPad. If you use the iPad outside your home, you'd need to access a Wi-Fi connection. Increasingly, it's hard to find a public space without Wi-Fi.

I have found the 3G access particularly useful on car trips, when I use it a lot for maps and other GPS apps. If you do want the 3G capability, you probably won't find cheaper data plans with the new machines. My iPad is old enough to have qualified for AT&Ts $30 monthly fee for unlimited data access. There's a cheaper $15 plan for lighter use. As other wireless carriers begin to market iPads, you may find slightly better deals. But over the long run, it's unlikely that monthly access charges will favor one type of tablet versus another.