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Decking Out Linux for the Senior Set

Decking Out Linux for the Senior Set

What's best for Grandma "depends on the grandma and what she knows already," said blogger Kevin O'Brien. "If she has been using Windows XP, for instance, I would probably go with a KDE distribution such as Kubuntu or OpenSUSE. KDE looks sufficiently like older Windows that it will be fairly comfortable." However, if "Grandma has very little computer experience ..., I would probably try Ubuntu."

By Katherine Noyes
03/17/14 4:58 PM PT

Every once in a while here in the Linux blogosphere, a topic will suddenly pop up in multiple separate, unconnected places and take on a life of its own.

Perhaps it's some unseen cosmic force guiding Linux geeks' conversations in the same direction, or perhaps it's just Linux Girl's proclivity for drawing connections. In any case, it happened again earlier this month, and Linux Girl can't resist bringing it to light.

The topic at hand, you ask? Well, on Slashdot it was called "Linux for Grandma?" and it arose in an "Ask Slashdot" post seeking advice -- namely, "What combination of distro and UI would you recommend for an old, basic-level user who is accustomed to the XP interface and adverse to change?"

'The Real Work Was With Older Folks'

Linux Girl

On FOSS Force, however, it took the form of "Linux for Seniors 101", penned by none other than legendary Linux guru Ken Starks, and it wasn't long before it whipped up a conversation on LXer as well.

"When I realized that the real work was going to be with older folks, I opened my shop up from three to six PM daily so that anyone who wanted to practice using a computer could do so," Starks wrote. "My motive wasn't simply to teach them how to use a computer. It's helping them monitor their kids or grandkids use of the machine."

Grandparents' Day may not officially arrive until September, but it looks like it's come early here in the Linux blogosphere.

'My Greatest Challenge: My Own Mother'

"This is a subject very near and dear to me," Linux Rants blogger Mike Stone told Linux Girl over a fresh Tequila Tux down at the blogosphere's Punchy Penguin Saloon.

Though Stone spent several years teaching "how to" computer courses for faculty and staff at a local university back in the 90s, "all those years barely prepared me for my greatest challenge: my own mother," he said.

To wit: After buying his parents a Windows 95 computer way back when, "I sat her down and showed her how to use the basic hardware," he explained. Yet "even after hours a day over the course of weeks, the computer was too much for her. Windows just had too many options, and she kept getting herself into places she couldn't get out of.

"I literally spent years looking for environments that would make her comfortable," Stone went on. "She went through the Windows OSes (95, 98, ME and finally XP) and some Linuxes -- Red Hat first and then a couple variations of Ubuntu. She always found ways to get herself into trouble."

Chromebook to the Rescue

Finally, Stone settled on Linux, "because at a certain point I found it didn't matter what she had on the desktop, and Linux was easier for me to support from across the country," he recounted.

This year, however, "we finally found something that really worked for both of us," he said.

Namely? A Chromebook.

"The interface is familiar to her, and because it's Linux-based, the system is virtually bulletproof and updates itself," Stone explained. "It doesn't require a lot of confusing software (virus and malware scans and browsers and word processors), it's all included and I can upload pictures of her grandkids to her on my computer and she can view them on hers in an easy-to-use interface."

Bottom line? "The Chromebook is really a great solution, and while it doesn't work for everybody, it's been wonderful for my Mom," he concluded. "To me, that's the best endorsement I can give."

'A Bit of Clutter Is Good for Us Old Folks'

Blogger Robert Pogson had a personal tale of his own.

"Hey! I am a senior -- I know what seniors like," Pogson told Linux Girl. "Big screens, big fonts, lots of zoom on the browser. While you are at it, make the mouse pointer big and contrasty."

Accordingly, "use Xfce4 or some such point-and-click user interface," he suggested. "A bit of clutter is good for us old folks. Everything out in the open where it can't hide or be lost..."

Pogson recommends Debian GNU/Linux with a minimal installation of Xfce4 and "just a few things old folks like: weather plug-ins, Web browser loaded with bookmarks and lists of things to load at start up, weather plug-ins, bookmarks for gardening, Facebook or whatever the kids use, weather plug-ins, and bookmarks for news so we can chat about the folly of mankind."

'Did I Mention Weather Plug-Ins?'

Pogson had more to suggest: "Did I mention weather plug-ins?" he quipped. "That's so we can tell whether it's worthwhile putting on heavy coats in winter, rubber boots in spring, a wide hat in summer and more rubber boots in the fall. You young folks just don't appreciate how low the fires of age are burning.

"While you're at it, put in some database we can search to find our files if we download anything," he advised. "I use Recoll. That way, I can find every smart remark Bill G. ever wrote in those e-mails, what my postal code is again and every message anyone has ever sent me."

In short, "there are a couple of huge reasons every senior should have a GNU/Linux PC," Pogson concluded. "A GNU/Linux PC almost never forgets, and a GNU/Linux PC almost never ignores us -- unlike you youngsters and that other OS."

'KDE Looks Like Older Windows'

What's best for Grandma "depends on the grandma and what she knows already," Google+ blogger Kevin O'Brien suggested. "If she has been using Windows XP, for instance, I would probably go with a KDE distribution such as Kubuntu or OpenSUSE. KDE looks sufficiently like older Windows that it will be fairly comfortable."

If, on the other hand, "Grandma has very little computer experience but wants to get online and get pictures of the grandchildren, I would probably try Ubuntu," O'Brien added. "I think Unity works fine if you don't have preconceptions of how you want a desktop to work, and it is generally more polished than most others."

Google+ blogger Alessandro Ebersol, who works on the PCLinuxOS project, suggests -- not surprisingly -- PCLinuxOS.

"Unlike Mint or Ubuntu, it's a rolling release, so one installs it once and never has to worry when a new version is released," he explained.

Also, "it's blazing fast, even on old hardware, and has plenty of desktop environments and window managers, making it possible to run even on the more modest hardware," Ebersol added.

'Avoid Having to Make Changes Frequently'

"I'd use and recommend some long-term support release for my elders to avoid having to make changes too frequently," offered Google+ blogger Gonzalo Velasco C.

For example, "SolydX, Xubuntu, Lubuntu, even Ubuntu LTS, Zorin, Mageia, OpenSUSE, Debian (already installed and tuned) or any distro based on Debian stable, CentOS, ... you pick," he said. "Perhaps a distro already used by a relative or friend to create a small community to help and guide."

Similarly, "there may not be a singular best system here," opined Chris Travers, a blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project. "The beauty of Linux or BSD is that you can tailor it to the user."

'Whatever You Are Willing to Support'

Slashdot blogger hairyfeet had a different take.

Specifically, the best Linux distro for new, older users is "whatever you are willing to support," hairyfeet said.

"The first time that the update breaks the wireless or the sound, which it will, then YOU have to be support from now until that system dies, because no shops like mine will touch the thing with a 50-foot Hoveround," he explained.

"Ironically, it's Windows that now needs less support because of the one-two punch of increased security on the Windows side and Android painting a big old bullseye on the Linux side," hairyfeet added. "But if you are wiling to put in the work, or disable updates and hope grandma doesn't run into one of those 'there is a flash update' banners that uses XS to deliver OS-specific malware? Then frankly any distro will work since they aren't gonna be the IT guy from now on, YOU are."

'People Are Afraid of Breaking Things'

Last but not least, "you are never too old to learn," consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told Linux Girl.

"Back when I was going through some tough times job-wise, I made some extra money teaching seniors how to use their computers," Mack recounted. "The main issues are that people have still not gotten over how easy it was to permanently break Windows 3.x, 9.x, etc. Microsoft has made huge improvements since then, but people are still afraid of breaking things."

The other problem with both Windows and Linux is that "it is easy to hit a key and everything is now different, with no hint on what you did to do it and how to get back," he explained.

Other than that, "seniors are actually easier than many others to get running on Linux since they often don't want or need anything more than email and a Web browser," Mack pointed out. "I will never forget having my friend's grandmother ask me to check out her blog."


Katherine Noyes is always on duty in her role as Linux Girl, whose cape she has worn since 2007. A mild-mannered journalist by day, she spends her evenings haunting the seedy bars and watering holes of the Linux blogosphere in search of the latest gossip. You can also find her on Twitter and Google+.


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