Seniors: Have you considered a tablet?

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Tech experts say tablet computers can be a good option for older adults who’d like an easy way to keep in touch with friends and family via the Internet, but don’t need or have space for a desktop or laptop computer. Tablets also can be used as e-readers, and a growing number of apps allow users to do everything from tracking baseball scores or organizing recipes to playing games like solitaire or Scrabble. (I-Stock)

Tablet computers are relatively new, but their use is growing fast.

According to the Pew Research Center, the share of adults in the United States who own tablet computers nearly doubled from 10 percent to 19 percent between mid-December 2012 and early January 2013. E-book reader use also jumped from 10 to 19 percent over the same time period. Overall, nearly 30 percent of Americans owned at least one of these devices in early January.

But among adults 65 and older, only about seven percent have a tablet, and 12 percent own an e-reader.

Many of his students get a tablet so that they can keep in touch with friends and family — especially with grandchildren — through email, video calls, and photo-sharing or social media websites like Facebook. Cases with built-in wireless keyboards are popular among folks who would prefer not to type on a touch screen, he adds.Tech experts say there are many reasons for seniors to consider this emerging technology.

“A tablet is so easy to use, “ says John Whaley, who teaches technology courses for students 50-plus at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids. “You can do a lot with it, but it’s simple. It doesn’t need to be plugged in all the time, it’s very portable, and it doesn’t take up a lot of room — you don’t need a dedicated office space to use it. For a lot of people, it’s less intimidating than a laptop or desktop computer, and it’s more than sufficient for their computer needs.”

Other seniors primarily want to download and read e-books and other materials, whether that means purchasing the books or borrowing them from the local library, says Josh Eklow, who developed the Pocket Gadget Workshop class for the Iowa City Senior Center in September 2010.

A recent study found that although many older adults perceive print as being more readable, they actually had an easier time reading on digital devices such as tablets. The researchers concluded that the backlight displays on a tablet offer better “text discriminability,” or higher contrast. It probably doesn’t hurt, either, that the technology makes it easy for people to instantly increase font size or screen brightness to aid with readability.

Both Whaley and Eklow like to point out that there are thousands of additional uses for tablets, thanks to an ever-increasing variety of inexpensive and easy-to-download apps (short for “application software”).

“Their eyes light up with, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t know that I could download an app to find recipes or check baseball scores or play games like solitaire,’” Whaley says. “They may have bought the tablet for email and Internet, but when they realize they can use it for more, that’s the biggest ‘ah-ha moment’ that I see in the 50-plus demographic.”

Adds Eklow: “It’s a different view of technology. A lot of people who don’t use technology see it as very utilitarian. Once they find they can do fun things with it, too, that’s when they really get empowered.”

Both instructors say that tablets are very user-friendly, and that help is readily available for those who would like an expert to guide them through their use. In addition to classes and help labs at local senior centers, libraries and community colleges, there are plenty of books — both print and electronic — as well as Internet resources. Plus, since a tablet is so portable, it’s easy to bring it along to a class or to visit a tech-savvy friend or family member to ask for tips.

“One thing I always stress is, especially with tablets, is it’s very hard to break anything just by playing with it. It used to be that if you threw the wrong file out you could kill the whole computer; you can’t really do that anymore,” Eklow says. “If you want to learn something with technology, just play with it. You won’t break it.”

Eklow and Whaley are fans of the Apple iPad, but they say that the best tablet is the one that the person who owns it feels comfortable using. “Most tablets have the same functionality, so it’s just a matter of your personal preferences,” Eklow says.

E-reader vs. tablet: What’s the difference?

An e-reader is a handheld electronic device designed primarily for reading e-books. Users can download electronic books directly onto the device anywhere they have a Wi-Fi (wireless Internet) connection. They have matte black-and-white “e-ink” screens that offer a reading experience more similar to paper than a standard screen. They can range from $70 to $150. Popular e-readers include the Amazon Kindle Paperwhite and the Barnes & Noble Nook Simple Touch.

A tablet is a handheld touch-screen computer. It can be used to access the Internet and run a wide array of “apps” — or programs. It can be used to display or play any type of media, including books, magazines, music, movies, games and more. Some can take high-quality video and photos, or even make phone calls. They can range from $160 to more than $800. Popular tablets include the Apple iPad, the Google Nexus and Samsung Galaxy Note. The Barnes & Noble Nook HD+ and the Amazon Kindle Fire are considered tablets.


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