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The Boston Globe

Computing without the learning curve

    August 25, 2011

“The touchscreen means that users can bypass the mouse and tap onscreen icons to control vital features.”

To judge by the eightysomethings at my church who pester me for technology advice, you're never too old to start using computers, although statistics suggest otherwise. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, less than a third of US citizens over the age of 75 ever go online. A Pennsylvania company called Venture 3 Systems LLC figures that's because today's personal computers are just too difficult to use. Well, they've certainly solved that problem. Their new Telikin, priced at $699 or $999, is a desktop device that serves up all the pleasures of the Internet, with hardly any of the frustration.

Telikin attacks the problem from two angles. Like everybody else, seniors find computer software confusing and hard to operate.

Older users also must cope with fading eyesight and trembling fingers, which make it hard to read tiny on-screen menus or steer a computer mouse.

So Venture 3 bought and adapted a bunch of touchscreen computers made by Micro-Star International Co. of Taiwan. The touchscreen means that users can bypass the mouse and tap onscreen icons to control vital features. As for software, Telikin abandoned Microsoft Corp.'s Windows operating system, replacing it with its own secret sauce, a customized version of the free Linux operating system.

That means that standard Windows programs, from Microsoft Office to Modern Warfare 2, won't run on the Telikin.

But on the upside, Telikin features a bold, simple user interface that's far easier for beginners than any Windows box. Users get painless, instant access to the computer's most valuable services simply by touching a few on-screen icons.

At start-up, you see the latest news headlines, the weather, notices of any incoming messages, and even a lovely landscape photo and an inspiring quote for the day. Along the left edge of the screen are icons to activate Telikin's key features. Touch an icon, and there's your e-mail box. Touch another, and you see a selection of popular websites about news, weather, entertainment, or religion. Pick the site you want, and a simplified version of the Firefox browser brings it to you. Want to video chat with the grandkids? Another icon launches the Skype Internet chat service and a directory of friends and relatives. A webcam and microphone are built into the MSI computer; touch the screen to place the call. I found video resolution to be mediocre, but the sound quality was excellent.

The Telikin has a 350-gigabyte hard drive for saving important documents, photos, and videos, and its built-in DVD drive lets it double as a movie player. It's easily connected to any home broadband system with an Ethernet port or a built-in Wi-Fi wireless system.

There are plenty of limitations, many of them deliberate. For instance, I have multiple e-mail accounts with Gmail, Yahoo, and Hotmail. But the Telikin's e-mail client allows just one to a customer; you'll have to use the browser to access the others. And because the browser doesn't support tabs or multiple windows, you can only visit one site at a time. These features were left out on purpose, to avoid confusing senior surfers. Another minor nuisance is the Telikin's sometimes sluggish performance. It's what you can expect from a computer that runs one of Intel Corp.'s low-powered Atom processors.

The Telikin that I tested crashed a couple of times; it appears there was a bug in the e-mail software. Frequent malfunctions would be bad news for average users, but Telikin offers good tech support options.

For $9.95 a month, the company will provide priority assistance, with a feature that lets a technician remotely control the computer and personally squash any bugs. The same price also buys unlimited backup of all your stored files, like photos and videos of the grandkids.

For all its good qualities, the Telikin will be a modest success at best. For one thing, its core market is small and getting smaller. Most baby boomers have been using computers for at least half our lives. As boomers age, most will probably keep right on using a keyboard and mouse, because we're comfortable with them.

Even standard PC or Mac computers can make life simpler for older users, or those with physical limitations like lousy eyesight.

Windows 7, for instance, has a built-in accessibility wizard where you can describe your problem: poor vision or hearing, for instance, or difficulty in using a mouse. Windows can then modify itself to help you out, with bigger icons, flashing on-screen alerts, or a slow-down setting that makes it easier to steer the mouse.

Telikin tells me they hope to create a version of their software for tablets. Good move: While the desktop version is destined to be a niche product, a tablet running Google Inc.'s Android software and sporting Telikin's smart user interface could be a mass-market hit, and not just with the old folks.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com

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