Time for an Upgrade, Dad
Feel like a tech dinosaur? How to join the 21st century (and show off to your kids) without going broke.
(MONEY Magazine) – FACE IT: Your kids think you're out of touch when it comes to technology. Sure, you check e-mail; you've mastered your digital camera; you're a whiz at Google. But you still have a clunky phone; you still watch TV shows (and commercials) right when they air; you still listen to CDs, for heaven's sake; and you keep your laptop plugged into the cable modem. As much as you hate to admit it, your kids might be right—you could be missing something.
Alas, even for a generation that fomented cultural revolution, keeping up with the latest gadgetry (and the Jones Juniors) can be a little overwhelming. Some 40% of baby boomers think of themselves as "tech shy," according to a recent study by Experian Simmons market research. Maybe you're one of them, or maybe you're eager for new gear but are just looking for the right advice or opportunity to buy in. Your offspring might try to convince you to invest in the Razr, TiVo, an iPod and Wi-Fi. (Hey, it's not their money.) Here's what's in it for you...
Set your computer free
By now your kids have probably convinced you to get broadband Internet service—that is, a cable or DSL modem. It is nice to have an "always on" connection after all those years of dial-up, right? Now they're hinting that you should set up wireless, a.k.a. "Wi-Fi," networking. Admittedly, you're wooed by the possibility of surfing the Web from the sofa or elsewhere.
› WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Yes, Wi-Fi can give you freedom to move around with your laptop, and it allows Web access for multiple computers. But setting up a full-out network can be frustrating.
› THE COOL-BOOMER SOLUTION There is a shortcut. But first things first: Are your computers Wi-Fi enabled? (Most laptops made since 2003 are; desktops generally aren't.) If not, you can buy a Wi-Fi USB adapter for around $30. Now, if all you'd really like to do is work from the couch, consider wall-plug, a.k.a. "powerline," Ethernet adapters, such as the Netgear XE104G ($120 for two). You plug one into an electric socket near your modem, then plug another into the socket closest to your La-Z-Boy. Congrats, you have just created a bridge through your home's electrical wiring. If you also want the ability to share files, printers and Web access, you'll need a wireless "router" ($30 to $200)—preferably Linksys or Netgear for PC; AirPort Extreme for Mac—and the phone number for the Geek Squad.
Watch TV without commercials
Your kids say that the TiVo digital video recorder (DVR) is life-changing: You tell it what TV shows you like, and it saves them until you have time to watch. If the phone rings once you're settled in, hit pause. Your show will be waiting patiently when you return. Better yet, you can fast-forward through ads. What's not to like?
› WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW The trouble is that the actual TiVo product, though very user-friendly, costs a lot up front ($70 to $800) and requires you to pay up to $20 a month in addition to your already high cable or satellite TV bill. Worse, all but the priciest TiVos degrade picture quality, especially on big-screen TVs.
› THE COOL-BOOMER SOLUTION Rent a generic DVR from your cable or satellite provider. A DVR offers most of TiVo's vital services, but you don't have to plunk down big bucks for the product—just pay $10 or less per month. (You may also need to upgrade to digital cable.) And because it records incoming digital feeds, there's no difference in picture quality between live and recorded programs. This is key for anyone who has or wants a high-def TV. The best part: A cable company rep will set it up and may even teach you to use it. That's more than you can say for Junior.
Share memories by the megabyte
Your kids take pictures constantly, uploading shots to their MySpace page or to Flickr, the hippest of photo-sharing sites, then "tagging" them with keywords so even strangers can enjoy them. As for you? Well, if only you could figure out how to get them off the camera or e-mail them to your family...
› WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW What makes it easy for them to zip through their snapshots is quality photo-organizing software. Most programs that come with cameras are cheap afterthoughts. (The exception: Kodak's EasyShare.) But good software automatically downloads photos from your camera, easily locates pics on your hard drive and presents your collection in a visual catalog.
› THE COOL-BOOMER SOLUTION If you have a Mac, use the pre-installed iPhoto; if you have Windows Vista for PC, use the Photo Gallery. Everyone else, download Google's free Picasa software (picasa.google.com). Any of these easy programs will help you manage your photos and let you perform simple edits like removing red-eye.
Shred your CDs
Your kids won't leave the house without a credit-card-size device that holds their entire music collection. How'd they make all those albums fit into such a tiny space?
› WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW Despite the fact that Apple has sold nearly 90 million iPods since 2001, less than 5% of boomers have bought in, reports Experian Simmons. Only a few more download jams online. So there's still time to be ahead of your peers.
› THE COOL-BOOMER SOLUTION Before you invest in a player, get comfortable converting CD tracks to MP3s. Download iTunes for free at apple.com (it runs on Macs and Windows PCs). Once it's installed, insert a CD—iTunes will "rip" songs off it. Repeat. Now you can play your collection from your computer. Next step: Take your music with you. For that you'll need an iPod ($80 to $350). Oh, sure, there are other music players out there, but Apple earned its rep with more than clever marketing. The iPod is a dependable device, low on frustrations. And hip enough to make you feel years younger.
Useful is the new cool
Phones are thinner than ever but have more processing power than your last computer. They take pictures, surf the Web, manage e-mail and download videos. Your kids say go for the sleekest thing available; the spitfires at work say the newest BlackBerry is a must-have. You tell them you'll consider it—once you learn how to use your address book.
› WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW PDA phones like the BlackBerry and Treo look cool, but unless the IT folks at work issued you one, you probably don't need it. These Internet-friendly phones can be tough to set up and come with costly plans. As for those slim 'n' sexy models like the Razr, they are not always tops for battery life or call quality. Larger phones hold battery charge longer, and a visible antenna may mean fewer dropped calls. The joke is, big phones with big antennas are often free with contract renewal.
› THE COOL-BOOMER SOLUTION Skip the video download package, walkie-talkie service and MP3 player. But do brush up on text messaging, especially if you have a tween, a teen or a twenty-something. All phones on the market support the feature, though you'll want to find out how much it costs to send and receive messages (most plans charge 10¢ each; unless you send more than 50 a month, it's not worth getting a package). Also consider Bluetooth, which allows you to speak hands-free and wirelessly via a headset (about $50). All the better for safe driving, and your image.
Toys made just for you 125
The best of Irish whiskey 126
Tech toys that were designed with you—and not your kids—in mind
If you have a lot of old LPs...
Want to listen to them on CD or even on an iPod? Consider a vinyl-to-CD burner. Just place the record on the turntable and it converts to CD. It's not perfect—it'll record the pops and scratches with the music. But it's a great way to preserve the tunes and share them with your kids.
Teac GF-350 ($400)
If you're an old-school photo buff...
Modeled after the film-based single-lens-reflex cameras, digital SLR cameras don't just take nice pics in auto mode. They also give you manual control, such as f-stops, shutter speed and white balance. Those photography classes you took in the '70s will finally pay off.
Nikon D40 ($600)
If you love spending time on the road...
Take a portable GPS navigator with you. It'll tell you every turn you need to take to get from Bangor to San Diego, as well as restaurants and hotels along the way. Don't forget to take it with you if you rent a car when visiting the kids at college.
Magellan RoadMate 6000T ($600)