Why do you almost never send handwritten letters to loved ones? The effort — locating pen and paper, writing, addressing and stamping — can seem colossal on any given, always busy, day. But keeping in touch is easier than you (and they) may think.
Want to do something nice for your loved ones? Keep in touch with them more often. If you've got friends or family members who aren't so good about online communication, these apps and tips make video chat, simplified email and photo sharing easier to do on a regular basis.
Making a web connection isn't about "fixing" a relative's computer — though that's not a bad idea, next time you're visiting. It's about lowering the barriers for communication, for both yourself and the person on the other end, so you can get used to keeping in touch through the easiest available methods.
If it's that hard for you, it's doubly hard for a person who didn't constantly have a computer in front of them their whole careers. There are, thankfully, solutions that don't require either side to invest far too much time and effort to get started with. The reward is time well spent with far-off family members, which will certainly pay dividends for a long time to come.
Set up their computer
The apps we want to use to connect are pretty easy to install, for the most part. But if sending a bunch of download links over email to a relative isn't a realistic option, you can do the setting up yourself, from nearly anywhere in the world, with minimal pain. We've previously provided an in-depth list of tools for giving tech support or grabbing files from any system, but below are the two easiest solutions. (We're not even going to pretend your relatives are using Linux, but, if they are, see if you can walk them through connecting to your reverse VNC setup.)
CrossLoop: (Windows) The How-To Geek loves this little remote-control app, and for good reason: It's a VNC remote control app without all the back-end fiddling ("Do you know your IP address, Uncle Robert? OK, type 'cmd' into the start bar ..."). The client only has to install the software and tell you their access code, and you run the same app and connected from your end. The Geek's site detailed the connection in a screenshot tour. It's secure enough for a one-shot Skype setup or settings fiddling, because it requires a fairly complex code and doesn't persist on the computer beyond your session and the next time they shut down.
LogMeIn Free: (Windows/Mac) It's another fancy, all-in-one VNC client, but it works between PCs and Macs. Doesn't offer the remote file transfer of CrossLoop, and is just a little more complicated for the relative you're having install it to get going with it. Still, it claims and (generally) delivers "two-minute setup", and, though intended for accessing your own home computer at the office and elsewhere, it still works as a tech support tool.
Make their system more accessible
If you've got remote access to a relatives' computer, you can also make it easier for them to use. Bigger type, screen magnification, higher contrast themes and other tools can make the computer an easier place to navigate for older relatives, but they might never discover those options on their own.
Set up video chat
These days, nearly every laptop has a webcam and microphone built in, and USB-connected webcams are cheap and easy to set up. Video chat is a lot more personal than a phone call, and feels like the next best thing to jumping in your car and visiting. (It's especially good for keeping up with the grandkids, nieces and nephews as they continue to grow up so fast.)
Skype is the go-to pick for video chat — it works on Windows, Mac and Linux, and it's been designed to be fairly easy to install and get started without having to dive into the preferences and configuration settings. If you're not there, either in-person or remotely, most computer users can set up Skype just by clicking Next, Next, OK all the way through the installation process, minus one pause to set up an account. They'll end up with Skype automatically starting and logging them in when their computer boots into Windows, but that's something you can undo later, or not worry too much about if they've got a decently new system.
If Skype isn't going to work for your relatives, in terms of software setup, try the web-based TokBox. It's free for both parties, it's one of our favourite video chat applications, and the quality is surprisingly good for a web-based client. You can sign up your relative for an account ahead of time, then simply email them a link to the chat you're initiating with them, along with their username and password.
Last, Gmail's video chat functionality installs via a browser plug-in and works surprisingly well, too — provided everyone involved has a Gmail account.
Better email for everyone
You don't always have time, or the right hair, to jump into a video chat. Sending an email is probably second nature to you, but some relatives hate their email — and you would, too, if you had it their way. Help them reconnect with the (type)written word.
The New York Times recommends a stripped-down email service called PawPawMail for computer unsavvy relatives, which any more tech-patient relative can set up for the email account that they've likely received from their cable, DSL or other internet provider. It's a nice, simplified interface for email, and probably far easier to use than Outlook Express, Windows Live Mail or even Mail.app for Mac — the picture aggregation is a nice touch. Then again, it's also $US5 per month, so you'll want to test it out before committing.
My own mother also grew to loathe desktop email clients, especially when her ISP's tech support would have to talk her through SMTP setup. So, using Gina's guide to consolidating multiple email addresses with Gmail, and Gmail's mail and contact importer, I set her up with a Gmail account that used her same password and, more importantly, sent and received email transparently through her ISP. Her friends didn't have to update their address books, and once she saw the magic of auto-complete, as-you-type contact names, she was hooked. I also set up sidebar labels hooked to filters that show her emails from her children, automatic notices of bills due and so on.
My in-laws have a desktop computer in the living room, as well as a laptop. My wife and I would only occasionally receive digital photos from them, and they'd either be gigantic, 3MB-each files, or tiny thumbnails forwarded from a photo developing service. While at their house during Christmas, I showed them the Picasa desktop software (available on Windows and Macs), particularly the clever facial recognition and easy collage features. I set it up on their system, set it to always watch their desktop, downloads and pictures folder, and returned home.
When we returned for the holidays, they had a special gift prepared for a son of theirs: a T-shirt featuring a photo collage of family members, assembled and ordered right from Picasa. I was pretty floored; these were folks I've long been the Computer Explainer for, but Picasa was intuitive enough for them to manage on their own, even into the advanced features. The main thing that required a little explanation was the somewhat quirky "holding"/thumbtack system, and its difference from "Starred" photos, but other than that, it's a perfect photo simplifier: the left-hand folders are albums that show up automatically, the main window is filled with pictures, and photos are automatically knocked into manageable but visible size for emailing — and it's even easier if you set up a Gmail holder account for the user.
That's one editor's take on making computer computer connections easier to keep up with, across long distances and different levels of tech savvy. What tools have you used to stay in touch with your less computer-friendly relatives? We'd love to hear the recommendations in the comments.