This Tablet Makes It Easy to Zoom With Older Loved Ones

We had trouble contacting my mother-in-law for months during the lockdowns. Like many older folks, she still relied on a landline phone. When she didn’t pick up, my wife would wonder whether she was out, couldn’t hear the phone, or was unable to answer. And when she did pick up, we’d still wonder if she was really OK.

She was a professional musician before she retired and can still turn out an impressive tune on the viola, but she lacks confidence with technology. She has a mobile phone, but she insists on turning it off most of the time, despite our protests that doing so renders it useless.

We’ve tried to set her up with Skype for years, to no avail, and we’ve spent hours trying to get her up to speed on WhatsApp—only to discover she had forgotten her Wi-Fi password and hasn’t been online for months. Nothing worked until the GrandPad, a walled-garden tablet for seniors.

Designed for Elders

Photograph: GrandPad

“Smartphones are designed by 30-year-olds for 30-year-olds,” said Scott Lien, GrandPad’s CEO and cofounder. “We set out to design a product from scratch for someone who is 80.”

Lien started the company because his elderly mother struggled to use smartphones and computers. He recruited advisers in their eighties and nineties to learn what they wanted from a device and identify common usability problems.

The GrandPad is an Acer tablet that runs a heavily customized version of Android. The specs are dated. It’s about the size of an Apple iPad Mini, with an 8-inch screen, an HD pixel resolution, a Qualcomm 625 processor, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and 32 gigabytes of storage for apps and files. Both the front and rear cameras are rated at 5 megapixels. 

The tablet comes as part of a monthly subscription that costs a hefty $79 per month or $696 for the year, but it’s a complete package. There’s 4G LTE connectivity out of the box, so no need to worry about Wi-Fi passwords, and it offers ad-free music streaming—with access to more than 30 million tracks (provided by 7Digital)—radio stations, “safe” web browsing, unlimited photo and video storage, and a library of games and puzzles that includes solitaire, sudoku, poker, and crosswords. If the GrandPad is ever damaged or lost, you’ll get a replacement device. 

The tablet rests on a wireless charging cradle with a long power cable that’s permanently attached. My mom set hers up on the table in her living room. The screen comes to life automatically when she opens the folding cover, so she doesn’t have to worry about turning it on or off, and she quickly got used to popping it on the charging stand after use to keep the battery topped up. She finds it much easier to use than her phone, thanks to the larger screen and simple interface. 

The front-facing speakers aren’t just loud, they are tuned to a frequency that makes it easier to hear for those with hearing loss. The interface features enlarged icons with text clearly labeling everything, and the contacts have photos with names beneath. There is also 24/7 support available with a real person who talks through issues and provides remote tech support when required. 

We ran through how to use it, but the first time my wife called her mom on the GrandPad she didn’t pick up. A quick landline call revealed that she hadn’t answered because “it didn’t ring, it played a tune.” One explanation later, she started answering and making calls on the tablet, and it has been smooth sailing since.

I added classical music and crosswords, but what my mom loves most is the family photos and videos we uploaded. The GrandPad acts as a digital photo frame when it’s not in use. 

Versatile Video Calls

The GrandPad does audio calls, emails, or recorded messages, but the main attraction is video calls. One-to-one video calls are as straightforward as can be. Our regular video calls have been smooth and stable, but this will depend on your internet connection. The GrandPad has 4G LTE connectivity, which worked great for us because there was no need to connect to Wi-Fi, although this is an option. 

For folks who aren’t very mobile, you can set up the auto-answer feature, so the call will automatically start after a few rings. You can join group calls on Zoom, which works well on the tablet, but the interface has been simplified with arrows to cycle through callers or a grid view. You can also type messages that appear onscreen during a call, which can be very useful for the hearing impaired.

Because it’s portable, the GrandPad can replace a cell phone, and elders can take it with them when they go out. This could be useful if they want you to sit in on a doctor’s visit or another appointment where you can’t be there in person.  

Circle of Trust

Photograph: GrandPad

Being able to remotely administer the GrandPad is handy. I can log in through the website or the mobile app (Android or iPhone) to tweak what appears on the tablet and review basic usage statistics to see which apps are being used. Everyone who installs the GrandPad app through an invite can call or post messages to a family feed.

Having a closed group also keeps things secure and protects your elders from online scams. Access is by invitation only. There are no cold calls or spam messages to worry about. The GrandPad keeps itself up to date, so the stress of software updates and pop-ups that often confuse older folks with regular phones and tablets is removed. All communications between the tablet and the internet are encrypted, and no phone numbers or email addresses are viewable on the GrandPad.

Is It Worth It?

The GrandPad is not perfect. It feels a lot like a sturdier version of Amazon’s Fire HD 8 tablet. There isn’t much lag, perhaps because the software is so tightly controlled, so you can’t install a lot of junk. (There’s no Play Store access.) The screen froze up once during a call, but it righted itself within a few minutes. We’ve been using it for around six weeks and haven’t encountered any other problems. 

The effort to keep things simple is understandable, but a few features are missing. The option to watch video from services like Netflix might be welcomed by some folks, as would the ability to read ebooks. A medication reminder feature would be useful for many. If this is the do-it-all device that an older person uses to go online, these extras would add value.

You could try and cobble together a similar solution yourself and set up a phone or tablet for your elder, but it won’t be as slick or intuitive as the GrandPad. You also have to pay quite a bit for an unlimited data plan, which is included as standard here, and there’s the music and games on top.

But deciding whether the GrandPad justifies the cost is about more than a feature list. When my mother-in-law fell ill, the value of face time through video calls came into sharp relief. My wife was very grateful to be able to look her in the eyes and make sure she was coping. It brought us peace of mind. Her mother loves to see the grandkids more often, and she saw her son who lives overseas face-to-face for the first time in a few years.

Ultimately, the GrandPad is a reliable way to stay connected with even the most technophobic of elderly loved ones when you aren’t able to visit in person, and it’s hard to put a price on that.

If you buy the GrandPad direct, it costs $79 per month with a $29 setup and shipping fee, or $696 for the year with free shipping and setup. Buy it through Consumer Cellular and it’s $250 upfront and $40 a month. It’s also available from TechSilver in the UK and Ireland.

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Simon Hill