Nora Taylor is pretty computer literate for a grandma. She's on her fifth or sixth computer, and few 86-year-olds keep back copies of Wired magazine in their living rooms.
Though she likes to read about the cutting edge, Nora doesn't tend to spend money for the latest gadget. Her seven-year-old Compaq computer runs Windows 98, and she uses a $10-a-month dial-up connection service called BlueLight to connect to the Web.
She uses the Web to stay in touch with family members in Florida and Arizona, to run genealogy software programs and to keep up an e-mail list she administers for retired federal employees like her. More a reader than a computer user, Nora also buys books on Amazon.com and eBay; when a library book is due, she gets an e-mail reminder from the Montgomery County library system.
The best upgrade she's made to her Compaq is an optical mouse, which she recommends highly. Recently, though, her computer picked up a problem that's keeping her offline. After hours on the phone, the troubleshooters at her Internet service provider told her the machine had a hardware virus, though she wasn't sure what that meant.
The problem was almost enough to get her to upgrade, but one thing is keeping her from moving on: New computers don't have 3.5-inch floppy-disk drives, and much of the data she wants to access is on that now mostly phased-out format.
What would her next computer be? "I think I do want a laptop, but I haven't looked enough," she said. That way, maybe, she could connect wirelessly into her 17-year-old granddaughter's cable-modem connection upstairs.
Gift suggestions for the grandparent on your list
$ Customized photo book or calendar -- It's low-tech for Grandma but high-tech for the gift-giver. Load those digital photos of the grandkids into a customized calendar or, better yet, create a hardcover coffee-table photo book that friends will admire. Those products and other custom photo gifts are available on the Shutterfly, Snapfish, Kodak EasyShareGallery and other Web sites. $20; Also consider: a USB floppy disk reader for access to those older files. Look for an all-in-one reader, such as the Iomega Floppy Plus 7-in-1 card reader, which will also read memory cards found in most digital cameras. $40.
$$ Zooba -- It's where the book-of-the-month club meets Netflix. Members list the books they'd like to receive in the mail every month -- not the ones someone else selects for you -- by creating and updating a list. Visit www.zooba.com for more details. $10 per month.
$$$ XM2Go portable satellite radio -- Few stations devote themselves solely to Big Band music or Frank Sinatra-era tunes from the 1950s. But XM Radio has them. And a portable player -- tell Grandma it's just like a transistor radio -- allows her to walk around the house while strolling down memory lane. $200; Also consider: products that operate on the competing Sirius Satellite Radio network.
$$$$ Laptop computer -- A laptop computer can bring Grandma into the 21st century, but settling for the basics in a machine instead of grabbing a top-of-the-line unit will keep from breaking the bank. Take the Dell Inspiron 2200, for example. It comes with built-in WiFi, a 40-giagbyte hard drive, a CD burner and more -- all for less than $700.