How to set up a FaceTime 'picture phone'

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Reader Bob Kadarauch isn’t interested in a do-it-all device. He writes:

Does anyone manufacture hardware specifically, and only, for using FaceTime? I want to give my 90-year-old mother a “picture phone.” If I tell her it’s a computer, she won’t use it!

If you specifically want to use FaceTime, you’ll have to employ some kind of Apple device. And, as you’re likely aware, Apple devices aren’t one-trick ponies. So the short answer is “no.” The longer answer goes a little something like this.

My mother’s husband was 100 years old when he used his first iOS device. It was an iPad, and we presented him with it so that he could read ebooks. Knowing that he held no truck with electronic gimcrackery, I didn’t bother to ask him if he was interested in using such a device or to launch into a long explanation of why it could be the answer to his difficulty finding enough large-print books from the local library.

Rather, I fired up iBooks, downloaded a book I knew he’d enjoy, and placed the iPad on his lap.

“Here, Lew, I found a book I think you’ll like. Try reading it.”

With that he read down the first page and—exactly as Apple had planned it—he swiped to the left to “turn the page.”

I didn’t see the iPad for the next three hours.

Let’s take this lesson and apply it to your mother. The one thing you’d like her to do is to carry on video calls with you. Before investing in an iOS device to do that, I’d arrange an experiment. Bring your iPad or iPhone or whatever it is that you have, sit down with your mom, and fire up a FaceTime call with someone she cares to talk to—grandchildren are often a good bet. If she shrinks away from communicating that way, you have a very strong clue that a “picture phone” may not be for her. Many people don’t like being put on camera, and if she’s among them, I’d respect her wishes.

If she seems to take to it, you can show her how to answer and make calls. If she grasps that and can see and hear to her satisfaction, check again that she likes this sort of thing, and if she gives her assent, pursue your plans.

About the device

First, if she doesn’t need (or won’t use) a mobile phone, forget about the iPhone. Its data plan is costly and the device is overkill for what you want to do. If she seems okay using a device that she holds in one hand, an iPod touch is a better option. The $229 16GB iPod touch is a particularly good choice in that it lacks a rear-facing camera so there’s no danger that she’ll accidentally flip from the front to the back camera.

Of course if you get an iPod touch, you’ll need to wire her home for Wi-Fi. This is not something you should burden her with. You take care of it and pay for the service. Just make sure the network will reach to wherever she’s likely to use the device.

If you’re concerned that she’ll move out of range, that holding such a device in her hand will be a problem, or that the text will be too small to read (a problem for many people on iOS 7), get an iPad mini instead and put it in some kind of stand so that she can sit down in front of it for her calls. Place it near a power source and plug it in.

Setting up the device

You should take care of the initial setup and create an iCloud account for her. You will use that ID to contact her. I’d then move everything but the FaceTime icon off of the first few homepages. To make this step more convenient for yourself, create a folder, fling in everything that fits (including items from the Dock), and move the folder out of harm’s way. I would additionally turn off Messages (which you can do within the Messages setting) and anything else other than FaceTime that could possibly pop up unannounced.

You’ll need to configure FaceTime so that she has ready access to the people she’d like to speak with. To do that launch FaceTime on the device, tap the Contacts item, tap the plus (+) button, and start entering names and the means of contacting those names. I would enter a single point of contact—an iPhone’s phone number or iCloud address, for example—so that all she needs to do is tap the FaceTime entry for that person to initiate the call.

Then conduct a few test calls with her—some in which she answers and some in which she initiates the call. Again, grandchildren are a good motivator. Show her how to turn the volume up and down.

Finally, check in with her by means other than FaceTime and ask how she’s getting on. If there are things that confuse or frustrate her, lend a helping hand (in person). If she’s sailing along, casually mention a couple of other miracles the device can perform. Before you know it, she may be telling you how to get more out of your technology.

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