Contributed by Steven Kelley, CVRT

Earlier this fall, AARP and partner Intel began selling RealPad, an Android-based tablet computer designed specifically for tech shy consumers over the age of 50. JoAnn Jenkins, the CEO of AARP, reported, “Our members have frequently expressed that the complexity, frustration and headaches of using technology just aren’t worth the trouble. RealPad is our answer to address the challenges that are preventing technology-shy Americans 50 years and older from fully embracing the benefits of technology such as connecting with family, friends, communities and enjoying books, games, and learning.”

Older Adults Face Several Unique Barriers and Challenges In Adopting New Technologies

AARP members are also reflecting PEW research findings in a April, 2014 report, Older Adults and Technology Use. These findings found, in brief, that these included:

  1. Physical challenges to using technology
  2. Skeptical attitudes about the benefits of technology
  3. Difficulties learning to use new technologies

What Sets the RealPad Apart From Other Tablets to Address These Barriers?

homepage with realpad apps

Having identified several characteristics creating barriers to technology for older consumers, the RealPad comes with several significant features to set it apart from other tablets. One of the most obvious includes an initial home screen with commonly used software programs, or apps in large icons. These icons are a bit easier to see and make it simpler to locate and open apps for email, calendar, an address book called People, AccuWeather, News, etc.

  • A separate menu bar that appears on the initial home screen, and is available at anytime while using the RealPad has six large icons that include: AARP, Real Help, Real Quick Fix, Web, All Apps, and Settings. Real Help and Real Quick Fix are designed specifically to address some of the concerns of consumers intimidated by technology. Touching Real Quick Fix opens a screen to show the status of the battery, memory usage and WIFI. Issues with any of these features presumably may be fixed by pressing the appropriate “Repair” button.
  • Touching the Real Help icon opens a section of videos from AARP on RealPad basics, and video tutorials on the Internet, email, and WIFI to name a few. There is a link to the AARP’s website and a more extensive list of tutorials.
  • Perhaps even more importantly, this page has the Real Customer Support button which takes users to a page with the toll free customer support number and a link to email customer support. The telephone customer support, is 24/7, at no additional cost, and unlimited! The only other device to offer this type of customer support is the Amazon Kindle HDX, which offers similar support through its MayDay button. Kindle support is provided through video conferencing on the device, RealPad support is provided over the phone, although support techs may connect to a user’s device to make changes to it remotely.
screen shot of realpad help buttons and videos

What’s the Same?

Underneath the larger icons, the help tutorials, and the free tech support, the RealPad is a competitively priced, 7.8 inch display Android tablet running the KitKat operating system. In size, it is similar to an iPad Mini or bit larger than the Kindle 7 HDX. It is comparable to similarly priced Android tablets with 16 gigabyte storage, a micro SD card slot, front and rear cameras so it may be used for taking photos or video chat, like Skype. The Intel processor gives it plenty of speed for routine tasks like watching videos, viewing web pages, etc.

Beneath the Bling

No question about it, AARP has identified a niche of late adopters, older consumers reluctant to embrace, or indifferent to tablet computers, and the possible benefits they may bring along with the intimidating learning curve.

Issues for People With Visual Impairments

  • The initial setup of the RealPad tested was very simple, following the printed instructions on the screen identified a WIFI in the area, walked me through setting up my existing email account, etc. With vision acknowledged as a potential barrier to the use of a tablet it was disappointing to open the printed user’s guide that came in the RealPad and find newsprint sized text.
  • Much of the text in the introductory set-up on the RealPad was also in a relatively small font. If this is being marketed for older people, and we know that nearly 30% over the age of 75 have a vision impairment, why not use large print, or enable screen reading during the initial set-up?
  • The RealPad uses Android 4.4 commonly called KitKat (yes, like the candy bar!), so it has significant built-in accessibility features, such as a larger font size, magnifying gestures to zoom in the screen, captions, and a screenreader called TalkBack, that reads the text on the screen with a speech synthesizer. Users will not know any of this from the user manual, the videos in the Real Help, or the initial set-up options. Again, considering the market the RealPad is targeted for, the inclusion of a video or basic instructions on the accessibility features would be welcome.

Concern Related to Hearing Impairment

The font size seems easier to overlook than the poor sound quality from the twin speakers on the back of the RealPad. The font size can later be changed in the accessibility settings, but the only thing that will improve the sound is wearing headphones or using an external speaker. The sound quality is well below the Kindle Fire HD, and not comparable at all to an iPad. For some, the poor sound quality will be a deal breaker. Considering the target market, what were AARP and Intel thinking when outfitting the speakers on the RealPad?

Real Help Technical Support

If you call the 24/7 Real Help technical support number, however, and ask for assistance turning on these accessibility options, the support staff can walk you through them or log into the RealPad remotely, over the Internet, to set them up.

During this review, three calls were placed to RealPad tech support and answered within two minute by someone who knew where the accessibility features were located in settings, for TalkBack, Magnification Gestures, and Large Fonts. One walked me through setting up magnification and larger fonts, the other did it remotely for me. He also answered several questions in a clear, patient manner, and reported that the goal for RealPad support was to respond to calls within a minute. That day he said they were meeting that goal 75% of the time. Two days prior, my first call to RealPad support placed in the evening resulted in a 40 minute wait, and a tech support person who clearly was unfamiliar with the accessibility features, and finally suggested looking for a magnifier on the Google Play Store to download.

While three of the four tech supporters knew where accessibility features were located, none was familiar enough with the gestures of either TalkBack or Magnification to offer more than instructions for turning the features on. One had me tap the screen three times to start the magnifier after turning it on, but was unaware that a pinch gesture was required to increase the magnification. Another tech support person directed me to the switch to turn on Talk Back, but was unable to tell me how it worked, or how to turn on the tutorial.

If you are interested in learning more about TalkBack, try the YouTube video, Intro to TalkBack in Android KitKat, by Luis Perez. On the RealPad, you may learn more about TalkBack after turning it on by tapping on the Settings located next to the TalkBack switch used to turn it on. Tap on Launch “Explore by Touch” tutorial. This will provide you the basics needed to begin using TalkBack.

To Buy or Not to Buy?

The RealPad may be ordered directly from AARP online or at a local Walmart, the only retailer currently selling it. If sound quality is an important consideration, do ask for a demonstration before purchasing. At $189, the RealPad is a competitively priced tablet. The Real Help icon and ease of initial set-up are good starts for older users. Both could be easily and substantially improved upon with large print, audio and/or video tutorials on accessibility features. The RealHelp toll free number and remote access by tech support staff could be a tremendous benefit to some users, and a great value, well worth the initial purchase price. If you’re new to tablet computing, and you like the idea of a support hotline, the RealPad may be a great tablet to start with, regardless of how old you are!