Living Senior: How To Receive Email Without a Computer

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If you feel left behind by today’s technology, don’t despair. It changes so fast that only the geekiest — often the youngest — can ride the wave. A recent survey rated people’s habits, attitudes, and use of technology to place them in ten categories ranging from “Off the Network” (having neither cell phones nor Internet connectivity; typically older adults content with old media, average age 64) to “Omnivore” (voraciously using the most modern gadgets and services to participate in cyberspace and express themselves online, average age 28). Fortunately, we needn’t be captive to others’ expectations of us or be held back by lack of experience with gadgetry.

Seniors are often pressed to go online so that children, grandchildren, friends, former colleagues, military buddies, et al., can reach them via email. And many businesses routinely request customer email addresses to conduct or simplify transactions. While it’s easy to resist having email when it requires getting and using a computer, wouldn’t it be nice to receive email without stress, learning to use electronic gadgets, or worrying about spam and viruses?

Along comes the Presto Service and HP Printing Mailbox to offer email service with the simplicity of a toaster. Presto, an easy-to-use Web site which manages your own or someone else’s email address, costs $9.99/month or $99.99/year. Since most people establish Presto email addresses for use by someone else, that’s how I’ll describe setting one up.

The HP Printing Mailbox costs about $100 online or in stores; visit the Presto Web site for information. As you remove the printer from its box, note how it’s packed so you can ship or carry it to the person who will use it. Parts and components are easy to identify and require no tools or special skills for assembly. The complete process is clearly described and illustrated on one sheet of paper.

The device is a simple printer — just two controls, Volume and Stop! — which plugs directly into a telephone jack. It doesn’t need a separate phone line or jack or even a splitter, since an existing telephone or accessory (answering machine or Caller ID device) can plug into it, daisy-chain style.

Use the Presto Web site to create an administrator account to manage the email address. This is similar to other online account creation, with unique wrinkles. You can select a security question to use if you forget account information. Keep the answer simple, without punctuation (it didn’t like “Bronx, NY” as the answer to “Birthplace?”).

Pick the first part of the email address being created, e.g., mabel or bronxboy. The second part will be “presto.com” so these example addresses would be mabel@presto.com and bronxboy@presto.com.

Specify the phone number from which your printer will first call for email, and set the desired type size for received email. Now you can list people (by email address) authorized to send email to the new address. This procedure, called “whitelisting” (the opposite of blacklisting, of course), prevents receiving spam or other junk email.

Once the account is set up, plug the printer into a power outlet and phone jack, add paper, insert the ink cartridge, and wait patiently for it to make its first contact — this took longer than the documentation described. It will produce a few pages of welcome information and then fetch waiting email at specified times.

There’s no limit or quota for receiving email; it will fetch and print 20 pages at a time, making as many calls as necessary. Similar to many online email services, Presto provides an abundant two gigabytes of storage per email address. Email too large to print will be returned to the sender and a warning will be printed. Email unclaimed for seven days will also be returned.

There’s much to like about Presto email. People can send notes to it without knowing that it’s an email printer. An email owner can provide a URL and code to allow people to add themselves to the whitelist without needing administrator action. In addition to text and HTML format email, Presto handles common graphic attachment forms such as GIF and JPEG, so pictures can be sent; they print in not-bad though not photo-quality color.

Presto email addresses can subscribe to the Newsstand, offering free topics such as Dave Barry and Andy Rooney columns, crosswords and puzzles, travel and personal finances. Sports, astrology, automotive, and national/international news categories are expected soon. Remember, though, that those subscriptions consume ink and paper!

Aside from occasionally loading paper and replacing ink cartridges, the device operates automatically. The paper feeder holds 50 sheets; the output area holds 25. While the number of pages an ink cartridge prints depends on what’s printed, the administrator can monitor the ink supply and order cartridges. The printer manual claims it produces “up to 10 pages per minute” but that seems optimistic. A minor annoyance is that even simple text email is printed with a color border, Presto logo, and Web information. Email sent to Presto addresses can specify print styles to be used.

One senior was quoted as saying that the Presto was, “the best gift I received that I never knew I wanted”. And my personal volunteer test subject, my father-in-law, who has resisted having email set up for as long as I’ve known him, grew attached to the device during the several weeks it was on loan, and hoped it would remain when we finished experimenting.

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