Presto! For the Elderly

As we reported recently, Presto is a service that aims to bring e-mail to those incapable of operating a computer. It uses a special printer designed by HP that hooks up to your phone line to print e-mails. The thought is that those without the slightest inkling of technical knowledge will still be able to receive e-mails from their friends and family.

In some capacity, the idea makes sense. I currently live with my parents (I know, I know) and their lack of technical knowledge often couldn’t be more infuriating. Giving them easy reign over e-mail seems like more of a benefit to me than it’d ever be to them. But is it really a good idea?

Presto arrives much the same as any printer would. The package is attractively adorned with a kid in a crash helmet. It contains one printer, one color ink cartridge and 20 sheets of paper to get started with. There is also a sufficiently long phone cable for connecting the device to your landline.

The service can be configured either by phone or by Web. It had initially been my plan to setup the service by phone so that I could have the full experience of a user who is without a computer. Sadly, I embarked on my Presto mission on a Sunday and the service via phone is only available on weekdays. I turned to the computer.

The Presto Web site gives users the option to either set the service up for themselves, or to set it up for someone else. I chose the latter, an option intended for those in situations similar to mine, and setup an account for my parents. This method instills you as an admin over the account so that you can monitor the service for that technically disadvantaged person in your life.

My experience here was painless and without complaint. The form has a few unique items. Presto avoids spam print mail by only allowing users to receive e-mails from authorized individuals. It also only prints out at specific times throughout the day, so you have to select a handful of times that you don’t think there will be any home phone traffic to interfere. Setup was finished.

One insightful feature of the Web site is that it allows you to monitor the ink level. So if, like me, you’re maintaining the site for another person, you know when he or she is in need of printer lifeblood. It’s a good idea that could be better if Presto monitored it and sent ink automatically through a subscription service. Automation is good. Especially for people that don’t have computer access.

Now the Presto is supposed to print out a welcome message of sorts once you hook it up. So I hooked mine up and waited. Nothing. I rechecked all connections. Nothing. Reconnected to different phone. Nothing. Back to the Web site.

The Web site lists a bunch of information, and options to adjust Presto settings. There is also a bar that tells when the last connection was. It read 3:59 p.m. Nothing had printed out, but I figured what the hell, I’d move on.

I set one of the print times to 5:00 p.m. and sent an e-mail to the printer’s address then went to play “Gears of War” while I waited. At about 5:20 p.m. I checked back. Nothing. I sent another e-mail and set another one of the times to 6:00 p.m. Nothing then either. And so on and so on.

Days passed and finally at about 10:00 a.m. Tuesday morning, the Presto finally printed the welcome message and one of the e-mails I sent. So my impression is that Presto not only takes the technical guesswork out of e-mail, it also takes the e-mail out of e-mail, essentially turning it into snail mail. In its defense, however, some of my latter attempts did print out on time.

Now I’m not bashing Presto, I think the idea could have a place, I’m just not sure that this product is ready to fill it. The problem is that it’s aimed at those who don’t know any better and I don’t think it’s really a valid option for its target demographic just yet.

I do have a few ideas as to how this can be improved, though. If it aims to be a computer-free e-mailing solution, then the phone service needs to be functional 24/7. Weekdays doesn’t cut it because e-mail never ceases.

The other thing it needs, and this is a big one, is a button that forces the device to call in and download e-mails on demand. Scheduled times are fine and dandy, but sometimes people want to check e-mail for a specific item and without a button for that, they’re wholly incapable of doing so.

Again, I do think Presto can pull this off, but this current model isn’t quite ready. I look forward to its future developments and hope that one day it can bring a viable e-mail printing solution to this demographic.

The Presto printer is available now for $149.99. The service costs $9.99 per month or $99.99 for an entire year.