The dilemma posed by the ever more rapidly changing electronics market is the tendency to wait for the next upgrade or product release. The trouble is that you may end up waiting forever. In a merchandise based economy, it is given that there will always be new styles. The difference between a change in the style of a dress or suit may seem little different than a buying a new tablet computer, but there is a fundamental difference. A new suit or a new dress is still a suit or dress. Materials and assembly may evolve over time, but what you get is still a suit of clothes. On the other hand, what is happening in the electronics industry is the creation of new products.
Take Apple's iPad for an example. When the first news began to circulate about Apple releasing a "new" type of computer, generically called "a tablet," reactions from the media were almost uniformly negative. There was no need for such a device. What use could it possibly be? No one would buy such a device. I must admit that my reaction was very similar. My first real contact with the iPad was walking into an Apple store, just to see the new product. The store had a large table near the entrance to the store with 15 or 20 iPads tethered to the table. After a few minutes, I became more fascinated in watching the people come into the store and pick up the device for the first time than I was in trying to use the product myself. The remarkable thing about the iPad was that everyone who picked one up, immediately and instinctively knew how to use it. The was true for children who could barely see over the edge of the table and for much older people dragged in by their grandchildren. I spent over an hour just standing there watching people use the iPad. At the end of the hour, I bought one.
Now, at the time I purchased the new iPad, I could have waited. I have been around electronics long enough to realize that there would likely be an iPad 2, an iPad 3 and so on forever. I could also have guessed that many other manufacturers would come out with similar products and that someone, like Google, would probably come out with a similar operating system and method of using hand and finger gestures. In short, I could have waited for the next round of updates and releases. Why? If the product had an attraction and a use, why not buy one at the time I was attracted and had the use?
In genealogists this tendency to wait, manifests itself in the almost universal reaction to any technological change; how much does it cost and is there a annual fee? Whenever I suggest to someone that they just might want to consider upgrading their Personal Ancestral File program to something a little more powerful and currently supported, 95 times out of a hundred, I will get that same reaction. Will I have to pay for updates? This reaction is exceptionally bizarre from a PAF user because there haven't been any updates since 2002. This reaction is even more strange, when you realize that nearly every genealogical database program on the market today costs less than $100.
I am not advocating unbridled spending. I do not wish to drive all of us dependent on Social Security in some form or another to the poor house. What I am saying is that genealogy, as it is today, is a technologically sophisticated pursuit that requires some pretty technological tools. If you are going to survive in the genealogy world today, you need a set of computer skills and part of that set of skills is the ability to keep your tools (computers and software) up-to-date.
So when do you buy a new computer? Watch the market. There is no real need to be the first to buy any change in technology. But, like the iPad, if there is something that is manifestly new, innovative and reasonably priced, there is no reason to wait for the next iteration. On the other hand, if the issue is when to upgrade your existing computer system, you need to look at exactly what is happening around you. There are two things that change rapidly; operating systems and the underlying processing chips. When you figure out that there are new operating systems, such as the soon-to-be released Windows 8, then you know that there are also new processor (CPU) chips either already released or on the horizon. New Intel chips or whatever other manufacturer usually drive new or very updated operating systems. Once you get two or more iterations behind, you will find it difficult to buy programs and may run into problems in maintaining your computer.
One thing you can assume, the new system will be faster and have more features than the old. If you want to keep a comparable level of computer, the new system will probably cost less.