Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, October 16, 2014

What happens when I upgrade my computer?

By Wgsimon (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons
This is a plot of CPU transistor counts against dates of introduction. Note the logarithmic vertical scale; the line corresponds to exponential growth with transistor count doubling every two years.
Transistor counts for integrated circuits plotted against their dates of introduction. The curve shows Moore's law - the doubling of transistor counts every two years. The y-axis is logarithmic, so the line corresponds to exponential growth.

Upgrades to both hardware and software are a fact of life for anyone owning a computer system. The graph above illustrates Moore's law which has been, more than predicting, but also driving the computer chip industry since 1965. Quoting from Wikipedia: Moore's law:
The law is named after Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of the Intel Corporation, who described the trend in his 1965 paper. His prediction has proven to be accurate, in part because the law is now used in the semiconductor industry to guide long-term planning and to set targets for research and development. The capabilities of many digital electronic devices are strongly linked to Moore's law: microprocessor prices, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras. All of these are improving at roughly exponential rates as well. This exponential improvement has dramatically enhanced the impact of digital electronics in nearly every segment of the world economy. Moore's law describes a driving force of technological and social change, productivity and economic growth in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
I have been living with these changes now since I first became intensely involved in computer technology in the early 1980s even though my use of computers dates more than ten years before that time. I am sitting here staring at an Apple iMac computer that is now so old that the current operating systems will not run and the computer has become little more than an attractive looking dust collector. You should be able to see that if the entire computer/mobile device/camera industry is changing every two years or so, the longer you keep your current computer (or whatever device), the more likely you are to have problems with compatibility. You can expect that after about five years, you computer will not be able to be upgraded to new system changes.

Now a word about operating systems. Operating systems are the software programs that let you communicate with your computer. Every time you use a computer or other computer-run device, the operating system has to start (boot up) before you can use the computer. All the keyboard commands, mouse, touch pad or touch screen commands are utilizing the operating system. In order for computer software programs to run on your computer, those programs must be compatible with the operating system version running on your computer. In turn, the operating system is designed to work with certain versions of the microprocessor, the engine that runs your computer.So every time you buy a new computer, it is likely that you will have a "new" version of the operating system. For example, right now if you were to go out on the market and look for a new Windows computer you will find low prices on "last year's model," that is, now that there are newer computers with Windows 8.1, there are still machines being sold with the older operating system, Windows 7, at a reduced price. However, there is another issue here. Windows 8 (and 8.1) have been less than popular and retailers are selling Windows 7 installed with the option to move to Windows 8.1. Right now on the Dell Computer website, there are Windows 7 "deals" being offered.

Computers are not like cars where the year-to-year changes are cosmetic in many cases. When a new processor is introduced the entire system has to change. In many cases, all of the existing software has to be upgraded (rewritten to work with the new operating system). Whether or not any existing program will "run on the new operating system" depends on how closely the program was tied to the operating system. There are some really old programs, such as Personal Ancestral File or PAF, that seem to keep operating notwithstanding multiple operating systems upgrades, but most of the software programs either upgrade to the new system or disappear. I might note that the danger of depending on a program as old and out-of-date as Personal Ancestral File, is that at any time a change or upgrade to the system could render the program inoperable.

Some people look at the cost of a new computer and fail to calculate the cost of upgrading or purchasing new software. Some companies give a price break on their upgrades, charging less than the full purchase price of a new program. From the standpoint of genealogists, the danger is that the new computer and operating system will not be compatible with your existing program and you may not be able to move your program and its database to the new computer. This problem can be avoided by migrating the data to a newer program if that is possible or storing your entire family tree on an online family tree program. It is very likely that the browser program (Chrome, Safari, Internet Explorer, etc.) you use to access the Internet, will likely be upgraded constantly without your being aware of the changes.

But what about keeping the same computer for an extended period of time? What are the consequences of failing to upgrade your hardware (computer system)? Well, again, unlike a car, you can't just keep repairing it and keep using it for years and years. The longer you go without upgrading both your hardware and your software, the greater the danger of incompatibilities that will threaten you with a loss of your entire data files, i.e. you can lose everything on your computer. One common result of a computer failure is a loss of the data. This can possibly be avoided by backing up the data but there is also the danger that the backup will be incompatible with any newer system. This happens with genealogy programs regularly. Sometimes another company will try to "capture the market" by supporting the dead program for a while but you cannot count on this continuing for a very long period of time. A good example of this is the recent demise of The Master Genealogist (TMG) program. announced support for the databases from the dead program, but that is not likely to continue for and extended period of time, especially if there is an intervening operating system upgrade.

Technology changes constantly. It is time to get used to it. Computers are tools and, like any tool, subject to the wear and tear of use. Like any tool that becomes worn out, it should be replaced with a better tool.

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