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

Friday, July 2, 2010

On updating computer equipment and software for genealogy

I was reminded of a perennial problem when I started up one of the computers in our LDS Stake's Family History Center and saw "Windows 95" appear on the computer screen. The problem or challenge (or learning experience as they called our tests in High School) is keeping our equipment and our software, particularly operating systems, up to date and reflecting current conditions. Let's just say that among other problems, older Windows versions each had their random access memory problems (RAM). The summary of this problem is that for Windows 95 systems, in reality no more than 1 or 1.5 GB of memory was addressable and Windows may not even start if more than that amount of memory was available in the computer. The amount of memory the computer can address is determined by both the physical limitations of the processor and the operating system. Although Intel 386 processors could theoretically address 4 GB of RAM, the typical RAM limit was 32 MB. To give some perspective, Mac OS X 10.6 has a 64 GB RAM limit but the Core 2 Duo processor can address 256 TB of RAM. Translated into English this means that older computers and older operating systems were and are considered very limited in today's Web based world of graphic applications. If you would like to see a comparison of memory usage see "Road to Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard: 64-Bits" from the AppleInsider.

OK, you say, so what? I don't use any graphics applications. Umm? What about FamilySearch's Record Search application. Maybe you didn't realize that Record Search uses the latest version of Adobe's Flash, a multimedia platform that is popular for adding animation and interactivity to web pages. Some of the most productive searching we now do on the Internet involves images of documents, including U.S. Census records, in order to view these documents online, all of the components of your computer systems need to support some of the latest innovations in graphic technology. Absent those upgrades, your system may work either very slowly or not at all. My last computer was not that slow, it was an Intel Pentium 4 but I was noticing a decided slow down with all of the graphic intensive programs I was using. I tried increasing the RAM but that only helped for a short time. With all the work I do online, I finally bought a much faster computer.

Maybe I can give an example from my distant past what it is like living with a slow machine. When I was in high school, our family owned a stodgy 4 door, 4 cylinder car. This car would likely do 0 to 60 in roughly 2 to 3 minutes. Even is those slower, older days, it was a menace to drive on the highway. Top speed was just over 60 mph (downhill) and that was when Arizona had no set speed limits on most of the highways. In other words, if I was going 55, there was no acceleration at all. Nothing. Now, what if I had kept the car? Where could I safely drive that car today (no seat belts, no air bag, etc.)? Using a computer with Windows 95 is sort-of like driving a our old car would be today on the freeway in Phoenix where the traffic moves considerably faster than that car's top speed.

But, you say, I can't afford to upgrade either my computer or my operating system and anyway I would have to upgrade my version of Microsoft Word 95 also. (Why am I even worried about talking to this person? Oh, I remember, there is a copy of Windows 95 on the computer at the local Family History Center). Many people spend more on soft drinks at the local convenience store over a few months than the cost of a new really fast computer including a newer operating system. Also, there are now free alternatives to buying an expensive office suite (word processing, spreadsheet etc.) For example, an HP Phenom 8400 Desktop Computer System is on sale for $479 including the monitor, keyboard, mouse and Windows Vista Home Premium. OK, you might find a better deal than that! You can also use a free office suite, such as OpenOffice.

Now, where were we? Upgrading computers and software. One of the common questions I received when I teach a class on any of the newer genealogical database programs is "Don't we have to pay for that program and how much do we have to pay for upgrades?" Why do you think that Personal Ancestral File (PAF) has not been upgraded since about 2002? Why do you think PAF is free or nearly free? If I made my living writing software for genealogists, why would I rewrite my program for a new Microsoft operating system if I could not charge for all my work? There is a huge online movement of people who believe that we all "deserve free software." Maybe I will write a post on free software issues, but for right now, the question is should I use proprietary software and if so, should I upgrade the software? I think both answers are yes, but the reasoning will have to wait to another day. My perspective probably comes from using software in a business environment where I can't sit around and wait for someone to develop a "free" software program that will perform the complex tasks involved in a law firm or graphics design business.

So let's say you buy a program like (fill in the blank) and then Microsoft or Apple comes out with a new operating system and your program no longer works with the new system. You may grind your teeth a little (or a lot) but if you want to continue working you have to come up with the price of the software upgrade. I suppose you could drop out of the system and stop using computers and go back to a paper based system, but in our present genealogical work environment, computers are very useful and necessary tools. Just as I "need" a newer car than my old sedan from the 60s, I need to have an operational and functional computer system if I want to continue to work through the massive amount of family history sitting in boxes in my house.

So, bite the bullet, you need to upgrade your computer and your software. If you don't you may never realize the advantages you are missing.

1 comment:

  1. I hate to say it but one of my biggest fears is buying a new computer....will everything run okay? will it be compatable with my exisitng programs...
    I am paranoid about it! My old Windows XP laptop and desktop has me fairly happy but lag is noticable on the desktop and windows 7 is knocking on my door.