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

Friday, January 14, 2011

Genealogist's Viewpoint -- selecting a computer

When it is time to purchase a new computer, everyone seems to have a "computer expert" somewhere in their immediate family. Usually, this expert is male and plays a lot of video games and has some pretty definite opinions about his family member's computers. It would be unusual that this same computer expert also had any interest or experience in genealogy. Lacking such a person, you may have thought to go to the local computer outlet (like Best Buy or whatever) and talk to the salespeople about the computers they have for sale. You may also think to consult someone at the local computer club or Family History Center. Given the huge selection of computers and similar devices and given the particular needs of genealogists, where should you start?

The first thing to do, is sit down and think about your involvement with computers. Are you a rank beginner, who can only hunt and peck at a keyboard? Or are you moderately competent? Do you get up in the morning and before doing anything else, turn on your computer to check the news, Facebook and the latest Blog posts? Of is you computer draped by a lovely quilted cover and only used when you sit down to do your genealogy once a week or so? Do you plan on using the computer for video production, scanning, recording and editing oral interviews? Or do you think those things are some kind of magic that you never seemed to learn?

If you are reading this post, I can assume that you are well beyond some of the less experienced computer users, but still may have no idea where to go to get a reasonable assessment of your needs. I have evolved several ideas for selecting a computer over the years based on my actual needs tempered with a small amount of input from the gamers and techs. Some time ago I put my thoughts on the subject into a list of rules. See "My rules for buying a new computer for genealogy" and "On buying a new computer for genealogy."

I continue to think about this subject because I am asked regularly about computer purchases. Lately, one of my friends has been grilling me about Macintosh laptops. There are a starting to be a lot more choices in computing than there were even a year ago and some of the rules have changed completely or are changing.

Let's look at the genealogy in relation to the computer. Very few genealogy programs are graphic based, although there are a few. What this means is that the programs mainly deal with text, that is numbers and letters typed into the computer. Although most newer genealogy programs have the ability to attach media to files, such as attaching a scanned image of a birth certificate to a source citation for an individual, the programs are not creating the graphics. Graphics or design programs like many programs from Adobe, the software company, push computers to their limits. These graphics programs are regularly updated to take advantage of new computer chips and operating systems. You can do genealogy for your whole life and never have to learn or buy Adobe Photoshop for example.

One of the driving forces for computer development over the years has the been computer games. A whole gaming industry has evolved and gamers are constantly looking for more realism, faster computers and better video output. As genealogists we benefit from the advances but do not really have the same needs as gamers. (If you a both a genealogist and a gamer, you probably already know what your next computer will be and you will also consider anyone who thinks otherwise as hopelessly out of date). 

What this means is that genealogists do not need a huge amount of computer power but there is one thing that they do need, connectivity. It is a fact of life that a huge amount of what genealogists do is being transferred to the Internet, in terms of resources as well as actual work. So although you may not need a specialized gaming computer, you do need a machine that can take advantage of the Internet and has the capability to download the graphic Websites. The good news in this area is that nearly all the desktop computers and laptops now available are more than adequate for the task.

What would happen if I just decided that I could never make a decision with all the contradictory advice I hear and I just walked into my local big box store (Walmart, Costco or whatever) and bought the basic computer system off the shelf? The answer is simple, you would very likely have solved your problem. Computers have advanced, overall, to the point that the least expensive systems are more than adequate for general work in genealogy.

But there is another question and consideration. Portability. Many people, especially genealogists, are finding that today's laptop computers have more than adequate computing power to do everything they need to do and rather than buy two computers, one for home and one for the road, they are simply doing all their work on a laptop. The advantage is you don't have to worry about transferring files from your "working" computer to your desktop because they are the same computer. In years past, laptops were mostly dumbed down from desktops, but now they are equal to most desktop computers in speed and have very good storage capabilities.  Having a laptop as your main computer is certainly a good and workable alternative.

One development that has made laptops even more attractive is the connectivity through WiFi or wireless connections to the Internet. Most newer laptops come with a built-in WiFi connector. This means that whenever the computer is in range of a WiFi signal, it will operate on the Internet without a cable connection. I have what is called a WiFi Router hooked up to my cable network connection. Because my laptop has a WiFi receiver, I can use the computer anywhere in my house and still use the Internet. I can sit out on the patio and still work. I can also take the computer to my local Family History Center and using their WiFi connection, I can work on the Internet with my own computer. The Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has its own WiFi connection free to the public in the library. I can take my laptop to Salt Lake and work in the library. I can also work on the Internet for free from my hotel or from any one of my children's homes, there are WiFi connections in all those places.

I haven't even gotten to the options of iPads or Netbook computers, but there are some options in this regard also, but that is another post.

Here is my suggestion. Go to one of the major computer manufacturers sites, like HP or Dell or whatever and look at their offerings either a desktop or laptop. Select a price range you can live with, write down the model number and then go online to Google Shopping or Amazon or so other comparative shopping site and look for the best price. Then buy the computer and get to work.


  1. I bought my first lap top in 2004, and it is still running. I use it mostly for storage of photos and some genealogy information. It is slow and does not have much memory. But it works well for a back up.

    For genealogy I have a netbook, I transferred the above information and I can take it when I do research.

    My newer computer is four years old and is working great. I would like to get a faster one with more memory but I can not justify because the ones I have are working fine.

    YOu just have to keep your security up tp date, clean and scan the disk, check for errors and do an occasional defrag.

  2. As a programmer and genealogist, I always advise people to buy the most memory and process speed they can afford. Upgrade those by at least one level better. And, upgrade the video card. You often spend a lot of time with pictures and web pages. View them in their best possible resolution.

    I have a laptop for the portability but when at home, I hook it up to my 22" monitor, full-size keyboard, and full size mouse. I can view both the external screen and the laptop at the same time. That really helps view web pages and my genealogy program at the same time! This is a huge advantage - 2 monitors and I don't have to transfer files from laptop to desktop.

  3. Firstly, every time I see the word "expert," I think of my father-in-law's definition of it: "Ex" is a has-been, and a "spurt" is a drip under pressure.

    That said, my computer expert does not play any computer games except solitaire. But he did program and install and do lots of other stuff with computers for the U.S. Government for 23 years, and also achieved the CISSP certification.

    His -- and my -- advice when we're asked by not-so-computer-literate friends on what to look for in a computer is simple: Decide what you want to do. Find the software that will do it best. Then find the machine that runs that software. I think Jennifer's advice on getting the most memory and best processor one can afford is also sound.

    I use my computer in my genealogy. I also play games, use the internet, write my books, and do my college homework and papers and even exams on it. So any computer I have needs to be able to do all those things, not just one.