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

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Is it time to buy a new computer? May 2014

If you have been driving a car for a while, you will eventually get to the point where the repairs begin to be a burden. Many years ago, I had a Chevrolet Suburban we had driven for about 15 years. Multiple things had gone wrong with the truck including air conditioning, transmission, and other major repairs. I took the truck to my local car repair person, who I trusted, and asked the total cost of all the repairs. He said it would cost about $3000. I said, "How much is the truck worth?" He said, about $3000. I said, "How much will it be worth if I make all the repairs?" He said about $3000. OK, so that was a no-brainer. Time to buy a new truck.

Now about computers. Unlike cars and other appliances, they don't necessarily seen to require expensive periodic repairs. In many cases, the hardware keeps functioning for a long period of time. If a computer does die, it does so all at once. Since prices on new computers keep dropping, there is usually no economical way to fix non-functional hardware. For example, today I could buy a Windows laptop computer with a 15" screen starting at about $350 on I don't know if you have priced computer repairs recently, but they come out into the hundreds of dollars.

Now, you may not be happy with our "consumer" economy, but that is how things are. Not too long ago, I had a problem with a much more expensive computer, an iMac. When I talked to the Apple Store, I was told the cost to repair the computer would be well over $500 and it would take two to three weeks. Well, I can't be without my computer for that long, so again it was time to buy a new computer. In the end, I did buy a new iMac, but I also spent the time the next few weeks and fixed the old iMac myself. But then there was another problem. Obsolescence.

When I got the old iMac running, I found out that the processor was too old to support the newer Apple OS X operating systems. So even though I got the older iMac working, I could only use it with older programs. So now it is delegated to scanning and related activities.

So there are two main factors, repair costs and obsolescence, that determine the need to upgrade a computer.

I haven't talked about software yet. As the technology changes with hardware upgrades, software developers necessarily have to continue to modify their programs. These modifications are usually issued periodically as "upgrades." The upgrades can be either minor adjustments to the program or major rewrites of the entire program. Most software companies do not charge for minor upgrades but do have some sort of charge for major revisions. Whenever a hardware upgrade is necessary it is almost inevitable that you will have to also upgrade your software programs.

The hidden cost of upgrading the hardware becomes the time and effort and expense of upgrading the software. I recently upgraded my current Apple iMac computer to OS X 10.9.2. As a result, two of the major programs I had on my computer also needed to be upgraded. The cost of upgrading the operating system therefore includes the cost of upgrading any additional software programs that you need to keep running.

I find that genealogists are very conservative when it comes to making computer expenditures. The consideration boils down to whether or not to do routine maintenance and postpone any major costs for repairs and upgrades until absolutely necessary or make all of the incremental changes necessary to keep the system running. Returning to my car analogy, I know people who do not maintain their automobiles. They ignore periodic maintenance and are usually faced with major repairs at some point in time. The same thing happens with computers; you either continue to make upgrades as the technology changes or you wait and make a major upgrade periodically.

For example, I just helped one of the volunteers at the Mesa FamilySearch Library upgrade her computer. The computer she was using that was replaced by the new computer was very nearly completely nonfunctional. In addition to the cost of a new computer, she immediately had to upgrade to major programs. Given the circumstances, this was entirely unavoidable.

Most people view computers in the same way that they view cars. That is, a major purchase that includes periodic repair costs. In fact, computers are a system and can only be compared to cars in sort of a general way. It is better to think of computer systems as being similar to a subscription service or belonging to a club. In other words, there is an initial cost but there are also constant periodic expenses.

Now the question is, when is it time to buy a new computer? If you are the type of person that makes constant upgrades to your existing system as new upgrades come out, then the time to buy a new system will become obvious. It is basically the next time that a new operating system comes out that will not run on your existing computer.

I find many genealogists, when faced with the prospect of purchasing a new computer, rationalize that their existing programs are still functional and therefore the purchase of a new computer can be postponed indefinitely. Although this is an option, basically all they are doing is pushing the cost of an upgrade off into the future. The danger involved in doing this is that the data files you presently have on your computer may not be compatible with any future computer system. As genealogists, this is a particularly serious problem.

Microsoft recently announced discontinuing support for Windows XP. Of course, this does not mean that computers running Windows XP will cease to operate, but it does mean that eventually computer programs developed for that particular operating system may not work with future operating systems. Over the past years I have seen this happen time after time. If you need an analogy, think about the difficulty of finding parts for a very old car. The parts for such a car may be available but the expense of those parts may be prohibitive.

It is inevitable that during the coming year there will be upgrades to both Windows and Apple OS X operating systems. It is also inevitable that the chip manufacturers will come out with new microprocessing computer chips. Presently, I am in about a 3 to 4 year cycle for replacing computers. I also constantly upgrade my programs so that the impact of upgrading to a new computer will be minimal. Obviously, everyone has to make an evaluation of their own circumstances, but I would strongly recommend periodic upgrades including both software and hardware.

Yes, I am talking about genealogists who are still running PAF 5.2 on a Windows 98 system.


  1. It has to be said too, though, that some upgrades are forced on us unnecessarily. Microsoft, for instance, by "shrink wrapping" Windows and its pre-installed apps (and Intel hardware once upon a time) as a commodity, make it appear that we must upgrade their operating system to run a new browser, email program, or have some flashy useless touch-screen. Operating systems were designed with layers (e.g. the kernel) when I worked on them, and most of it was in the background creating an environment in which multiple applications could run. The idea that a touch-screen replacement for a widely-accepted start-menu requires a whole new operating system must be the result of incompetent design, or rampant money-grabbing... IMHO of course.

    1. There is certainly a part of the "money-grabbing" going on, but most genealogy programs are updated as there are operating system changes or changes in online programs such as FamilySearch and

  2. My husband has an iPad that is about three years old. He talks regularly to his brother and one day he could not connect; his brother said he had just updated his iPod.

    I asked my husband when was the last time he had updated his iPad; "I never have updated it" I think most of the problems turn out to operator error.

    He spent a whole day downloading and installing.

    1. I hope this was a lesson learned. I often find computers and other devices with dozens of upgrades waiting to be installed.

  3. Updates and upgrades often are not ~improvements~. Those of the Microsoft kind may only result in less transparent corporate tracking or clumsier use of larger amount of RAM.

    1. Did I make a mistake and say upgrades were improvements? Sorry if I did. Of course, the older program may be better, Microsoft Word is a prime example of such a program.

    2. The same goes for a number of genealogical Web sites currently getting an "upgrade", but maybe that's a whole different subject.

    3. Thanks for the suggestion. It probably is a whole different subject.

  4. Another hidden cost to upgrading a computer you did not mention is the cost of upgrading other hardware.

    Recently, I was asked to videotape a series of lectures and put them on YouTube. Taping went smoothly with four miniDV cameras set up in four different rooms and I ended up with ten hours of tape. I had realized that my new iMac does not have a Firewire port. So I had bought a Firewire 800 to Thunderbolt adapter. But the camera cable was a Firewire 400 cable so I had to also get a new Firewire 800 cable.

    Hooking up the cameras, cables and computer went fine. But I have never had so much trouble getting the video to import. iMovie kept chopping the video into tiny pieces. However, after several attempts I was able to get all the video imported to the computer in what I thought was its usual quality. However, when starting to trim the video and add titles, I found that with some of the video, the sound was no longer synchronized from the picture.

    I pulled my old iMac out of the closet, got out the old Firewire 400 cable, and tried again. The video imported without a hitch and the sound stayed right were it should.

    Apparently it is time to move from miniDV tapes to 64 GB SD cards. Guess I’ll be reading your article about cameras.

    1. Welcome to the the wacky world of "upgrades." As Tony points out above, not all upgrades are improvements.