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

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

When will I buy my next computer?

Present-day research in genealogy is information intensive. Genealogists in years past had to confront the same amount of information, but comparatively little of it was immediately available. My two great-grandmothers, who spent much of their lives accumulating genealogically pertinent data over 30 and 40 years, would find all that they reviewed almost instantly available today. For example, reviewing the U.S. Census records for just one individual, before online digitized databases, would involve many days of research working through rolls and rolls of microfilm hunched over a microfilm viewer. My great-grandmothers even did much of their research before the advent of microfilm. Now I can go on one of the larger websites and find record hints for all of the census records for an individual almost instantly. I can review and attach all of the pertinent years in less than an hour. If I go on to my family trees on,, and on to the Family Tree right now, I will see many more than 10,000 suggested sources which have been preselected for me from billions of potential records. These records are suggested with a high degree of accuracy from a monumental pile of records that would have taken me years to find before this technology was developed.

My primary tools for writing this blog, doing genealogical research, and helping teach others about genealogy are the computers I use every day, all day long and into the night. On a day when I am accomplishing a lot of genealogically-related work, I might spend as much as 14 hours on or waiting for computers. From my perspective, even a small amount of speed increase, such as my current Google Fiber connection is worth the cost. With Google and their ads, Google Fiber is all about Internet and TV. With me, it is all about working faster and more efficiently.

Over the years, I have progressed from the primitive computer technology to the highly complex and impressively fast technology we have today. When I started using a then-new Apple II computer in 1982 with Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston's newly developed VisiCalc spreadsheet, my life was transformed. That is another and very long and involved story. At the time, I was just in the process of becoming a partner in a new Apple Computer retail store. Over the 11 years I was involved directly with the Apple company and many other manufacturers including Kaypro, Compaq, Osborne, IBM and many others, I was able to try every new computer as it was introduced.

As I tried the new computers, I was always impressed by the increases in the speed of their data processing ability. It seemed that every new computer was a major step in speed and complexity. Each of the upgraded computers would seem to be so much faster than its predecessor and I had the incentive to get rid of my older model and get a newer computer. The new computer would seem fast for a while and then as I got faster in entering and processing what was on the screen, it seemed to slow down to a crawl. This happened over and over again as the developers increased the speed of the processors and the rest of the components. For example, one big increase in speed was the advent of hard disk drives. Gone were the days of waiting for slow floppy disks and swapping out multiple disks.

Let's fast forward to today. A few years ago, I suddenly realized that computers had progressed to the point where they could handle all the data I could throw at them. My benchmark was how long it took me to open and manipulate complex graphic images with Adobe Photoshop. In addition, my concern was how long it took me to maintain a genealogical database containing tens of thousands of names with all of the accompanying documents and images. What I found was that the computers themselves were getting only incrementally faster and that the real limits were now imposed by my own speed of entry, ability to read and review what was on the screen and other factors. In fact, the overall limits were imposed by the speed of transmission of the data between the Internet and between the hard drives and other storage devices. Moving Gigabytes and soon Terabytes of data took more time than any other activity.

At this point, I realized that faster computers would only have a marginal effect on my constant need for more speed.

Now, a side note. I do not really think that even a vanishingly small percentage of my readers or any other genealogists are even partially obsessed with the speed of the whole system as I am. I move to voice recognition and other technologies whenever I am frustrated with the time I have to perform a task and the amount of time the task is taking or I switch from one computer to another and even have two or three devices going at the same time. All of this to do more work in less time. I am sure some consider me to have a serious problem, but I am fighting against nature imposed time limits. I am getting older day by day.

On the horizon, I see Apple and Microsoft both discussing adding new computer operating systems and Intel introducing new processing chips. But I do not see the obvious increases in speed that I saw with the early personal computers. It is taking longer and longer for the computers to "slow down" in my perception. In fact, my present computer, an iMac with a 2.66 GHz Intel Core i5 processor running OS X Yosemite, Version 10.10.2 seems just as fast as iMacs selling today. The newest iMacs are running fourth generation Intel Core i5 processors with Haswell architecture and clock speeds up to 3.4 GHz. But using that additional power is limited by the programs and the Internet's transmission speed.

When will I jump on the bandwagon and move to a newer computer? That now depends on factors completely outside of my need for speed. The main factor is the cost to upgrade all my peripheral equipment and software when I move to a new computer.

The real decision making point depends on how long my present computer continues to function. Because of the massive amounts of data I have and my daily routine, I cannot afford to have my computer go down. When I feel that the system has served its purpose. I will immediately buy the next available, most advanced computer I can afford. My best estimate is that this will occur when the next round of operating system changes come out. I have already seen that an upgrade of the iOS operating system for the iPads will not load on my current iPad, so the handwriting is on the wall. New computers are on the agenda.

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