Buying a computer for genealogy — 2012 update

August 9, 2012 by  
Filed under Every thing you Need to Know

Buying a computer system is still considered a major purchase by many genealogists, but this perception may be changing as the options for the types of computers available become more varied and prices continue to fall. Present estimates are that over 100 million tablet computers will be sold in 2012, almost a 100% increase over 2011. as the tablet computers gain more and more functionality, they may end up replacing many of the traditional roles desktop computers have filled in the past. This decided movement to a handheld device is led by Apple’s iOS (operating system)  iPad series of tablets, but devices from Samsung and others running Google’s Android operating system are not far behind. it is possible that this shift to smaller, more portable devices will rather quickly replace the desktop.

At the same time, younger computer users are moving almost entirely to smartphones for their computer usage. I use a desktop computer but I also have a tablet and a smartphone, in my case an iPhone. I am finding that many of the tasks I would do on my desktop computer are now being done on my iPhone.

In the middle are the laptop computers. many of the laptop computers available today exceed the storage capacity and speed of desktop computers, and by adding a large external monitor and a keyboard and mouse or trackpad, a laptop can serve as a desktop computer also, with the advantage that it can be carried to a research site or used in other places in the home. another significant movement in the computer industry is towards “ultrabook” computers. these are essentially very lightweight and very thin laptop computers, usually with fewer of the connectors associated with a standard computer and missing a CD or DVD drive. Since most computer connectivity is being accomplished through WiFi or wireless connections, many of the cable connections are no longer absolutely necessary.

It is now becoming more common for a computer user to have a desktop computer or a laptop and a smartphone or a tablet. Computers are appearing in places where they were never seen before, such as church meetings and social gatherings.

First, looking at a desktop system, what does the system consist of and what should it cost? Bear in mind that most genealogical applications are neither speed nor memory- intensive. The types of activities that push the limits of even today’s computers include online gaming (computer games played online), video production and intensive graphic design or photo manipulation. One previous concern in purchasing a computer was the amount of internal storage capacity of the hard drive. This has ceased to be a problem or concern due to the availability of very low-cost external hard disk storage. I recently purchased a 3 Terabyte external hard drive for $130. This is more storage than most people would use in their lifetime. If you fall into the category of a heavy computer user, you already know the limits of your computer system and are aware of what you need to do to get either a faster computer or more storage capacity.

So what is a “computer system?” Usually, when there are advertisements for a “system” the package consists of a computer in a box or case, a keyboard, a mouse, a monitor or screen and sometimes a printer thrown in free. There are always several computer systems sold at any one of the mass merchandising big-box stores such as Costco, Walmart or Best Buy. The current price for a complete system, including a monitor, start at under $4oo.  At the other end of the spectrum a new Apple iMac starts at about $1200. but to get some perspective, it was not too long ago that I was paying almost a $1000 or more for just a monitor.

That brings up another issue. The quality, speed and ease of use of the new computers far exceeds anything available just a few years ago. Computers do not just undergo model changes, they are almost completely re-invented every year. you may be happy with your five or ten-year-old computer, but you are essentially locking yourself out of the advances in programs and online resources by keeping your outdated machine. Just from the standpoint of monitors, the advances are notable. I mentioned that we used to spend $1000 or more on a CRT monitor. Today, I can buy a 24″ LCD monitor for less than $150.

What do laptops cost? here the same factors influence computer costs as with desktops or any other device: speed, storage capacity, and the resolution of the screen or monitor. a very functional laptop can be purchased for under $300, but many laptops cost between $300 and $400. If you own a large SUV, that is about five tankfuls of gas. you can spend more; the lightweight ultrabooks start at around $800. again, to gain some perspective, Apple computers are becoming the most popular types sold, and the MacBook Pro laptop starts at $1200 while the ultralight MacBook Air begins at $1000.

Part of the reason tablet computers have become so popular is the trade-off between utility and price. Tablets are extremely useful, but it would be difficult to manage a large genealogical database on a tablet, although that may change. The most popular tablet, the Apple iPad, begins at $400, while other tablet computers such as the Samsung Galaxy costs about $300. you might want to look into purchasing a portable keyboard for your tablet. in addition, some of the tablet computers, including the iPad, come with built-in cameras.

The last option, which may not be a replacement for your desktop, laptop or tablet, is to use a smartphone. these are sold entirely differently than any of the other computers. they are sold as telephones with a monthly charge for phone service and a premium additional charge for a data plan. There are so many options and plans that it might take a few hours in a phone store to figure out what you want or can afford. but the price of the device itself is often free or nominal when you sign up for a data plan.

So, if you are using an older computer, this is best of all possible times to move up to a newer system. but then again, tomorrow there will be even more options and possibly lower prices. My last suggestion is don’t get caught in the waiting game. There will always be a new computer coming out in “just a few months” so there is no need to wait.

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