The following is a Plus Edition article written by and copyright by Dick Eastman.
This article is not about genealogy. However, the information presented here may be of interest to you someday when you decide to upgrade to a new, more modern, and more powerful computer.
A few years ago I would have described myself as a PC enthusiast. Now, changes in technology require that I revise that description.
I use the term "PC" as a generic term, meaning "personal computer." It applies to Windows, Macintosh, and Linux systems alike. It might even apply to Apple iOS and Android tablets and smartphones although I generally consider those handheld systems to be a bit different. In my mind, a PC is a computer that sits on my desk or is carried as a laptop in my briefcase, is nearly as powerful as anything else on the market today, and is designed for most all of my personal computing needs. The current generation of PCs still meets this definition as well as my needs, but the market is getting crowded with the growing capabilities of those lightweight devices and their lighter pricing.
The way I purchase a PC has certainly changed over time.
Twenty years ago I used to build my own personal computers. I saved a lot of money compared to the commercially-manufactured computers of those days. I could purchase components and plug-in boards and memory chips, and the bottom-line price was significantly cheaper than the manufactured products from Compaq, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, and others. I also was able to customize each computer with the features I wanted rather than accepting a manufacturer's ideas of what I should want. While I generally built my own desktop systems, laptops were a bit more difficult to build in my basement. When traveling, I used store-bought laptop computers.
Ten to fifteen years ago, the prices of commercially-manufactured personal computers dropped faster than the price of individual components. I found that building my own computers no longer saved money. I could purchase a PC for even less money than purchasing all the components separately. I continued to build my own computers, however, thinking that customizing systems to the features I wanted was still worth the effort.
Today, all that has changed again. It certainly is still possible to build a PC to run Windows or Linux and, with some difficulty, even a computer to run Macintosh OS X operating systems. (A home-built copy of a Macintosh computer is usually referred to as a "hackintosh;" I built one of those about five years ago.) However, today's mass-manufactured computers are now so cheap and so plentiful that I can usually find a manufactured system with exactly what I want at a price that is cheaper than building my own.
Another reason for the demise of home-built computers is the increased computing power of laptop computers. A few years ago many people felt we needed two computers: a laptop for traveling and a desktop computer for "high powered" applications when laptops did not supply enough computing power or big enough hard drives or good enough display screens. That, too, has changed in recent years.
Today's laptops are as powerful as any desktop computer. Many laptop computers now possess 500-gigabyte hard drives, and a few have even more storage capacity than that. The display screens on today's medium-priced to high-end laptop computers provide sharper and more distinct images than the desktop monitors of ten years ago. (Have you seen the Retina displays? Gorgeous!) As a result, many people find they only need one computer–a laptop system. When at home, they can plug their laptops into larger display screens and nicer keyboards if they wish. Purchasing a mid-priced laptop is cheaper than purchasing both a desktop computer and a cheap laptop. Today's laptops will easily run The Master Genealogist, Family Tree Builder, RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, Ancestral Quest, Reunion, MacFamily Tree, Heredis, Family Tree Maker, and all the other genealogy programs with results as good as anything produced by a desktop computer.
All of this reflects a maturity of the computer industry, but it certainly took away a lot of the fun of being a PC enthusiast, especially for those of us who enjoy tinkering with hardware. I also find that it is now difficult to repair my own computers, something I did for years. What can I fix inside a two- or three-pound laptop?
In fact, my favorite laptop today is a two-and-a-half pound MacBook Air that has no internal slots or sockets for adding memory or replacing the processor with a faster chip. Everything is soldered in place at the factory without any expansion capabilities at all. It might as well be sealed as it isn't really repairable by anyone other than an employee at Apple, sitting in a repair depot surrounded by all the proprietary spare parts that might be needed. Indeed, it is a great computer; but, I doubt if I will ever open the case for any reason even though I do own jewelers' screwdrivers. There is nothing inside that I can repair or replace. If this thing ever breaks, it goes back to Apple for repair.
The same is true for the $200 Chromebook; it isn't even cost-effective to repair it. The labor charge to open the case and troubleshoot a Chromebook or any other laptop problem will be close to $200. Add in the replacement parts, if any, and the repair cost probably exceeds the purchase price of a new unit. Today, computer hardware has become disposable.
Like many of today’s computing devices, both the MacBook Air and the $200 Chromebook augment their built-in power with the resources available on the Internet. The scope of these resources is growing by leaps and bounds. For example, hard drive space is no longer important when saving your files in Google Drive or in Apple's iCloud. Today, that $200 Chromebook laptop provides all the capabilities of a ten-year-old Windows or Macintosh laptop.
Many of these same resources are also available for use with today’s mobile devices. In fact, for any computing device that can connect to the Internet, storage space is essentially unlimited when used with cloud-based storage services.
Today's computing devices also have access to many more applications – or “apps” as they’re called in the world of mobile devices. An iPad or Android tablet has more computing power and networking capabilities than did the typical desktop PC of ten years ago. However, newer, even more powerful applications have required the use of a desktop or laptop computer. Until now.
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