A Computer for Genealogy
Computer Specs | USB Ports | Zip Drive | Buying a
Computer Management Software |
Networking | Useful External
Using the Internet
Back to the tutorial Genealogy Using a Computer and the
The specifications for a computer to do genealogy rapidly
change as the available hardware and the power and complexity of the relevant
software change. In this tutorial document I consider only computers running
Microsoft Windows 95/98/2000. Macintosh users will need to look elsewhere for
hardware and software specifics; perhaps the book
Genealogy on Macintosh or a
list of genealogy
utilities for the Mac will help. (However, the Internet resources given
here can be equally well used on the Macintosh.)
If you already have a computer running Windows 98, it can
be used to make doing genealogy easier and faster. If it is running Windows 95
is powerful enough, upgrade to Windows
98 Second Edition. I recommend a minimum 133 MHz processor, a minimum of 64
Mbytes memory and a minimum of 1 Gbytes free space on the hard disk for doing
genealogy. Such a computer will be satisfactory for a few years. (If your
computer has only 32 Mbytes memory, it is probably easy to take it to 64 Mbytes
by adding one or more memory boards. Also, an extra hard drive is usually easy
to add, and they are not expensive.
about the different formats for hard disks.) To find out what your
computer's specifications are:
- Right-click on My Computer; click on Properties and record what is
there. Then click on Device Manager and then click on the + boxes to see and
record the various devices in your computer.
- Click on Start->Accessories->System Tools->System
Information and record what is there.
- Open My Computer and then right-click on each drive to find out
details about it.
New Computer Specifications
If you are going to buy a new computer for the long term, I
make the following recommendations for what to buy. (I will try to keep my
recommendations up to date every few months. Here are my March 2000
recommendations for someone buying a new computer.):
- Processor (CPU): Intel Pentium
500 MHz (or equivalent) minimum (Maximum
available now is 1 GHz.)
- Memory: 128 Mbytes minimum (The more you have the more programs you
can run simultaneously.)
- Disk size: 16 Gbytes minimum (SCSI or
IDE) or two 10-Gbytes drives
(Disk storage is very inexpensive now.)
MHz or faster PCI data bus.
graphics bus and board to drive your monitor.
- CD-ROM drive: 32x minimum (SCSI or
IDE ATAPI) (or 8x
DVD if you want
to watch DVD CD-ROM movies on your machine)
- Ports: 1 parallel printer port, 2 com serial ports, 2
USB ports (standard these
days) (An infrared port would be nice; most laptop computers have it.)
- Iomega ZIP drive: 100
Mbytes minimum (250 Mbytes is available) (internal
IDE ATAPI or external
- Printer: I use HP LaserJet and DeskJet printers, the former is
faster but the latter can print in color. There are many other excellent
- Operating system:
Windows 98 Second Edition (Win98SE) or
Professional (Win2k). (Win2k is much more stable than Win98SE, but costs
more. In my opinion it is well worth the extra cost. If you have more than one
you can dual boot Win98SE and Win2k. Win2k can run on a machine with dual
processors.) Run Start-(Windows Update) regularly to keep your copy of Windows
up to date. Set up Windows so that you are
notified when updates to the
operating system are available.
Of course, you will need a monitor, the larger the better. I use a 21"
monitor, which allows several programs to be viewed simultaneously. If you can
afford it, you may want to consider a
A portable computer is handy for carrying into libraries for recording
genealogy data. One can buy portable computers that are as powerful as desktop
machines, but they cost more.
Universal Serial Bus Ports
(Universal Serial Bus) is a faster (up to 12 Mbps) and easier way (plug in
while computer is running) to connect a large number (up to 127) of external
devices to your computer than by using com serial ports or parallel printer
ports. New computers have two USB ports to which you can attach four-port or
hubs (and then more hubs to the two hubs if needed; this is called "daisy
chaining") to get up to 127 USB ports. (An old Pentium computer, with a
PCI internal data
bus with an empty PCI slot, that does not have USB can be
upgraded by installing a board. It must be running the latest version of
Windows 95, but better to upgrade to
Win98 first, or any version of Windows 98.) If you have USB on your
computer, be sure that all future external devices that you buy (e.g.,
printers, scanners, modems, digital cameras, etc.) have USB-connection
A new, even faster, type of port is becoming available; the
FireWire port, which can
transmit data up to 400 Mbps. This port is especially useful for video
transfer. The FireWire bus may be used for faster hard-drive access in the
future. Macintosh computers and several notebook Windows computers have a
FireWire port. One can buy boards to add FireWire to a
Windows 98/2000 computer.
Genealogy files can get very large. E.g., I have a file that is 170
Mbytes and is growing every day. Therefore, it will not fit on a 100-Mbytes ZIP
disk, but would fit on a 250-Mbytes ZIP disk. However, one can use
WinZip to reduce it down to 16
Mbytes, which allows one to put several such files on a 100-Mbytes ZIP disk.
Therefore, if you are going to send your large genealogy files through the U.S.
mail, you need a ZIP drive. They are also useful for backup.
Do not confuse the Zip drive with the
Zip/WinZip program. The former
is a high-capacity removable drive and the latter is a program to compress
files. The program allows more data to be stored on a Zip or any drive.
Buying a Computer
I have had excellent experiences buying several computers from
there are many places to buy excellent computers. Dell computers are top
quality and their service is superior.
If you want to read more about buying a computer, see
If you are tempted to get one of the "free computers" that are widely
advertised, you might want to read:
If you already have a computer and
upgrade from Windows 95/98 to
Professional, you must buy the Windows-2000 Professional version for new
machines or any other version of Windows, not the upgrade version specifically
for Windows NT which is less expensive. A good place to buy on-line Windows
2000 for your current machine is
If you are connected with a college or university, you can get it at lower cost
through your institution.
Computer Management Software
Some useful computer management software packages are:
If you are having regular system crashes in Windows 95/8, run this Microsoft
program to clean up the registry.
SystemWorks 2000: An integrated suite of
Norton Utilities for detecting,
repairing, and preventing hardware and software problems;
Norton CleanSweep to
remove safely and completely unneeded programs and files;
Norton CrashGuard to
protect your work against system crashes and screen freezes; access to
Norton Web Services to keep
your system and applications up to date with the most current software patches,
virus definitions, and hardware drivers. (I recommend that you not install
CrashGuard, as I find it annoying, and that you not have any of the programs
put in your startup folder during setup.) The WinDoctor part of Norton
Utililies should be run regularly to clean up your system. The SpeedDisk part
of Norton Utilities should be run regularly to rearrange your hard disks. The
LiveUpdate feature should be run regularly to keep your Norton SystemWorks
programs and virus definitions up to date. Norton Web Services will help you
update your other software and hardware drivers.
- EzDesk: This
wonderful little program enables Windows to remember where desktop icons have
been placed for each screen resolution. It is
which means you can try it out and then, if you decide you want to keep it, pay
only $15. Download from EzDesk or order from
Melissa Nguyen, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, EzWare
8-A Village Loop, Suite #160, Pomona, CA 91766, U.S.A.
- WinZip: This program
can reduce a text or graphics file to a much smaller size; often a 90%
reduction for genealogy files. This capability is essential for
sending large files over the Internet and very useful
for backing up files.
- Print Screen:
Allows printing or saving to a graphics file any window or the entire computer
- There are several useful software tools in the
Resource Kit on the Windows-98 CD-ROM. One that I especially like is
ClipTray which acts as an advanced clipboard that keeps your content safe
between Windows sessions. You can name, edit, organize, delete, and paste
ClipTray items at any time and keep your favorite odds and ends close at hand.
You may want to use some of other twenty-six tools.
- You might want to look at Windows 98 Annoyances.
Some Useful External Devices
Of course, one needs a device for connecting the computer to the
Internet. The usual device is a
connect through a telephone line at speeds up to 56
You can get an internal modem when you buy a computer; I prefer an external
one, mainly to isolate any telephone-line lightning glitches from the machine.
I use an special
line at speeds up to 128 kps, but it is considerably more expensive than an
ordinary telephone line. Other options are becoming available:
Subscriber Line (DSL): It is being offered for locations within 18,000 feet
of the Blacksburg VA telephone office downtown at speeds up to 384 kps and at a
cost about half the ISDN cost. DSL users high frequencies on an ordinary
telephone line without affecting its use with a telephone. Unfortunately for
me, I am just beyond the pale.
Modem: Cable TV companies (Adelphia in Blacksburg
VA) are beginning to make the TV cable available for Internet connections. If
you are the only user on the cable you can get up to 500 kps incoming and
either the same outgoing or up to 56 kps outgoing at a cheaper rate. However,
if many computers are on your TV cable your speeds will be reduced, because you
are sharing one cable with all the users.
- An exciting new way to access the Internet is through
connections mediated by satellites. A few locations now have this capability
with speeds up to 1.5 Mbps.
One new device that I find very helpful for genealogy is
the Hewlett-Packard CapShare
hand-held portable scanner. With it you can copy up to fifty pages of books and
documents without finding and paying a copy machine in a library, and then
later easily transfer the images to a computer through a serial or infrared
port (no USB-port capability yet). The lowest price I have found for it is at
Of course, a
is very helpful for putting original documents and pictures in your computer;
it should have the capability to connect to your computer through USB (see above) and have an
optical-character-recognition (OCR) software package with it. A good OCR is
Networking Your Home Computers
If you have more than one computer, say a desktop
and a laptop or more, you may want to install a
Local Area Network (LAN) in your home. 3Com makes an excellent
LAN Modem, which allows one to connect four computers to the LAN such they
all use the same modem and telephone line, share files, CD-ROM drives, ZIP
drives, printers. (You can buy it from
Beyond.com.) Put an
(Network Interface Card) in each machine (if one is not already there; some
motherboards have Ethernet already built in) and connect the computers and a
telephone line to the LAN modem and you are in business; Windows takes care of
installing the needed software. (My daughter recently installed one painlessly,
Up a Windows 98 Home Network is a useful small book.
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Computer for Genealogy
I use the following genealogy software for the purposes indicated:
- Storing and manipulating data:
Ancestral File version 3.01M [DOS version] and
4.0.4 [Windows version, which is free]. I use 4.0.4 most of the time, but
for some purposes I prefer version 3.01M [DOS, but runable in Windows]. Both
PAF3 and PAF4 use the same data files.
I have created a comparison of
PAF3 and PAF4. (PAF is also available for the
I have tried several other Windows genealogy programs, but none have allowed me
to enter, edit and compare data as quickly as I can with PAF. Most genealogy
packages have the capability to include pictures for individuals and
files: I use
version 4.0.4, which produces smaller files than version 3.01M.
- Creating descendants'-list files: I prefer the program
Descend; however, the version for PAF3/4 data
files still has bugs. I prefer it because it allows one to include full dates
and places, notes and parents of spouses; and it creates a compact names index.
So, I generally use PAF3; it gives birth and death dates but no places or
notes, but does allow creation of a text file. PAF4 gives birth, marriage and
death dates and birth and death places, but it currently has no option for
creating a text file; I create a
PDF file with
it. Recently I have started using
Keeper, which gives full dates and places and it creates an
RTF file, which can be
- Creating surnames lists: In the past I have used
which creates a text file of surnames from a gedcom file. I have recently
Keeper; you can download it for a free trial. It lists the number of
females and males for each surname.
- Creating locations lists: The
Keeper genealogy program has this option; you can download it for a free
- Creating other types of reports: The two versions of PAF have
differences in the reports that are possible to generate. The add-on program
Companion allows more report options for both PAF versions.
Links to many genealogy software packages can be found at
Genealogy Software Springboard.
If you are particularly interested in the computing aspects of
genealogy, you might want to subscribe to the
Computing quarterly journal.
Other software that I have found useful for genealogy are:
- PAF Pal is an add-on to PAF4 or a stand-alone
program for PAF3 that allows global changes of names, dates and places and
reports global statistics and number of descendants for an individual for a PAF
family file. (World Family Tree does the unfortunate thing of putting the word
Private in the date fields on its
CD-ROMs for those who may
still be alive; it can involve much work to get rid of that unneeded word. PAF
Pal can get rid of it easily for PAF files.) It can be purchased from Pal
Software, 1065 West 10210 South, South Jordan, UT 84095; E-mail:
Finder: This DOS program finds the location of any stored
city/town/community (populated place), county, or geographic location in the
United States. It can also search for all cities in a given county, all
counties in a given state, and do a proximity search listing all other cities
within 2-99 miles of a designated city or set of coordinates. Searches can be
based on complete names, "sounds like" names, or partial names. I use it
Acrobat Reader: This free program allows you to read
files, which are common on the Internet. Some genealogy data on the
Internet are in PDF files. If you want to put your genealogy documents and data
disks (see below), you may want to buy
then you can do more things with your documents when putting them on CD-RW or
CD-R disks as PDF files.
Data on CD-ROMS
There are many CD-ROMs that one can buy with genealogy data
on them. Some of them are:
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Computer for Genealogy
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Genealogy Using a Computer and the Internet