A Computer for Genealogy

L. David Roper (roperld@vt.edu)
July 2000

Contents: New Computer Specs | USB Ports | Zip Drive | Buying a Computer
Computer Management Software | Networking | Useful External Devices
Using the Internet for Genealogy
Back to the tutorial Genealogy Using a Computer and the Internet

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/ME/XP/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 and is powerful enough, upgrade to Windows ME (Millenium Edition). If you are running Windows 98, that is fine. I do not recommend upgrading Windows 98 to Windows ME; instead wait until Windows XP comes out in the second half of 2001. Windows XP is based on Windows 2000, which is many times more stable (about 13 times less crashes) than Windows 98. I run Windows 2000.

I recommend a minimum 150 MHz processor, a minimum of 64 Mbytes memory and a minimum of 2 Gbytes 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.Learn about the different formats for hard disks.) You also need a CD-ROM drive and a 56 kbits/sec modem. To find out what your computer's specifications are:

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 current recommendations for someone buying a new computer.):

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 flat-panel monitor.

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

USB (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 seven-port 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 capability.

A new, even faster, type of port is becoming available; the FireWire, or FirePath or IEEE-1394 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.

Zip Drive

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 http://www.Dell.com, although there are many places to buy excellent computers. Dell computers are top quality and their service is superior. Other possibilities for buying computers online are http://www.gateway.com, http://www.ibm.com, http://www.micronpc.com, http://www.targetdirect.com and http://www.outpost.com.

If you want to read more about buying a computer, see Buyers' Guides.

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 want to upgrade from Windows 95/98 to Windows 2000 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 Accessmicron.com. 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:

Some Useful External Devices

Of course, one needs a device for connecting the computer to the Internet. The usual device is a modem to connect through a telephone line at speeds up to 56 kps. 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. For five years I used an special ISDN line at speeds up to 128 kps, but it is considerably more expensive than an ordinary telephone line. Now I use a Cable Modem, which receives at 500 kps-2 Mbps and sends at 100-150 kbs. Other options are becoming available:

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 Beyond.com. HP has quit making the CapShare, but I have found it at auction on http://www.ebay.com

Of course, a flat-bed scanner 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 OmniPage Pro.

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 peer-to-peer Local Area Network (LAN) in your home. 3Com makes an excellent OfficeConnect 56K 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 Ethernet NIC (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, she said.) Setting Up a Windows 98 Home Network is a useful small book.

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Genealogy Software

I use the following genealogy software for the purposes indicated:

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 Genealogical Computing quarterly journal.

Other software that I have found useful for genealogy are:

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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