Keeping Your Computer Up-to-Date


The com­put­er is one of our most impor­tant genealog­i­cal tools.

Many of us remem­ber when this was not the case. I have my fair share of mimeo­graphed fam­i­ly group sheets filled out in fad­ing pen­cil wait­ing in a stack to be scanned. But today, with your research find­ings stored in a dig­i­tal data­base and your research con­sist­ing of a blend of pay and free web­sites, with the local and state repos­i­to­ries you want to vis­it tagged in a Google Map, and with your lat­est pho­tos of grave­stones shared on Flickr and Find­A­Grave, you need a com­put­er and you need it to work.

Whether you have a Mac or a Win­dows machine, the key to keep­ing your sys­tem work­ing is main­te­nance. Just like with a car, you should have a sched­ule for main­tain­ing your com­put­er. With a car, every 3,000 or 5,000 miles, you need to change the oil; peri­od­i­cal­ly, you need to rotate the tires. It helps to check the air pres­sure, air fil­ters, and oil lev­el from time to time. There is a sim­i­lar reg­i­men you should fol­low to keep your com­put­er run­ning smooth­ly, so you can focus on your research and not on recov­er­ing from a cat­a­stroph­ic com­put­er issue.

Virus Checking

Those of us who use Macs often come off as smug about the lack of a need for virus check­ing soft­ware. This impli­ca­tion is that the supe­ri­or design of the Mac­in­tosh wards off all threats. (We can be such pains!) Of course, the Mac­in­tosh is just as vul­ner­a­ble as any oth­er oper­at­ing sys­tem. Since OS X has been released, not as many virus­es writ­ten for the Mac, but it takes only one virus to endan­ger your data or your pri­va­cy. So, while Macs are less like­ly to get virus­es, the Mac OS is not with­out its vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. Addi­tion­al­ly, with cross-plat­form files (such as Microsoft Word files) can arrive with a virus and be sent on with that same virus, whether or not the virus infects your machine.

In addi­tion to virus­es, it is impor­tant to under­stand that there are spy­ware appli­ca­tions that are designed to gath­er data about you and your online iden­ti­ty. These often run based on your brows­er, and are there­fore often plat­form inde­pen­dent. So, no mat­ter what kind of com­put­er your have, you should have anti-virus and anti-spy­ware soft­ware, and keep the virus and spy­ware def­i­n­i­tions up-to-date.

For both the Mac and the PC, the two main­stays of the secu­ri­ty mar­ket, Nor­ton ( and McAfee ( offer a suite of prod­ucts that pro­vide pro­tec­tion against virus­es, adware, spy­ware, and a vari­ety of oth­er online threats. The biggest hur­dle for me in using virus pro­tec­tion like the pro­grams sold by McAfee and Nor­ton is hat they some­times take over your com­put­er when you are not expect­ing it to do so. For the Mac, there is also ClamX­av (, a free open-source virus pro­tec­tion soft­ware pack­age. While ClamX­av is free, it does not proac­tive­ly scan new or changed files; you have to remem­ber to run it. There­fore, you get less pro­tec­tion, but also more con­trol over what your com­put­er is doing at any giv­en moment.

Virus and mal­ware pro­tec­tion fall in the cat­e­go­ry of adap­tive main­te­nance. They are ways of adapt­ing to changes in the envi­ron­ment.

System Security Updates

Both the PC in Win­dows Vista and Win­dows 7 and the Mac in OS X pro­vide peri­od­ic updates to the sys­tem soft­ware. Some of these are option­al. They might be updat­ing a com­po­nent of the oper­at­ing sys­tem that you do not use, for exam­ple. But, often the updates will be issues to close up secu­ri­ty holes in the oper­at­ing sys­tem. This is known as “adap­tive main­te­nance.” The When­ev­er you receive a secu­ri­ty-relat­ed upgrade for your oper­at­ing sys­tem, you should allow it to install. The soft­ware ven­dors will usu­al­ly not announce secu­ri­ty issues with their soft­ware until a fix is avail­able, so you will prob­a­bly not even know there is a prob­lem. How­ev­er, those who would like to exploit secu­ri­ty issues with the oper­at­ing sys­tem are con­stant­ly on the look­out for these issues, so you should let the experts at Microsoft and Apple give you the ben­e­fit of their attempts to keep you and your genealog­i­cal data safe.

Secu­ri­ty issues are often also dis­cov­ered with desk­top appli­ca­tion, espe­cial­ly Adobe Acro­bat and the var­i­ous browsers, Inter­net Explor­er, Fire­fox, Chrome, and Safari. Be aware of how your soft­ware ven­dor will make updates avail­able. Some updates, such as sys­tem updates for Win­dows or the Mac OS and many appli­ca­tions will be deliv­ered to your sys­tem auto­mat­i­cal­ly, when­ev­er it is con­nect­ed to the Inter­net and there has been a patch released.

In gen­er­al, you should install these sys­tem and appli­ca­tion updates as soon as it is fea­si­ble to do so. If you have any con­cern with whether the updates you are receiv­ing are autho­rized by and deliv­ered from the ven­dor, go to the sup­port or down­loads area of their web­site to ver­i­fy that the change is valid, and learn what defect or vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty the change is intend­ed to address.

Simply Staying Current

You have invest­ed mon­ey in the soft­ware you use every day. More impor­tant­ly, you have invest­ed time in it. You have spent time learn­ing how to use it, fig­ur­ing out its fea­tures and foibles. Any soft­ware that you use a lot for your geneal­o­gy research, whether as a data­base for your records, or as a way to write or share your find­ings, should be pro­tect­ed in anoth­er way. It should be kept rea­son­ably cur­rent. This does not mean that you need to be as assid­u­ous as you should be with installing OS secu­ri­ty patch­es. How­ev­er, you should not be more than two major releas­es behind the released prod­uct. In oth­er words, if the prod­uct is on ver­sion 7, you should be run­ning at least ver­sion 5. This is a gen­er­al rule of thumb, and may vary depend­ing on how much the ven­dor has changed its prod­uct.

There are a cou­ple of pow­er­ful web­sites and desk­top appli­ca­tions that can help you keep on top of keep­ing your appli­ca­tions cur­rent. For both the Win­dows OS and the Mac OS, there is CNet’s Tech­Track­er (for­mer­ly Ver­sion­Track­er), with both free and sub­scrip­tion ser­vices ( For the Mac OS, there is a handy desk­top soft­ware pack­age, AppFresh ( which uses the web­site to keep track of changes to appli­ca­tions, wid­gets, pref­er­ence panes and appli­ca­tion plug-ins. In addi­tion to check­ing for new ver­sions of all the appli­ca­tions sub­mit­ted to, AppFresh also keeps track of Apple and Microsoft Updates (and soon, Adobe updates), to help you keep your sys­tem cur­rent with the lat­est releas­es of the soft­ware you use on a reg­u­lar basis. The tool also allows for Sparkle updates, which are built into many Mac OS prod­ucts to auto­mat­i­cal­ly keep an installed prod­uct aware of updates.

Regular Maintenance

With your com­put­er oper­at­ing sys­tem and the appli­ca­tions you run on it safe, you can focus the bulk of your ener­gy on the search for and analy­sis of genealog­i­cal data. After all, your com­put­er is sim­ply a tool for your research, for find­ing, gath­er­ing, arrang­ing, and stor­ing your genealog­i­cal find­ings. You are doing the key intel­lec­tu­al work of assess­ing sources, think­ing through unique ways to find your way past “brick­wall” prob­lems. It would be a shame if this work were lost because of a virus or a secu­ri­ty hole. More com­mon­ly, sim­ply by neglect of a stan­dard process, your sys­tem may degrade in its per­for­mance, and you will lose the ben­e­fit it can pro­vide you and get drawn into many hours of main­te­nance and repairs, of try­ing to reassem­ble the con­tent you have brought togeth­er. We all know, and I have talked about in this col­umn, the need for back­ups. In addi­tion to back­ing up your sys­tem, you should also main­tain what you have.
An ear­li­er ver­sion of this arti­cle appeared in the Nation­al Genealog­i­cal Soci­ety Mag­a­zine. Used  by per­mis­sion.