Go Go Gadgets!
Your mission is to find your ancestors. Employ these seven essential tools to ensure that you accomplish the task—before their records self-destruct.
Do you remember Inspector Gadget, the clueless animated detective who lacked sleuthing skills but whose trusty gadgets always helped him out of a jam? In each episode of the eponymous 1980s cartoon, the bumbling inspector tries to foil the infamous Dr. Claw’s latest scheme. But it’s usually Gadget who gets outwitted, only to have his resourceful niece Penny and her aptly named dog, Brain, solve the case. Like her uncle, Penny relies on her own gizmos—a “computer book” and wristwatch—to save the day.
As a family history detective, you can rely on your own arsenal of tools to complete your research missions. Lucky for you, the gadgets on the market today are more high-tech and less likely to malfunction than, say, Gadget Arms or Gadget Skates. We’ve scoured the internet and electronics stores to bring you tips on buying and using seven of the most essential gadgets for your genealogy toolkit.
Broadband internet connection
How can you search Ancestry.com , Footnote and other genealogy websites if you don’t have an internet connection? When weighing your options, keep in mind what you plan to do online.
Connection type: A DSL or cable internet connection is ideal for genealogists who do lots of ancestor searching on the web. Companies such as NetZero, PeoplePC and Juno still offer dial-up internet, but it’s slow and ties up your phone line. DSL uses a standard phone connection, too, but it runs on a digital frequency rather than through your phone line, so callers still can get through. Companies that specialize in DSL include BellSouth, Verizon, Qwest, AT&T and Earthlink. Cable internet comes from your local cable company. The company will give you a modem to hook up to your computer, and provide you with several plan options to choose the connection speed you need.
Connection speed: Let’s be honest:Time is precious. After all, who wants to wait five minutes to download a single family photo or census image? DSL and cable modems offer fast internet connections—they’re about 30 times faster than dial-up. Local DSL and cable internet providers offer several types of plans with different speeds for various budgets; introductory rates range from about $12 to $35 per month. The speed you should be most concerned about is download speed, which is measured in megabits per second (or Mbps). The higher the number, the faster you’ll be able to download files, access e-mail and more.
Most cable companies offer plans with speeds ranging from 6 to 50 Mbps. Typically, if you use the internet mostly for e-mailing, surfing genealogy websites, sharing pictures and downloading PDFs, a basic plan with 6 to 8 Mbps should have enough power. But if you watch videos online or participate in genealogy webinars, a faster internet connection—between 8 Mbps and 20 Mbps—is better. More than 20 Mbps is overkill for most people. And more speed always costs more money.
You can check your internet connection’s current download speed by visiting <www.auditmypc.com/internet-speed-test.asp>. This will help you assess how much speed you truly need.
These are national providers of broadband internet service. Your local telephone and cable company may offer options for getting online, too.
All-in-one printer, scanner and copier
Inkjet all-in-one printers, most of which run between $80 and $200, are popular because they let you print, copy, scan and even send faxes—all with one machine. Before you buy one, though, consider how you plan to use it. Will you be scanning lots of old family photos? Scanning genealogy documents? Printing family photos? Faxing record requests to repositories? Printing pages and pages of family history charts? Depending on your intended uses, keep an eye out for these features:
Speed: Printers vary in printing and copying speed from 19 pages per minute (ppm) for color pages to 38 ppm for black-and-white. Look at both numbers if you plan to print or copy lots of records and charts. The higher the ppm, the less time you’ll need to spend waiting around (and the more time you’ll have to do actual research).
Replacement ink: Printer ink is sold two ways: with two cartridges (one for black and one for color) or with four cartridges (one each of black, cyan, magenta and yellow ink). Run a Google search for “ink cartridges” plus the name of the printer to figure out how much ink will cost you. If two printer models offer the same features, but replacement ink cartridges cost more for one model, that could make your buying decision a lot easier.
Fax?: Some all-in-one models offer built-in fax technology, which can come in handy for sending record requests to county courthouses. Price isn’t always an indicator of whether or not you’ll get this technology, so look carefully at the printer’s features list.
Space: All-in-ones come in all shapes and sizes. Measure your desk space and look at the dimensions of your printer to make sure it’ll fit.
Energy efficiency: If you want to go green and save a bit on your electric bill, look for Energy Star-rated models in almost any brand.
Scanner type: Some all-in-ones let you place one page at a time on a flatbed scanner, while other models have a feeder that takes multiple pages. Consider how much scanning you’ll do and the types of documents you plan to scan. A scanner with a feeder would be better for scanning and faxing lots of documents. Consider scanning resolution
(that is, image quality), too. Scanners measure resolution in dots per inch (dpi). Most all-in-ones can scan at 1,200 dpi, but some offer up to 2,400 dpi.
Wireless printing: If a printer has built-in wireless networking, you can print your family tree charts from any computer anywhere in your house that also has a wireless connection.
Digital camera
A digital camera comes in handy when you want to take a picture of an ancestor’s gravestone or “copy” a document found in a library or archive. Plus, you can use it to capture today’s memories to share with future genealogists.
Most pocket-size digital cameras, no matter the brand, offer 3x optical zoom, 10- to 12-megapixel resolution and a 2.5-inch to 3-inch LCD screen for less than $200. Some cameras boast a digital zoom number, too, but you can ignore that, as digital zoom will just distort your photos. To get a better optical zoom, which is true magnification of a picture, you’ll need to go with a model that’s a little larger and pricier.
The same is true for a camera with a higher number of megapixels, the small dots that make up your pictures: The higher the number of megapixels, the better photo quality you’ll get, but 10 megapixels is sufficient for most amateur photographers. Most pocket-size cameras no longer come with a viewfinder—you’ll use your LCD screen as the viewfinder on those models.
When shopping for a digital camera, pay attention to battery type, storage media and advanced features.
Batteries: Most pocket-size cameras require a lithium-ion rechargeable battery, but some take standard AA batteries. (Cameras tend to eat through AA batteries quickly, so consider swapping them for more expensive rechargeable batteries.) Rechargeable lithium-ion battery power packs typically last longer, but keep a fully charged spare around just in case.
Storage: Most camera brands take SD, SDHC or miniSD memory cards. The only exception: Sony. Sony has its own proprietary memory card format called Memory Stick Pro, which typically costs more than regular SDs. No memory card is leaps-and-bounds better than the others. But a camera that uses SD memory cards could offer more bang for your buck because the card should be compatible with your all-in-one printer and other electronics that aren’t Sony brand.
Advanced features: Even the smallest cameras now come with a come with a fancy blink-proof mode that automatically takes two pictures every time you snap a photo, and then keeps the one in which your subjects’ eyes are open. Some cameras also have face-detection capabilities, which means they automatically focus on everyone’s face in a photo, not just the center person’s. Some cameras offer image stabilization, as well, so your photos won’t be blurry even if you have a slightly shaky hand. Many digital cameras available today also let you film short video clips—a good bonus feature if you don’t want to invest in a video camera.
External hard drive
You no longer need to back up your GEDCOM files (GEDCOM is the universal format for family tree files) and other family history data on recordable CDs or DVDs: You can use an external hard drive that holds tons more data and lets you continuously add new data. These drives generally cost between $80 and $250 and come in many different physical sizes and storage capacities, different connection types and enclosures.
Storage: External hard drives typically offer between 160GB and 2 terrabytes (one TB is equal to 1,000GB) of storage space. You can buy a wallet-size portable drive or a tissue box-size desktop model. Usually, the more storage space, the larger the drive.
Before you decide what to buy, take a look at the data you want to back up. To figure out how much space your files currently occupy on your Windows PC’s hard drive, go to My Computer>My Documents and highlight all the folders that contain files (pictures, movies, music, GEDCOMs). Then, right-click with your mouse and select Properties. The Size on Disk category will tell you how many GB of space your files take.
Mac users, click on Macintosh HD, then press command+I to see your hard drive usage and capacity. If you currently use only 6GB of space, a lower-end external hard drive with 160 to 500GB should work. But if you plan to add lots of photos or video files, you may want an external hard drive with more capacity.
Connection: Most external hard drives let you connect the device to your computer via a USB connection. Keep in mind, though, that if your external hard drive has a USB 2.0 connection but your computer has only an old USB port, data will transfer more slowly than if both have USB 2.0 connections. If you have a Mac with FireWire, look for an external hard drive with FireWire connectivity—data will transfer even faster. If your computer has the latest eSATA port (an upgrade from USB), buy an external hard drive with an eSATA connection for super fast data transfer.
Enclosure: External hard drives can heat up as they work to back up all your data. Look for one with an aluminum case, which helps prevent overheating. Models with fans also dissipate heat, but the sound might bug you. To make sure your drive lasts a long time, turn it off when you’re not using it.
Digital voice recorder
If you want to record oral histories, you’ll need a digital voice recorder. Most of these devices are about the size of a cell phone, and they come with USB connections so you can upload audio files to your computer. Some even come with speech-to-text software that will transcribe your oral histories for you. When shopping for a digital voice recorder, consider these key features:
Recording time: Although some recorders tout more than 250 hours of recording time, you’ll hit those high numbers only if you use the lowest-quality setting. You’ll want to make the best recordings possible, so focus on estimated recording time using the high-quality settings. Typically longer estimated recording times mean more memory. Memory capacities range from 512MB to 2GB, so prices run the gamut, too, from as low as $35 to more than $400. Some recorders also let you add memory using a memory card.
Sound quality: To find out how good your recording will be, look at the recorder’s sampling rate. For most people, a recorder with a 44kHz (kilohertz) sampling rate is sufficient, but if you plan to broadcast your recording in, say, a podcast, you’ll want a sampling rate closer to 96kHz. An external microphone can increase your sound quality, so see if the recorder comes with a jack to hook up an external mic.
File formats: Many devices record using waveform audio format (WAV) files, which can be played back on a PC or Mac with Windows Media Player. Some recorders use MP3, Windows Media Audio (WMA) or proprietary recording formats. While proprietary formats like Sony’s LPEC may be compressed to allow for longer recordings, you’ll need to convert the files to a more common format to edit them on your computer. Not all conversion software is compatible with all computers. For example, Mac users won’t want to get a Sony because the company provides file conversion software only for Windows.
Advanced features: Noise canceling is a great bonus feature because it blocks out background noise. Voice activation also is a nifty feature; the recorder will shut off during long periods of silence, and turn on again when it picks up sound.
If you live in California and want to record your Pennsylvania relatives’ oral histories, you can buy a few accessories to hook up your digital voice recorder to your landline phone to record your conversations. Remember to let your relatives know you’re recording.
If you have an iPod, you don’t need to buy a new digital recorder, just an iPod-compatible stereo microphone for about $20 to $40. The stereo mic will let you record oral history interviews and upload them to iTunes. Check out Apple’s support site for details on how to make recordings (and which iPod models allow recording).

GPS unit
Going on a genealogy road trip? You’ll probably need directions. A Global Positioning System (GPS) unit lets you enter the address of the location you’re trying to find; it then calculates the best route and gives you turn-by-turn directions. Most devices speak street names, so you don’t have to look at written directions or a map while you drive.
Some genealogy websites, such as Names in Stone and Find a Grave, list cemeteries’ GPS coordinates so you can find the spot where your ancestor is buried faster than ever before. Just plug the latitude and longitude into your GPS device and hit the road. Other online resources, including Geocoder, the US Board on Geographic Names Information System and Steve Morse’s latitude/longitude converter, help you find the GPS coordinates for other locations. Genealogy software such as Personal Ancestral File, RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree let you enter longitude and latitude coordinates in place information, so you’ll never forget where your ancestor’s home was—even if it’s now a Walmart.
A basic GPS unit costs between $100 and $500. That will give you directions to libraries, archives, courthouses, cemeteries, hotels and other points of interest. Most car-mounted GPS units are battery powered, so you can carry the device with you when you leave your car. But only Garmin models have a pedestrian mode, which will provide directions from your parked car to a cemetery or restaurant within walking distance. Additionally, a car-mounted model will let you add coordinates. If you find your great-grandmother’s tombstone, you can place your GPS on the grave and add the spot to your list of favorite places. That way, you (and future generations) can always find it. When deciding which GPS unit to buy, consider these features:
Screen size: Screens range from 3.5 inches to 5 inches. We recommend a screen of at least 4.3 inches, which will let you easily see maps and directions while you’re on the road.
Preloaded and additional maps: Different models come with different preloaded maps. Some include only maps of the continental United States; others include all of North America. You can buy updated maps every year from an electronics store, or download new maps from the GPS maker’s website. If you plan to travel across the Atlantic to do research, you can purchase European maps to help you navigate your ancestral homeland.
• Lane guidance: You don’t want to have to swerve across lanes to catch your exit off the interstate, so look for a GPS with lane guidance (also called lane assistance). It’ll tell you which lane you need to be in to make the next turn.
• Graphics: This might not be a deal breaker when you’re buying a GPS unit, but prettier street pictures can make navigating an unfamiliar town much easier. Garmin models seem to have the most advanced graphics, allowing you to see more-detailed maps and even 3-D images of what your next intersection will look like.
USB flash drive
USB flash drives (aka thumb drives) are a necessity when you take your research to the library, share photos with family or simply back up your data. If you use RootsMagic 4 genealogy software, you can use RootsMagic-To-Go to easily transport your family file and the application to run it on a flash drive.
The amount of storage space and the price are the two biggest factors to consider. Whereas you used to get only 256MB or 1GB of storage space on one of these drives, flash drives now carry up to a whopping 128GB of storage space. The 64GB and 128GB models are pricey at $140 to $325 a pop, but drives with 8, 16 or 32GB of space currently sell for more reasonable prices—between $30 and $75 each—and will suffice for most genealogists. (You’ll need at least a 4GB flash drive to use RootsMagic-To-Go.)
The newest flash drives have “USB 2.0” in their names, meaning they’re outfitted with the latest USB technology. If your computer has a USB 2.0 port, the data will transfer faster than if you have the old USB technology.
If you want to protect your data, look for a flash drive with password-protection software. You’ll have to enter a password when you plug it into a computer, a nice bonus for keeping your data secure if the drive is stolen or lost. Not all password-protection software works on both PCs and Macs, so make sure it’s compatible with your computer.
Just like Inspector Gadget, a genealogist is always on duty—keeping an eye out for clues to solve the latest family history mystery. Armed with these essential tools, you’ll never miss an opportunity to crack a case.
From the March 2010 Family Tree Magazine