Should You Upgrade Anything?

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Reading all the Apple OS X Snow Leopard opinions this week, I hit overload. There are only so many reviews one can read that say essentially the same thing: It's a good improvement for current Macintosh users. Not earth-shaking, but positive. The consensus is that it's a fair improvement on the Mac operating system for the relatively low cost of the upgrade, $29.

I know the question is going to come soon from my wife, who has a Macbook, as it's going to come from my father soon about his Windows laptop and Windows 7: Should I upgrade? Is it worth it? Will you do it for me? I get these questions from the people whose computers I support, my immediate and some extended family members. And it's not just when Apple or Microsoft release an operating system upgrade. The programs wants to be upgraded. Dialog boxes pop up. Sometimes the updates are free, sometimes they're not. The question is the same: Do I press the "upgrade" button or not?

Of course, it depends. Here are the guidelines I use when advising my family:

Everyday operating system and browser upgrades
From a security and privacy perspective, the most vulnerable parts of your computer are the operating system (Microsoft's Windows or Apple's OS X -- I'm not advising Linux users here) and the browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, or Safari). These products are "patched" regularly to keep ahead of growing threats from hackers, as well as to fix other bugs and add incremental improvements. The patches get delivered automatically, but sometimes the computer user has to authorize them to actually get installed. For security updates from browsers and operating systems, the answer to the installation question is always, "Yes."

Microsoft Windows gets updates pretty much every Tuesday ("Patch Tuesday," it's called). The changes are applied either in the background or when you restart your computer. Browsers are often updated automatically. Of all the current browsers, Chrome is the quietest about it: It updates itself without even telling you. Others give you a note that you'll be updated when you restart the app. Let it happen, don't stress it.

Version updates
However, not all browser updates are security patches. When Firefox updated from version 3 to 3.5, it added new features -- all well and good -- but for a small number of people, it also changed some things not for the better, mostly in how in handles certain add-in options. Version updates are not like security updates, and you don't need to do them as soon as they are available. While there's no real reason to stick with an old version of a browser or operating system if there's a free upgrade available, neither do you have to rush to make the update, and in fact you might gain some peace of mind by waiting and seeing how other peoples' computers react to the new software.

In particular, Microsoft occasionally releases "service pack" upgrades to its Windows operating systems that are massive and far-reaching. They're worth applying, but on many computers they can take a long time to process, since they very nearly replace the operating system from the inside out, even if they look much the same to the user. The advice here is to never kick off a service pack update at the start or middle of your workday. Start it when you're done for the day, make sure it's proceeding apace, and then walk away and let it do its thing.

New operating systems
The new version of Mac OS X , version 10.6 or "Snow Leopard," is out this week, and in October Windows Vista gets replaced as Microsoft's top OS with Windows 7. Neither are free upgrades. Are they worth it?

For Mac users, you get what you pay for. 10.6 is a $29 upgrade from version 10.5, and adds only a few new (although useful) features. My favorite is the dramatically improved Quicktime, which now gets recording features without requiring you buy the "Pro" version. OS X also gets a performance boost. (Upgrading from the previous version of OS X, "Tiger," is officially $169, although reports are that you can use the $29 upgrade package instead, even though it's not legal to do so.) Given the price, for OS X 10.5 users, it's a good upgrade, worth doing, although if you feel like putting it off for a while, you won't be missing much.

It looks like Windows users will also get an upgrade worth doing when Windows 7 comes out in October. However, it's not a cheap product -- the new OS costs existing Windows users at least $100 (prices are higher for various versions). But it's faster, lighter, easier to use, and had good features. If your Vista computer is bogged down, I'd say go for it as soon as you can. However, Windows XP users might be on computers that would strain to run Windows 7 well; I'm not sure it's worth the hassle for them.

The update you always make
Your antivirus app should always be kept current. Mac users may not have to worry about this, but Windows users do. Be sure the update settings are as automatic as they can be, and don't deny the updates when they want to happen.

App updates
But some upgrades should be considered optional: applications. While small feature and security updates are always good to run, software makers are always adding new features to their products to stay competitive, and they offer version upgrades to existing users to keep them up to speed. In many cases the upgrades are not worth doing. Not because they're not good -- as a rule, they're improvements -- but because the expense of making the upgrade goes beyond the cost of the app itself: You have to re-learn how to use the application.

In the case of apps that create files you want to share with others, you may also find yourself creating documents that other people, who use the older versions, cannot read. For example, when Microsoft released Office 2007, it added a new file family of file formats. If you saved files in Word's new .DOCX format, for example, users of the older Word couldn't read them without installing an update. The update was free, but for many users it was just easier to use the old .DOC format (thankfully, still supported in Word 2007) rather than the new one. Office 2007 also had a radically different user interface than Office 2003, and the transition slowed down many users.

Some upgrades are expensive enough to make customers re-think their loyalty to software manufacturers. For example, Adobe Photoshop. The current version is CS4. The retail price is high -- $699 -- but it's a professional's application, not an impulse purchase, and graphics pros see it as a fair business expense. Users of the previous version, CS3, which was also an expensive app, can upgrade to CS4, but it costs $199 (retail). That's enough to keep many graphics pros in CS3, which remains a capable app. There's nothing wrong with that.

There are a very few disgraceful apps that make you upgrade. I've railed against these before: Apps with a "sunset policy" that states that after a certain period, the vendor will no longer support the application. Quicken is the best example of this. After a few years, a version of Quicken won't be able to access online resources, like bank accounts or stock prices. You have to update if you want to use the app's full features. Sadly, Quicken updates every year, and in some years, the updates are horrible, buggy messes. You never know. It's enough to turn devoted users away, and towards the free online financial apps.

The updates you can skip
The low-level components of your computer, the "drivers," that control hardware like your mouse, video card, printer, and network adaptor also get updated from time to time. You may get notices to make these updates from little monitor programs that your computer vendor installed in your system. My advice on these is to ignore them unless you are experiencing problems with the hardware or otherwise have issues with your system. The chances are slim that updating a driver will cause a problem, but if it does, it will be a tough one to fix. And usually the update makes an improvement you won't notice anyway. Security-based updates should be taken seriously, but many driver updates other than that can be forgotten.

This goes double for BIOS updates. The BIOS is the core software the controls your PC's hardware. BIOS updates can make major performance and battery life improvements, but when a BIOS update goes wrong, your computer can be rendered completely non-functional (the delightful term for this is "bricking" your computer). Mac BIOS updates are generally safe, but on an older Windows computers, proceed with extreme caution. Always make sure you have a current backup of all your data, stored on removable media or another system, before doing a BIOS update.

The major exception to my driver update advice: If given the opportunity to update a video driver on a desktop computer, take it. Unless you're an avid game player, don't go looking for it on the nVidia or ATI Web site (the makers of most of the major video cards), but if your system says it has a graphics card update available, it's not a bad bet. The update will likely improve stability of your system overall, and if you play a lot of video games you may get a performance boost, too.

By Rafe Needleman