No matter what kind of software you’re running, there will come a time when an upgrade is available. This could be a full version release, such as a yearly incremental upgrade to a software package that you’ll have to buy outright, or a point upgrade (so called because it’s not as fully featured and likely to change the product from, say, version 1.2 to version 1.3) that advises you via a pop-up screen that it’s available. Point releases should be free while version releases are often paid for upgrades, but there’s no real hard and fast rule.
With version upgrades, it’s typically pretty easy to decide; are the new features worth the price that’s being asked, or can you get by on the features of the existing package? If you can, there’s little point in getting the new version; you may have to spend some time learning a new interface and gain little in return but a hole in your wallet where your money used to be.
An important exception to this; Anti-Virus security software. These are sold as yearly subscription packages, and once your subscription expires, you’re at risk from any and all new bits of malware floating about. If your data, privacy and contents of your bank accounts are worth something to you, it’s probably more than the cost of a yearly anti-virus subscription. In other words, make sure this stuff is up to date and more or less constantly upgrading; it’s a lot less painful than a compromised and/or virus-laden system.
What about point upgrades? There’s a minor cost here, in that you’ve typically got to download them, and this can sometimes run to the hundreds of megabytes. Leaving that aside, it’s often wise to wait a day or so before adopting a new point version unless it explicitly addresses an existing problem you’ve got with the software. The computer company Apple’s a good example of this. In the last week alone, it’s released updates for its iTunes music service, an update for its core Mac OS X operating system to 10.7.2 and a major update for its smartphone/tablet operating system iOS to iOS 5. Combined, all those updates weigh in at over 1GB of downloads; more if you’ve got multiple iOS devices to deal with. That aside, there’s also the issue of access; in the first days after the iOS release it was quite difficult to get the entire installation (which included some server verification stages back at Apple) to complete because so many other customers were trying to do the same thing at the same time, and the servers couldn’t cope.
The other issue that point releases may introduce is bugs. Yes, each point release is designed to (at least in part, if not in full) deal with existing bugs, but there’s often the risk that they’ll introduce new ones. As an example, the iOS 5 update threw in a bunch of new features, but there were also existing smartphone Apps that didn’t like the new operating environment. Some will be updated to meet the new requirements, but it’s never guaranteed, and if the software that you rely on won’t work, you may end up out of luck. Waiting a few days or weeks and checking around your requirements can key you into the changes, both good and bad to anticipate, making the upgrade path that much less painless overall.