How to Pick the Best Genealogy Software for You

By Lauren Gamber Premium

It happens to every family historian eventually, regardless of research experience or computer skill: You reach the point where you don’t want to go it alone. You yearn for a partner to accompany you through genealogy’s twists and turns—a companion to support you in your research-tracking endeavors and make your pedigree pursuits more fulfilling.

In other words, your perfect genealogy software mate.
Trying to find the right program for you is a lot like dating: Your ideal match depends on what qualities are most important to you, and whose interface you find most attractive. It might even take a few flings before you finally find true love. So think of this beginner’s guide to genealogy software as a matchmaker of sorts: We’ll help you identify what you want from a long-term relationship and pick a program with which you share real chemistry.
Judging compatibility

People have certain expectations for a potential mate—traits they can’t stand and qualities they can’t live without. For software-seeking genealogists, these six characteristics are must-haves:

1. Easy data entry: A genealogist’s first rule of thumb is to start with yourself and work backward. That’s exactly what you’ll do when you launch your genealogy software for the first time. You’ll begin by completing your individual record—typing in your name, date and place of birth, parents’ names, spouse’s name, children’s names and other genealogically significant details. The program should let you choose from a list of predefined fact or event types (birth, marriage, occupation, physical description, religion and so on), but you also should have the option to add a fact type that isn’t in the program’s list.
Once you’ve entered the relevant information about yourself, you can do the same for each family member. Many programs will let you add photos, sound clips, short home movies and DNA test results. Some have an auto-fill feature that saves you keystrokes by anticipating what word you’re entering.
As you add individuals to your family tree, the software will keep track of who’s related to whom—and how. You should be able to view your data in an individual, family or pedigree view, any of which will let you navigate between generations and edit information. You’ll start to see your family tree take shape and get a sense of where the holes in your research lie.
If your family facts don’t add up, your software should raise a red flag. Let’s say that you enter your great-grandmother’s birth date as 1875, and then you enter her marriage date as 1872. The software will alert you to a possible error. In the event you come across conflicting data during your research, most programs will let you add multiple dates and locations for each fact—for example, two birth dates.
2. Swift source documentation: If you do encounter conflicting data, you’ll be glad you took advantage of your program’s source-documentation functionality. Most programs will let you cite a source—birth certificate, census record, Aunt Sally—for each fact. Generally, you create a record for each source by selecting the source type and filling in details such as the location, title and author. The next time you want to cite the same source, simply select it from the source list, rather than retyping the information. Many programs even let you attach images of sources.
3. Graphical charts: Half the fun of tracing your family tree is being able to show off all your hard work. Genealogy software can help you create a variety of attractive charts that you can print and hang on the wall or give as gifts.
Common chart styles include the ancestor (or pedigree) chart, which displays all of an individual’s ancestors three to five generations back; the descendant chart, which displays an individual’s descendants; and the hourglass chart, which shows an individual’s ancestors and descendants. You can choose from pre-designed templates, and customize charts by changing the colors and fonts and adding images.
4. Handy reports: In addition to attractive family tree charts, genealogy software can create text-only reports, such as family group sheets (which summarize basic facts about a couple and their children), ancestor and descendant reports (similar to ancestor and descendant charts, but with more detail), individual timelines and narrative reports (which turn facts into sentences and are used to create family history books). You can print reports and add them to a research binder for quick reference at home or on a trip to the library. Some programs give you the option of saving a report in Rich Text Format (RTF), so you can view and edit it in any word processing program. You also can save a report as a PDF file or an HTML document for easy e-mailing or posting on the Web.
5. Slide shows, scrapbooks and other publishing options: Most programs let you incorporate images, text, and audio and video files to make multimedia scrapbooks and slide shows. You also can combine reports, charts, photos and text to create your own printable family history books.
If you have a Web site, you can generate HTML reports to post online. Some programs will even walk you through building your own family history site.
6. Simple research swapping: Want to share your research with other genealogists? It’s easy using the universal family tree file format called GEDCOM (short for Genealogical Data COMmunications). You and your cousins don’t need the same software in order to swap data. No matter what software your relatives have at home, they can view your family tree if you send it to them as a GEDCOM

file, as opposed to your software’s proprietary file format.

Just use your program’s “export” function to save all or part of your family tree as a GEDCOM, and e-mail it over. If a cousin sends you a GEDCOM file, you can import it into your family tree, automatically adding her research to yours (or select individuals to add to your file one by one). You also can upload portions of your family tree to online pedigree databases; relatives can then download your data and add it to their own family files.
Finding your heart’s desire

Even though most programs offer the same basic functionality, each product has strengths and weaknesses. Some create beautiful charts; others excel at citing sources. Think about what features matter most to you, and pick a program that stands out in those respects.

Windows users have about a dozen software options, many of which will run on older operating systems. If you own a Mac, you’ll have fewer products to choose from—that is, unless you have Boot Camp, Parallels Desktop or other software that lets you run Windows programs on your Mac.
Luckily, most manufacturers provide free trial or demo versions, so you can try before you buy. If you don’t like a program, don’t worry about having to retype all of your data when you switch software. Using GEDCOMs, you can transfer your family tree to another program.
The Rating Game sidebar at the end of this article lists details on popular genealogy programs, many of which we’ve reviewed on our Web site. We suggest downloading one or two trial versions before committing. How do you choose which program to test-drive and purchase? Keep in mind these key criteria when weighing your options:
1. Is the price right? On average, genealogy programs cost about $30, but you can find a few freebies, including Family Tree Legends, Personal Ancestral File (PAF) and Legacy Family Tree’s Standard Edition. Do you get what you pay for? Yes and no. Family Tree Legends and PAF boast intuitive interfaces, easy data entry and well-designed reports. But the manufacturers—Pearl Street Software and Family­Search, respectively—are no longer upgrading these applications or providing individualized technical support, just online answers to frequently asked questions.
MyHeritage, which bought Family Tree Legends, produces the Family Tree Builder program—it’s a free download, although you must sign up for a My­Heritage membership and create a Web site on MyHeritage Family Pages if you want to save genealogical data.
Another downside to PAF is that you can’t create graphical charts or family history books without the PAF Companion add-on program, which comes bundled in a CD set with PAF for $8.25. (It’s worth noting that PAF is based on an early version of Ancestral Quest software, which is compatible with PAF but boasts more features.)
Legacy Family Tree’s free Standard Edition does the basics well. But a panel of six genealogists who reviewed software for the January 2008 Family Tree Magazine all agreed it’s worth spending $29.95 on the full-featured Deluxe Edition. (You can compare the two versions’ features here.)
Wholly Genes also offers two versions of its program, The Master Genealogist. For an extra $25 to $30, the Gold Edition features more charts and publishing tools than the Silver Edition. You can compare the two on Wholly Genes’ Web site.
The most expensive program on the market is Leister Productions’ Reunion, which costs $99. But this fully featured Mac family tree manager has all the bells and whistles that genealogists have come to expect.
2. Do you like the look and feel? Some programs are more aesthetically pleasing than others. Although looks might not be a high priority for you, keep in mind that you’ll spend a lot of time staring at your computer screen and should like what you see. You can view screen shots on most software manufacturers’ Web sites.
3. Does it have a steep learning curve? Advanced genealogy researchers appreciate The Master Genealogist’s flexibility and extensive source citations, but beginners—particularly those who are less tech-savvy—say it’s difficult to master, and that reading the manual is a must. Windows programs such as RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, Family Tree Legends and PAF, on the other hand, have simple, plug-and-play interfaces.
Of the Mac programs, GEDitCOM offers the most control, but this application may overwhelm those looking for a more straightforward interface.
4. Is it easy to navigate? You’ll want to see the big family picture (that is, several generations all at once) and the individual details. The program you choose should make it easy to do both by providing individual, family and pedigree views. Also look for an index of individuals, which you can sort or search by first name, last name, birth date, birth place and so on.
5. Does it offer thorough and flexible source documentation? Typically, you’ll be able to select a source type (census record, newspaper, tombstone) and then fill in fields appropriate for that type of source (date, location, title, author). You also should have the ability to enter free-form descriptions of sources not included in the source-type list.
Look for a program that lets you assign one source to multiple events (for example, a census record might provide several relatives’ occupations or places of birth) and multiple sources to a single event (both a birth certificate and a tombstone might provide a relative’s date of birth). RootsMagic lets you assign one source (such as a census record) to multiple people in one step—a terrific timesaver. Also look for the ability to upload source images.
If you want thorough, Ph.D.-quality source citations, The Master Genealogist may be your best bet. Other programs don’t offer as much flexibility, although they generally meet genealogists’ needs.
6. Does it produce attractive charts and useful reports? Family Tree Maker has a reputation for creating the prettiest wall charts, but its pedigree charts and family group sheets—the reports family historians use most—fall a bit flat.
Ancestral Quest and PAF, as mentioned, don’t produce sophisticated charts on their own. You’ll have to spring for Progeny Software’s add-on charting program. That used to be the case with Legacy Family Tree, too, but its latest version creates charts that rival Family Tree Maker’s.
Of the Mac programs, Heredis, MacFamilyTree and Reunion outperformed GEDitCOM, Genealogy Pro and iFamily for Tiger in contributing editor David A. Fryxell’s review of all six programs in the July 2008 Family Tree Magazine.
7. How well does it handle GEDCOMs and other files? Although GEDCOMs encourage collaboration, keep in mind that GEDCOM transfers aren’t always seamless—some family facts may get lost in translation between programs. Millen­nia Corp., the manufacturer of Legacy Family Tree, recommends that you back up your family file before importing someone else’s GEDCOM or other file type. In general, it’s a good idea to back up your files on a regular basis in case your computer crashes or you encounter another problem.

Some programs import and export family tree files better than others, with relatively little data loss. Look for those that read other programs’ proprietary file formats directly. For example, Family Tree Maker reads PAF, Legacy Family Tree and The Master Genealogist files, though some users have reported difficulty importing and exporting GEDCOMs.

Legacy Family Tree also reads PAF and Ancestral Quest files directly and handles GEDCOMs more adeptly. The Master Genealogist syncs with the widest variety of proprietary formats.
On the Mac side, GEDitCOM reads and edits GEDCOM files directly, so you don’t have to worry about losing data when sharing files with others. Genealogy Pro, on the other hand, does a poor job of importing GEDCOM files. Of the Mac programs we tested, Genealogy Pro performed this function significantly worse than the others did.
You should be able to exclude certain information (such as living relatives’ names) from a GEDCOM file. Several programs give you the option of privatizing events and notes so they won’t be exported when you share your family file with other researchers.
RootsMagic allows you to burn your family files onto a CD. Each “shareable CD” includes a custom home page, a read-only version of RootsMagic and your data files, so you can share your research even with relatives who don’t use genealogy software. Family Tree Legends offers a similar feature.
8. Does it have any special features? Many programs come with all kinds of bells and whistles, such as research journals, to-do lists, relationship calculators, Soundex coders, place-name verifiers, photo editors, translation tools and automatic searching of genealogy Web sites.
From within Family Tree Maker, you can search , and RootsWeb  (all owned by The Generations Network, which makes Family Tree Maker), but you’ll need a subscription to view results in most databases. The program comes with a 14-day trial subscription and automatically searches its databases for the names in your familytree whenever you’re connected to the Internet. If it finds a match for one of your relatives, it’ll display a leaf icon next to the person’s name. To view the match, just click on the leaf.
Legacy Family Tree’s Research Guidance suggests resources that may contain information about your ancestors, and it organizes them into a prioritized to-do list. It also provides links to online databases. Its Geo Location Database lets you check the spelling of place names; using Microsoft Virtual Earth, you can see images of where your ancestors lived.
Of course, these aren’t the only applications with extra tricks up their sleeves. Most manufacturers’ Web sites include feature lists that will give you a good sense of what their programs have to offer. Also look for a “live tour,” “guided tour” or “tutorial” to take a peek under the hood—you might discover your perfect match.
The Rating Game

How do popular family tree programs stack up? Click here to visit our online software guide  to read reviews of programs such as these:
Windows Software

Ancestral Quest 12.1, (800) 825-8864
Price: $29.95 download, $34.95 on CD
Manufacturer: Incline Software
Free trial/demo: 60-day trial


Price: $45 with manual
Manufacturer: John Steed
Free trial/demo: Limited trial version


Price: Free
Manufacturer: MyHeritage


Price: Free
Manufacturer: Pearl Street Software

 Family Tree Maker 2009, (800) 262-3787

Price: $39.95
Manufacturer: The Generations Network


Price: $29.95 download, $39.95 on CD
Manufacturer: Thoughtful Creations
Free trial/demo: 30-day trial

Legacy Family Tree 7.0, (800) 753-3453,

Price: $29.95 Deluxe Edition download
Manufacturer: Millennia Corp.
Free trial/demo: Free Standard Edition

(877) 864-3264,

Price: Silver Edition, $34 download or $39.95 on CD; Gold Edition, $59 download or $69.95 on CD
Manufacturer: Wholly Genes
Free trial/demo: 30-day trial


Price: Free download, $8.25 on CD with PAF Companion
Manufacturer: FamilySearch

RootsMagic 4, (800) 766-8762,

Price: $29.95 download, $39.95 on CD with printed manual
Manufacturer: RootsMagic, Inc.
Free trial/demo: Limited trial version

Mac Software

GEDitCOM 3.8 <>
Price: $49.99
Manufacturer: John A. Nairn
Free trial/demo: Limited trial version


Price: $69
Manufacturer: BSD Concept
Free trial/demo: Limited demo version


Price: $29.95
Manufacturer: Keith Wilson
Free trial/demo: 10-day demo version


Price: $49
Manufacturer: Synium Software
Free trial/demo: Limited trial version

Reunion 9, (717) 697-1378,

Price: $99
Manufacturer: Leister Productions

Free trial/demo: Limited demo version
Online Hookups
If you like to be on the cutting edge, you might be attracted to genealogy applications that run entirely on the Internet—or even “apps” you can add to your profile on Facebook, MySpace and other social-networking Web sites. Although these programs typically aren’t quite as full-featured as desktop software (yet), they provide the convenience of being able to view and update your family tree from any Web-enabled computer.

Web-Based Software

AGES-online $
Ancestry Family Tree <>
Family Pursuit $
Family Tree Explorer
FamilySearch Family Tree Open to Church of Jesus-Christ of Latter-day Saints members; will eventually be integrated into the regular FamilySearch Web site
myFamily•ology $
Shared Tree

Social-Networking Apps

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