Genealogy researchers need tools for recording names, dates, places, relationships, sources, family stories and photos. You might want to mine records and family trees on genealogy websites, and share your family history online. In the past, the most robust option for these tasks was traditional desktop software. Sure, online trees were great for finding cousins and getting record hints, but software offered the best tools for recording information on your ancestors, documenting sources and creating charts.
But technology has blurred the line between desktop programs and online trees. Software now embraces online features such as automated searching and syncing with websites, and online trees are more robust with attached media, record sources and more. Nowadays, you might find that a combination of the two methods—or even an online tree alone—best suits your needs. In this article, we’ll go over your tree-keeping options and help you choose what’s right for you.
Either genealogy software or an online tree can help you accomplish essential research tasks, and a combo of the two adds flexibility. Consider these benefits of each option.
Option 1: Genealogy Software
The most popular programs have been around for years and include many features and friendly user interfaces. While you will have to determine which is the best family tree software for you, this chart will provide you with the details on popular genealogy programs.
As you will see, these programs make it easy to navigate in your family tree, add citations for various sources and create reports and wall charts you can print or share as PDF files. Most of these programs are inexpensive and don’t require any ongoing fees, except for optional upgrades. And your files reside on your hard drive, where you have complete control over them.
Now, almost all genealogy software offers online features. They might automatically search genealogy websites such as FamilySearch and give you hints to records or family trees that may match your ancestors. With a single click, they can automatically fill in search forms on genealogy websites. Hints usually cover only certain databases and you’ll still want to experiment with different search criteria, but these features can save you a lot of time.
Furthermore, most genealogy software can create reports for your own website, where they’ll be easily accessible to anyone. Or, you can publish your family tree on a large genealogy site like Ancestry or MyHeritage. That’s a lot easier than creating your own website, but you might have to pay a fee and your online family tree might be accessible only to other paying members.
Option 2: Online Tree(s)
Most family tree websites let you build your tree from scratch or start it with a GEDCOM file generated from your genealogy software. Online trees offer several advantages over traditional software: You never have to pay for a software update. You can access your tree from any computer or mobile device, and you don’t have to worry about backing it up. You may be able to make your tree public or private and, either way, invite relatives to collaborate on it with you.
Our favorite family tree sites (see the chart above), give you record hints and one-click searching on genealogy websites (though you should still do separate searches with different combinations of terms to get the most comprehensive matches). Some sites even create source citations and automatically attach record images. Ancestry Member Trees and the Family-Search Family Tree have by far the best systems for maintaining an online family tree.
Protecting the privacy of living people is a key issue when you put your family tree online. Only the tree owner and anyone authorized by the owner can see living people in an Ancestry Member Tree. People without death information and born fewer than 125 years ago are considered to be living. In the FamilySearch Family Tree, you can see information on a living person only if you created the record. A person with no death information and who was born 110 or fewer years ago, married 95 or fewer years ago or had a child born 95 or fewer years ago is considered living.
Option 3: Software-Tree Combo
While the general trend in genealogy land is away from software and toward online trees and mobile apps, a combination of them still gives you the most flexibility.
For one thing, software helps you keep multiple online trees up to date. Many genealogists put their family tree on several websites to take advantage of hints from the sites’ databases, and to connect with other researchers interested in those families. It’s worthwhile to have your family tree on any site where you’ve had a DNA test, so you and your matches can see how you’re related. You might want to put your family tree on sites with connections to nationalities you’re researching. Findmypast and Genes Reunited, for example, have strong British and Irish collections. Finally, having your tree on a site with a mobile app lets you access it on your phone.
How do you keep your family tree up-to-date on all those sites and devices? Several programs now let you synchronize (“sync”) the family file on your computer with trees online and on mobile devices. That copies not just names, dates and places, but also photos and record images, so everything is up-to-date on every device you use.
This chart notes which sites each software syncs with, such as:
- If you use the MyHeritage website, you can use the Family Tree Builder software on your computer and sync it with your trees on the MyHeritage site and the MyHeritage App.
- Both Family Tree Maker and RootsMagic now synchronize with Ancestry Member Trees. But remember, an Ancestry Member Tree can’t handle to-do lists, research logs or media attached to places or sources, so it’s not a complete backup of your RootsMagic or Family Tree Maker file.
- Three software programs—Ancestral Quest, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic—sync with the FamilySearch Family Tree. Its goal is to have one tree for all users to avoid duplication, with one profile for each ancestral person. Before you add someone, the FamilySearch Family Tree checks to see if the person is already in the tree.
Syncing software with an online tree offers another advantage: If you ever let your subscription to Ancestry.com or MyHeritage lapse, you might lose access to the site’s historical records that you attached to your tree. (Records uploaded from your computer still will be accessible.) If you’ve synchronized your trees, you’ll still have access to the records in your software.
No single software syncs with every family tree website. To make it easier to update them all, keep a master file in one desktop program, such as Family Tree Builder, Family Tree Maker, Legacy Family Tree or RootsMagic. Then sync the software with whatever websites you can.
If you’ve made changes in a tree on a nonsyncing site and you want to update your master file, export a GEDCOM file from that tree to your software and use the match/merge feature to integrate the changes. Whenever you’ve significantly updated your software master file, export a GEDCOM to replace your tree on nonsyncing sites. Keep in mind that a GEDCOM file includes only links to attached media files such as photos and document images; it doesn’t include the media files themselves.
Your best bets
Get the basics on the best family history software, online family trees and apps for researching, organizing and sharing your family history. To help you choose which platforms are right for your research needs, we’ll spill details such as the main features of each option, its strengths and drawbacks, the cost (if any), and what it syncs with.
Ancestry Member Trees
- Host website: Ancestry.com
- Works best on: the most current versions of Google Chrome, Internet Explorer and Mozilla Firefox
- Cost: It’s free for registered guests to create, edit and share family trees. They can also respond to messages from other members and access free records, but viewing most records requires a subscription (US: $19.99/month, $99/six months; US and international: $34.99/month, $149/six months)
- Try it first: Cancel a new subscription within 14 days and you won’t be billed.
- Mobile app: Ancestry for iOS and Android
- Syncs with: Family Tree Maker and RootsMagic software
- Main features: Hints from Ancestry.com records and family trees. Easily add information from Ancestry.com to your Tree. Connect with Ancestry Members researching the same families. Make your tree public, private and searchable (so people in your tree are found in searches) or private and not searchable. Link your tree to you AncestryDNA test.
- Strengths: Easy to use. Hints consolidate duplication in Member Tree matches. Sources are visually linked to the facts they support.
- Drawbacks: Nonstandard source citations. No family group sheets or pedigree charts. Access to “public” trees still requires an Ancestry.com subscription or invitation from a tree owner. You must subscribe to Ancestry.com to view most hints and attach records. Newly added relatives don’t immediately show up in the site’s search results, and member tree names without sources don’t appear in search results at all.
- Best for: All users
Family Tree Maker 2017
- Manufacturer: Software MacKiev acquired the program from Ancestry.com in 2016
- Works best on: Macintosh OS X 10.9 or later, Windows 7 or later
- Cost: $79.95 download, $39.95 upgrade
- Try it first: Free trial not available
- Mobile app: Not available
- Syncs with: Ancestry.com trees
- Main features: Build your family tree with attached photos and documents. Create charts, reports, timelines and interactive maps. Get hints to records on Ancestry.com and search Ancestry.com, FamilySearch and RootsWeb from within the program. In version 2017, get FamilySearch hints, search and merge. And version 2017’s FamilySync replaces TreeSync for synchronizing your tree with an Ancestry Member Tree. New tools let you restore faded photos and color-code people in your tree.
- Strengths: You can copy and paste facts, along with related source citations, media items and notes, from one person to another. Source templates are organized by group and category. Choose from many attractive chart options. Easily publish your family tree on Ancestry.com, where it’s accessible to subscribers and people you invite.
- Drawbacks: Poor source citations in reports. You can’t create reports for publishing on your own website. Some data doesn’t transfer properly when importing files from other genealogy software.
- Best for: All users, especially those who like to create attractive family tree wall charts
FamilySearch Family Tree
- Host website: FamilySearch
- Works best on: recent versions of most popular Web browsers, except Edge
- Cost: Free
- Mobile app: FamilySearch Tree and FamilySearch Memories, both for iOS and Android
- Syncs with: Ancestral Quest, Family Tree Maker, Legacy Family Tree and RootsMagic software
- Main features: This collaborative family tree aims to avoid duplication and have just one profile for each person. Get hints from FamilySearch records. Search Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage. It has an excellent system for organizing photos in albums, labeling them and sharing a link to albums with relatives.
- Strengths: Family Tree is easy to use; an ideal way to preserve your family history for posterity. If you have an account and you’re in the tree, the View My Relationship link shows how you’re related to someone else in the tree. Use a person’s Discussions area to communicate with other researchers.
- Drawbacks: Instead of helping you create complete source citations, the site just asks you to provide the “reason this information is correct.” You cannot record a marriage between two people of the same sex. You might feel uncomfortable using a collaborative tree, in which other researchers can change your ancestors’ profiles, as your only tree.
- Best for: All users, especially as a second tree.
- Host website: Findmypast
- Works best on: Recent versions of all major web browsers
- Cost: You can build your online tree for free and attach some Findmypast records, including US census records, for free. Access to other records requires a subscription (Starter Package of 2.9 billion records: $9.95/month or $34.95/year; Premium Package of over 8 billion records: $19.95/ month or $239.50/year)
- Try it first: Free 14-day trial
- Mobile app: Not available, but the website is optimized for mobile devices.
- Syncs with: Not available
- Main features: This UK-based genealogy site focuses on UK and Irish records, including newspapers, Irish Roman Catholic parish records, and the National Burial Index for England and Wales. It also has large US and Canadian collections, including marriages, the census, and the Periodical Source Index (PERSI) to articles in genealogy and history magazines. Online trees here get hints to Findmypast records.
- Strengths: Automated record hints.
- Drawbacks: You can’t search all the trees on the site. Attaching Findmypast records to people in your tree takes too many steps. Poor source citations. No charts and reports.
- Best for: Using as a second tree, especially for Findmypast subscribers
Legacy Family Tree 9.0
- Manufacturer: MyHeritage recently acquired the program from Millennia software
- Works best on: Windows 7 or higher
- Cost: $34.95 download; $26.95 upgrade
- Try it first: free Standard Edition
- Mobile app: Families, $14.99, by TelGen Ltd.
- Syncs with: FamilySearch; version 10 will sync with MyHeritage
- Main features: Enable hints to get them from FamilySearch, Findmypast, GenealogyBank and MyHeritage. Search Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Find A Grave, Findmypast, GenealogyBank, MyHeritage, Newspapers.com and other sites from within the program. Display up to seven views of the same family file or two different family files at the same time, and drag and drop people between files. It’s easy to find and merge duplicate people. Choose from many charting options and use powerful tools to search for people in your file.
- Strengths: Reports are well-designed, including reports for your website. Print reports in multiple languages.
- Drawbacks: The screen is cluttered and the clipboard tool for adding sources uses unintuitive icons.
- Best for: Users who want to create a well-documented family history and create outstanding reports.
MyHeritage/Family Tree Builder 8.0
- Manufacturer and host website: MyHeritage
- Works best on: Windows XP and later, or Mac OS X
- Cost: It’s free to download Family Tree Builder software and build basic trees (an unlimited offline family file plus up to 250 people and 250MB of storage on MyHeritage). To build larger trees on MyHeritage and view many Record Matches, you’ll need a MyHeritage subscription (Premium with up to 2,500 people and 1,000 MB of storage: $110/year; Premium Plus with unlimited tree and enhanced Smart Matching: $175.12/year; Data with access to MyHeritage premium records and Record Matches: $159.20/year; Complete Plan of PremiumPlus and Data: $250.74/year)
- Try it first: Download Family Tree Builder for free.
- Mobile app: MyHeritage for iOS and Android
- Syncs with: MyHeritage.com
- Main features: Make your online tree public or limit access to MyHeritage members you invite; optionally, let family members edit it. Get hints from MyHeritage records and trees. Search MyHeritage record collections and record test results from MyHeritage DNA.
- Strengths: You can mark people, facts and notes as private in your Family Tree Builder file, so they don’t synchronize to your online tree. Family Tree Builder software and the MyHeritage site is available in more than 40 languages.
- Drawbacks: The online tree is basic, with weak support for source citations and difficult navigation. Family Tree Builder offers a no-frills source documentation system.
- Best for: Users who want hints to records and family trees from around the world.
RootsMagic 7 with TreeShare
- Manufacturer: RootsMagic
- Works best on: Windows XP and above or Mac OS 10.8 and above
- Cost: $29.95 download, $19.95 upgrade
- Try it first: The free RootsMagic Essentials includes many core features of the full version.
- Mobile app: RootsMagic App for iOS and Android lets you view (but not edit) your RootsMagic files, and convert files from other genealogy software to RootsMagic files.
- Syncs with: Ancestry.com, FamilySearch
- Main features: This easy-to-use program offers excellent charts and reports (including reports for your own website), research logs, and powerful tool to search your family file. Get hints from Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast and MyHeritage. Search Ancestry.com, FamilySearch, Findmypast, GenealogyBank, MyHeritage and other sites from within the software.
- Strengths: Import the ancestors or descendants of a person in the FamilySearch Family Tree. The new TreeShare feature lets you move data between the RootsMagic files on your computer and your Ancestry Member Tree online.
- Drawbacks: It’d be easier to find the source documentation template you need if similar ones were grouped together.
- Best for: All users, especially those who do a lot of online research.
Expert Genealogy Software Tip
Users of most desktop genealogy programs for Windows can get automated research recommendations by adding on GenSmarts software ($24.95).