Some days, I think computers were designed for genealogists. Using various software programs, we can organize our research, share old photos, build family Web sites and announce our findings to the world. The only downside is trying to choose the right software. Who hasn’t bought a program only to find it didn’t fill the bill? It was either too complicated, too slow or just didn’t live up to the advertising. At $50-plus a pop, buying sight unseen can get pricey. Fortunately, there are “try before you buy” alternatives called freeware and shareware.
Freeware is exactly what you’d think—software without a price tag. It’s free to download, free to use and free to distribute to anyone you choose.
Shareware was the brainchild of a couple of computer-code writers who (20 years ago) distributed their programs for free, but included a note asking users to make a $10 or $25 contribution if they found the programs helpful. Back then, shareware operated on an honor system: If you didn’t like the program, you were expected to delete it from your system; if you did like it, you were expected to pay for it.
Today shareware has evolved into a multimillion-dollar business, with tens of thousands of programs available for download. Some still cost as little as $10 to register, but others’ prices soar well above $100. And yes, shareware still comes with a “try before you buy” policy, but programs are usually crippled by time limitations (after so many days, they won’t run) or disabled features. So much for the honor system.
The good news: You can find freeware and shareware that’s just as useful as some commercial programs—or that at least enhances your computing capabilities (don’t write off regular software completely). You just have to be willing to put dozens of programs through their paces. To save you time, we’ve combed our favorite shareware/freeware sites to find the best tools for your family tree needs. Our list slants toward software that costs $30 or less. Although most programs have at least a 30-day trial period, a few allow only 10 or 15 days.
• Embla Family Treasures
Vital stats: Embla, www.embla.us, requires Windows 98 or higher
This Norwegian software performs all the basic functions you need in a genealogy program, and it’ll never nag you to register. The core program comes free, but you’ll have to purchase special add-on features (packaged as Genealogy Extension Modules, or GEMs) separately.
• Heredis Standard Edition
Vital stats: BSD Concept, www.myheredis.com, requires Windows 98 or higher
This French export has such a different look and feel from other genealogy software that it may take you a few minutes to get used to the interface. But after a short learning curve, you’ll realize just how much Heredis can do. The program excels at creating colorful charts with interesting graphics. It also lets you record any events in your ancestors’ lives.
• Legacy Family Tree Standard Edition
Vital stats: Millennia Corp., legacyfamilytree.com, requires Windows 95 or higher
Legacy’s strong source-citing capabilities, customizable reports and handy to-do lists make it an excellent choice for most genealogists. The program also has an outstanding merge function, making it a snap to import new data into your master file. Legacy can generate multimedia slide shows and personalized Web pages, as well.
• Personal Ancestral File (PAF)
Vital stats: FamilySearch, www.familysearch.org (click on Order/Download Products), requires Windows 95 or higher
This offering from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is one of the most widely used genealogy software programs—and one of the most user-friendly. PAF will organize your records and generate basic reports and charts. The match/merge feature makes it easy to identify and combine duplicate records.
Vital stats: PhotoActions, photoactions.com/aweb, 30-day trial, $29.95 registration, requires Windows 95 or higher
AlbumWeb does just what its name implies: It creates photo albums for you to upload to the Web. Using the built-in wizard, choose a background style, add photos and captions, click Generate and voila!—you’ve created a photo gallery. Your finished product will display the name of the gallery (you may want a different gallery for each surname or place) and a thumbnail of each photo (click on a thumbnail to see the full-size image).
•Apimac Slide Show
Vital stats: Apimac, www.apimac.com/ss, $29 registration, requires a Mac
Create your own multimedia presentations or slide shows with this shareware. Apimac Slide Show supports a wide range of multimedia and graphic file formats. Once you select files to include, you can customize your presentation by adding multiple soundtracks, using a fade effect between pictures or adding a background image.
Vital stats: Irfan Skiljan, www.irfanview.com, free, requires Windows 95 or higher
Use this graphic viewer to examine and edit virtually every image format. Although it has limited editing capabilities, you can rotate and change the color depth of images, make icons and even create 3-D buttons for your Web site. Once you’ve worked with an image, you can easily send it to other family members by clicking the e-mail link on the main menu.
Vital stats: Anix Software, www.anixsoft.com/myslideshow.html, $24 registration, requires Windows 98 or higher
Create a slide show in less than 10 minutes with this feature-packed shareware. With drag-and-drop capability and a user-friendly interface, MySlideShow lets you easily select and deselect items for your show, then add background music and captions. You can customize the caption font, color settings and transition effects. If you want to share your masterpiece with other family members, burn it to a CD, or create a Web gallery. MySlideShow even will let you create your own screensaver. This is a great program for multimedia novices.
Vital stats: Google, www.picasa.com/google, free, requires Windows 98 or higher
The instant you install this digital photo organizer (recently acquired by search-engine giant Google), it’ll start looking for digital images on your computer. In minutes, you’ll see thumbnail displays of your entire photo library. Once the search is complete, you can sort photos into appropriate albums. Picasa also has a few editing tools, such as a one-click photo enhancer and a red-eye remover. The program makes e-mailing photos a snap, too: Just choose the images you want to send, click the e-mail icon and off they’ll go.
• Preclick Silver Photo Organizer
Vital stats: Preclick, www.preclick.com, free, requires Windows 98 or higher
Preclick’s unique PhotoBack feature virtually writes on the backs of your pictures. You just enter a date, subject, event and/or place, and Preclick will embed that information into an image. When you share your pics with family and friends, they can read the captions. To get additional features, such as red-eye removal and color conversion, upgrade to Preclick Gold Photo Organizer for $19.95.