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How to Pick the Best Software for Your Genealogy Goals

By Lauren Gamber
Software displayed on a laptop next to genealogy books.

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.

Deciding where you want to store your family tree, whether online or via software, can be a tough choice. Here, we’ll provide you with the tools to determine which online tree or family history software is best for you!

What Software Features to Look For

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.

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.

Nobody’s perfect. We all find genealogy errors in our trees from time to time. Learn how to prevent the most common.

Good 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.  

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.

Sometimes it’s a good thing when your roots are showing! We’ve rounded up the tools available to help you create a printed family tree poster to share.

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 emailing or posting on the Web.

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 website, you can generate HTML reports to post online. Some programs will even walk you through building your own family history site.

It’s easy and inexpensive to set up a family history website that will put you in charge of your clan’s online dream home.

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 email 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.

Questions to Ask Yourself

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.

See below for details on popular genealogy programs. 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.  

Is the price right?

On average, genealogy programs cost about $30, but you can find a few freebies, including Family Tree Legends and Legacy Family Tree’s Standard Edition. Do you get what you pay for? Yes and no. Family Tree Legends boasts intuitive interfaces, easy data entry and well-designed reports. But the manufacturer—Pearl Street Software—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 website if you want to save genealogical data.

You might have heard of another free program, Personal Ancestral File (PAF) from FamilySearch. This software was retired in 2013 and support is no longer available.

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’ websites.

Does it have a steep learning curve?

Windows programs such as RootsMagic, Legacy Family Tree, and Family Tree Legends 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.  

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.  

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.

Note: The Master Genealogist was discontinued in 2014. RootsMagic offers a direct import.

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 doesn’t offer 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.  

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 Legacy Family Tree and The Master Genealogist files, though some users have reported difficulty importing and exporting GEDCOMs.

Legacy Family Tree also reads 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.

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.

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 websites. From within Family Tree Maker, you can search Ancestry.com, Genealogy.com and RootsWeb  (all owned by Ancestry.com, formerly The Generations Network), but you’ll need a subscription to view results in most databases. The program comes with a 14-day trial subscription to Ancestry.com and automatically searches its databases for the names in your family tree 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’ websites 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.

     

Popular Genealogy Software Prices and Free Trials

Windows Software

Ancestral Quest 12.1

Price: $34.95 download, $39.95 on CD
Manufacturer: Incline Software
Limited Trial Version: www.ancquest.com/AQBasics.htm

Brother’s Keeper

Price: $45 with manual
Manufacturer: John Steed
Free Trial: www.bkwin.org/trialversion.htm

Family Tree Builder

Price: Free
Manufacturer: MyHeritage
Free Trial: None

Family Tree Legends 5.0

Price: Free
Manufacturer: Pearl Street Software
Free Trial: None

Family Tree Maker 2019

Price: $79.95 download
Manufacturer: Software MacKiev Company
Free Trial: None

Genbox Family History 3.7.1

Price: $29.95 download
Manufacturer: Thoughtful Creations
Free Trial: www.genbox.com/download.htm

Legacy Family Tree 9.0

Price: Free (Standard Edition)
Manufacturer: Millennia Corp.

RootsMagic 7

Price: $29.95 download
Manufacturer: RootsMagic, Inc.
Limited Trial Version: http://rootsmagic.com/Try/RootsMagic/

Mac Software

GEDitCOM II

Price: $64.99
Manufacturer: John A. Nairn
Limited Trial Version: www.geditcom.com/GCDown.html

Heredis 2021

Price: $49.99
Manufacturer: Heredis
Limited Trial Version: www.heredis.com/en/download-heredis-2021-for-mac-for-free/

iFamily for Mac

Price: $49
Manufacturer: Keith Wilson
Limited Trial Version: ifamilyformac.com/demo/index.php

MacFamilyTree 5

Price: $59.99
Manufacturer: Synium Software
Limited Trial Version: www.syniumsoftware.com/macfamilytree/visualize

Reunion 9

Price: $99
Manufacturer: Leister Productions
Free Trial: None

Last updated: December 2020

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