These days, it’s so easy to create your family tree using the latest technology. The days of hand-drawn trees covered with sticky notes are over! With so many genealogy programs to choose from, how does the family historian find the right one for their needs?
And with websites such as Ancestry and FamilySearch already providing simple-to-use trees for their members, why would you need additional tree software? Let’s take a closer look at what genealogy software can do for your research!
But first, here’s a quick summary of the best genealogy software:
- RootsMagic 7 – best overall desktop-based family tree software and most used by professional genealogists. Simple, easy to use, yet powerful and robust. Free and paid versions available.
- MyHeritage Family Tree Builder – a great option for free desktop software without any “free trial” limitations.
- Legacy 9.0 – an oldie but a goodie. A great option for desktop software and has the best set of reports/charts available.
- Ancestry.com Online Trees – good for making simple trees, attaching records, and linking DNA results. Available with free Ancestry account.
- MacKiev Family Tree Maker – popular in the genealogy community but the most expensive of the desktop software by far. We much prefer RootsMagic for desktop software and is half the price.
Online/Cloud Family Tree Software
Online family trees do have several benefits. Genealogy websites make it easy to edit your tree, search for records, and attach them to people, all in one place.
They can be accessed anywhere, from any device- when visiting Grandma or great-uncle Earl, you can quickly pull up the family tree on your phone, tablet, or laptop to share your latest discoveries.
Additionally, online trees can be invaluable when investigating DNA matches- attaching a family tree to DNA results helps you make connections with cousin matches, confirm shared ancestors, and discover new records.
However, there are some major downsides to maintaining your family information on the internet.
First, while the World Wide Web is a modern miracle that gives you the world at your fingertips- you need an internet connection in order to access it. That can sometimes be tricky in certain types of repositories- for example, an old historic museum or library.
Remember, not everyone provides Wi-Fi access, and even if they do, the connection can be spotty.
Believe it or not, you do not own your online tree or the data contained within it- the company hosting the website does.
Although the user is allowed control of the trees they create- the ability to restrict access, edit and delete trees, for example- the data contained within ultimately belongs to that company.
Additionally, when you “save” a record to your tree, you are not really saving a copy of that record- you are simply linking that record to a “fact” on your tree.
If you stop subscribing to a website and you have not downloaded a copy of your tree’s records to your computer or hard drive, you will no longer have access to them.
Also, many of the records available online were digitized in partnership with local and national archives, who retain ownership of the original material.
If the online company’s agreement with these archives someday changes, those records may no longer be available for users to view.
Or, if the website where your tree is held decides to restrict your access, gets hacked or crashes, or the company simply goes out of business, your family tree is gone.
Clearly, there are advantages to keeping an offline version of your tree! Let’s dig a little deeper into some of the features of family tree software programs.
Desktop Family Tree Software
Family tree-building software is the most common type of genealogy software available.
But these programs can do much more than simply create a family tree!
One of the major advantages to using software is that you can import or export family tree data as a GEDCOM file.
A GEDCOM, or Genealogical Data Communication, is a specific file type used for exchanging tree data between different genealogy software programs (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GEDCOM).
Additionally, many online trees can be imported and exported as GEDCOM files too.
This means you don’t have to start from scratch with a software program- you can simply download your online tree as a GEDCOM, and then import it into your new program- family connections intact!
Some of the many additional features you could find in family-tree programs include:
- User-friendly and easy to learn
- Report-building capability- create reports, family group sheets and more, and add notes to individuals or families
- Ability to add records, photographs, and even sound bites and videos, to individuals in your tree
- Applications to help build and publish a family history narrative
- Assistance with documenting citations
- Alerts to help you correct inconsistencies and errors in data
- “Clean-up” help for duplicate entries
- Options to create printable family trees
- Organizational tools to help you track your research and create a “to-do” list
- Ability to download your tree to a USB flash drive to take with you- helpful when researching in a facility with no internet access
- Some programs can even integrate with the major online databases, making it even easier to sync tree data between online and offline programs. For example, when you have a record “hint” in Ancestry, you could see it reflected in your offline tree as well!
Finding a Middle Ground- Online and Offline
With an overview of the many benefits found in family tree software, you may still be hesitant to move your entire family history to an offline database.
Good news- most experienced genealogists work BOTH online and offline!
The biggest advantage to keeping trees in both places is that you have a backup, in case something should happen on one end or the other.
You can always import or export your GEDCOM again to re-build your tree, providing peace of mind that your data will not be lost.
Additionally, you can download and save copies of all your digital records to your offline tree.
Working with both types of trees also allows you to benefit from the advantages each one provides.
When it comes to DNA research, having that online tree up-to-date and synched to your results is essential.
With offline trees, you have the ability to customize the program’s workspace to fit your research needs and organizational style.
Whichever route you decide to take, it is imperative that you create a backup not only for your tree data, but for ALL of your genealogy files.
In addition to importing and exporting your GEDCOMs to different programs, save that GEDCOM file in a separate folder on your PC, or even better, on an external hard drive.
That way if your PC or device crashes, you’ll still have a copy of your data saved elsewhere.
Create a reminder or alert for yourself to save an updated GEDCOM and create a new backup on a regular basis. All of that hard work is certainly worth protecting!
What to look for when choosing a Software Program
Before selecting a genealogy program, make sure to do your homework and find the right software to suit your needs. Some of the points to consider when comparing family tree programs include:
- GEDCOM capability- Can the program import data from the website where your online tree is located?
- What type of reporting output does the program have, and do the options mesh with your needs? This feature may be especially important to those who are working on a family narrative or book.
- Does the program offer tutorials or a “learning center” for new users, or perhaps an online forum for users to connect and learn from each other?
- Look closely at the software version- has it been updated recently? If a program has not been updated in a long time, that usually means the developer is no longer working on the product- resulting in “bugs” that will never get fixed and no new features being added. This will eventually render the program obsolete.
- Does the product offer a “free trial” period, where you can test it out before purchasing?
Another important point to consider is whether the software company is active in the genealogy community.
Do they attend conferences or participate in other local and national genealogy events?
Do they sit in on genealogy podcasts to discuss the software’s latest features, or do they write technology articles for genealogy magazines?
This is an indicator that they are not just a random company- they are in tune with their customers and the industry, and are looking to innovate and meet the needs of modern-day genealogists.
When it comes to free software versus a program you pay for, be sure to carefully compare the features of each before proceeding.
Do you have unlimited access to your tree, and can you work on your own time?
Do you have the same customization and reporting options?
Some of the advantages of paying for a program are the fact that you own the disc and the product key- once you register your program, you can re-install on a new device if needed, and receive online support from the software maker.
Plus, many genealogy software programs are very reasonably priced for the everyday user.
Other types of Genealogy Software
Besides family tree-making software, there are plenty of other genealogy software options to choose from, including:
- Programs that help users craft citations
- Programs that help analyze genealogical sources to create sound research conclusions
- Programs that help design and print custom family trees
- Programs that help you write a family narrative by providing a writing analysis, historical context, and even timelines
- Programs that can help create maps to depict your important family events
There are even online apps you can download to your phone or other device to make your life easier, including time trackers, organizational tools, and citation crafters that can sync with your current word processor.
There is a whole world of possibilities for every type of researcher, and new products are being created every day.
It’s easy to keep up with the latest trends in genealogy technology and find out what the professionals are using! Read genealogy magazines, follow blogs, check out video tutorials, and listen to podcasts to hear reviews of the latest products, see demonstrations, read announcements of new features and updates, and much more.
Genealogy researchers 50 years ago could never imagine all the resources we would have at our fingertips today!
Technological innovations have truly changed the research field for the better. So why not take advantage, and find a software option that will grow your family tree to its greatest potential?