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Choosing the Best Family Tree Software

I love history; it forms the basis of my interest in genealogy and has an influence on our itinerary when on family holidays.


Saving Your Family History for Future Generations

Reviews and Recommendations

Finding the right Family Tree software and getting the most out of it is the first step towards recording your family history for future generations. Having done genealogy for over forty years starting with a pen and paper, a typewriter and paper files before the days of computer I've learnt a lot about recording and protection your records for posterity. These days all my records are digitised and stored electronically, and as the family tree has grown it's only possible to keep tabs on your research and family tree with a proper family tree database. Below, from my own experience, I recommend the best and most popular programs for you, with tips on making the most of the software and protecting your work for the next generation.

How to do Family Research is beyond the scope of this article which concentrates on giving you a few basic tips on what to do with the information you gather, the benefits of family tree software, which one to get and how to reduce the risk of losing your work. Although you may pick up some useful tips on doing family research here; and for further information into genealogy some useful websites are given near the bottom of this article, some of which are free information resources.

All photos and screen dumps in this article were taken by me.

Family Tree Maker - Essentials Edition

Family Tree Maker is my favourite, and it's the most popular genealogy program. It's the first family tree software I had and I always keep a copy on my computer because it has some useful data search and reporting facilities; which I occasionally use by importing a GedCom file from my other family tree software.

Although I like Family Tree Maker (FTM) I predominantly use Roots Magic specifically because it generates HTML files of the family tree in the way I like for publishing to my genealogy website.

The only minor issue I would have with FTM is that it has just one field for names and (unless otherwise indicated by you) tends to assume the last name to be the surname; whereas Roots Magic has a separate field for surnames so there is no confusion.

RootsMagic V6 - Family Tree Genealogy Software and Book Bundle

RootsMagic is my choice genealogy software, it does most of what Family Tree Maker (FTM) does and it does it well; and it does a few things that FTM doesn’t do, RootsMagic:-

  • Has a separate field for surnames
  • If you have your own website will create HTML versions of the family tree to publish to it.
  • Creates shareable (read only) CDs of your family tree complete with data and pictures to share with your family and friends; which they can view without the need to install any software on their system.
Organise your file structure on your computer

Organise your file structure on your computer

Family Tree Maker

Family Tree Maker

Getting Yourself Organised

Back to Basics

Before you start you need to get yourself organised, and stay organised.

Below, for guidance only, is a checklist of steps you can take to get yourself started; the list is not exhaustive and you may wish to add to it:-

  1. Gather together all old family photos into one place, photos of all past family members that you can find starting with your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles etc. Ask around the family and see if other family members have old photos that they are willing to lend you (or scan and email to you).
  2. Identity as much information as you can for each photo e.g. full names, dates and places etc. Organise this information into photo albums as a primary resource.
  3. Scan the photos into your computer at the highest quality as you can, give each photo a full descriptive name so that you can easily cross reference it with other relevant information you may add on your computer e.g. text documents and databases etc.
  4. Create a hierarchy of folders and sub-folders on your computer e.g. the main folder may be named Family Research with a sub folder called family photos; and within the family photos subfolder further subfolders may be created, each one for a different family branch.
  5. Store your scanned photos into the appropriate subfolders so when particular photos are needed you can easily navigate to them. These should be your master scanned images and should never be modified (version control). If you wish to modify (edit) a photo create a subfolder the next level down clearly identifying by the subfolder's name that it for modified images; see example below.
  6. Gather together all the family documents you can find (exclude documents on living people for security and privacy reasons), and as with photos ask around family members for documents they may have that they would be happy to copy to you. This may include old letters family letters, Birth and Marriage certificates, and Wills etc.
  7. Sort these documents into paper folders for future reference, scan them in and store them on your computer in folders and subfolders in an organised way so that you can easily find and locate documents when required.
  8. Write down all the stories your parents, aunts and uncles told you when you were younger and ask around the family for stories that other family members may remember. Store all this information into Word or other text documents in an organised file structure as you did for photos and other family documents.

Once you have all this information at your fingertips you are now in a position to start transcribing relevant information from it into you family tree software and other relevant programs as appropriate; and start to do your family research in earnest. I say other relevant programs because although you can use family tree programs for storing all your media e.g. text and images as well as the family tree itself putting everything in one place can cause problems in the future, as will become more apparent further down.

Roots Magic Program

Roots Magic Program

Family Tree Maker for Mac

MAC Software

If you’re a Mac user and looking for a renowned product to run on your Mac for family tree research then Family Tree Maker (FTM) is a good and popular choice.

Family Atlas Genealogy Mapping Software

By RootsMagic

Import your family data from other genealogy software and create personalised maps showing the geographical location of your ancestors which can be exported to Word and other documents and printed out or saved.

Family Historian v5

If FTM or RootsMagic doesn't appeal to you then Family Historian is a good alternative choice; it does all the basics that most other good genealogy programs does and as with all family tree software is compatible with GedCom files allowing you to share raw data with others or transfer old files from other versions of genealogy programs you may have used in the past.

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Choosing the Right Package

Finding the Right Genealogy Software for You

Which family tree program is best for you may be determined in how you intend using it:-

Roots Magic

If you're familiar with html coding and intend creating your own family tree database on your website then Roots Magic is an excellent choice in that it automatically creates html versions of you family tree, when required, which you can easily upload to your website as frequently as you like.

With Roots Magic you can create a Read Only copy of your entire family tree at any time on a CD which can be passed to other fellow researchers and family members.

Roots Magic V4s GedCom files are slightly modified with just one minor change to one bit of code preventing it from being used in non 'Root Magic' software; but this is easily and quickly rectified with NotePad as described in the next section. I'm not sure at this stage whether this quirk has been rectified in their latest version.

Family Tree Maker

If however you don't intend uploading your family tree to your own website then Family Tree Maker, which is an excellent program and very popular, is likely to be your first choice because it integrates into the Ancestry website (subject to a subscription fee) giving you direct access to data relevant to your family; making family research a lot easier and quicker.

When choosing to buy Family Tree Maker you have a choice of different Editions e.g. Platinum, Deluxe and World etc. With the more expensive editions you get more data discs containing, in my experience, general research data that it likely to be useless to you in that either you find no reference to your family in it or if you do find any relevant information it's only a link and if you want the information itself you have to pay for it; the software in different editions are generally the same.

Therefore, when buying Family Tree Maker (FTM) I buy the cheapest edition on offer and subscribe to Ancestry separately; the two will automatically link when you load the software and sign into Ancestry; when subscribing to Ancestry you can choose the subscription level that best meets your requirement e.g. country, worldwide etc.

Roots Magic vs Family Tree Maker

  • Although Family Tree Maker is often the first choice for people doing family research, and it links directly into the Ancestry website if you pay the subscription fee Roots Magic also has access to Ancestry subject to the subscription.
  • You can use Roots Magic to create your own html files of the family tree if you have your own website, which you can't do in Family Tree Maker; but Family Tree Maker does give you the option to auto upload and manage your own family tree onto their website using their software, although you are restricted to their formats and layout tools and not being your own website can easily loss control of the data on the Ancestry website if you stop using their software and in time forget your username and password e.g. you'll not be able to go back and delete or modify it without first obtaining your username and password from Ancestry.
  • The only minor criticism I have of Family Tree Maker is that it uses just one field for the name and be default assumes the last name to be the surname, which may not always be the case. Whereas Roots Magic has a separate field for the surname which you can leave blank until you do have the information. This is only a minor point which doesn't bother most genealogy researchers so if in all other respects you fill Family Tree Maker is for you then no doubt this is the program for you.

Other Family Tree Software

Apart from the few points already mentioned, most good family tree programs operate in much the same way as Family Tree Maker and Roots Magic, so which program you use ultimately is down to personal choice.

Regardless to which family tree program you opt for your choice is not set in stone as records can be transferred between all genealogy programs by exporting them as GedCom files then importing the GedCom file into any other genealogy program. The only problem is that GedCom files only contain the family tree itself and not any media files you embedded or linked to your family tree program, which is why I recommend these are kept separately in their respective photo albums and word documents; although if you are confident that you will stick to the same software (excepting for software updates, and new versions) you may wish to make these family tree databases media rich by including lots of photos, copies of certificates and word documents etc. When upgrading to a new version of the program you're using any media rich content will automatically transfer along with the family tree data.

Editing GedCom file in NotePad

Editing GedCom file in NotePad

What You Need to Know About GedComs

Universal file format for exchanging data between different family tree programs

The GedCom file was developed by the Mormons as part of their religious interest in genealogy and has become the industrial standard for sharing and exchanging information between different genealogy programs.

The GedCom file only contains text whereas modern family tree programs allow the inclusion of media rich content such as photos and word documents etc. , so when exporting data as GedCom to import into another program the media rich content is stripped out but the family tree and notes remain intact. If backing up your data and subsequently upgrading from an older version to a newer version of the same program then you would save your data in that program's file format which is media rich so you don't lose any photos you've placed in its galleries. GedCom files are also used when copying your family tree from you family tree program to an online genealogy websites.

Although GedCom is a universal file standard allowing you to export and import your family tree from any family tree program to any other family tree program and to upload to genealogy websites like Genes Reunited, Roots Magic have altered the code in their version preventing it from being shared with other programs. However, it's not a biggy because GedCom files are only text files and can easily and quickly be edited in notepad or wordpad in Windows.

To make a Roots Magic GedCom file work with any none Roots Magic genealogy program all you need do is as follows:-

  1. Export your family tree from Roots Magic as a GedCom file, saving the file to your computer's hard drive.
  2. Open NotePad (or WordPad) e.g. a plain text and select 'File', 'Open' from the NotePad top menu bar and browse to where you saved the GedCom file. NotePad defaults to seeing .txt files; change this (bottom right of the NotePad window) to view 'All Files' and open the GedCom file.
  3. Near the top of the GedCom file (see above image) is the file version given as 5.5.1, change this to 5.5 by deleting the .1 at the end and save the file as a non-text file retaining the file extension .ged. By default NotePad saves files as .txt, so just select non-text from the pop down menu at the bottom when saving the file.

It is as simple as that and now your GedCom file from Roots Magic can be imported into any other genealogy program.

Protecting Your Records Against Accidental Damage or Loss

Not Putting All Your Eggs in One Basket

Avoid too much duplication, because if you alter your records in one place then you will also need to amend the duplicate record to avoid getting in a mess with your data at a later date; but obviously keep as many regular backups as you can as this is most important in protecting your data. Also try to spread your original information (master data) across multiple media platforms that are not integrated with each other e.g. photos in one place, family tree data in another and your text documents separately. Obviously in writing family history you may wish to create word documents that incorporate photos, but this should be a separate working document and not relied on as the master source for the original data.

You can extend your family research by joining the genes reunited website, and although you can create a family tree online directly on their website it's much better to keep your family tree program as your master data and periodically export a GedCom from it to upload to Genes Reunited e.g. don't try to update the family tree on genes reunited, make any amendments just in your family tree program, and when you've made enough changes upload a fresh GedCom from it to Genes Reunited.

GedCom Import

GedCom Import

Family Tree Pedigree Records

Family Tree Pedigree Records

Future Proof Your Hard Work

Retain Flexibility in Your Work

If you rely entirely on putting all your hard work on official websites such as genes reunited and Ancestry then you don't maintain full control over it and in the event of anything happening to you your descendants may not be aware of its existence or may not be able to get access to it.

Likewise, if you put a copy of your family tree and family history on your own website then after you've gone and the subscription to your Internet Server Provider ceases your website along with all your hard work will be deleted.

In both scenarios above if you're using a family tree program you'll have your full records on your computer but once you're gone the chances are your computer will be disposed of along with all the records it contains and your descendants will never get to see all the hard work you've done.

Therefore, as well as the usual regular backups on your computer you should also ensure you keep periodic backup copies off your computer and let family members know where those backups are; better still, if you have family members interested in what you're doing send them the occasional copy of your work on CD or DVD to increase the chance that other family members in the future can use your data to carry on your good work.

Genealogy Resources on the Web

Genealogy Online For Dummies

Paperback Book

Although I’ve never used these series of books myself I know a lot of people who do, and for the novice or beginner they can be a great step-up into the world of the subject covered; in this case an introduction to genealogy for beginners.

Does Family Research Grab You

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2012 Arthur Russ

Your Tips and Comments on Genealogy - Family History Research

Arthur Russ (author) from England on June 15, 2017:

Thanks for your info William, I guess you find Reunion does a good job and meets with all your requirements. It's one package I'm not familiar with, what do you think its best points are, and are there any aspects you think could be better.

William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on February 22, 2014:

Since I use a Mac, Reunion is my software of choice! ;-)

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