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Choosing the right family history software :: Our expert guide

Family history database software is invaluable for organising your research and laying it out in a clear, logical manner. The only question is: which is best? The answer, says genealogist Michelle Patient, depends on your research needs.

Do you know which software will best help you in researching your family history?
Do you know which software will best help you in researching your family history?

Whether you’re a seasoned genie with years of genealogy behind you, or have just started out on your research, you have something in common with every other family history researcher. We all find and collect information, analyse and store it and ultimately share our research.

Much of what we do is paper-based, such as documents, photographs or newspaper clippings, hand-written notes, letters, diaries or journals.

Recent technological improvements allow us to access and create more and more digital information. Much of our research no longer results in documents arriving via snail mail, instead it pours onto our screens, mobiles and tablets at the click of a button or touch of a screen. Some would call this the digital age; others would say, ‘Welcome to information overload’.

How best, then, to compile this information so we don’t lose track of what we have already done and can identify the next task to be tackled? How can we prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed by the large volume of information? How can we save ourselves time so we are not reinventing the wheel, or barking up the wrong tree?

Using a genealogy-specific database program is a large part of the answer. And unsurprisingly — given genealogy is an increasingly popular hobby — there is a wide range of genealogy-specific programs available.

In general, genealogy software enables you to record a range of events relating to one or more persons in your tree, be it a “vital” event such as a birth, death or marriage, or day-to-day details such as residences and occupations as shown in electoral rolls or census documents.

For those of us with ‘Australian royalty’ on our trees, we can record the details of our convict ancestors’ crimes, court records, indents, tickets of leave and even pardons. In some cases, the types of information that can ‘attach’ to a person can seem almost endless.

Once sufficient information is compiled, software also allows for the extraction of reports, charts and maps from the combination of facts entered. This allows the information to be shared with family members and fellow researchers; some genealogists even create a basic book.

Key improvements to family tree software have been made on a few fronts, including the ability to link media files such as scanned documents, photographs, videos and sound clips, bringing names and dates to life. In addition to attaching and sharing information via the internet, today we have the ability to synchronise data across multiple devices and platforms. This means we can work on and view our trees whenever and wherever we like.

At the time of writing, Wikipedia shows nearly 40 different programs available for desktop computers and eight for web-based applications. How to decide which one is right for you? Luckily many other researchers have already been there and done that, so one of the top three programs will probably suit most people.


According to recent surveys, the most popular programs for Windows-based computers are Family Tree Maker, Legacy Family Tree and Roots Magic.

For those working on a Mac-based system, Family Tree Maker, Reunion and MacFamily Tree are the top three.

We all have different needs in our research, whether we are researching:

  • a direct ancestral line
  • direct ancestors plus their side lines
  • all the living descendants of a particular couple for a reunion
  • all families on-board a specific immigrant ship
  • a One Name or One Place Study

As a result we all have different needs for what we need to store and what we need to extract from our work.

So how to choose which program is right for you? One of the best pieces of advice I was given when I started using genealogy software back in 1999 was: “You spend most of your time keying in information, so make sure you like how the program does that.”

Another suggestion from the 1990s still holds true today: try out the trial versions of a couple of programs first. Enter two or three generations to get a feel for how they work. This helps you figure out what you need and what is essential for you. Legacy Family Tree, RootsMagic, The Master Genealogist (Win), MacFamilyTree (Mac) and Gramps (Win, Mac and Linux) all offer free or trial versions.
Some of the things you may wish to consider when making your decision are:

  • What are the operating systems of the devices which you want to use to enter or review data: Windows, Mac, iOS, Android?
  • Do you need a mobile application for your smartphone, iPhone, tablet or iPad in addition to a desktop-based solution? Is one available to suit your device?
  • Do you wish to record same-sex marriages? Not all databases allow for this.
  • Does it export reports in a format you can edit, such as Word?
  • Does it allow for DNA results? This is a new research tool which will no doubt become increasingly important for family historians.
  • Do you need a mapping feature to show the movements of your families?
  • Does it help you to manage a research log and to-do list?
  • Do you need it to sync to online trees such as Ancestry or FamilySearch?
  • Does it offer an automatic backup solution upon closing?


Take a look at this useful website which offers side-by-side comparisons if you would like to compare the main features of the various programs.

And today there is another consideration: do you want to use a service that is web-based, such as MyHeritage, Genes Reunited and others?

The benefit here is clear — when your tree is published online you are not only advertising your research in the hope of finding others researching the same family branch, you are also preserving your research for others to see now and in the future. Being web-based you can access them wherever you can connect to the internet — at home, work, or when visiting relatives or archives.

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