The current discussion — Nolichucky Roots, Genea-Musings, Marian’s Roots and Rambles — of database programs and research workflows prompted me to chime in with my two cents. Why use genealogy software? Mostly, to collect and organize my research in one place. The alternative in my world is utter chaos.
Every once in a while I get a bug to try something new in world of genealogy database software. The itch usually starts because I’m frustrated by my computer equipment or software features (or lack therof), but sometimes I’m just curious to see what’s new. At RootsTech I heard considerable buzz about the new Family Tree Maker Mac 2 withTreeSync, and I’ve been trying out the latest version for the past six weeks or so.
I’m ambidextrous when it comes to computer platforms, but switched my main home system from PC to Mac just over a year ago. I like the seamless integration with my iPad and the zippy start-up. I don’t like the limited software selection. I know I could run some of my old Windows favorites but then I’d have to buy and install Windows which I’d like to avoid.
On my PC systems I’ve used Legacy Family Tree (Version 4, 2003 through Version 7), Personal Ancestral File, and Roots Magic 4. On the Mac, I’ve run Legacy and RootsMagic via CrossOver and the native Mac version of Reunion 7. Each program has features I like and some I don’t like.
Whenever a genealogy blogger mentions trying out a new database I’m keenly interested to see how it works out. Usually, there’s a flurry of set-up and training, and sometimes an informative follow-up post or two. It’s helpful when bloggers share their software experiences, workflows, and workarounds like Randy Seaver’s multiple series on genealogy software, or Amy Coffin’s fresh start, or Marian Pierre-Louis’ Genealogy Software Upheaval.
Before installing Family Tree Maker Mac 2, I had a good idea of what features were most important to me. I’m fine with using GEDCOM exports to move my data to another program to take advantage of a special report or chart, but overall I think that using my MAIN database should be a relatively painless experience.
What I Need in a Genealogy Database Program
1. Intuitive Interface – a Windows program should use Windows-like commands; a Mac program should use Mac-like commands.
2. Training – I really need/want training. I don’t want a Help-driven user guide that begins with an overview of the main screen and ends with a chapter on Troubleshooting, with a note to “visit our helpful forum if you have any questions.” I want Step-by-Step tutorials on how to enter an person; how to add a marriage; how to add/edit a source. I don’t care if the training is online as a webinar or a YouTube video, or driven by screen-shots in an e-book. I want some guidance.
3. User Base – Money talks. Software developers are not making their product without the hope of a profit. They need users who will bring in more users. To my mind, many happy users is a reflection of a responsive product team working to keep people on board with their software. I look for an active user base AND a responsive development team. When a product developer relies too much on users for training and help for newbies and provides little in the way of updates and company/customer interaction, I can’t help but think that the company doesn’t care much about keeping me as happy user.
You might notice that I haven’t even gotten to the genealogy part yet.
I figure that if the program is counter-intuitive, lacks instruction, or produced by a company that doesn’t communicate with its users, I may not want to go there at all. Fortunately, a bit of web research and playtime with a trial version will usually illuminate how a program addresses 1-2-3. Then, I look my next requirements:
4. GEDCOM – Will the program export and import basic names, birth, death, marriage, and notes?
5. Notes – Is there an easy-to access Notes Field? (see more on this below)
If I get this far with a program I’m ready to take it for a test drive and take in that new car smell.
What I Want in a Genealogy Database Program
6. Ease of Use – Ok, now I have viewed a few tutorials and understand how to enter data, enter an event and source; but how easy is it to accomplish this task? How many clicks does it take? How long in seconds, minutes? Are keyboard shortcuts straightforward?
7. Ahhh, Sources – At the least, the software should turn out Chicago-style source citations; at the best, Evidence Explained-style. Either way, I don’t want to have to look up every source in EE just to figure out how to enter the information in the source template. I realize that many genealogists work around this problem by keeping a separate source log using their own individual (EE or other) templates. But that’s one more list to maintain. I shouldn’t have to give up one of the key features of using genealogy software because it’s awkward to use the sourcing feature.
8. Reports – I need the basics — Family Group Sheet, Pedigree Chart — but it sure would be nice to have a timeline, more relationship charts, and some other choices.
9. iPad/iPhone App – I want to be able to take my data with me for review, and I’d really like to be able to edit on my mobile app.
10. Pretty Factor – It’s easier to stare at a good-looking computer desktop than an ugly cluttered one.
Other genealogists probably rate their database needs/wants differently; that’s okay. I used to input data in the appropriate event/fact fields with corresponding sources but I discovered that GEDCOM doesn’t always play nice moving between programs. One field that does seem to move seamlessly, however, is the plain vanilla Notes field.
Notes on Notes
The genealogy instructor was right! She insisted students use the Notes field to keep all data chronologically listed — source first, followed by detail and analysis. I discovered when I moved my file from LegacyFamilyTree to RootsMagic to Reunion to FamilyTreeMakerMac2 and back to Legacy that the Notes field carried the information every time. It messed up formatting like boldface and italics, but all the data moved quite well.
Of course, the downside of this workaround is that you can’t take advantage of the wonderful features like the timeline, bibliography, custom charting, and much more offered in newer programs. But for basic research, the Notes field is King for transfer-ability.
I keep hoping that I’ll find a native Mac program that fulfills my database needs as well as my wants, because I’d really like to easily enter data in the event/fact fields and use some of these great software features. My trial run with Family Tree Maker Mac 2 shows that it has an edge on the competition in some unexpected areas. For my review I’m focusing on my personal list of needs and wants, and hope that this will be helpful. I decided to grade each feature according to how well it met my expectations (see above) based on old-fashioned academic grades.
1. Intuitive Interface – The main windows are straightforward and Mac-like. Click on something and a window opens where you enter data or have more options. (A)
2. Training – Where’s the training? The Help Menu offers FTMM2 Help, Online Help, and a Companion Guide. It took me quite a bit of looking around online to find the tutorial section; these are mostly for the Windows version, but it wasn’t until I watched a few that I realized they applied to the Mac version too. It would be helpful to have a link to the online videos in the Help Menu. I found the data entry and source entry tutorials (WIN only) to be too basic. There’s a lot more to this topic and I wish the video had covered more. As much as I appreciate and use their helpful sites, I shouldn’t have to rely on Russ Worthington or Ben Sayer for training. (C)
3. User Base – Will Ancestry’s large user base help keep FTMM2 growing and improving? If the popularity of the iPad is any indication, iOS apps and Mac computers are poised for growth and Mac users will gravitate toward a well-supported product. (A)
4. GEDCOM – So far, so good. I’ve exported a GEDCOM back to Reunion without losing Notes, and that’s my main interest. The GEDCOM transfer also moved basic events but the sources were converted to Free Form. Weird. (A, met my very minimal requirements but could be better)
5. Notes – Like the Note Field access from Person Tab. Easy to use with adjustable font size (a real PLUS). Wish the same Notes Field could be available on the Family Tab when person is highlighted. (A)
6. Ease of Use – Overall, easy. I really like the main screen that puts index, tree, parents, children, and facts all in one view. To enter new fact requires 3 clicks to get a data entry window; not bad. The Merge Info and Tree Sync features to add sources and information directly from Ancestry.com is a huge timesaver and can’t be undervalued. I did not have any problem with this feature; the only thing I don’t like is the Ancestry-styled source citations which come along for the ride. I think there may be a way to customize this, but I haven’t figured it out yet. Keyboard shortcuts aren’t working for me; I must need to turn them on somewhere. Also like the mini tree in person view; would like ability to resize mini-tree window so that I could see more of it in this view. I wonder if the developers would take that as a User Request :>) (A)
7. Sources – Ugh. I have real difficulties with the Source capabilities of the program. Awkward and confusing nomenclature in the Companion Guide make it hard to understand. The terms Source and Source Citation are used in a unique FTMM2 definition that is counter-intuitive to the academic understanding of documentation. Sources are listed alphabetically making it cumbersome to find specific sources. Evidence Explained style is a good start but overall more support needed for this feature. (C-)
8. Reports – All the basics plus some very attractive extras, especially in charts and timeline reports. (A)
9. iPad/iPhone App – This feature is a deal-breaker. The mobile Ancestry app is visually appealing and easy to share with relatives, it’s easy to do look-ups on the device, and with the TreeSync feature I can edit and add from anywhere. (A+)
10. Pretty Factor – Clean, crisp interface makes it a pleasure to spend time in FTMM2. (A)
My very personal evaluation highlights some of the reasons I wanted to try Family Tree Maker Mac 2. It’s relatively intuitive and easy to use, especially when it comes to integrating Ancestry.com content with a personal database. This timesaving feature is unique among all database programs; clearly the developers at FTM were listening to what users wanted and willing to develop those features.
I find the biggest drawback is the lack of Mac-specific tutorials and the awkward Source features. Other reviewers have focused on FTMM’s different features and been very helpful in evaluating the program overall. I’ve found that the Windows tutorials and reviews often highlight similar situations on the Mac side.
With it’s established user base and Ancestry.com connection, FTMM2 has an edge on the competition. Whether or not they can maintain that advantage will depend on how well they respond to user requests and continue feature development.
I plan to spend more time with the program and may find easy answers to some of the difficulties I addressed in this review. I’m sure I still have much to learn beyond my six-week introduction. What about you? What do you look for in a genealogy database program? If you use Family Tree Maker for Windows or Mac, what’s been your experience overall? Does the program meet your needs?
Disclosure: Ancestry.com provided me with a review copy of Family Tree Maker Mac 2.