Modern genealogy software has tons of useful features for everyone, from the rank amateur just starting out to the seasoned professional.
But with so many choices of software out there, which one is the best for you? Read on, and we’ll give you our top five picks.
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Genealogy software basics
There are a bunch of things that you can expect any genealogical software to do:
- Build a family tree
- Record information on your ancestors: dates, locations, relationships, etc.
- Document research sources and link them to your family tree
- Maintain more than one database for multiple family trees
- Print out ancestral charts and reports
- Share your family tree with others in print and electronically
- Store photos, audio and video recordings, and scans of your ancestors and documents
- Protect your information through regular backups
- Give you hints on where and how to search for more clues
- Export your information to other genealogy programs
In addition, some genealogy software today will let you:
- Download information directly from certain online resources
- Map your ancestors through time and space
- Browse online directly, without switching to a separate web browser
So if all genealogy software does all this, does it really matter which program you pick?
Yes, it does, because each program does certain things better than others. The best one for you depends on how you plan to use it.
Here are our top 5 picks for genealogy software, in no particular order because they are all best at something.
Family Tree Maker 2017
Family Tree Maker, or FTM, has been around for decades, and is the best known and most widely used genealogy software.
It packs a lot of power, and is good all-around at just about everything.
Pros and cons
Family Tree Maker provides all of the features that you would expect from a genealogy program, and it does most of them very well.
The latest version of Family Tree Maker added a unique feature called FamilySync, which lets you automatically synchronize up to three family trees.
This is perfect if you have relatives who are working on the same tree as you. Any information you enter gets added to their trees, and vice versa.
They have also added the ability to color code your ancestors with up to eight different colors each.
This can be used to help you keep track of your research status, easily see which children were by a first wife or second wife, or any other use you can think of.
Family Tree Maker 2017 also includes a lightweight built-in image editor so you can make simple changes to enhance any photos connected to your family tree.
The program connects easily to both the Ancestry and FamilySearch websites, allowing you to download records directly into your tree.
It also provides extensive hints on places to search for more records when you are connected to the internet.
FTM 2017 is one of very few programs that now allows you to include same-sex marriages in your family tree.
On the negative side, while Family Tree Maker 2017 does offer an improved set of charts and reports, the charts are still not as extensive as Legacy 9.
Also, the company that produced Family Tree Maker changed in 2016.
The new company, Mackiev, has made a number of changes and improvements with their 2017 version, but don’t count on them to provide much support for older versions.
Family Tree Maker also tends to be the most expensive genealogy software out there, but for many people, it’s worth it.
FTM is available for both Windows (7.0 or later) and Mac (10.9 or later).
Because it has been around for so long and is used by so many people, Family Tree Maker has a wealth of online support in the form of tips, step by step instructions and tutorials, and even how-to videos.
Their website includes a free digital companion guide to get you started on using all of the program’s features.
While all this support is great in most cases, be aware that Family Tree Maker has changed a lot over the years, so some of that support might be out of date.
Still, there are so many users out there that you can always find a forum to ask questions and get expert answers quickly.
For years, Family Tree Maker has allowed you to connect with Ancestry to upload your family tree and to directly download records from Ancestry into your tree.
With the latest release, FTM now includes that capability for FamilySearch.com as well.
That means you can easily connect and share with the two largest genealogy sites out there with billions of online records available.
Where to buy
Family Tree Maker is available from http://www.mackiev.com/ftm/. There is no free trial available.
Legacy 9, also known as Legacy Family Tree 9, is a fully featured genealogy program that is considered by many to be the best on the market today.
It has plenty going for it, and only a couple of weak areas.
Pros and cons
Legacy 9 provides everything you would expect, plus a lot of neat extras that are new in the latest edition.
One powerful tool is the compare two people tool, which lets you examine two people side by side.
This is especially useful if you have two records with the same name, but you’re not sure if they’re the same person.
The side by side display lets you check them out easily rather than having to keep flipping back and forth.
Legacy 9 has the most extensive (and in most cases best looking) set of charts out of any genealogy program.
This gives you all sorts of options for printing out your results.
The latest release even includes a new X-DNA chart to track your genetic inheritance.
In addition to printed reports, Legacy 9 has built-in support to turn your family tree into a webpage automatically.
It also has a built-in web browser so you can check out online sites without having to switch back and forth between windows.
The program includes color coding for easy organization of your ancestors, such as tracking children from multiple marriages, and up to nine tags that can be used however you want.
Legacy 9 even includes a secure online backup for your family trees, so you never have to worry about losing your database.
On the down side, Legacy 9 does not support same-sex marriages yet, though that is supposed to be coming.
The Legacy website is less flashy than most and a little harder to navigate at times, but still includes a help center, forums, and more.
Legacy 9 is only designed for Windows, though their website includes instructions for how to make it work on a Mac using an emulator.
The Legacy website provides a variety of training videos and programs, and an extensive help center that includes user forums, troubleshooting advice, and even a suggestion box for you to tell them what features you’d like to see added.
Legacy 9 is specifically designed to work with a variety of useful (and free) websites, including FamilySearch, FindMyPast, GenealogyBank, MyHeritage, and Find A Grave.
It can search these sites for your ancestors automatically and give you hints on where to find more information.
Where to buy
Legacy 9 is available from their website here, and is available in two versions.
The Standard version is completely free, allowing you to sample most of the features of Legacy with no time limit.
If you want to access all of Legacy’s features, you can purchase the Deluxe version.
Family Historian 6
Family Historian 6 is not nearly as well-known as Family Tree Maker or Legacy, but that doesn’t mean it is any less useful when it comes to recording your findings.
Pros and cons
Family Historian’s greatest strength is its ease of use.
If you’re looking for a program that you can use right out of the box from day one, this is it.
You can get started right away without having to read a lot of manuals or watch a bunch of tutorials.
Entering information into Family Historian is simple and intuitive.
The main screen includes both an ancestry chart and a separate details box for a selected individual, letting you enter information without losing sight of the big picture.
Family Historian includes a “smart trees” option that lets you expand or collapse different parts of your tree as needed.
That means you can concentrate on just a small section at a time without your other branches filling up the screen.
The program also offers tools to view two family trees side by side so you can compare them before deciding if you want to merge them.
Family Historian includes a dynamic mapping tool that not only lets you see where your ancestors were, but lets you color code them, zoom in and out, view all the events that happened at a particular location, and more.
Family Historian 6 also offers powerful tools for sharing your family tree with others in print or electronically. It includes about twice as many charts as Family Tree Maker, though not as many as Legacy 9, and they are not as artistic.
The lack of backgrounds leaves Family Historian charts looking a little dull compared to other programs.
Unfortunately, Family Historian 6 does not offer any support for DNA results at this point.
Family Historian 6 runs on Windows (Vista, 7, 8, and 10).
The Family Historian website includes quick start guides and tutorials, but has a more limited online community compared to other products, especially Family Tree Maker.
On the other hand, because it is produced by a British company, the Family Historian community might be particularly helpful for those researching family roots in the United Kingdom.
The program links directly with the MyHeritage and Findmypast websites, letting you easily locate information on your ancestors and download it directly into your family tree.
However, unlike the other programs on our list, it does not include direct linking with Ancestry or FamilySearch.
Where to buy
Family Historian 6 is available from Amazon here. There is also a 30-day free trial if you want to test it out before you buy.
RootsMagic is not as well-known as some of the other genealogy software, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t just as good. It offers all of the basics you need, plus some useful bonus features.
Pros and cons
RootsMagic has some powerful features that you won’t find in many programs, including the ability to have more than one database open at the same time.
That makes it a lot easier to compare databases and copy information from one to the other.
You can even drag and drop people directly from one database to the other.
One of the best things about RootsMagic is a unique feature called RootsMagic To-Go, which lets you load a portable copy of the program onto a USB drive.
That way you can take it with you and use it on any computer wherever and whenever you want.
This can make doing research on the road, at libraries, courthouses, or wherever, much easier, and lets you enter search results right away.
RootsMagic makes it simple to share your findings. Built-in tools help you create custom webpages, CDs, and DVDs, and offers plenty of print options as well.
This program is one of the few that currently allows you to include same-sex marriages in your family tree, and can manage other complex relationships as well.
Compared to other programs, RootsMagic does not have as many charts available, but it has extensive options for creating every sort of report you’re ever likely to want.
On the negative side, RootsMagic’s interface is not as nice looking or easy to use as other programs. That can make it more frustrating for folks just starting out in genealogy.
RootsMagic 7 works on the greatest range of operating systems of any of our picks, including every version of Windows since Windows 2000 and XP, and on Macs (10.8 and later).
The RootsMagic website is more limited than most of the others. It does include some video tutorials and how-to guides, but not as much other support, and has a smaller user community.
RootsMagic 7 is able to connect and download directly from such sites as Ancestry, MyHeritage and FamilySearch, giving you access to a ton of online records and databases.
Where to buy
RootsMagic 7 is available from Amazon here.
RootsMagic Essentials 7 is a free version of the software which includes all of the basics you need to get started, and can be used as long as you want.
However, the free version does not include a lot of the best features, such as RootsMagic To-Go.
Family Tree Heritage 9
Rounding out our top five picks, Family Tree Heritage 9 lacks a lot of the bells and whistles that the other programs have. Still, it covers all of the basics with flying colors, and has a few great features of its own.
Pros and cons
Family Tree Heritage lets you connect to Ancestry, FamilySearch, and RootsWeb, giving you instant access to billions of online records.
Even better, it can help you add other sites as well, something most software doesn’t allow.
That can be a great help when searching for information from other countries around the world.
Like our other top five choices, Family Tree Heritage provides web hints for getting the most out of your online connections.
Family Tree Heritage has powerful tools to make it easy to merge two family trees together, saving you hours of crosschecking and identifying duplicate records.
The program makes it easy to add news sources, and a ditto tool that lets you quickly connect one source to many individuals. This can be a great time saver.
One of the best features of Family Tree Heritage is the way you process bulk changes in your family tree all at once.
If you find a mistake, like a misspelled town name, you only need to fix it in one spot, and the program can update it everywhere else for you instantly.
Other features include a research timeline that organizes what you do (and don’t) know about an ancestor chronologically, color coding to help organize family branches both on your computer and in print, and the ability to add up to three custom tags to each ancestor so you can group them however you want.
Family Tree Heritage is mixed when it comes to producing charts and reports.
It is great for producing quick, easy to read reports, but it has a more limited choice of charts with generally uninteresting backgrounds.
So if you want fancy charts, it’s not so hot, but if you want to see your info in report format, it’s probably the best.
On the negative side, Family Tree Heritage is the only one of our five picks that does not include an in-app browser.
That means you have to switch back and forth between programs if you want to look up information online in most cases.
However, it does support direct searching of Ancestry and FamilySearch databases from within the program.
Family Tree Heritage 9 does not include a mapping feature, so you can’t track your ancestors visually. It also does not support same-sex marriages.
Family Tree Heritage 9 is only available for Windows.
Family Tree Heritage 9 has some online tutorials, but overall offers a lot less than the other programs on our list. It has a very limited online community.
The software allows direct downloads of records from Ancestry and FamilySearch.
It can often be set up to work with other websites as well. However, it does not let you directly modify your family tree on Ancestry, only through manual uploads.
Where to buy
Family Tree Heritage 9 is available from http://www.familytreeheritage.biz/. There is no free trial available.
So which software is for you?
Which program is best? As with so many things, that depends on you, and how you plan to use it.
- Family Tree Maker 2017 is a great all-around program for most users, especially if you want to upload your tree to Ancestry.
- Legacy 9 is also a great all-around program, and provides the greatest number of charts for showing off your research.
- Family Historian 6 is excellent if you want ease of use. It lets you dive in right away, spending less time learning the program and more time researching your family.
- RootsMagic 7 is the clear (and only) choice if you want to take your research on the road and don’t have a laptop. It’s also one of the more popular picks among professional genealogists.
- Family Tree Heritage 9 lets you link to more online sites than any of the other programs.
- If you want to work together with other family members on the same tree, Family Tree Maker 2017 is the way to go.
- If you’re looking to create a webpage from your findings, Legacy 9 and RootsMagic 7 are your best choices.
- If you want to create amazing looking ancestral charts, Legacy 9 is your best bet.
- For the most economical route, Legacy 9 and RootsMagic 7 both have free versions with no time limit, but you’ll miss out on some of their best features.
In the end, don’t agonize too much about picking the wrong program. In most cases, all of them will do what you need especially if you are just starting out.
Worst case scenario, all these programs let you export your data as a GEDCOM file, which can be loaded into any other genealogy software.
It won’t copy everything, such as photos and videos, but it will save you from starting from scratch.
So decide what your main priority is, pick the program that looks best for you, and get started searching for your family roots today!