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What's the best genealogy software?

image showing title question what's the best genealogy software

When you're ready, genealogy software can really help you. But which program should you get?

There are a few things to consider when selecting genealogy software.

  • Do you really need software? If you're not technically inclined, it might be a hinderance.
  • What is the primary device you use for doing genealogy?
  • Where do you live/where did the people you research live?
  • How much time do you spend on genealogy?
  • What features do you need or want?
  • What do you like/understand/use?

Basically, this means there isn't one best software! There might be a best software for you but you do NOT need to use genealogy software. The fact one software isn't THE best is good news. That means you don't need to search for the "best genealogy software 2022" and then in 2023 you have to search again, and every year after that search again and again.

If your needs change (which they will if you're a beginner) you can search at that time and see if the programs available have changed and which features best fit your new needs. My top recommendations are genealogy programs that will likely grow with you and if you like them, you won't need to change (because switching software is a pain, I know, I had to switch to something more robust when my skills improved and then that program was discontinued so I had to switch again, over a decade later, I'm still not back to where I was with using genealogy software!).

Genealogy Software Program vs. Online Family Tree

Genealogists need to use a graphical family tree for organizational purposes. This means you need to be able to see your ancestors in a tree to hop around from one part of your tree to another. This also means you just need a bare bones tree to "hop" from one branch to another. A graphical tree can be created by genealogy software but there are also other options.

The most popular way to create a graphical tree is by creating an online family tree. I could write pages about warnings using online trees when you're a beginner but that's not the purpose of this post.

An online family tree is not the same as genealogy software. Most genealogy software programs offer the ability to put your tree online or to connect to an online tree. Software should do much more than just build your tree. It should include much more robust reporting features or charting options.

Technically an online tree is an online genealogy database of your family that primarily shows a tree or a family group. It might be able to print out some lists or "reports" of that same information, but there aren't a lot of reporting options. You aren't given the options to take advantage of the "database" structure.

Genealogy software is also a database of your family information but it is designed to be more flexible in what information it can hold and is designed to provide the information in a variety of outputs, usually called "reports." The advantage of software should be an easy to use and very flexible genealogy database.

If you're trying to identify the best online family tree builder, that's not what this post is about. It's about genealogy software, which are most often desktop software.

Picking the Best Genealogy Software for YOU

So let's go over that list of considerations.

First, do you really need software? If you're feeling overwhelmed by this post already, I'd suggest skipping software for now, at least. There's no point in trying to use genealogy software if you're inconsistent or don't even like it!

Once you've decided you do need genealogy software, the biggest consideration is the device you use to do genealogy. Genealogy software is mainly designed for a laptop or desktop computer. There are options for tablets, mobile, and online, but they tend to be lighter on the reporting features meaning they are more like online tree services. This post also isn't focusing on these lighter options. If that's what you need, you need to start by determining what will work on the device you use and then if any of those options have the features you want. These are all newer options as tablet and mobile apps are newer to the genealogy software game so there are quite a few of them but it's a changing field.

If you are using a laptop or desktop, it matters what operating system you use. There are great options for Windows and Mac. There are options for any operating system but the choices are much fewer for anything other than Windows or Mac so you essentially just need to identify them and decide if you're still interested in using software once you see what they offer.

The rest of this post focuses on other considerations if you're using Windows or a Mac and considerations for robust genealogy software. Many of the lighter options might also be applicable but you don't need all these considerations because the software is a lighter option---it doesn't have all the considerations because it has fewer features.

Location

It can make a difference where you live or where your ancestors are from when picking software. I live in the U.S. and all my research is (still) in the U.S. However, I've had blog readers email me to make recommendations for U.K. software programs. Obviously since I speak and write in English that affects who my readers are and who is making recomendations. I can tell from some of the recommendations that someone living and researching in the U.K. finds it easier to work with a software program designed for those needs. The records are different in different countries so this is a real consideration. It can also apply if your residence and research don't match up, too. Just realize there are other options. There is a lot of information online from Americans so it might be harder to find information for your location or your ancestors location but U.S. programs aren't the only option.

Free Time

This is a tough consideration to describe. It almost goes back to if you should even use software.

Genealogy software takes time to use. It speeds up the review of your information because it can generate reports of exactly what you want---if you entered the information the right way! Entering information in the software takes extra time. Remember, it's not a required step.

If you don't have the time to learn the software, enter the information correctly, or use the robust reporting, you don't really have time for genealogy software. If you don't have time for any one of those three, you don't have time for software.

However, you might want the robust features for a specific project. This is perfectly reasonable. You can enter just part of your information into the software, although you really need to enter all the information for the person/subject you are working on to make it worthwhile. But you can enter select people or branches.

Remember, this is software, not an online tree. If you're trying to save some time in general, you might be better off with an online tree or a lighter software option that keeps you organized but doesn't offer all the reporting options. There are some programs designed specifically for organizing, even.

When it comes to your free time, you have to have time to use the software often and correctly or it can be a huge time-suck.

Features

You get the idea that "software" is all about reporting, right? So presumably that's a feature you want but you surely want something more specific or you'd just go with a simple online tree that can print off a pedigree chart of a quick summary of one family.

If you don't know what features you want, you probably don't need software. You might want to start learning what it can do, though. Just remember it takes time to learn and use a robust software program. The features can sound great but you need to take all these considerations into account.

Personal Preference

This last consideration is very nebulous and essentially you can only figure it out by trying different options. In the considerations list I called it "What do you like/understand/use?" because it really is asking yourself if you like and understand the software and if you'll actually use it (or use it's specific features).

My Recommendations

I'm a Windows user in the U.S. doing U.S. research. I don't actually use software because I don't have time. I used software years ago (the program that has been discontinued). I used it a lot but it had a hiccup one time when they updated it and I stopped using it while that was fixed and never went back.

One of the recommendations is the program I want to use but simply don't have time! (I'm not telling you which because I know you need to pick the one that is best for you personally. Both are great).

RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree

With that said, if you are a Windows user, try RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree. They are both excellent and similar options. Your personal preference will decide which you prefer. You can try a free version of each.

Mac Users

If you're a Mac user, you'll need to find reviews for similar options to RootsMagic and Legacy. RootsMagic is available for Mac and Legacy can be run on a Mac with a workaround. But there are also Mac specific programs.

Why do I recommend RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree? (i.e. what else you should look for)

  • Ability to cite sources in a variety of reports (this is one of my issues with FamilyTreeMaker, specifically the notes report which I could really use, otherwise).
  • Ability to create a variety of types of notes (meaning ability to get different information into different reports beyond just the basic report format)
  • Lots of reports/output options
  • Color coding (very helpful for DNA)
  • Ability to sync with online trees but also ability to choose not to

About Family Tree Maker

Several of the items on my list above work really well in Family Tree Maker. But there are some major issues, too. But I actually still use Family Tree Maker (in addition to my preferred software).

One of the best features about FamilyTreeMaker (FTM) is how fast it syncs with your online Ancestry tree. My preferred program is much slower syncing because it makes you verify you really want to sync everything. This is a good thing BUT, I often use FTM when I'm working on quick and dirty trees for DNA matches. I might have entered hundreds of people in one session (learn more about quick and dirty trees, and how this is different from regular genealogy research, in this post on our sister blog).

I bother to download the quick and dirty trees to use the color coding option in FTM. This is so helpful when working on DNA projects!

There are then some pretty neat "notes" reports I can run by creating custom note types and entering specific DNA information in those notes.

But that's where I run into the problem and it's a bigger problem for traditional research. This is the source citation issue.

FTM is not stellar at citations (when compared to RootsMagic and Legacy). You can absolutely enter citations beautifully but it's a touch clunkier. But it doesn't really matter if your reports don't include sources—they only include a bibliography style list of sources, not fact-cited sources.

So, if you want more than an online family tree, FTM is a solid choice (and there will be other programs that are similar---when you're a beginner, you don't understand just how important citations are, so many programs are created without all the needed source citation options).

Here's how to decide if you should pick a genealogy software program that is top-of-the-line (especially with regards to citations).

  • If you are going to put all the effort into entering citations in FTM and that is your primary place for storing your citations, switch to a more robust program.
  • If you are instead, going to use FTM for other features, like quick syncing and color-coding, and store your citations elsewhere, no problem.

This is essentially asking yourself if you are using your software as the primary storage medium for everything, or not. Software can be used for chart generation, color-coding, and other outputs without it being THE place to find everything (that is what it was created for but that is what is so time-consuming).

There is not one best genealogy software program. There isn't even a best software for Windows users or best software for Mac users (or best for mobile use). You as a genealogist makes a huge difference as does your actual research.

Are you looking to manage tons of quick and dirty trees for DNA? Are you focused on writing family histories? Do you want other genealogy tools, like spreadsheets, charts, or gift-able prints? Do you want a one-stop shop for organizing EVERYTHING? Are you finally citing your sources after years of skipping them? Do you need to collaborate with others?

Be clear on what you will actually use the software for so you pick the best family tree software for you!