I am often asked this question, and it is a difficult one to answer. This is an expanded version of my most recent answer.
The answer depends on what you want to get out of the program. There are some things you need to think about:
- Ease of use – is the layout easy to understand, and is it easy to work out what you are supposed to do to enter and change your data?
- Output – what do you want to do with the data once you’ve entered it? Reports, charts, websites and screen display are all ways of seeing the data you have spent all that time entering, and if one is more important to you than others you should look for a program that offers more in this area
- Flexibility – will you want to change it to suit your own requirements – how it looks, what types of data it can handle
All programs will do the basics – allow you to enter and change data, and give you basic reports and perhaps charts. I personally prefer the more fully featured programs that have many different options and are flexible enough to cater to whatever you want to do with it.
I also prefer programs that allow you to download a trial version for free. You never really know how a program will suit you until you try it out, and many programs allow you to do this. I have used Family Tree Maker in the past and found that it was limited in many ways, although it has changed a lot since then. It is NOT available to try out for free, although it is the most popular.
There are some free programs around too – PAF and Brother’s Keeper are examples. If you’ve never used a program before try 2 or 3 of the free ones to see how you like them – whether they do what you want, and how easy they are to use. You may find that you are perfectly happy with these and don’t need to spend any money at all.
Then there are the internet programs that allow you to enter your data and share it with others, or not. Examples are MyHeritage, which has its own program that runs on your own computer, and TNG (The Next Generation).
There is a new Australian book out that goes into the subject in some detail, which gives a detailed description of many programs and compares them using comprehensive tables of features. The book was written by an Australian researcher and teacher, and is available here.
Most people who ask the question want to be told the name of a single program which they can confidently go out and buy. I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that because everyone is different, and has different needs. I can’t tell you which car to buy, or which breakfast cereal is best, or which cookbook you should buy. Family tree programs are the same.
Take a couple out for a test-drive and see what you think.