Which is the best family tree program?

I am often asked this question, and it is a difficult one to 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

Trees and clouds

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.

If I was buying a program today I would look at The Master Genealogist, Legacy, and Family Historian. All three are customisable and allows proper citing of sources, and have a long list of features.

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.

Picasa face-recognition scan conclusions

Picasa face recognitionI have posted previously about letting Picasa 3 scan for faces so I can identify them. I had hoped to publish the results at the time but I was caught up with other things and didn’t get a chance.

Unfortunately I don’t have an accurate record of how long it took. I started it on about the 1st October with 14,000 photos to process. On the 4th it was 50% completed after I had added an additional 5000 photos because I added some of the folders under Documents. On the 5th it was saying all day that it had 51% to go. Then that evening it changed to 52%. I thought it was going to take another week, but the next day it was finished.

That’s 5-6 days. For 19,000 photos.

It ran for 24 hours a day, and I only closed it down occasionally when it was slowing down what I was doing. It used an average of 45% of my CPU, so sometimes this was a problem. I don’t remember the processor that my laptop has, but it’s a bit over 2 years old.

Of course, not all of these photos have people in them – there are landscapes, wildlife, and images of documents.

Some things I have noticed:

  • if I sign in to Google it can get the names from my contacts list
  • it runs very slowly at other times and quite quickly at others
  • it picks up faces from the covers of books and photos on the wall behind the real people
  • it can find faces in very fuzzy pictures
  • it is not bothered by hats and sunglasses
  • it quite often suggests the wrong person but that person is closely related, such as a sister, aunt or grandmother
  • it identifies people more accurately the more photos you have identified
  • it can identify people at all ages in their lives
  • it is better at identifying babies than I am
  • it doesn’t recognise cats, dogs or gorillas, although it did identify one front-on picture of a dog
  • I have a lot of duplicate photos, and when I identify one it suggests the same name for the others very quickly
  • I am terrible at remembering names
  • I nearly have more photos of my nieces than I have of my husband or myself

By the time it finished it said it still had about 6500 faces to identify. I am slowly whittling those down. I now have just over 5000. There are also the faces it can’t identify as faces, which I have to do manually if I want it done at all.

It seems to have trouble with faces if they are:

  • at an angle
  • have hair over one side
  • side-on unless they are completely from the side
  • really, really fuzzy

And yet sometimes it sees a face where there isn’t one. I thought this one must be in the background somewhere.

Panda face

He looks like he has a little beard and a receding hairline.

This is the photo it came from:

Picasa panda

Can you see the face, in the top right corner? Not a face at all!

It also picks up the hundreds of faces in the backgrounds of photos and wants to know who they are. You can mark each one as ignored, and you can see these later if you want to. When the Sydney Harbour Bridge was 75 years old they opened it to the public to walk across, and the photos from that day have many people in the background. Fortunately they are mostly wearing lime green hats so I could quickly exclude them when I saw them.

All the people in a wedding photo can be identified if you have already identified them elsewhere. Even if you don’t know their names you can give them a number, like Wedding 12, and group photos of the same person together. You can then more easily identify the person, or a relative can, when you can see a number of photos of the same person together.

I have had a wonderful time with Picasa, and I still am. I am finally learning, through having to identify photos, which of my grandmother’s three sisters is which, and what my mother’s older brothers looked like when they were young.

I have also very much enjoyed seeing pictures of the same person throughout their lives all in the one place. Here are some of my grandmother Amy Eason nee Stewart:

Amy Millicent Eason nee Stewart

You can see her from the earliest photo of her that I have, when she was a baby; as a teenager, a young mother, and so on all through her life. The photos are of varying quality but the only one I had to manually identify was the blurry side-on one in the 3rd row.

A valuable lesson I learned was in trying to identify what it is that makes this person look like that person. What is it in my face that Picasa mistakes for my grandmother’s? Or two of three nieces but not the third?

To be fair, sometimes Picasa is totally wrong. It tried to tell me that this same grandmother was in a shot of my husband posing with the Wests Tigers rugby league team. It wasn’t. When it ‘groups’ unnamed faces it tends to put faces together that are shot at the same angle. Sometimes I think it is suggesting names based on the frequency with which that name appears, or on the previously identified name, but that might just be my cynicism.

All in all I am so glad I went through this exercise. Identifying faces has become my procrastination-of-choice, and it has made me much more likely to name the faces of photos I have just taken rather than leave it for years when I can no longer remember the names. I am also determined to research the names I should know but can’t remember – school classmates, fellow safari tourists, even Wests Tigers. All those unnamed faces bother me!

Web-based family trees

dreamstimefree_383175_320x240I’ve recently been contacted by the people responsible for a new family tree website called It’s Our Tree. It’s free and just requires you to enter your name and email address. I’ve just registered and now it wants me to enter my parents and grandparent and so on, and to invite my relatives to join as well.

There are more and more of these sites around; some are free and some are not. Ancestry lets you create your family tree for free and let’s you know whether it has any “hints” for these people: either trees with the same people in them or databases which may have them. You can’t see the hints, though, unless you have a subscription.

GenesReunited is a similar kind of thing. I don’t know if you can start from scratch without paying the yearly subscription, but if you have created a tree in it and then stop paying the subscription your tree remains for others to find. I have found a few relatives with my subscription and so I keep it up but I haven’t put much detail on my tree and so it keeps sending me hints that are completely irrelevant.

Another one is FamilyTreeLink from the World Vital Records people. This one is free, and allows a gedcom to be uploaded. I can see who else is researching people from the same places as my people, and I can add photos, stories, documents and headstones (presumably photos). It has some different features such as the ability to request lookups from people. I haven’t been into this one for a while and when I just tried to see a tree diagram with more than the default number of 4 generations it seemed to kill my web browser (which is Firefox V3). No, it just gave it a scare, it’s working again now.

What I like about Ancestry is the ability to link records that you find with the relevant person in your tree. If you find your great-grandfather in the 1930 Census you can link the page to him. You can also upload pictures and multimedia, share it with others and even give them the ability to add to it. In theory members of different branches of your family could all be working on the same tree, but in practice I think I would want to check things for myself before allowing it on my tree.

You can also create a book that can be printed, which is a great idea. A family can collaborate and print a number of books to distribute amongst family members, or you can do it by yourself.

What worries me about these things is that there are so many of them. You need to be on as many of them as possible to have a chance of catching other relatives. I don’t know about you, but after I’ve gone to the trouble of entering the details of all of my ancestors individually and adding photos and stories and the like I’m not likely to do the same in another site. If any of my living relatives have started using another site then we won’t find each other.

The social networking sites such as FaceBook have family tree applications as well. You can upload gedcoms to these instead of entering them from scratch, which makes them more appealing to me, at least.

Is there any sense in using a new one that has just started? I certainly won’t be unless I can upload a gedcom; there aren’t enough hours in the day to enter the data into the ones I use now without starting again with another one. If I can’t upload a gedcom directly it isn’t worth the time for me. I’m afraid that It’s Our Tree may be too late.

My experience this afternoon with FamilyTreeLink leads me to another issue. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to build a web application that will work perfectly with all web browsers and all computer configurations, and each new application has to do it themselves. A bad experience with one of these new ones can turn you off it for good. And then the browser will come out with a new version, as Mozilla has with Firefox 3, and suddenly things that used to work don’t any more.

The answer to this one, I guess, is to stick with a site that has been around for a while and has a large development team behind it. I’m not advocating Ancestry specifically but I have to confess that it’s the one I am spending more time entering data and linking records.

Which one do you use? Do you use any of them? Have you found any relatives?

What will you do when your computer crashes?

The longer you work with and read about computers, the more horror stories you read about what went wrong. Whether there is a happy end to the story or not depends on whether the owner of the computer backs up their data and how regularly they do it.

Here’s my story. This happened late last week. My laptop is almost three years old, so it’s getting on for a laptop. Laptops are different from desktops, they are built to be small, not to last. This laptop pretty well contains my life – my business, my family history, my photos, my university notes, everything.

On Thursday night I had finished creating the handouts for a workshop I was giving the next day and I had printed them out so that I could check them and write notes on them. I hadn’t yet copied them to my flash drive because I wanted to check them first. I was answering an email in Outlook, using Word, when there was a sudden and subliminal blue screen of death and then the laptop restarted itself. That’s weird, I thought, and waited for the restart, which seems to be a lot slower these days than when the laptop was new.

The restart gave me a screen I’d never seen before. I don’t remember the exact words any more but it said something along the lines of “your computer failed. If the failure was not the result of new software do this, otherwise do that”. It also offered the Safe Mode option. Well, I hadn’t installed anything new lately so I chose the “go back to the last safe configuration” option.

It got stuck on a blue screen of death, which I imagine was the same one that flashed at me before the restart. My registry was corrupted or missing. Missing! How could it be missing?

I tried the whole process again with the “just start up as normal” option and got the same result. I tried the “old configuration” option again. How often do we do that – do the same thing again hoping for a different result? Well, I got what I should have expected.

When I tried the next time I went into Safe Mode. I’m not entirely sure what Safe Mode means but it sounded comforting. Everything worked fine and it started up fairly normally. The first thing I did was to copy my handouts for the next day on my flash drive. Then I printed them all out again in case I couldn’t print them at the Society from the flash drive and had to photocopy them.

I then went to look at Outlook. Outlook wouldn’t open – my mail file was gone. Missing. Disappeared. It was quite a large file, as you’ll know if you’ve had yours for a while and you’ve been able to find it. It had years and years of emails in there, from family, friends, clients, the lot. Gone.

I had a backup on the laptop hard drive that was at least a year old. No good.

This is where the happiness of the outcome of the story is dependent on whether I had a backup and how old it was. I’m happy to say that my last backup was that morning and I was able to get my mail file back.

I have struggled with the backup question for years. I’ve tried CDs and flash drives (too much hassle to remember to do it) and backing up over the wireless network to the desktop. We bought a portable hard drive when my laptop hard drive was running out of space a few months ago with all the photos and music it had on it, but it doesn’t get used regularly for backups.


I use an online backup service called Mozy, recommended by that prince among men, Dick Eastman on his blog. The backing up occurs at a schedule to suit me on the files and directories that I specify, without me having to do anything. That’s the crucial thing, for me. I don’t have to remember to do it and go looking for the media. It happens automatically. I’ve tested the restore part in the past when I stuffed up a database and it works just fine.

So I checked and sure enough, there was my Outlook mail file on the Mozy server, all 431MB of it. I clicked on restore and went to bed.

Unfortunately when I eagerly checked the next morning my mail file wasn’t restored – Mozy had lost the connection. It’s the internet, it happens. So I started the restore again, the message started counting down that it would take an hour and a half to restore, and I took my printed handouts and my flash drive and went to give my workshop.

When I got home, success!!! I had my mail file back, Outlook started up as though nothing had happened and started receiving emails. All in all I lost 12 hours worth of emails, from the last backup on the Thursday morning until the crash that evening.

Perhaps the loss of all your emails doesn’t sound that serious to you? We get too many emails as it is. Yes, I do get too many emails, but many of them are from clients telling me what they want and giving details of their ancestors, and many more are from relatives with information for me about my family. In some cases these emails are the sources of the data I have in my own family tree. I print these ones, yes, but I also keep them in Outlook so I can forward them to others and find them more readily in their family folders.

The potential loss of my email was a disaster for me and my business and my life. With only 12 hours worth lost I could email the people I knew I’d gotten emails from (yes, I had read them before they disappeared) to ask for the information again, and no harm was done to my professional relationships.

The moral of this story is obvious. We need a backup strategy that continues to work without us having to remember to do it. I use Mozy for the things that change constantly and the portable hard drive for things that don’t change much like my photo collection. There are other online backup services besides Mozy but it’s the one I like – it’s cheap and it works.

It’s free for up to 2GB of data and US$4.95 per month for unlimited data. It’s more expensive for business users. The security and peace-of-mind it gives is priceless.

Eventually all computers fail. Be ready when yours does.

Electronic Gadgets Part 3 – put your family tree on your phone

Well, I’ve done it, and I’m very happy. My family tree is on my phone and goes with me everywhere.

 How have I achieved this remarkable feat, you may ask? Read on!

 You may remember that I have been trying to replace 4 heavy little electronic gadgets with one or two. I bought a new phone, a Nokia E65, to replace my previous phone, my PDA and my MP3 player for those long trips out to repositories. My phone is wonderful, it has a microSD card, which I replaced with a bigger, 2GB, card on which I can store music and podcasts for those long trips on the train, and it has the capacity to store my family tree as well, so I don’t have to carry my PDA unless I know I will want to take lots of notes using the portable keyboard. The camera it has is inadequate for taking images of archived documents, but 3 out of 4 ain’t bad. It also happily browses the web for me, so I can do anything from checking opening times of repositories to watching ABC TV for free while I am waiting!

So all I had to do was get my family tree onto my phone, so that if I find myself with time to spare or unexpected records become available I can quickly check to see what I need to find. All my names, places and dates would be readily available.

I use The Master Genealogist (TMG) to keep my family tree data in order, and I use the companion product Second Site to turn my data into web pages for the web or to publish on CDs. It seemed to me that if my phone could read html web pages it should be able to read html that was stored on the phone. SO that was what I did, I created a “website”, or a set of html pages, using Second Site, and uploaded them to my phone. I then created a bookmark so that I wouldn’t have to go delving into document folders to find the index page.

Of course, I had to tweak the settings a bit for use on a very small screen. I’m still experimenting with this, and if you try it for yourself, here are some things to keep in mind:

  • Exclude exhibits. If you want pictures of your ancestors on your phone, put them somewhere else. Even a small photo will take up most of the screen, so you will have to scroll past it. Of course, you can use links to them instead of embedding them if you wish.
  • Set one person per page. This will create a lot of pages, which will take a long time to download to your phone initially, but I assumed that each file will load quicker when you select the person you want to view.
  • Use a very simple theme – lots of coloured boxes doesn’t translate well to the small screen, and takes longer to load.
  • Use a simple format that doesn’t put space in between columns, as do the 2- or 3-column formats. On the small phone screen you will see the first colum and then blank space, requiring a lot of scrolling across. I used the Narrative format.
  • Reduce the number of tag types according to what you think you may need when you are out and about.
  • Suppress memos if you have long stories in them.
  • An icon next to your direct ancesors and other important people makes them easier to find.
  • Skip the long description of the site that you’ve put on your real website, and the Compiler details. You know who you are, and no-one else will see it.

I am sure other things will occur to you as you go along.

Once you’ve uploaded the files to the phone, find the index.htm file open it to see how your website looks. You may need to do this a few times until you are as happy with what you see as you can be. Those of you with more html knowledge than me can probably restrict the size of the window – I will get to this one day, and in the meantime I don’t mind scrolling. Get the properties of the file, ie its filepath, and create a bookmark in your web browser so that you can go straight to it from your homepage. And there you are!

The phone-based website will never replace what I have on my laptop, so if I am going somewhere to do concentrated research on my own family I will take my laptop with me. I just use it when I am somewhere that I could look something up quickly, like a newspaper or a new set of probate indexes, that I wasn’t expecting and so I can check the date that g-g-grandfather So-and-so died.

And, of course, you need a reasonably “smart” phone to do this. One that will browse the web, and preferably has expandable memory. Give it a go and let us all know how it went.

My website is http://www.caroleriley.id.au/familyTree/index.htm.

Which family tree software is best?

This is a big question. The Society of Australian Genealogists attempted to help find an answer for 25 or so budding genealogists earlier this month in a day-long seminar showing demonstrations of 6 different family tree programs – Family Tree Maker, Legacy, Personal Ancestral File, Reunion, something else, and The Master Genealogist.

The answer is different for everybody. I find that TMG is best for me, after doing some thorough research (as a good genealogist does!) on the features of each program a few years ago. So far I haven’t seen anything to change my mind about this, although I’ve seen programs that do some things better and have nice little features that I like, none of them have enough of these to make me want to change programs.

The question, then, is – which family tree software program is best for you? You have to work out what is important to you. Any program you use should have the basics, and I would be very surprised to find any on the market, or free on the internet, that don’t. The first one I ever used that my uncle, an amateur programmer, wrote, and although he was a good programmer he was not much of a genealogist. For example, the program didn’t have a place to put death dates. This is what I mean by basics – any program you find will have places to put basic information – birth, christening, marriage, death and burial dates and places, links to spouses and children, the sources for all of this, and some way to get the information out again – reports and charts.

After the basics everything else really are just extras that you may or may not decide you need. So you need to see how easy it is to use, and understand. There are different layouts, some that look like a family group sheet on the screen with parents at the top and children in a list underneath, and others that look like Windows Explorer with folders that open other folders.

Before you go out and buy a program, try one of the many free ones. Cora Web has an excellent page on family history programs here http://www.coraweb.com.au/software.htm that I won’t try to copy. Or have a look at the Genealogical Software Report Card at www.mumford.ca/reportcard/ for a comprehensive comparison of all of the popular programs.