Digging back into your family history used to mean journeying to dusty records offices, scanning microfiches and trudging round brambly graveyards. All of these are fun ways to research your roots but take a lot of time, which is one reason genealogy is presumed an activity reserved for old folk with retirement time on their hands – people who will anyway be spending more time in graveyards in the not so distant future…
For those of us with less time to spare the rise of online genealogical resources makes researching our family history not just easier but possible in the first place.
There are several impressive online genealogical services, such as GenesReunited, TheGenealogist, and FindMyPast – plus thousands of free sites, such as the excellent and recently updated FamilySearch.org run by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The most popular family history site is Ancestry, a subscription service that costs £10.95 a month or from £80/year for basics to £150 a year for the full Worldwide service. Ancestry’s online resources stretch past 4 billion searchable records from historical censuses and parish records, to military records and passenger lists.
Starting an Ancestry family tree is simple, and the interface is both simple and quickly expandable in depth.
The only drawback with such a cloud-based service is that you need to be online to access your tree, although there are free, quality companion apps for iPhone and iPad.
So even though Ancestry fulfils your researching and recording requirements there remains a need for an offline resource.
There are several family history applications for Mac. Mac Family Tree is great for the basics, and easy to learn. Reunion is the more established, more complex, all-singing and dancing Mac family tree program. Both are great options but suffer somewhat from un-Mac-like interfaces and require digging through several levels of information to get what you’re looking for.
What I’ve been looking for is an offline family history application that matches Ancestry for simplicity of design and function.
So the fact that Ancestry offers its own program Family Tree Maker, is an obvious draw. On the Windows platform Family Tree Maker is one of the most popular genealogical software programs on the market. The release of a Mac version is therefore both welcome and exciting.
That Family Tree Maker for Mac is closely integrated with Ancestry makes it an obvious choice both for those of us already using its online service and for those who would like to trial its subscription service.
This is because Family Tree Maker for Mac comes with a free six-month Premium Membership to Ancestry.co.uk (or whichever location you’re based at: .com, .com.au, etc) worth over £75. It doesn’t include the features of the Worldwide subscription, which offers a few billion more international records to trawl, but it’s enough to get going on for UK and Irish records.
Getting started is easy. You can start from scratch adding names, dates, locations, etc. You can also import data from existing trees using the standard GEDCOM format, or import one from Ancestry. Then you’re ready to begin adding data or media, and searching online resources.
Family Tree Maker for Mac has a neat, logical and easy-to-navigate interface. At the top of the screen are seven buttons: Plan, People, Places, Media, Sources, Publish and Web Search.
Family Tree Maker for Mac: People
The People section, divided into two tabs (Family and Person), is your principal area for input and research. The Family tab shows a cut-down version of the Ancestry family tree view, including the green leaf icons indicating “Hints” from Ancestry that might point to data in its records that can be linked to that person.
Regularly updated hints (including census records, birth, marriage, and death records, court and land records, immigration and military records, and other users’ family trees) are a great Ancestry feature, and its inclusion in Family Tree Maker is a big bonus – although only if you remain subscribed to its service, of course. Otherwise it will just be frustrating.
Where this beats the online Ancestry tree is the amount of information around the tree, showing not just the person selected but his or her parents, spouse and parents, marriage details and children. The Person tab breaks out Facts, Timeline and Relationships. The Facts tab displays Event details and the ability to add notes, as well as showing main sources.
Family Tree Maker for Mac: Places
Maps are an essential tool in genealogical research. They allow you to make connections where multiple instances of a name can confuse, and bring geographical context to your ancestors’ lives. Family Tree Maker maps each location in your tree, so you don’t have to jump to your web browser to scan online maps for clues – it’s a great feature. It uses Bing maps, which include standard 2D road views and satellite aerial views. There’s an option for 3D views, but sadly this isn’t yet supported on the Mac.
Family Tree Maker for Mac: Media
The Media tab shows you all your photos and document scans – easily editable, and available to add to other people in your tree. This part is actually easier than on Ancestry itself, and is a real spur to keep adding photos and other media to your tree.
Family Tree Maker for Mac: Publish
In the Publish section you can create charts and books of your family tree, as well as reports on people, places and relationships, for example. Books can be created within the program, then put together professionally in conjunction with mycanvas. I found the charts accurate but rather basic with rather amateur backgrounds available. Mac Family Tree has more impressive charting options, as any decent built-for-Mac app should boast.
Family Tree Maker for Mac: Web Search
Family Tree Maker for Mac can branch out onto the web to search for people in your tree – most notably on Ancestry when you subscribe to the service, which isn’t cheap but is worth the investment if you’re serious about digging back into your family’s past and you don’t have time to go to the original paper-based or microfiche sources. The inclusion of six months of the Premium Ancestry subscription is invaluable in this context.
Family Tree Maker for Mac vs PC
It has to be noted that Family Tree Maker for Mac is based on the features and functionality of the Family Tree Maker 2010 PC Version – not the latest PC version that boasts far-superior integration with the online Ancestry service.
So Family Tree Maker for Mac offers less features than Family Tree Maker for Windows. How many? At least 100 if you believe the boasts behind the launch of the latest Windows version – and those 100 are some of the most requested, according to genealogy software forums.
In the latest PC version when you find new records you can quickly merge them into your tree. Syncing online and offline trees isn’t possible with this Mac version so you have to keep updating the one when you change details on the other. That duplication of effort stops me thinking about using the online and offline products in tandem, which I’d really like to do. But I’m not ready to switch to Windows just for this privilege!
This doesn’t make Family Tree Maker for Mac a bad product (far from it!), and the links with the online Ancestry service are still valuable. But it does rankle when you know there’s a more sophisticated version existing on another platform.
I could put up with that virtual injustice if it wasn’t for the syncing function being such a wonderful possible feature and not available on this version.
If Family Tree Maker for Mac could sync trees between itself and Ancestry it would be a stellar program, instead of a very good one. It might be worth waiting for the updated version (according to sources this could come as soon as October) if you’re already happy with one of the alternative Mac family tree programs or indeed if you subscribe to one of the other online genealogical services where Ancestry integration won’t be much of a consideration.
If having access to Ancestry is in your plans Family Tree Maker is definitely the offline/online program for you. When it’s caught up with the Windows version it should prove invaluable. If Ancestry isn’t on your radar it’s still an excellent genealogical application – boasting a smart user interface with well-laid out features.