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Best software for novices and pros

Although genealogy software companies often include historical information and databases on their products' websites, you are not limited to using information only on those sites. A standard information format called  Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) allows you to find and transfer genealogy information to and from other sources, as well as download information from websites to any genealogy software application with GEDCOM compatibility. All of the titles in the ConsumerSearch Best Reviewed section are GEDCOM compatible. Some genealogy websites (such as Genealogy.com and Ancestry.com) require a subscription, but other databases are free.

Critics rave about RootsMagic 4 (*Est. $30) genealogy software, a ground-up rewrite of the prior version. RootsMagic 4 includes many new features, including built-in web searches, USB drive support for using RootsMagic on the go, an updated source wizard, support for DNA test data and a brand-new interface for easier data entry and navigation. It doesn't appear that any functionality has been taken away, and reviews praise the new interface, although users of the older version may need time to adjust. A novice genealogist at Vyger.co.uk highlights some issues with RootsMagic 4 that popped up in the site's forums, though he notes that the software's creator is very responsive and frequently issues updates and fixes.

The big news here is that the company has also introduced a free version, RootsMagic Essentials (Free download), that includes most of the features available in the paid version. The main differences, as outlined in Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter, are that you can't back up your data directly to CD and that there's no customizable tool bar, built-in web search or free technical support. It also lacks some of the deeper views that the full version has. Like RootsMagic 4, it reads and writes data using the GEDCOM format -- that means that if your genealogical interests have outgrown the confines of the free software, you can easily upgrade to the paid version. (See our section on free software for more detail on RootsMagic Essentials.)

RootsMagic 4 includes features for book publishing and charting, though some reviews say the charts could be prettier. You can create data CDs or let friends and relatives view a read-only form of RootsMagic. A website creator tool helps you assemble different kinds of sites, which you can choose to publish. Finally, an integrated backup feature allows you to back up your data to a CD, but RootsMagic doesn't store backups online (Family Tree Legends does this). A free trial version is available, as well as a $20 upgrade for RootsMagic 3 owners. Some owners may be eligible for a free upgrade to RootsMagic 4 -- check the RootsMagic.com site for details.

CNET editors rate RootsMagic 4 highly. Editors praise the app's simple directions and excellent layout. "The program's interface had us hooked from the get-go," they say. Family Tree Magazine praises the app's ease of use, source documenting, and charts and reports; under cons, it lists "nothing major."

Pretty much running neck-and-neck in reviews with RootsMagic is Legacy Family Tree 7.0 Deluxe (*Est. $35). Reviewers particularly like its printed reports and excellent to-do lists as well as its SourceWriter feature, which cites sources easily and formats them to industry standards. The Deluxe program includes Legacy Charting Deluxe software, which can create color wall charts. In addition to impressive family group sheets, pedigree charts and book-format reports, the program produces web pages in a variety of styles and slide shows with sound. It also automatically maps your ancestors around the world using Microsoft Virtual Earth.

Legacy Family Tree 6.0 is rated highly at About.com, but genealogy guide Kimberly Powell hasn't yet looked at the latest version. The software is GEDCOM compatible, and you can export pages to your website with its site-building tools. Legacy Family Tree can even translate your reports into other languages, helpful for international research. Another helpful feature scans your reports for potential problems, such as an implausible birth date.

One nice aspect is that a basic version, called Legacy Family Tree 7.0 Standard, is available as a free download. This makes it a good choice if you're not sure whether you'll stick with genealogy as a hobby, or if your primary goals are simple. You can always choose to upgrade if you want more features, and you won't lose any data. The free version doesn't include the error finder (to uncover data inconsistencies), and there aren't many book-publishing options. You can't create reports in different languages, and many of the customizable features aren't usable in the free version.

Although we found few experts who are willing to say decisively whether RootsMagic or Legacy Family Tree is better, RootsMagic is definitely getting more attention this year because of its free Essentials versions -- which many enthusiasts say is robust enough that you might not need to pay for software at all. For that reason, we've chosen RootsMagic as the best choice this year, but Legacy Family Tree certainly remains a strong runner-up.

Although The Master Genealogist v7 Gold (*Est. $60) continues to receive reviewers' accolades, it's often not the best choice for casual researchers, mostly because of its steep learning curve. Even reviewers who rave about this program's sophisticated data handling and reporting capabilities admit that it's not particularly easy to use.

There's also a pared-down version -- The Master Genealogist v7 Silver (*Est. $35). That version leaves out some functions found in the Gold edition, such as the ability to create indexes and a table of contents. Since most home users aren't planning to publish their family trees in academic journals (and hence don't need those features), the Silver edition might be all that is needed -- though the Gold version does come with a 400-page user's guide in PDF format.

Mobile genealogy apps

Mobile platforms have seen a surge in genealogy apps that let fans hook into databases on the go -- but nearly all of the action is on the iPhone and iPod touch. Reunion offers an iPhone app (*Est. $15) that works with the excellent Reunion 9 (*Est. $100) Mac application and scores an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5 from 100 users at Apple's App Store. It also gets a positive review from Macworld, where editor Jeffery Battersby calls it "a welcome addition to the Reunion family," though he discovers some issues with search and with syncing between the iPhone and desktop versions.

Ancestry.com offers a free iPhone app that lets site users view or modify family trees already created on the desktop site, although it gets mixed user reviews (averaging 2.5 stars from more than 900 user ratings). MacFamilyTree users can download MobileFamilyTree 2 (*Est. $5) to sync data between the two apps; this program also receives an average of 2.5 stars from nearly 50 users.

For other platforms, support for genealogy apps is sporadic. Northern Hills Software offers the Pocket Genealogist 3.4, which works on Windows Mobile smartphones and Pocket PCs, but it has no reviews available on the web. The Pocket Genealogist comes in three versions: Trial (Free), Basic (*Est. $20) and Advanced (*Est. $35). FamilyBee is an Android-compatible family-tree browser that's available for free in the Android Market. An older program called My Roots 4 (*Est. $25) works on Palm OS-based smartphones; it scores an average user rating of 4.5 stars out of 5 at PocketGear.com. GedWise (*Est. $20) is available for Palm OS and Pocket PC users. BlackBerry, Symbian and WebOS users appear to be out of luck for now.

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Reunion 9
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
Average Customer Review:  
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Legacy Family Tree Version 7.0 Deluxe
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from Amazon.com
Average Customer Review:  
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Master Genealogist Silver Edition
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from Amazon.com
New: $19.99   
Average Customer Review:  
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RootsMagic Family Tree Genealogy Software
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $29.95 $22.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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