Reviewers are excited about RootsMagic Essentials, the free version of the best reviewed RootsMagic 4. Most say the program is so robust that you might not end up needing paid software at all. Essentials has the same revamped interface at the paid RootsMagic; you can create nearly 20 different types of reports and add unlimited people, facts/events, notes and sources. You can also attach photographs, sound and video clips to any of these items. RootsMagic Essentials can import data from other software, including Personal Ancestral File, Family Tree Maker, Legacy Family Tree and FamilySearch.com, a free service that lets you search records for your ancestor's birth, marriage and death certificates and more. The software makes it easy to add items by automatically linking family members together and checking for duplicates.
Dick Eastman of Eastman's Online Genealogy Newsletter says RootsMagic Essentials "serves as a great introduction to the full program" and is more powerful than Personal Ancestral File (also free), calling the latter "old-fashioned." If you want to share your data with an out-of-town relative, Eastman recommends having them download Essentials as well so they can view the family tree without paying for their own software. He adds that upgrading to the paid version is seamless, should you outgrow the free version. Randy Seaver, who teaches genealogy classes, recommends this software to his students, noting in his brief review that it has nearly all the features he looks for in beginner-level software including "people" view (the ability to edit all the information for one person), multiple view options and compatibility with GEDCOM files.
Personal Ancestral File 5.2 (Free) was created by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), which runs the world's largest genealogy repository, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. While it generally gets good reviews, Personal Ancestral File (often referred to as PAF) is no longer supported by the LDS and will not be updated, due to the proliferation of competing genealogy software. The final version is still available for download.
Though dated, Personal Ancestral File 5.2 does all the basics well. It has efficient data entry, well-designed family group sheets and pedigree charts, and good source documentation. The program also imports and exports Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) files with the best of them. The software allows the creation of templates for customized data entry and print reports in a variety of languages.
To create fancy charts, however, you'll need the add-on Personal Ancestral File Companion (*Est. $7 download), or included on the Personal Ancestral File CD-ROM). There is also a free "evaluation" version of the Personal Ancestral File Companion that lets you sample its features but limits the number of reports you can generate and disables some program functions. Compared with other highly rated genealogy programs, Personal Ancestral File falls short in the multimedia category. It doesn't have book publishing or website publishing features, and there are limitations to the number of photo and audio files you can attach. Overall, RootsMagic Essentials has surpassed PAF in sophistication and ease of use.
If you want to dabble in genealogy without downloading anything, Geni.com is an easy-to-use online tool that lets you build a family tree, invite others to collaborate and merge with other trees. The site has won awards from PCMag.com and CNET, and CNET's Rafe Needleman provides a brief review in which he says "it's the best thing I've seen yet for people who just want an easy way to record their family tree." A number of user reviews at GenSoftReviews.com aren't from users at all -- they're from people who have gotten unsolicited email notifications from the service because a family member joined and gave out their email address. These contributors find it an invasion of privacy and worry that their personal information is out in the open. Actual users note that many features have disappeared behind a pay wall, specifically the ability to view your entire family tree. Contributors to Amazon.com and Viewpoints.com find it addictive and fun. We recommend asking family members for permission first before adding personal information to the website.