Genealogy programs are loaded with features that vary from one program to the next. Experts say you should look for these features in family-tree software:

  • GEDCOM compatibility. All the popular programs let you import and export Genealogical Data Communication (GEDCOM) files, the universal family-tree file format. If you and your relatives use different genealogy programs, you can still swap family data as long as you work with GEDCOM and not your programs' proprietary file formats. Just email a GEDCOM file to relatives or upload portions of your family tree to one of the many free online pedigree databases. Your kin can then download that file and incorporate the data into their own family files. Some programs do handle transfers better than others, however. Small bits of data can get lost between your relative's computer and your own.
  • Start free and go from there. Genealogy is one of those hobbies, like scrapbooking, that lots of people start -- then lose interest in. If you're not sure you're ready to commit to deep diving, or if you just want to create some simple family trees, go for free software. RootsMagic Essentials is the best bet right now. If you find you outgrow the software's capabilities, you can seamlessly upgrade to the more full-featured paid version.
  • Web capabilities. The Internet has become a key part of genealogical research. Most software programs help users create a website so they can share research with others online. Both RootsMagic 4 and Reunion 9 (for Mac users) will publish your data online automatically -- if you so choose. The Master Genealogist v7 Gold can output to HTML for web pages.

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