It wasn’t that long ago that genealogy was a niche pastime for those with enough time and money on their hands to tramp up and down the country looking for local record offices, draughty parish churches and anywhere else that might yield nuggets of information about long-forgotten ancestors.
The internet has changed all that – now millions of records are easily accessible online, but the problem of how you organise your discoveries remains, which is where dedicated family history programs come into their own. Family Tree Maker has long led the rest of the industry, helped by its close links to the Ancestry website, and now a brand new version – 2011 – is upon us. As a long-time user of Family Tree Maker since 2008, I took the latest version for a thorough test drive.
Family Tree Maker 2011 is designed to make the compilation, analysis and sharing of your family tree as painless as possible. The program blends a powerful feature set with user-friendly interface that won’t put off beginners. Everything’s neatly organised into seven sections, and it won’t take you long to get up and running – with or without the included getting-started guide.
It features everything you’d expect to find in a genealogical program – the ability to records as much or as little detail about each individual in your tree, for example, plus the ability to import scanned images of old photos and documents for attaching to your ancestors’ records.
Family Tree Maker is also tied in very tightly with the Ancestry website, which betrays one of its principle aims, namely to get you to do the bulk of your research through Ancestry. That’s reflected in the fact the various different editions of Family Tree Maker come with free trial subscriptions to various Ancestry packages. These trials can be used to test-drive Ancestry itself, or to extend an existing subscription.
You’ll be prompted to set up your Ancestry account during the setup process – if you’re an existing Ancestry user, just enter your details here and your trial subscription will be converted into an extension to your existing subscription. Register the program and you can take full advantage of Family Tree Maker’s close integration to the Ancestry website, enabling you to quickly and easily integrate your ancestors’ online documents with your research file.
After everything’s set up, you can start from scratch by entering a few details about yourself and your parents, import an existing family tree from another program, or download it from the Ancestry website if you’ve been storing your research online.
The program is divided into seven broad tabs: the first is Plan, where you can leave yourself notes and reminders, plus take a look at the Ancestry Web Dashboard, a new feature in 2011 which basically gives you details about your current subscription plus keeps you up to date with other news from your account and the Ancestry website.
You’ll spend most of your time in the People section – here you get to view your family tree in horizontal pedigree format, with up to six generations visible at any one time depending on how big your screen is. You can get a summary of the selected individual here, add basic details or switch to the Persons tab for more information and to add additional elements like photos, additional facts and so on.
Don’t rush to populate the tree with facts and additional family members – if an individual on the pedigree chart has a flashing green leaf next to them it means Ancestry has found potential matches in its database for that person: click again and the program will switch to the Web Search tab, which is where Family Tree Maker stands head and shoulders above its rivals.
Integrate records quickly and easily
The web integration features are unique to Family Tree Maker: the program directly integrates into Ancestry, providing a list of matches and allowing you to search further. If you find a matching record, click the Merge button to open the Web Merge Wizard.
This generates facts based on the contents of the document: birth dates, places of residence, alternative names and so on. You can accept or ignore any of these. When merging certain records like census returns, the wizard can also merge details about other members of the household: parents, siblings and children. If they’re not currently in your tree, the wizard will create these individuals for you (along with all relevant links), saving you the hassle of doing it yourself.
The biggest downside of the Web Merge feature is that it only works with Ancestry, but Family Tree Maker also comes with a web-clipping tool, which enables you to grab facts from other websites using the browser built into the Web Search tab. It’s not as elegant as the Web Merge wizard, but it does ensure you can integrate records like the 1911 census from Findmypast.com too.
Finish the tour
Use the Places tab to pin locations and addresses to a map of the world, helping you trace your ancestors’ movements throughout their lifetime – don’t try to be too precise when entering addresses, as it’s not that au fait with UK street names, although you can manually place a pin on the map to tie your ancestors to a specific place at a certain time.
The Media tab is where you import your photos and scanned documents – this has long been a weak part of the program, but things improve with each release and the program is slowly catching up with the opposition. New to 2011 is the Find Missing Media wizard, which enables you to move your research folder to another location and then quickly update the links with FTM itself.
The Sources tab is where you manage the sources you link to each fact – little has changed here – while the Publish tab contains all the charts, reports and other publishing tools you need to share your research with others. A handful of new charts and reports have been added to the 2011 release, but the biggest development is a new Smart Stories feature, which is supposed to quickly and easily allow you to create a narrative report for an individual ancestor. That’s the theory – in practice, you’ll have to edit the words extensively to turn them into reasonable prose, but it does make it easy to drag and drop both facts and media items into a relatively coherent report, allowing you to concentrate on filling in the gaps.
Is it worth it?
Family Tree Maker 2011 comes in four editions for the UK market: Upgrade, Deluxe, Platinum and World. With prices ranging from £20 to £100 it looks expensive, but the cost includes a subscription to Ancestry that effectively reduces the cost of the program to as little as nothing when purchasing Platinum or World editions. Higher end versions of the program also come with additional extras, such as a printed companion guide and additional software.
The free trial subscriptions effectively subsidise the cost of the program itself, which makes Family Tree Maker exceptional value as long as you’re happy to use Ancestry alongside it. Those dipping their toes into the genealogical waters for the first time should consider Family Tree Maker 2011 an essential purchase, as it simplifies the process of locating and integrating documents and facts into your research file thanks to the web-integration features.
Existing Family Tree Maker users may want to review the full list of new features before taking the plunge – over 100 improvements are claimed, many of which will subtly improve your experience with the new version, but there are few major standout features: Ancestry Web Dashboard, Missing Items Wizard and Smart Stories tool, along with an attractively redesigned interface that’s both more pleasant on the eye and accessible. Of course, if you’re paying for an Ancestry subscription anyway, you might as well take advantage of the included subscriptions and get the program for a heavy discount, enabling you to integrate new records into your research quickly and painlessly as you find them.