capsule review's Family Tree Maker Uses a Large Genealogical Database

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At a Glance
  • Family Tree Maker

The United States is a country of immigrants. It's rare to find anyone who doesn't have to start looking outside of the country for information about their grandparents or greatgrandparents. If you don't have the funds or the time to cross the world in search of ancestors,'s Family Tree Maker 2012 ($40, buy-only) may be your answer.

Family Tree Maker screenshot
You can add whatever you want in Family Tree Maker's fields, and you'll get a popup warning if it's something the program doesn't understand. This is very useful if you have an unusual family history.
To get started with Family Tree Maker, you can import an existing file in a number of formats, includingGEDCOM (the almost-standard genealogy program file), Personal Ancestral File (PAF), Legacy Family Tree, The Master Genealogist, or version 5 or newer Family Tree Maker files.You can also download information from Ancestry, or enter what you know directly into the Family Tree Maker database.

Unlike similar family tree catologs and creators—GenoPro ($50, family tree and genogram creator) and Legacy Family Tree (free Standard Edition family tree database) in particular—Family Tree Maker has a very professional and sleek user interface. Family Tree Maker is a lot like Family Tree Builder (free) in its professional appearance and ease of use. Just like Family Tree Builder, when you start from scratch using Family Tree Maker, it makes no difference where in the timeline you begin: Adding parents, spouses, children, and siblings as you go is not difficult. And Family Tree Maker's UI won't take you long to understand, and even if you have a very complex family tree, you won't get too lost after you've used it for just a short time.

If you import a Legacy Family Tree (a free shareware program that excels at keeping track of details of your extended family), database, Family Tree Maker advises you to go to Tool > Resolve All Place Names since Legacy and Family Tree Maker have a known conflict with the way places are cataloged in each database.

Free Legacy Family Tree Standard Edition is far easier than Family Tree Maker to keep track of all of the details of your extended family, but doesn't include Family Tree Maker's 14-day trial of's U.S. research website. You need to enter billing information to access the full features of this research site, and be aware that unless you make efforts to cancel your trial subscription, Ancestry will bill you, but the ease of research using this comprehensive tool is great. It's pricey though: The U.S. Discover membership (restricted to searching within the U.S.) costs $155 annually, or $23 per month; and the World Explorer membership costs $299 annually, or $35 per month.

Family Tree Maker database collects all of the information you give it or merge from, and it can display an entire tree (unlike free Legacy Family Tree Standard Edition and $30 Deluxe edition, neither of which can display an entire family tree) but it doesn't try to display it in real time (like $50 GenoPro). Instead, Family Tree Maker gives a pedigree of the Home Person their mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, etc.—and you have to change the home person to see a different line. Once you have your database created, Family Tree Maker can create a number of different charts from the information: Pedigree, Descendant, Relationship, Hourglass, Vertical Pedigree, Horizontal Hourglass, Bow Tie, Family Tree, Extended Family, and Fan Charts. All are customizable, including adding images, background, restricting the number of generations, and adding fields like date of birth and death. You can then print, upload, or export in a variety of ways, including a PDF. For a very complex family tree, Family Tree Maker splits up timelines, which can be frustrating, especially if it seems like the information would fit. Fortunately you can manipulate the tree yourself by simply dragging a person from one place to another. You cannot delete people through the chart however, or correct an error; for that you need to return to the database entry.

There are a few annoyances: There's no way of indicating a last name from a given name, which makes things very confusing (in my family, anyway); the research look-up sometimes finds a maiden name and other times a married name, which gets extremely confusing and can result in implying incest quite easily; and there's no deceased check box. If you are unaware of a death date you have to write "deceased" in the date of death field, although after 100 years Family Tree Maker will assume they're dead, so you don't end up with relatives that rival (vampire) Bill Compton in longevity. If you use the online research tools, Family Tree Maker tries to make it easy to import specific information, but sometimes fails. For example, if you know an ancestor's exact birth date, but a record that lists their place of birth includes just the year of birth, if you import this record, you'll lose the detail on the birth date. You can easily reenter it in your record, but it's annoying.

Also, there's a Save menu item: Family Tree Maker auto saves your file, which is nice, and you can create backups, but if you find a drastic mistake in your tree (like my incestuous great great great grandparents) and have to go back and fix it, it's very easy to accidentally auto-open and work in the wrong version.

As a way to easily research and display your family tree, Ancestry's Family Tree Maker is a very good—albeit expensive—way to do it. Accessing Ancestry's vast database can be addictive, and discovering online other families who are researching members of your Family Tree is thrilling. But it all comes at a price.

If you don't want to spend a lot of money or already have the information you want to collect, try free Legacy Family Tree. If you want a research tool or want to see your entire family tree, try Family Tree Builder, which is free until the size of your family/file requires you to upgrade. After all, the GEDCOM file format allows you to easily move all of the database, so you can always buy Family Tree Maker down the road if you discover you have large gaps, or want something with all the sleek bells and whistles.

Note: The Download button takes you to the vendor's site, where you can download the latest version of this buy-only software.

Clare Brandt

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At a Glance
  • Family Tree Maker

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