Modern Software Experience

2008-04-04

Dutch

Aldfaer is a Dutch genealogy program. It is free closed source program for Windows. The website claims to provide specifications, but the website is in error; it lists features, not specifications. Truth is, no specifications are available. The file format has always been and remains undocumented.

features

Aldfaer is a rather popular program in the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium, for several simple but solid reasons. It runs on Windows, it is free, it is easier to use than several still popular DOS programs, and it has a Dutch interface.

The website sort of documents Aldfaer’s features, but that documentation is not much more than a rather vague description telling you Aldfaer is a genealogy program for Windows. It does not even answer the question which versions of Windows Aldfaer runs on.

version 4

Windows XP

Version 4.0 was released on 2008 Mar 25. The authors claim it is Vista-ready, but various reports and complaints from early users suggest this is not entirely true. I installed version 4.0 on Windows XP Service Pack 2.

installation

The installation program Aldfaer4.exe is a download of about 6½ MB. This installation program is in Dutch only. It suggests a reasonable default directory (Program Files\Aldfaer) and allows you to change it.

That the installation is Dutch only makes sense. The program supports Frisian output, but the entire program and help file are Dutch only. There is no English interface.

The program a installs the help file, but both the help menu and the context-sensitive help failed to bring it up, so it seems that there is mistake in either the program code or in the installation program.

Internet access

Once the installation is done, the program starts up (unless you uncheck that check box on the final dialog). As soon as the program starts up, my firewall warns that it is trying to access the internet. I do not choose any menu item yet and Aldfaer did not warn me it was about to try network access. Nothing happens when I deny access. When you allow access, it checks for updates and offers to install these. You can perform the update check manually and the option screen allows turning off the automatic check on start-up.

data entry

Although this is version four, Aldfaer still gets basic user interface issues wrong in disconcerting ways. Aldfaer does not put up any message before connecting to the Internet, but as soon as you create a new database, it pops up a dialog box prompting you for details on a individual. That just does not feel right. When you cancel that dialog you get an empty window. The file name in the window title and change in menus are the only indications that you opened a file. When you enter a person, the program window displays the details for that person and you can edit the details in that window. The aggressive pop-up seem entirely superfluous.

modal

The main issue I have with Aldfaer is that it is pop-up crazy. The program is apparently incapable of displaying anything but the person view in its main window. Everything else is shown in pop-up windows. This makes the program annoyingly modal.

The authors do know how to make a better interface. The person view itself does not annoy you with yet more pop-ups, but provides various tabs that you can leisurely browse through without worrying about pop-up windows.

GEDCOM output

submitter

Aldfaer does not prompt to enter your personal details when you install it, first run it, or create a database. It does not even prompt for your details when you export to a GEDCOM. As a result, the GEDCOM files it export often list the submitter as "SUBM Unknown".

illegal SUBM Unknown

That line itself is illegal. In GEDCOM 5.5, the HEAD.SUBM tag is mandatory, and must reference the SUBM record. "Unknown" is not a valid cross-reference. I personally happen to think that it would be better to omit the SUBM tag than to deliberately write an illegal references, but what Aldfaer should really have done is simply demand that the user fill out the personal details. It is standard practice for genealogy programs to do so. Within minutes of starting this version it created me a GEDCOM file with an illegal header - and that is on the program’s default settings. This strongly suggest insufficient attention to the quality of the output.

prefix

Aldfaer is one of the few programs to support surname prefixes. PAF does not support prefixes, but Aldfaer’s GEDCOM import offers to automatically split a last name into a prefix and the rest. The person list does not show the split, but the individual view does. This auto-split feature works fine, but upon export to GEDCOM, Aldfaer does not use the SPFX tag. In fact, Aldfaer uses the NAME tag only and does not even use the GIVN and SURN tags. Use of anything but the NAME tag is not mandatory, but its lack of support for these tags remains disappointing.

character set

Aldfaer’s GEDCOM export does not support UTF-8. That it is does not support UTF-16 may be forgiven, but that it still does not support UTF-8 is a serious shortcoming.

Aldfaer’s GEDCOM supports ASCII, Windows ANSI and ANSEL. It should default to ANSEL, but it actually default to Windows ANSI.

Win32

Aldfaer installs a file called aldfaer.exe.manifest. That is a manifest which claims that Aldfaer is a Win32 program. That is technically correct, but misleading. You would expect a 32-bit Windows program to support Unicode, but Aldfaer is stuck in the code page era. Aldfaer uses Windows ANSI internally. To put it bluntly: it may have been compiled as a 32-bit program, but it is still code for the 16-bit era.

Whether it really uses Windows ANSI (Windows code page 1252) or just the default code page, the documentation does not say. Heck, the documentation does not even acknowledge that Aldfaer is limited to a 256-character Windows code page. Nowhere does the documentation acknowledge that conversion from ANSEL may lose data.
The practical upshot of not even documenting the code page it uses is that you cannot rely on Aldfaer to deal correctly with anything but ASCII characters. That is a very serious limitation.

GEDCOM import

failure

When I try to import a small GEDCOM, my first impression is that it is done in a few seconds. When I see no data, I carefully try again, and notice the four messages in red at the top of the antichronological lines in the import dialog box:

17:23:18 -> Het importeren van de GEDCOM is mislukt
17:23:18 -> EAccessViolation
17:23:18 -> GEDCOM-tag INDI::TYPE wordt niet ondersteund
17:23:18 -> GEDCOM-tag FAM::REFN wordt niet ondersteund

Apparently, Aldfaer does not support INDI.TYPE or FAM.REFN, somehow produces an access violation, and therefore fails the import.

import log

I look for a import log. There is one, and it is chronological, but otherwise the same. There is no additional information. It does not even list which lines the INDI.TYPE or FAM.REFN were encountered on, making it hard to verify that these lines were encountered at all.

I am not so sure the antichronological nature of the dialog is deliberate, as using both chronological and antichronological is confusing. I am guessing it is just a small and easily rectified programming mistake.

The GEDCOM 5.5 spec does not support INDI.TYPE records, but the GEDCOM file does not contain them either (all INDI records are level zero and a search for "1 TYPE" reveals there are no level one TYPE records). Aldfaer did not encounter INDI.TYPE, because the file does not contain INDI.TYPE. The error message is wrong. That is less than useless.

The file does contain FAM.REFN records, but these are a perfectly valid GEDCOM, so it is not clear what problem Aldfaer has with it.

less than useless

If Aldfaer had produced a proper import log, with correct messages and the lines that it trips over, I might have been able to figure out just what went wrong. As it, I can only conclude that Aldfaer is unable to an apparently perfectly fine GEDCOM, and that the import log is less than useless, because it not only lacks information on the problem, but even contains incorrect messages.

more files

I tried several other files. Aldfaer produces many complaints about unsupported tags, and never shows a line to go with it. I’d love to tell you whether Aldfaer rightly complains about illegal tags, is upset by legal third-party GEDCOM extensions, or wrongly complains about legal GEDCOM tags. However, after discovering that the error messages cannot even be trusted to refer to tags that actually occur, I simply disrecommend the program for failing to produce correct and usable import logs.

import speed

When the Aldfaer team finally fixes the GEDCOM import issues, and Aldfaer generates usable import logs, the GEDCOM import will probably a bit slower than it is now. However, even at half the current import speed, Aldfaer would still beat most other genealogy programs. Importing 100.067 individuals took 6m30s, that is 100.069 INDI / 390 s = 256½ individuals per second.

not imported?

At least, so I thought for a few minutes. I brought up the window with the list of individuals, picked one at random, and browsed through the tabs of the individual view. I got a pop-up asking me whether I wanted to save. I assumed that I had accidentally hit a key or something and answered no. As soon as I did that, the program closed. When I started it up again, and opened the database I had just imported 100.067 individuals into, it turned out to be empty...

I tried creating a new file and importing the GEDCOM again. I checked that it had imported the file, and exited the program. Aldfaer asked whether I wanted to save the changes. I said yes, and when I opened the database, the data was there.
Aldfaer is treating import as a change you can either save or undo. That is not wrong, and can in fact be very handy, but it is certainly unexpected.

_UID comments

PAF always includes one _UID tag for each individual. The _UID tag is a legal GEDCOM extension, that few programs support. Aldfaer is part of the majority of programs that does not recognise it.
Chapter 1 of the GEDCOM specification clearly explains that tags "allow the use of different or new fields to be included in the GEDCOM data without introducing incompatibility, because the receiving system will ignore data which it does not understand and process only the data that it does understand.". Alas, the Aldfaer developers did not bother to read that. Instead of merely issuing a warning in the import log file, they converted each _UID tag into a comment upon the individual, and then export that comment in the GEDCOM. Thus, that comment is not some extension of Aldfaer to help me find possible issues, but some comment it actually added to my data, and will wind up in reports...

disrespect

Genealogy programs should report import issues in the import log. If they want to add warnings to my data, they should do so using some program-specific extension, some kind of meta-data, not insert comments into my database. Aldfaer does not ask permission to add the comments, does not warn that it added the comments and offers no option to remove them; it simply does not respect my database.

unsupported tags

While browsing through the imported file, I came across several comments for unsupported tags that left me scratching my head. Apparently, Aldfaer 4.0 does not support the EMIG, IMMI or NATU tags (for emigration, immigration and naturalisation). Even worse, Aldfaer does not support these events at all. When I merely consider how many Dutch emigrated in the past centuries and how many current Dutch are naturalised immigrants, the lack of support for these standard GEDCOM tags in a Dutch program that is already in its fourth major version is simply incomprehensible.

I have not bothered to check what other tags Aldfaer fails to support, but there are warnings about Aldfaer’s lack of support for these tags in the import log, which also notes that Aldfaer does not support the AFN (Ancestral File Number) or DSCR (description) tags.

UTF-8 import

Aldfaer should support UTF-8, but it does not. So, what happens when you try to import an UTF-8 GEDCOM? It inform you about its limitation, but instead it blames the GEDCOM.

17:11:58:76 versie 4.0 -> GEDCOM import: [FOUT] GEDCOM structuur onjuist op regel 1
17:11:58:76 versie 4.0 -> GEDCOM import: [FOUT] Het importeren van de GEDCOM is mislukt

Instead of admitting to its limitation, Aldfaer claims the GEDCOM is wrong. To be precise, Aldfaer claims that "GEDCOM structuur onjuist op regel 1" (the GEDCOM structure is wrong on line 1), although line 1 - the ubiquitous "0 HEAD" - is clearly right. If it had actually claimed that the "1 CHAR UTF-8" line was wrong, you might have guessed the issue. As it stand, Aldfaer produces a doubly erroneous error message; it produces an error message for something that is not an error, and does not even get the line number right.

home person

Upon importing a GEDCOM, most genealogy programs will set the person with identifier 1 ("@I1@" in most GEDCOMs) as the home person. Aldfaer does not, but expects you to set the home person yourself - and it does not offer the ability to navigate to a particular id like most programs. You must use the person list find the home person and mark it.

You might think this is because Aldfaer simply does not keep those number, but that is not so. When I created an ahnenlist (afstammingreeks in Aldfaer), I could not help but notice that the identifiers used in there are not the usual Ahnentafel numbers, but the id numbers! The identifiers are in there, Aldfaer just won’t let you use these to navigate your data.

person list

When I tried to mark the home person, I discovered that there is something wrong with the person list. After opening the previously saved database again, the person list showed only a few persons. I turned of the privacy filter, but it still showed just a few persons. Only when I tried again a few second later, did it show all persons. I find such unpredictable behaviour disconcerting.

sorted

Moreover, the person list is not alphabetical. You can sort by almost any field, including the date and place of birth fields, which can be handy. I do not like it much though, because Aldfaer uses an unstable sort; when I sorted by first name and then sorted by last name, the sort order of the first names within a last name was not preserved. I winded looking for myself using my date of birth.
I am guessing the developers used a QuickSort routine simply because it is in the library and indeed pretty quick, but never thought to check whether it is a stable sort.

BOM

Aldfaer 4.0 does not support Unicode. It does not even recognise the Byte Order Mark (BOM). I had created an UTF-8 GEDCOM file using PAF, which quite correctly starts every UTF-8 file its creates with the BOM for UTF-8. Aldfaer is confused by that, and therefore complains line 1 is wrong.

I used a hex editor to remove the first three bytes from the GEDCOM file and tried again. Without the BOM, Aldfaer no longer whines about the first line, but still does not warn that it does not support UTF-8. It simply decides to treat UTF-8 as OEM and converts it. It simply decides to use a wrong conversion!. This destroys and messes up data, yet Aldfaer does not even issue a warning.
That is unacceptable.

GEDCOM makeover

I was rather surprised by all this. Aldfaer’s GEDCOM support was never its strongest feature, but it all seemed so much worse than previous versions. A browse through the change list for 4.0 revealed that the GEDCOM import had been "completely renewed".

The new GEDCOM import should be "more robust and faster". I agree with the second part.

Aldfaer

popular

Aldfaer big claim to fame is that is a free Dutch genealogy for Windows. This already makes it very popular in the Netherlands, but that is not the only reason.

introduction

Aldfaer’s help file has an introductory section especially aimed at first time users. It provides a quick overview of the program. It confirms that the person view is central, it tells you what symbols its uses in overview and that the status bar provides a browse history that allows you to quickly jump to any individual viewed in in the main windows during the current session.

main screen

There are a few things I do not like about the individual view. One is that several field do not have a label in front of them. Another is that places the last name before the first name.

Most programs allow you to specify a cremation instead of burial. Aldfaer lets you choose burial, cremation, missing, donated to science and unknown from a drop down box.

sources

Aldfaer’s source handling is one of its weaker features. Aldfaer does not support sources like most genealogy programs. Aldfaer supports citations only, and these are limited to a single line of text.

Upon import from GEDCOM, Aldfaer does not warn that it does not support sources, but simple strings all fields of a citation and the source it refers together in one big string. This is so obviously wrong that I will not even bother to say anything more about it.

help file

I did encounter some small problems in the Windows help file. Some of the internal links do not work, and the URL it provides for downloading the template manual is probably right, but because their was apparently something wrong with the Aldfaer web site, it did not work when I tried, not even with JavaScript enabled. Not a big issue, as the standard help file already includes enough information about templates to get you started making your own. Still, it would be better to simply include that manual in the Aldfaer download package.

new in 4.0

A major change was the introduction of reports in the style of the Central Bureau of Genealogy (CBG) in version 3.5.3. The list of changes the Aldfaer team publishes hardly highlights what the major changes from 3.5.3 are.

Some of the more important changes are probably the ability to check for and install updates, the context-sensitive help, the rewritten GEDCOM import, support for GIF and PNG, more and better reports, all of which now respect the privacy settings. The two most important new features are the ability to determine the relationship between two persons and the ability to create groups.

groups

Groups are interesting new feature. You cannot randomly combine persons into groups. Instead, groups are defined by selection criteria. You can make such groups as all person born in particular city, everyone who ever divorced, everyone with a particular job, everyone with a particular religion etcetera. The really interesting parts is that you can create unions and intersections of groups and use them in reports. You can create such overview as everyone who worked for the railways or every catholic born in Amsterdam, and such overview may be handy in comparing your data to various sources.

flexible reporting

Aldfaer features a flexible reporting system. There are many predefined reports, and there is the ability to create your own. In fact, several Dutch programs are known for their flexibility, and that may explain why many Dutch genealogist are not easily impressed by the reporting capabilities of the programs that dominate the American market.

your own reports

Several genealogy programs allow you to change sentences. Aldfaer allows you to write your own reporting templates in Aldfaer’s reporting language. Aldfaer even allows modification of existing reports through so-called hooks; the changes you make will be preserved when you install a newer version of Aldfaer.

The Aldfaer team clearly takes the reporting capabilities seriously. The reporting language has undergone a few small changes, but the current version actually includes the ability to import reports written for a previous version.

The reporting language is quite extensive, and even support report libraries - to place functions in that find yourself using again and again.

Reports can call upon other reports, making it fairly easy to create a single template that you can call upon with just one button click to say create all the reports you want for your website.

Report Wizard

You can start making your reports without learning the rather idiosyncratic language by simply making a few some choices in the Report Wizard. The resulting report will write web pages. Most of these pages claim to be XHTML 1.0 Transitional, but they do not validate and use the ISO 8859-1 (ISO Latin-1) character set instead of UTF-8. The generated index and start page can be replaced, and will not be overwritten when the report is generated again. Weirdly, these two near-empty pages claim to be XHTML 1.0 Strict, while these are not even XHTML 1.0 Transitional. None of the pages work unless you enable JavaScript.

So, the Report Wizard is not very good, but what about the ready-made reports? I tried several of the included reports. The resulting pages for the few reports I tried do validate as XHTML 1.0 Strict, do not override the default character set and do work without JavaScript.

It is disappointing to note that the graphical overview of ancestors demands JavaScript for displaying fly-overs, but even the graphical ancestor overview validates as XHTML 1.0 Strict. It is a bit silly though that it reports the age of some ancestors as 333 or 418 years old just because it has a date of birth without a date of death.

changes

Aldfaer will only ask you to commit changes once you decide to exit it, but what happens to your changes if Aldfaer crashes? I decided to find out by making a few changes and then rudely terminating the Aldfaer.exe process from the Task Manager.

When you restart Aldfaer, the changes you made before it crashed are all there, but they are still pending changes. If you restart after a crash and then decide to exit immediately, Aldfaer will ask whether you want to save the changes you made, and you must say yes to keep them.

how it works

The main Aldfaer database is read-only. Aldfaer keeps changes you make in temporary files.

Aldfaer create the temporary files if necessary, and update them as you make changes. If Aldfaer starts up and finds that the files are already there, it will not create new ones, but simply load the changes.

When you decide to apply all changes, Aldfaer updates your database and deletes the temporary files. Upon a crash or deliberate termination, Aldfaer does not incorporate the changes into your database, but does not delete the temporary files either. When you restart Aldfaer, Aldfaer finds the temporary files, and loads all the changes you made in your previous sessions. However, Aldfaer does not warn you that it recovered from a crash and that you still have pending changes from a previous session. So, if you decide to dismiss changes from this session, you’d be throwing away all changes from your previous session as well! Aldfaer should put up a dialog and ask whether you want to save the changes from the previous session or not.

conclusion

16-bit

Aldfaer is a 16-bit Windows program compiled with a 32-bit compiler. It demands 32-bit Windows, but does not support Unicode. All it really supports is Windows ANSI and it does not issue warnings about this limitation when importing ANSEL. It will even import UTF-8 GEDCOMs without warning. Practical result: damaged data.

error messages

Its error messages are utterly unreliable. It may issues errors for correct GEDCOM files, and for tags that are not even presents in the file. There is import log but it rarely refers line numbers, so it is often impossible to make sense of error message.

Aldfaer further messes up your database by inserting a comments for each GEDCOM tag it does not recognise. There is no way to prevent this, no way to remove these comments, and they do show up in all reports.

user interface

That user-interface looks dated hardly matters. What matters is that it does not feel right. The person view is the only one Aldfaer shows in the main window. Everything else is additional and modal windows; you cannot keep these windows open, you have to close them again to get some work done, and then need to open them again later. It is annoyingly user-unfriendly.
The way Aldfaer handles your changes, all your changes, definitely takes getting used you, but does allow you to dismiss all changes made during a session.

download

The download is incomplete. The manual for creating your own templates is not included, but must be downloaded separately. There are more additional downloads, and you need to search around the site to find them all. The Aldfaer team should provide all downloads on a single page, include the template manual in the standard download, and offer a complete download that includes all options.

unsuitable

Perhaps you like the modal user interface, and Aldfaer reporting capabilities make it ideal for those who like to customise output their way, but Aldfaer’s limited features, poor GEDCOM support, lack of Unicode support and its inability to record sources make it to a toy program unsuitable for serious genealogists.

updates

2008-04-08 version 4.02

There is a list of many small issues fixed in 4.02. The main fix seems to be that Aldfaer works fine on Vista now.

2010-04-25 ahnenlist

Replaced erroneous usage of ahnentafel with correct ahnenlist.

product details

propertyvalue
productAldfaer
version4.0
organisationStichting Team Aldfaer
websiteAldfaer (demands JavaScript)
pricefree download
requirementWin32 (Windows 95 or better)
noteno Unicode support
Verdicttoy program with superflexible reporting
Ratingunsuitable

links