Modern Software Experience

2010-08-31

book review

Which Genealogy Program?

Which Genealogy Program? is book by Kerry Farmer & Rosemary Kopittke, recently published by Unlock the Past, and available from Gould Genealogy. They send me a copy for evaluation.

Upon receiving the book, I started with a quick look through the pages, and immediately noticed that it contains quite a few tables comparing the features of the discussed genealogy applications to each other.

Which Genealogy Program? is not a big book. In fact, on the inside back cover, publisher Unlock the Past themselves refer to it as a booklet. It consists of 84 A5-size greyscale pages plus a colour cover. Three of those pages are taken up by a fairly extensive index, mostly to help you find features in those tables.

which applications

Which Genealogy Program? discusses fourteen different genealogy applications; eleven Windows application and three MacOS application. The comparative tables use two- and three-character abbreviations for these applications:

book cover: Which Genealogy Program?

Windows applications

MacOS applications

selection

In their preface, the authors explain their selection thus: This book reviews the major genealogy programs, but does not include those that appear to be no longer maintained or those we felt were less useful to our reader. Nor does it review software for online databases..

no longer maintained

I quite agree with their decisions to not extensive discuss genealogy application that are no longer being maintained, but regret that they do not mention which applications they excluded for that reason. I do believe that many readers would like be forewarned that particular applications appear to have been deserted by their creators.

The authors are not entirely true to their own selection criteria. Branches seems to have been included for no other reason than that it's new. They include PAF 5.2.18.0, although the 5.1.28 updates from 2002 Jul 23.
According to their own selection criteria, PAF should not have been included. A perhaps more sensible deviation from their selection criteria would have been the inclusion of Family Tree Maker 16, which remains popular despite several releases of New Family Tree Maker.

less useful

The decision to exclude applications they consider less useful is a bit harder to understand. Although it is important to present facts, there is nothing wrong with presenting your opinion. Many readers would sure like to know which applications aren't so hot and particularly why not. I think the authors should  make their case by including these applications, although I imagine that doing so could easily double the size of this book.

another criterion

The authors clearly had another selection criterion that they do not state, but some may already have noticed when reading through the list; they love to include Australasian applications.
If I had to guess their selection criteria, I'd guess that they started with a list of most popular genealogy applications in Australia and New Zealand.

application variants

Notice that the authors did not include Family Tree Super Tools (FTST), which is basically a read-only variant of TMG, but did include both the Legacy Standard and Legacy Deluxe. That's why there are two abbreviations for Legacy.
The book discusses RootsMagic Standard, but does not discuss RootsMagic Essentials, the free variant of RootsMagic.

This book was out of date even before it was printed, but that is hardly a surprise. Any book comparing fourteen different applications isn't likely to remain completely current for a long time.

out of date

The authors still discuss MacFamilyTree 5, while Synium recently released MacFamilyTree 6. The book includes a brief note that MacFamilyTree 6 was released, but it is still based on MacFamilyTree 5. It discusses Family Tree Maker 2010 while FTM 2011 was released today, 2010 Aug 31.

This book was out of date even before it was printed, but that is hardly a surprise. Any book comparing fourteen different applications isn't likely to remain completely current for a long time. That does not make the book useless. It hardly effects the value of the book.
Truth be told, although many vendors like make all sorts of claim about new versions of their product,  in practice most new versions merely build on what is already there; the new versions are improvements, but remain very much the same product.

Still, I cannot help but wonder whether the authors and publisher are planning to address this concern with frequent updates. A book like this strikes me as something should not be sold as a one-time paper buy, but as an e-book with a subscription to updated editions.

contents

Introduction

The introduction starts of with the observation that your friends are likely to recommend the genealogy application that they are currently using - after all, if they use it, it somehow meets their needs. It also notes that the biggest investment you make in software isn't the purchase price, but the time learning how to use that application. Wise words.

The introduction then goes on to discuss several important considerations, often with brief remarks about some applications for each; ease of use, power users, special features, privacy controls and languages other than English. A final consideration is support for Australian and New Zealand users. The authors and publisher are Australasian and are using their knowledge about features, editions and user groups down under to make the book more useful to buyers in that region of the world.
Two examples of some of the issues they mention, that many shopping for their first genealogy application are unlikely to think of, are the ability to run the application from a flash drive and to export reports to Microsoft Word for final editing.

Programs

The introduction is followed by Programs, a chapter that offers brief discussions of each application, with one screenshot for each. These are not vendor-supplied screenshot, but screenshots the authors made themselves, always using the same database, so you can actually compare these screenshots and the information they contain.
At a total of 22 pages for 14 programs, it offers less than two A5 pages of text for each, so discussion of each individual application is brief. These discussions are not in-depth reviews, but just some general information and observations.

The text is generally correct and informative, but for descriptions this brief is it remarkable that they more than once decide to quote others instead of giving their own opinion.
Brief as the descriptions are, I do have quibbles with some. For example, the suggestion that Family Tree Maker 2008 was unpopular with users because features were missing and that Family Tree Maker 2010 is popular again now that the missing features have been returned strikes me as less than entirely accurate; there is much more that long-time users are dissatisfied over.

A general complaint about the formatting is that the book includes URLs in the body text. The text would be easier to read if it included titles instead, with the URLs in footnotes.

Cost and related products

The Programs chapter does not discuss the cost of the products, but is followed by the Cost and related products chapter. This chapter does not only mention the cost of each product, but also notes the availability and price of related products. The focus on Australia is very evident here, as most prices are listed in Australian dollars.

User Support Groups, Glossary

The User Support Groups chapter once again focuses on Australia. It is followed by a rather brief Glossary. The Glossary is little help in understanding the book. The glossary includes Object Linking and Embedding (OLE), but does not include Chapman codes, although the authors mention it more than once.

Detailed Feature Comparison

tables
Data Entry
Data Flexibility
Data Management
Convenience Features
Sources
Multimedia
Presentation Reports
Research Reports
Reporting Options
Import / Export
Help & Support

The Detailed Feature Comparison chapter is the core of this publication. It makes up slightly less than half the book. This chapter provides all the details that the Programs chapter lacks.
While most of the book is printed in portrait mode, this entire chapter is printed in landscape mode. Even the page numbers are now on the side of each page instead of along the bottom.

This chapter generally has a feature table on the left page and notes upon that table on the right page. When the notes spill over onto the next page, the authors generally include some screenshot to ensure that the next table is on the left hand page again.

A serious complaint about this chapter is that those notes are printed in a rather small font, half the size of the body font used on all other pages, making these pages hard to read.

There is a lot of information in those tables. The tables allow little more than a simple yes/no, and the notes remedy that limitation, but the presented information can still be misleading. For example, the Data Flexibility table states that PAF support multiple names, and the notes do not correct the perception the reader might get from that. It is actually a rather remarkable misfeature of PAF that it supports a non-standard also known as field instead of supporting GEDCOMs multiple-name feature. PAF thus offers two name fields, but no more than two, and many applications won't read that non-standard field. So, I believe that would have been closer to the truth to state that PAF does not support this feature.

By the way, the authors are not trying to overstate PAF's capabilities. Another table notes that PAF lacks an Edit Places together feature, which they note would be useful to correct spelling mistakes in many places at once. PAF actually does have a Global Search & Replace feature that allows you to do exactly that.

It simply is hard to fit the often different approaches of different applications into a single table format. Overall the authors do a good job, but they cannot help but force-fit some features into the categories they came up with.
They are well aware of this. For example, their notes on the availability of the Maps feature start with the remark that Saying that a program can use maps means vastly different things in different programs.. True words, and the notes that follow are worth reading. For example, they note that TMG does not have mapping features, but that the add-on application Second Site does.

It is hard to think of a feature not covered by those tables. I noticed the lack of patronyms, but the tables include such varied information as which applications still cannot record same-sex marriages, which ones support EE-style citations, and what languages are supported in reports.
A minor complaint is that the information on Unicode support provided in the Data Entry table should really be repeated in the Import / Export table; there is a fundamental difference between GEDCOM import that does support Unicode and GEDCOM import that still does not.

recommendation

The authors do not recommend any particular application, and their brief biographies on the inside cover do not reveal what they themselves use. They did not set out to recommend on program over another. They present brief descriptions of each application, and extensive tables with ample notes. Picking an application is deliberately left as an exercise for the reader.

conclusion

I would also have liked to see more real-world observations in their descriptions, for example whether an application handles large databases well, or becomes unusably slow instead. It is obvious the authors wanted to remain objective, but that doesn't mean that they should refrain from telling you important things the vendors don't tell you.

There is a gap between the brief descriptions in the Programs chapter and the extensive feature tables. Simply put, the descriptions are aimed at beginners, while the tables are aimed at experienced users who already know what they look for in their next genealogy application.
That gap could be filled by bunch of chapters in between that help you decide what is important to you, for example a chapter discussing multimedia features and a chapter discussing citations. If these chapters were in place, the value of the tables would be more readily apparent, and many notes could be shorter.

conclusion

The nature of the subject practically guarantees that the content is out of date before it is published. Most genealogy applications do not change drastically from one version to another, but the prospective buyer may only note that MacFamilyTree 6 and Family Tree Maker 2011 are not covered, and decide to pass the book up because of that. The subject matter demands frequent updates.

The book has a focus on Australia and New Zealand. It includes several Australasian applications, has a chapter of Australian user groups, and list prices in Australian dollars. That only makes it more useful to people down under, it does not make it less useful to others.

That the selection of fourteen applications discussed in the book does not match the authors' stated selection criteria is remarkable, but the actual selection is more important. The book covers the best-known applications, and both the cover and the table of contents make it clear which fourteen applications are included.
The authors excluded applications that they did not consider useful, while they should really be explaining why these applications aren't useful. This first edition withholds that information from the reader.

It is hard to unlock the past if you can't read about the necessary tools in the present.

The book has a feature-centric approach. The brief descriptions of each application offer some basic information, but the extensive feature tables are the core of this book. There is a lot of information in those tables, but it is hard to take full advantage of that for first-time genealogy application buyers, simply because the book does not explain the listed features first, but goes straight from brief descriptions to detailed tables.

 A few awful printing choices undo a lot of the value that this book offers. The switch from portrait mode to landscape mode is a minor annoyance, the real problem is that the notes for each table have been printed in Flyspeck 3. It is hard to unlock the past if you can't read about the necessary tools in the present.

It would be nice if this book were somewhat larger, entirely in portrait mode, and with its table notes in a reasonably sized font. However, it should really be published electronically, perhaps with a print-on-demand edition for those who crave a paper copy. That would not only allow readers to change the font size at will, but would also accommodate the frequent updates that the subject matter demands.

details

titleWhich Genealogy Program?
authorKerry Farmer & Rosemary Kopittke
PublisherUnlock the Past
ISBN978 0 9807760 3 4
pages84 + cover
sizeA5
priceAU$ 18,00 (about € 12,59)

links