Modern Software Experience

2010-12-31

Sherwood

Branches 1.0

Branches is a new desktop genealogy application by Sherwood Electronics Laboratories, Inc. It was officially introduced on 2010 April 21. According to the banner across the top of their website, it is Genealogy Software for the 21st Century. According to their press release, it has a Google Earth-like Graphical Viewer for Genealogy and Family History Data.
Although I don't fancy it vendors giving their product a plural name, I decided to check it out. That was back in April, but I got so frustrated by its frequent crashes, that I gave up trying to review it. Back then, I was using version 1.1.0.7. The past days I've been trying version 1.1.2.3.

download and installation

download

The Branches website is small, simple and easy to navigate, yet somehow lacks the snappy response of most small and simple sites. Sherwood offers a 30-day trial, but wants your name and email address before letting you download it. The setup.exe file for Branches is less than one megabyte, and this is because it isn't a standalone installer you can run on any desktop or laptop, but one of those annoying apps that need an Internet connection to download and install the application.

Using stock photos is a common practice, attributing quotes to them is not.

fake testimonial

There is a happy looking guy on the download page, and a text within quotes below it: Branches is like having Google Earth™ for genealogy. I can now see all of my family relationships, data, photos, and source documents on one screen. I didn't even read an operator's manual. I was using all the features of Branches within minutes..

Branches Download Page

Sounds like a great endorsement, but there is no name, and that photo isn't a customer at all; it is a stock photo obtained from fotolia.com. All the other photos of happy people on their site seem to have been obtained from fotolia.com. Using stock photos is a common practice, attributing quotes to them is not. There is no customer, there is no testimonial. It is a deception their marketroid came up with.

Fotolia: Businessman by Kurhan

SQL Server Compact

Unless you already have SQL Server Compact installed, the Branches setup applications starts by demanding your agreement to the End User License Agreement (EULA) for Microsoft SQL Server Compact 3.5 with Service Pack 1. Remarkable, because Service Pack 2 was released on 2010 April 14, more than half a year ago, and can be downloaded from the Microsoft site.
Once you have agreed, it starts downloading and installing this database system. Once that is done a Verifying Application Requirements dialog box is shown.  Only when everything seems fine does setup.exe continue with the download and installation of the actual Branches application.

SQL Server Compact Edition (SQL CE) databases have a maximum size of 4GB. That is plenty for most genealogies. Branches support multimedia, but does so by linking to files outside the database, not by including the files in the database. If it did that, the database limit of 4GB might quickly prove insufficient.

installation directory

On my Vista 64-bit system, the Branches setup created a desktop icon. On my Vista 32-bit system, which already had SQL Sever Compact installed, it did not. Having to create that icon manually is quite annoying, because Branches does not install into an easily found directory.

The Branches installer does not allow you to change the directory that Branches is installed in. In fact, it does not even show which directory it installs the application in. The Branches installer does not tell or ask anything, but bluntly goes ahead and installs the app, and then immediately starts the application.
Branches 1.0 installed in cryptically named subdirectory of a subdirectory of a subdirectory of AppData\Local\Apps\2.0\Data.

Branches isn't a native Windows application, it is a Microsoft .NET application.

ClickOnce

The last-minute download, the Verifying Application Requirements dialog box, the use of that awkward directory and the cryptic subdirectory names all indicate that Sherwood is using Microsoft's ClickOnce installer, which is used with Microsoft .NET applications.
Branches isn't a native Windows application, it is a Microsoft .NET application, just like Family Tree Maker.

documentation

There is very little documentation. There is no User Manual or Getting Started guide at all. There is only the help file. There were a few updates while I wrote this review, and I noticed that the initially rather minimal help file was quickly growing to address user questions.

starting up

Sherwood managed to get practically everything wrong. Branches does not remember or respect your settings. Every time you start Branches, it maximises its windows, no matter how often you resize it back to something more reasonable.
Every time you  start Branches, it phones home to check for updates. It doesn't ask your permission to do so. There is no option to turn the automatic check off and perform manual update check instead.

Whenever you restart Branches, it automatically opens the last project you had open. If you close your projects before closing Branches, Branches will not annoy you by opening the last project anyway. Of course, you often forget that Branches is one of those apps that does that, and there is no way to cancel the database load, so you often end up waiting half a minute for Branches to load your project - which is exactly why applications, especially slow and crash-prone applications, should not automatically open the last project.

Branches looks nothing like Google Earth.

user interface

The Branches user interface defaults to a boringly bare-bones empty window. There is no ribbon bar. There is no toolbar. There are no icons next to the menu items. There is not even a status bar. There is just an empty window with a menu along the top.
This does not look and feel like some fancy application for the 21st century, this looks and feels like a Windows 3.0 application from 1990. Branches looks nothing like Google Earth.

I appreciate minimalism, and might enjoy an austere user interface if it were functional. Sadly, the Branches user interface is merely minimal, and not very functional. Branches does not offer many functions.

Multiple Document Interface

Branches does have a toolbar, just not on the main window. Branches is an Multiple Document Interface (MDI) application. It can open multiple databases at once, showing each database in its own child window. The Branches toolbar is not on its main window, but on these child windows.

That toolbar has ugly flat icons, but that is the kind of thing you have to forgive in a one-dot-zero application, even 21st century ones. Well, the version number is actually already up to 1.1, but it is the first public release.

first time

The first time Branches is started, it throws up a Branches Initial Startup Instructions dialog box.

Branches Initial Startup Instructions

The single dialog box is really a poor-man's Welcome Wizard. This Welcome Wizard provides three choices:

  1. I am transferring [data] from another genealogy application
  2. I am setting up this file for the first time
  3. Do not show this Welcome Wizard again

The third option is really titled I want to bypass initial startup, but the important thing is that it is there; if you don't like Branches' Welcome Wizard, you don't have to suffer it again.

Branches is smart about the submitter info.

submitter info

I started with a new and empty database, just to try out the user interface a bit. Branches immediately prompted me for a file name, and then prompted me for the submitter info.
It is good to see more genealogy applications asking for submitter info, and asking it early, but most aren't smart about it at all. Branches is smart about the submitter info; its dialog box does not just have edit boxes for the various fields, and the usual OK and Cancel buttons, but Load Default and Save as Default button too.

You will hardly ever need the Load Default button, because once you've saved your submitter details, Branches will use those values as default; the next time you create a new database, the dialog shows the default values you saved and you only need to choose OK.

Branches: crash on delete

no empty database

Not everything Branches does is as thoughtful as the handling of  submitter details. As soon as you are done with the Preparer's Name and Address dialog box, Branches immediately prompts you for the first person in your database, and when you cancel that, hoping to get an empty database, Branches bluntly not only closes but even deletes the database you just made.
If you create a database with version 1.1.0.7, then entered an individual because Branches insists on it, and then delete that individual again, Branches bluntly closes and deletes the database you just made - and then crashes with an unhandled exception. Branches has hardly improved since then; version 1.1.3.4 does not crash, it first shows a dialog of unclear purpose, and when you close that dialog, Branches crashes. If you choose to open the now empty database from that dialog, Branches crashes.

Perhaps there is a design flaw in Branches that does not allow an empty database. There sure is at least one user interface error; Branches should not force to enter data, it should allow creation of an empty database to import data into.

The Add an Individual dialog box isn't too hot either. It uses a drop down box to make you choose between U, F and M - and  ?! The use of the relatively awkward drop-down box when it could simply use Male, Female and Unknown radio buttons suggests that the developers themselves have not been using Branches enough to care about usability.

first graphical genealogy software

According to the Branches home page, Branches is the first and best graphical genealogy software. I guess they never heard about earlier application like Deudos, GenoPro, Family Historian or Kith and Kin Pro - and that is just on Windows. On the Mac, iFamily has been graphical since its introduction in 2006, and Synium MacFamilyTree features a 3D virtual tree since version 5.2 (2008 June 20). There are many graphical viewers, such as Progeny Family Explorer and Legacy Charting, and the recent Family ChArtist is a viewer with some editing capabilities.

These may not been the very best known genealogy applications, but they are certainly not unknown either. If Sherwood did not even hear about these, I cannot help but wonder just how many other applications they tested their GEDCOM import with.

graphical

Branches is a graphical application. The image below shows my AhnenNumbers database with seven generations of ancestors. Branches loaded it a second or so, and immediately laid it out like an pedigree, without any help from me.

Branches: AhnenNumbers

Some of the user interface is quite intuitive. You can click & drag the tree with the mouse and zoom in our out using the scroll button just like you'd expect. That may sound perfect, but the user interface still disappoints; all this can only be done with the mouse, it would be nice if Branches supported keyboard controls too.
Moreover, you cannot change the proband by clicking, double-clicking or perhaps Shift-clicking an individual, but have to right-click and then scroll down through the menu to the awkwardly-named CHANGE this person to the permanent ROOT PERSON menu item.

not so graphical

Appearances can be deceiving. The first impression may be that Branches is a graphical genealogy application like Deudos, GenoPro and Family Historian are, but it isn't half as flexible as those applications. Branches allows you to zoom in and out, but changing the font size will do the same for you and the ability to scroll a canvas that's bigger than the view window isn't all that exciting either.

The graphical user interface allows for some dramatic demos and screenshots that make a great first impression, but any experienced genealogist that looks beyond those screenshots and tries the demo for themselves will soon notice serious limitations.

Branches does not contain any smarts to layout your tree. There is no Everyone View that adapts to the shape of your tree. It is not possible to rearrange the boxes on the screen either. You cannot customise which relations are shown in any way. Branches supports just one, fixed view; a combination of a pedigree and family view for the selected root person.

Branches managed to layout my AhnenNumbers test database perfectly, but only because it happens to be a perfect database to show Branches' single view. Branches did not calculate an optimal layout and then display the pedigree. Branches simply displayed the data in its pre-existing, fixed pedigree view - just like PAF, RootsMagic and Legacy display data the loaded in their pedigree view.
There is nothing ground-breaking about that.

The one difference you cannot help but notice is that those others apps shows names inside text boxes that never overlap, while Branches merely shows lines between the names, which may overlap. Those other apps looks a lot better.

Branches actually displays more in its single view than is immediately apparent. It displays collateral lines as well, but you may have to zoom in to see those.

one view

A pedigree view is great view to have in a genealogy application, but sometimes you want a descendants view. Combining a family and pedigree view may handy for navigation, but sometimes you want a window-filling family view to focus on just one family. A person list and place name list would be handy too. Each genealogical view has its uses. Branches offers just one view.

GEDCOM import

Branches supports GEDCOM import and export. That Branches 1.0 does not support empty databases makes it impossible to test import of a GEDCOM file into an already existing empty database. However, when you decide to import a GEDCOM file, Branches first asks which GEDCOM file you want to import and then asks you for the name of the database you want to import it to.

1 MB GEDCOM

On the Vista Machine, import of the 1 MB GEDCOM took about 5 seconds. Branches does not show a progress dialog during importing, it shows several dialog boxes in quick successions. Once the import is done, Branches shows a dialog box with an import summary. Weirdly, it does not show one import time, but three import times, and these appear to be low-resolution timings truncated down to a whole number of seconds. While I measured about 5 seconds, Branches claims that its three-phase import took 1, 1 and 2 seconds. That adds up to 4 seconds, but Branches does not show the total time. If it did, it would probably show 5 seconds (1,5 + 1,5 + 2,5 = 5,5).
Using high-resolution timings is easy for .NET applications; Microsoft .NET contains the Stopwatch class, which provides high-resolution timings.

A database import isn't truly done until the application shows the data and you can start working with it. When Branches shows the summary dialog box, it does not show the data yet; the main window behind the dialog box remains empty.

Please do not press this button again

When you click OK to dismiss the summary dialog box, Branches still does not show its usual pedigree view, but a dialog box with a list of individuals instead. If you opt to close that dialog box, the main window remains empty. Only if you when you choose the oddly name OPEN TREE or VIEW button does Branches display the pedigree view. If you are silly enough to choose the DELETE VIEW button, Branches will pop up a messagebox box to berate you with the message Main trees cannot be deleted, and if you choose Close Tree List, Branches closes the dialog box and leaves the main screen empty.
Somehow, Sherwood apparently thought that you would really enjoy the ability to choose a buttons that does not lead to Branches' usual pedigree view, but to either an empty screen or a messagebox that isn't any more informative than one that says Please do not press this button again.

Branches: choose database tree

Branches shows this dialog box not only after import of data, it also shows it every time you open a database. It seems odd, until you figure why Branches shows this dialog box: it is there to let you pick your root person - just like Legacy Charting lets you pick a root person before displaying a chart.
Branches' main view is essentially a pedigree view, so it needs a root person. Many genealogical databases contain multiple trees that are not connected to each other. Branches tries to figure out a root for each and then lets you select one of the trees in your database.

Having to dismiss one dialog box and then having to select the right button on another dialog before Branches displays your data adds two seconds to the GEDCOM import time. The total import time for the 1 MB GEDCOM is about 7 seconds.

Branches importing HundredThousand.ged

100k INDI GEDCOM

Attempts to import the 100k INDI GEDCOM were not successful.

The first time I tried to import the 100k INDI GEDCOM it took just a few seconds for Branches to show a change; the dreaded not responding in its title bar. That was soon followed by a Microsoft .NET Framework dialog box for an unhandled OutOfMemoryException - on a machine with 4 GB of RAM!

I closed every application I could close, but Branches still wasn't satisfied with the available amount of RAM. The second time round I noticed that there is a progress dialog box, and this time it was the dialog box instead of the main window that showed not responding on its title bar. So, practically speaking, there was no progress dialog box, and that is annoying.

crash

Branches seemed to complete the raw import of the GEDCOM in about hundred seconds. That is less than two minutes, but it still needed to show the data on screen, and according to the Task Manager it was already using 921 MB of RAM. Branches' memory hunger continued unabated, soon it was using more than a one GB of RAM and it eventually crashed with an OutOfMemoryException again.

Branches: HundredThousand.ged

wasteful

Branches is so wasteful of memory, that it cannot load and display a 100k INDI GEDCOM. The GEDCOM is only 37 MB, and GEDCOM is an inefficient format, yet when asked to import it, Branches uses more than a gigabyte, and even that is not enough for it. It still crashes with an OutOfMemoryException. Apparently, Branches' memory hunger is more than 28 times the file size.

Branches is about as memory-inefficient as GenoPro.

memory-hungry

To get some idea of the actual multiplier, I tried to with a medium size file of some 30K INDI, but Branches decided to crash on import. I tried another file, but once again, Branches decided to crash on import. I tried various files from my collection, and finally found a small file of about 3½ MB that Branches seemed willing to import. Branches was already using 80 MB of RAM when Microsoft .NET informed me about another unhandled exception, this time Cannot access a disposed object. When I allowed Microsoft .NET to ignore the error, and Branches finally displayed the database, it was using 110 MB of RAM, that is more than 30 times the GEDCOM size. Branches is about as memory-inefficient as GenoPro.

It seems that Branches needs a 21st-century computer and has never been tested on anything less.

work-around

I accidentally discovered a work-around to load the 100k INDI database; start a session to import the GEDCOM and let that session crash. Then start a new session, and let Branches load the last-used database.

Branches uses about 550 MB to display the database. However, it briefly used almost double that, more than a gigabyte, and some people are still using computers with only 512 MB. Many still have computers with 1 GB of RAM, but once Windows and all necessary services are loaded, have less than 512 MB free. It seems that Branches needs a 21st-century computer and has never been tested on anything less.

The workaround allowed me to try Branches with the database loaded, and I was not impressed. For example, something as basic as changing the root person from the current root person to their parent or child takes almost 15 seconds - a quarter minute! That is, when it works at all, if Branches does not throw another OutOfMemoryException…

Branches: Find Individual

navigation

You might think that the big idea behind the graphical interface is easy navigation, but not only is navigation within the tree excruciatingly slow, navigation to another tree is literally not on the menu; there is no go to menu item. There is a find menu item, and that brings up a dialog box in which you can select another individual, but when you've done so and then choose OK, Branches does not make that individual the root person. Branches does not display a pop-up for that individual either.

I expected Branches to make the chosen individual the new root person, but it does not do so. I eventually noticed what it does do; it finds that individual in your database, and then highlights it with a red circle. You can right-click that circle to bring up the context menu, and then use that menu to make that individual the root person. The image shows what that looks like. Notice that the red circle seem to select empty space; however that individual relates with to those in the currently displayed tree, it is not being displayed. This is a key thing to remember; the view contains non-displayed individuals. By the way, the selected individual does not correspond to any of the lines next to it, but really is a different part of the database.

The mouse wheel can be used to zoom in and out. That is fine, except that the mouse wheel is often used for scrolling, and there is no way to quickly scroll through the display at all. Branches doesn't have scroll bars. You have to move the canvas by clicking and then moving the mouse. Branches does support some keyboard shortcuts; you can use F to zoom in and D to zoom out.

Branches does not treat men and women equally.

display

One thing I like about RootsMagic is that it allows to me show a six-generation pedigree, which can shows more than twice as much individuals as a five-generation pedigree does, without text boxes overlapping each other. Branches does not seem to have a limit on the number of generations, but it does not look half as good and things do overlap. Sure, you can zoom in and out, but that does not change the fact that the display is bit messy.

You can choose to concentrate on just ancestors or display collateral lines as well. By default, Branches displays collateral lines, but Branches does not treat men and women equally. Branches will displays all partners for male ancestors, but does not display all partners for female ancestors.

100k INDI import time

The import of the 100k INDI GEDCOM wasn't a big success, and I am sorely tempted to call it failure. Instead, I have considered how long it took, using the workaround of exiting the application and starting it again, to load the database.
If I had not needed to try and try again because Branches tends to run out of memory and crash on GEDCOM import, it might have been about five minutes. As it is, I estimate the actual import at about half an hour.

The funny thing is that an import time of half an hour, while certainly not impressive, isn't a deal breaker. Sure, RootsMagic 4 does it in 1m37s, but MyBlood takes almost half an hour many other applications, such as Embla Family Treasures, simply fail. However, having to use the workaround does not make for a great user experience.

GEDCOM import log

A serious shortcoming of Branches is that it does not produce any import log. The two databases I use for testing do have various shortcomings, but if Branches detected any, it still does not bother to report it to the user.

More than half the randomly selected GEDCOM files I tried to import resulted in a crash. I ended up being pleasantly surprised when an import succeeded.

import crash

My initial experiences prompted me to try a bunch of GEDCOM files. I found that Branches crashes way too easily upon GEDCOM import.
More than half the randomly selected GEDCOM files I tried to import resulted in a crash. I ended up being pleasantly surprised when an import succeeded.

The initial release of Branches seems to support the GEDCOM standard quite well (unlike many other applications, it supports multiple dates and places for an events), but to be completely unprepared for the many dialects and deviations in existence, and Sherwood is scrambling to update Branches. They released a few updates while I was testing, and the GEDCOM import is improving, but still not very robust. Sherwood believes the current GEDCOM import should work fine for PAF, Legacy and RootsMagic GEDCOM files.

torture test

In conversation about their product, Sherwood mentioned creating torture tests based on the problems that users are experiencing and the files they are sending in. That reminded me of my simple torture tests, and I decided to see how well Branches would do. When I did so, I already knew that Branches could not pass all tests, because it does not create log files.
Branches' excessive memory-hunger limits what it can handle, but running these tests did not expose arbitrary built-in limits or limitations as they do for so many other applications. Branches did not crash, and had no trouble handling a family with 1200 children or a man with 1200 wives. Branches did fail to concatenate lines correctly and did not complain about overly lines as it should have. The results have been added to Some GEDCOM Torture Test Results.

GEDCOM export


0 HEAD
1 SOUR BRANCHES
2 NAME BRANCHES
2 VER Version 1.1.1.5
2 CORP Sherwood Electronics Laboratories Inc.
3 ADDR 1062 No. Paiute Dr.
4 CONT Ivins, UT 84738
4 CONT USA
1 DEST OTHER
1 DATE 31 Dec 2010
2 TIME 09:02:41
1 FILE TestExport.ged
1 GEDC
2 VERS  5.5
2 FORM  LINEAGE-LINKED
1 CHAR UTF-8
1 LANG English
1 SUBM @SUB1@

Exporting a GEDCOM file from Branches is simply a matter of picking a file name. Other than that, there is just one dialog box with two options; how to deal with multimedia and which character encoding to use. Branches defaults to using UTF-8 as it should, but you can opt for either UTF-16 or ASCII.

The GEDCOM files that Branches creates seems fine. As a practical test, I loaded it back into PAF. PAF only complained about the unexpected tag DSCR. At first blush, PAF seemed wrong for not expecting it, as it is a perfectly legal tag used for physical descriptions, but a closer look revealed that Branches is using it to store Ancestral File Numbers. Other than that minor issue, everything seemed fine; PAF reported the same number of individuals, sources, citations and notes as for the original file.

The UTF-8 GEDCOM includes a Byte Order Mark (BOM) as it should. There is no option to produce an UTF-8 GEDCOM without a BOM.

That the Branches GEDCOM file does not report the Branches version as VER 1.1.1.5, but as VER Version 1.1.1.5 is silly, but not illegal. That it labels its GEDCOM files as VER  5.5 is wrong; not because of the double space between VER and 5.5, but because Branches uses GEDCOM version 5.5.1 tags (such as EMAIL) that are illegal in version 5.5.

select and export

Sherwood claims that you can just draw a box around a bunch of people and then export to GEDCOM. I am sure it works fine when they demo it, but I wondered how well that really works when I select a box that overlaps both my paternal and maternal lines. The first thing I noticed is that when I tried to draw a box, I ended up moving the tree around instead…

export and select

Branches does not support select and export as it should according to Windows user interface guidelines, but supports export and select instead. Awkwardly, Branches requires you to choose the Export Selected Individuals to a New Branches database first and only then lets you draw a selection rectangle. That is un-Windows.

Branches select and export export and select isn't a handy feature, but an ill-conceived gimmick.

invisible selections

After you've made a selection, the selection turns red. The selection does not turn red while making the selection, so it is only after you've made a selection that you can check out whether an individual close to an edge of your rectangle is in or not.

After some experimentation I found that select and export export and select works as promised; if you draw a box anywhere, the GEDCOM export will include what is in that box. The problem is that you do not want that! Branches displays one ancestral tree prominently, but includes collateral lines. Most of these lines are not shown until you zoom in. When you do zoom in, you will notice that although the individuals in these collateral lines were not visible when you made your selection, that they have turned red anyway, that they are included in the selection you made. So you will end up including a lot of individuals you do not even see on screen. That is not likely to be what you want. Branches select and export export and select isn't a handy feature, but an ill-conceived gimmick.

Branches: GEDCOM Export

character set support

outencoding
YASCII
NANSEL
YUTF-8
YUTF-16

One good thing about Branches is that it is a Unicode-based application. Branches can will export to UTF-8 and UTF-16 GEDCOM files. The GEDCOM specification says the header for a UTF-8 GEDCOM should contain CHAR UTF-8 and the header for an UTF-16 GEDCOM should contain CHAR UNICODE. That really is a mistake in the specification (as if UTF-8 isn't Unicode), but that is what is says, and that is what Branches does.

Branches will also export to ASCII and Branches ASCII export it is really is ASCII export; any character that isn't ASCII is replaced with a question mark. Branches does not support export to Windows ANSI, and that is how it should be; you don't need it and the GEDCOM specification is clear that using Window ANSI is illegal. However, the speciation is also very clear that applications should support the more flexible ANSEL character set instead, and Branches does not export to ANSEL.

Asked about it, Sherwood claimed that although Branches will not export to using the ANSEL character set, it will import ANSEL GEDCOM files. A quick test I did confirmed that. I may seem odd that Branches will import but not export ANSEL; the absence of ANSEL export raises immediate questions about the quality of the ANSEL import; after all, you need both to perform a round-trip test. The one good reason to not support export to ANSEL GEDCOM is that conversion from Unicode to ANSEL is lossy. However, Branches does export to ASCII, which is even lossier.

Branches: Add Spouse

dialog boxes

You can't try to use with Branches without noticing how awkward and ugly its dialog boxes are.
The edit dialog box for a person does not allow you to edit anything but their name and gender. You cannot even edit the birth and death events. The dialog box for adding a spouse is ridiculously big. It allows adding the marriage event, but there seems to be no way to add a divorce.
Once you've added a marriage, Branches draws a line between the two partners. I spontaneously tried double-clicking on that line to bring up a marriage dialog box, but that does not work. You need to select the line and then right-click to bring up a context menu. That menu offers the option to add children, but like the dialog box for editing individuals, it only allows you to edit the name and gender. To also add the birth date and place, you need to select the child and choose ADD Event to Individual from its context menu to bring up the Add an Individual Event dialog box... 
The awkward menu and odd, ugly dialogs make for a rather convoluted, impractical and unfriendly user interface.

Branches: Add an Individual Event

A serious issue is that every event, even the most basic ones such as birth and death, has to be added by right-clicking the individual on screen to bring up the context menu and choosing ADD Event to Individual from it to bring up the Add an Individual Event dialog box. When I saw that, I felt sure of one thing: there is nobody at Sherwood that uses Branches themselves. This is the opposite of user-friendly.

reports

Branches support a variety of reports; Pedigree Chart, Family Group Sheet, Individual Summary, Descendants, Ancestors and a small variety of lists. Branches does not support output to PDF or HTML, nor to RTF or simple text. Branches only outputs to printers. There are various options, but the ability to exclude the living is missing.

citations & consistency checks

Branches' citation capabilities are hardly 21st century. You cannot sources to events. To add a citation, you have to select an individual, and then choose ADD Source citation to Individual. There are no source templates.

Branches does not offer any consistency checks. In fact, Branches does not offer much more than one view and a few reports.

Microsoft .NET

Branches isn't a Windows application, it is a Microsoft .NET application and Microsoft .NET is not limited to Windows. However, Sherwood has developed Branches on Windows, and has not tested it on any another platform. Anyone who wants to try and run it on Mono or Portable.NET on top of BSD, MacOS X or GNU/Linux is on their own.

patent application

Sherwood has filed a patent application for Branches. The title is System and Method for Displaying and Manipulating Hierarchically Linked Data in a Genealogy Database using a Graphical Interface (but in ALL-UPPERCASE). That title immediately tells what it is about; they believe Branches' graphical display to be an innovation worthy of patent-protection.
Sherwood seems utterly unaware of all prior graphical genealogy applications, and the patent application makes no references to or comparisons with other graphical software.

conclusion

installation

Sherwood sells Branches as a Windows application, but it is not. Branches is actually a Microsoft .NET application.
I am no fan of Microsoft's ClickOnce installation technology and Sherwood uses it in the rudest way possible. It does not give you any option what to install where. The initial user experience would be a lot better already if Sherwood were to replace the ClickOnce abomination with a proper installer.

Overall, the user interface is way too impractical and unfriendly to believe that anyone at Sherwood ever tried using it themselves.

user interface

The Branches user interface is oddly ancient. Although there is a plethora of modern user interface controls available for Microsoft .NET, Sherwood has not used any of these. Branches even lacks scroll bars, something it is in dire need of. Branches' poor conformance to Windows user interface standards ensures that its user interface is less than intuitive. Almost everything is done through context menus with ridiculously long menu items that lead to ugly, impractical dialog boxes. The awkward menu and dialogs make for a rather convoluted, impractical and unfriendly user interface. Overall, the user interface is way too impractical and unfriendly to believe that anyone at Sherwood ever tried using it themselves. Branches does not seem to have undergone no testing at all.

GEDCOM support

Branches' GEDCOM import is a happy-go-lucky affair. It is not slow, but it is incredibly memory-hungry and shamefully unreliable. It is likely to crash and because there is no log file at all, there is nothing more than a cryptic error from the Microsoft. NET runtime to help you figure out what went and why. That the GEDCOM exports supports both UTF-8 and UTF-16 makes sense. That it also exports to ASCII, but not to ANSEL, while it does import ANSEL files correctly, is a bit odd.

Running Branches on Vista desktop PC with 4 GB of RAM was an exercise in figuring out which other apps I could close to free up memory.

memory hungry

Even when you work with a Branches database imported in a previous sessions, Branches is incredibly memory hungry and even the most basic operations are slow.

Branches is unlikely to perform well on anything but recent systems with plenty of RAM. Its memory demands are so exorbitant that many laptops, even those sold today, will have difficulty running it. Running Branches on Vista desktop PC with 4 GB of RAM was an exercise in figuring out which other apps I could close to free up memory.

claims

There are a few things that Branches does right, like it smart handling of submitter info, but there is a lot more that Branches does wrong or simply does not do at all. Branches does not contain any consistency checks. There are various reports, but Branches will only output to a printer, not a document you can send someone else.

Sherwood claims that it took them ten years of research to develop Branches. I hope that is just as true as their fake customer's testimonial. Not one single aspect of Branches is impressive. The one thing they brag loudest about, their select and export export and select works as promised, and that is exactly what makes it a ill-conceived gimmick.

Branches seems to have improved since its initial release in April, but not much.
Sherwood claims that Branches is Genealogy Software for the 21st Century and that is not entirely untrue; Branches sure needs a 21st-century computer. Sherwood calls Branches the first and best graphical genealogy software, but I found it to be slow, awkwardly user-unfriendly, excessively memory-hungry and crash-prone.

updates

2011-04-28 Branches 1.2

On 2011 April 14, Sherwood Branches announced Branches version 1.2 and a significantly lower price. The price has been lowered from US$ 39,95 to US$ 14,95 (approx € 10). They have a new website as well, yet continue to present the fabricated testimonial I exposed in December already.

Sherwood claims the new version is not only cheaper, but faster and better as well. Alas, the product quality seems unchanged; immediately after installing and starting version 1.2.0.3, even before trying to load any data, the Microsoft. NET Framework presented an unhandled exception dialog box. The program continued to run, but produced nothing but unhandled exception dialogs when I tried to import the small 1 MB GEDCOM. Even attempts to quit the application in the normal manner, clicking the close button in the upper right corner, resulted in an unhandled exception dialog box, and choosing the Quit button on that dialog box did not work either. I had to kill Branches from the Windows Task Manager.

2011-04-28 testimonials

Sherwood Branches Testimonials exposes Sherwood Electronics continued use of fabricated customer testimonials.

import speed (Vista PC)

file1 MB GEDCOM100k INDI GEDCOM
time6sEstimated 30m00s
time in seconds6 1.800
INDI per second810,3355,59
bytes per second175.982,5021.555,22

product details

propertyvalue
productBranches
version1.1.2.3
organisationSherwood Electronics Laboratories Inc.
websiteBranches Genealogy
priceUS$ 39,95 (approx. € 30)
US$ 14,95 (approx € 10)
requirementMicrosoft .NET 2.0 or later
Windows XP or later
noterequires 21st century computer
Verdictmemory-hungry, crash-prone & unintuitive
Ratinguntested

links

fotolia

GEDCOM

also mentioned