Modern Software Experience

2010-05-21

genealogy viewer

CD-ROM

Progeny Family Explorer is a genealogy viewer for CD-ROM pedigree databases. I recently obtained such a database CD-ROM and decided to write down some observations about Family Explorer.

Progeny Family Explorer

download

Progeny Family Explorer is not available for download. If you google Progeny Family Explorer you’ll soon end up on Progeny’s page for their Charting Companion software. That isn’t a mistake. Progeny has a line of Charting Companion products, with names such as Charting Companion for FTM and Legacy Charting Companion. Progeny Family Explorer has a different name, but is part of this Charting Companion family.
The Progeny site does not offer any demos or trials for any of these applications, but you can still download one - from the FamilySearch site. The FamilySearch site offers a free edition of PAF Companion.

Progeny Family Explorer ships on many pedigree CD-ROMs. I looked at Progeny Family Explorer version 5.0.10.0, as included on the Family Forest National Treasure Edition CD-ROM. The executable name GV.EXE suggests that Family Explorer’s original name is probably Genealogy Viewer.

installation

INI files

I’ll largely skip the installation issues, simply because I do not know much these differ from one CD-ROM product to the next, but I will mention that I was surprised to notice that Progeny still uses Windows INI files.

designed for CD-ROM

Although Family Explorer has been bundled with CD-ROM products for many years, I seriously doubt that it is suited for CD-ROM databases. Practically everything I did in Family Explorer caused the CD-ROM to rattle while Progeny made me wait.
An application designed for CD-ROM will generally cache database indexes in memory so that it can quickly get just the records it needs, and judging by the excessive amount of CD-ROM rattling, Family Explorer does not do not that at all. Progeny Family Explorer was custom-designed for exploring pedigree files, but does not seem to have been designed for exploring those files on CD-ROM.

database statistics

Even something as basic as showing the messagebox with the database statistics takes about half a minute of CD-ROM rattling - on a 40-speed DVD drive. If Family Explorer were designed for use with CD-ROM, it would be near-instantaneous.

By the way, I only found out by accident, as was trying a few things, that there is a database statistics. The database statistics messagebox appears after pressing Ctrl+Z. This feature is not on the Family Explorer menu and it does not seem to be documented in the online help either.

features

dated interface

Progeny Family Explorer is not short on features. It offers multiple views to navigate the data and can print pretty nice reports and chart. That sounds great, but the Family Explorer user interface is seriously dated.
That isn’t so odd for PAF Companion, as PAF itself has not seen any updates or fixes since 2002, but if you run the latest Progeny Family Explorer and PAF Companion side-by-side, it is easy to confuse them with each other.

Family Explorer has a user interface that might have been impressive a decade ago, but invites chuckling today. The overall layout of the user interface is just fine; the app has a normal Windows menu along the top, a toolbar below it and a status bar at the bottom.
However, its large, mostly black & white icons with just a few colours seem to have been designed for Windows 3.0 running in 16-colour mode and never been upgraded since. Those buttons still work, but looks awfully out of place on Windows Vista.

graphical views

Progeny Family Explorer offers a very basic family group view, but its best feature are the graphical views its offers.

The Family Explorer graphical views look nice. These views default to including birth, marriage and death events, but you can opt to include christening and burial as well. You have some control over the box style, can choose between a few colour schemes for colouring ancestors and descendants and can pick any font you like.

Perhaps most interesting is that you can choose the number of generations and the chart scale. This are options you definitely want to play with, to find settings that work well for you and your system. When the chosen number of generations does not fit on screen, you can resize the chart to show more boxes, but the text may become too small to read. More generations provides a better overview, but there are only so many generations that fit in the main window. More generations also means more data that Family Explorer needs to obtain from the CD and more boxes to layout on the screen. Family Explorer’s main window is a view port on a canvas that bigger than your own screen, and scrolls bars allow you pan around.

controls

The four main controls that determine your view of a graphical tree are number of generations, font size, resizing and scrolling the view port. So, there are two ways to resize the view: the font size and the zoom level (resize control).

When you decided to print a chart, the font size really matters, but is impacted by the zoom level. Font size and zoom level are not interchangeable. If you opt for a 10-pt font at 100% zoom level you get regular rectangular boxes. If you opt for 20-pt fonts at 50% zoom level, the large text is too long for the boxes and starts wrapping around, with tall, small boxes as a result.

Progeny Family Explorer 10-pt 100% vs 20-pt 50%

awkward controls

The problem with these four controls is that only the scrolls bar are readily accessible. There are no generation, font size and zoom level controls on the button bar and no keyboard accelerators at all. To access these controls, you need to choose the same view again, and then find these controls on the various tabs of the dialog box for that view. That is awkward.

Family Explorer does not make any attempt to make its display fit the main window. You must use the scroll bars to see it all or manually make it fit using its awkward controls.

name list

The option dialog boxes are fine, but the Name List dialog that lets you pick an individual from the database is not. It isn’t a normal pop-up dialog that float over the window, but a child dialog that stays within the main window, centred on the canvas that is larger then your own screen. The results is that the OK and Cancel buttons do not even show.

Progeny Family Explorer Name List

When you use Progeny Family Explorer with a large database such as Family Forest, you do not just want to follow relationships from one individual to another, you want the ability to search for and jump to persons of interest. You want to browse the name list to find persons of interest. The name list dialog is an important part of the navigation, yet it does not even display correctly.

Another problem is that if you bring up the name list and then decided to exit it again, that you find yourself looking at the name list! It does not disappear. If you then switch to back to view you had before, you find yourself looking at the first individual in the name list, even though you never choose to view that individual.
This kind of behaviour really makes you wonder how long ago it is that anyone at Progeny tried using their own software or even bothered to watch some new user struggle with their user interface.

back and forth

More and more genealogy software is offering browser-like back-button to directly get back to where you before, without having to search for a name, enter some number or know the family relationship. Progeny Family Explorer lacks those browser-like navigation controls. I initially got the impression that it did not allow backtracking at all, but the History menu brings up a a history dialog from which you can pick a name; it works, but it is clumsy by comparison.

Not all of Family Explorer’s graphical displays not allow navigation. On the Ancestors and Descendants display you can select a box and make that individual the new key person, but on the Hourglass and Bow Tie view you cannot.

speed

One problem with Progeny Family Explorer is its speed, or rather, its lack thereof. Even with a 40-speed DVD-drive, Progeny Family Explorer will often keep you waiting. Generating a 3-generation kinship report takes almost a minute.
I’ve been advised by experienced users that some reports take so long that they are best run overnight.

memory usage

After about ten minutes of random exploring a database and trying a few views, Family Explorer was already more than 400 megabytes. That does seem excessive, considering that Family Explorer had displayed just a few hundred individuals in total, while the entire CD is just 400 megabytes.

Progeny Family Explorer: Not enough memory

Family Explorer’s kinship report defaults to 99 generations, but even if you reset that to just five generations, Family Explorer will eventually complain that There is not enough free system memory to continue the current task. I find that a hard to accept on a system with 4 GB of RAM.

output

Once you have a report you like, you can print it or publish it PDF. For anything but the simplest reports, some patience will be required, but the results do look good. Family Explorer reports includes more chart type than it will show on screen. It will generate an ahnenlist (mislabelled ahnentafel) and a register. It will generate kinship reports and print fan charts.

Progeny seems quite aware that the Family Explorer user interface is problematic but the chart output good; their Charting Companion page has plenty of example charts to highlight how great the output is, but not even one screenshot of the application itself.

conclusion

Progeny Family Explorer has a nice list of features and can print good-looking charts, but it is slow and memory-hungry, has a seriously dated and awkward user interface, and does not seem optimised for use with CD databases at all. Progeny Family Explorer isn’t a bad application, but it is in need of an overhaul.

updates

2010-06-14: Family Forest National Treasure Edition

Family Forest National Treasure Edition contains remarks about the installation experience.

links