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  • Computer Interests - 'What Program Should I Buy?”'

    Donald MacDonald

    This question is often asked at NEHGS. Approximately sixty programs for genealogical recordkeeping on a computer are available; about half a dozen are most commonly used. Personal Ancestral File (PAF) is the leader in number of users. Roots III, Family Roots (FR), Everyone’s Family Tree (EFT), and Brothers Keeper (BK) all have large and loyal followings. Family Tree Maker (FTM) is a recent and popular entry. All are fine programs for keeping genealogical records, but there are key differences. The following questions are designed to help you decide which program best fits your needs.

    My own experience with these six programs varies. I own and use PAF and Roots III. Recently I have used BK and FTM, but not as my principal program. My knowledge of FR and EFT is derived mostly from other people’s reports.

    What type of computer do you own?

    If your computer is “IBM-compatible,” you may choose any of these six programs. Roots III however, is not available to Macintosh users. FR is the leading program for non-IBM and non-Mac computers, accommodating Commodore, Apple, CP/M, and TRSDOS users as well.

    If you have not yet bought a computer and want one primarily for genealogical work, consider an “IBM compatible”, since there is much more flexibility in choosing programs and “add-ons” (mini-programs used with a major program for specific functions). Regardless of the type you choose, however, consider one of the many used computers available from longtime “power users” who wish to upgrade to models with more capacity and speed. All of the above six programs work well on a unit with 640K RAM and 20 Mb hard disk storage. Speed (the number preceding the “Mhz” in the specifications) is not a major factor with any of these programs. A slow 6 Mhz computer may be a tortoise next to the 33 Mhz hare, but you won’t grow old waiting for it to finish. And don’t even consider buying a machine without a hard drive.

    Is space limited on your computer?

    Even though the most powerful of these programs requires very little hard disk space, the data and text you enter may take much more. See the chart at the top of p. 113 for a comparison of hard disk utilization among the various programs. PAF and BK compress your notes into one file, regardless of how many people or families you are tracking. When you request data on specific individuals, the program retrieves only the information on those persons. BK permits a small amount of text with the data, but if more text space is needed BK creates a separate file for each individual, using more space. ill your hard-disk space is low, this factor may be important. EFT and the Roots Writer add-on also create a separate text file for each person but allow no text with the data, so they use more disk space than PAF or BK.

    What do you want the program to do?

    Some people are content with a program that acts like a card file, storing data for later manual organization. Each of the above programs is capable of this basic function, and will also print pedigree charts and family group sheets automatically from data you input for each name. All but FTM can print Ahnentafel charts as well.

    These standard charts can require a lot of paper when printed. A book of family group sheets could overwhelm any family member to whom you were generous enough to present it. Although I’ve identified only about a quarter of my ancestors to the 13th generation, my pedigree chart is 127 pages long. I last printed all my family group sheets about two years ago, largely because they filled two three-inch notebooks even then; and I now can identify about twice as many forebears. In addition, the charts as then organized were uninteresting to read.

    Except for PAF and FTM, these programs can also print reports in Register format (some can print other “readable” formats, such as modified Register, “Henry,” and outline). These formats consume less space when printed, and we are accustomed to them, but they work only for descendant genealogies. If you are preparing a work covering the entire progeny of one immigrant ancestor, then by all means choose a program that will organize and print in one of these “readable” formats.

    Most of us, though, are really working on a family history (defined here as a record of ancestors), rather than a genealogy (a record of descendants). To date the only program that provides a family history report is Roots III, in a format called “reverse Register,” since unlike Register format it numbers many ancestors from one descendant rather than descendants from one ancestor.

    FTM creates rather attractive box charts for individuals and data. The program is more limited in other areas, but the charting feature has made it very popular. Users of other programs frequently have FTM on their computers to create boxed descendant charts from data in other programs. FTM inputs data from Roots m without needing GEDCOM.

    Some people use a genealogy program only to store information and plan to reenter it later in Register format on a word processor. Such reentry is needless duplication. As an example, Roots III created a report of my entire ancestry in “reverse Register” format and sent it to my word processing program, all in about twenty minutes. With an hour or so of editing (including the automatic creation of an all-name index) the document was ready to print. Manually entering the same report on a word processor would have taken months.


    Program RAM Required KB for basic program KB for Sample Data KB total for sample Number of files in sample Conversion Time
    BK 512K 1,480 990 2,470 295 45 min.
    EFT 640K 490 11,110 11,600 36 64 min.
    FR 256K          
    FTM 512K          
    PAF 640K 1,180 1,155 2,335 74 10 min. *
    Roots III 512K 553 816 1,369 1905 4 hrs.

    *PAF was the originating program. This is the time it took to create the GEDCOM file of 2,177 individuals, 865 marriages, and 1870 notes files that was used for the sample.

    How good are you with technology?

    Many people shy away from genealogical programs simply because they are afraid of computers, or have difficulty understanding manuals. In both cases it’s comforting to have a patient user at your side to get you started. But you don’t need one. With a little practice you can move through many of these programs. PAF and BK are very “user friendly,” so well designed that you usually don’t need a manual. Each program offers step-by-step instruction. The manual may explain how the computer organizes your data, but it explains it simply. EFT and FTM also are “easy” to use.

    I wish I could say the same for Roots III. It definitely is not intuitive so you will need some instruction. The manual is as difficult to follow as those for PAF and BK are easy. Unless you know a Roots III user who will help you, you may well have trouble with the manual. Explanations are very uneven, with some matters well covered, some far too detailed, and some crucial points nearly skipped. The Roots III manual should differentiate between instruction for the learner and technical background. Three excellent books can help Roots III users: Kay Ingalls, Getting Started with Roots III(1990) and Donna Przecha, Understanding Roots III (1990) and More Understanding Roots III (1991). After using the latter two books, I now have no difficulty navigating Roots III.

    PAF and Roots III users’ groups, scattered around the country, offer a good opportunity - both in meetings and newsletters - to learn more about their respective programs. These groups are also a lot of fun.

    What can you afford?

    There is a sizable difference in the cost of these programs. Roots III is by far the most expensive ($250 for the basic program, plus about $50 each for the GEDCOM and Roots Writer add-ons - which most users will want). For about 10% of the cost of the “complete” Roots III package you can buy PAF. At $45, BK is only slightly higher than PAF. Actually, BK is shareware; if you try it and decide you don’t want it, you’re not obliged to pay the $45 registration fee. If you don’t register, however, you’re not eligible for upgrades, which are important. FTM can be bought for under $60, with the GEDCOM facility about $30 more. FR and EFT are priced between the extremes of these other programs. Some genealogy magazines carry advertisements from mail order vendors who offer Roots Ill at substantial savings. I haven’t seen advertisements for other discounted genealogical programs.

    How do you cite sources?

    All these programs have some provision for citing sources. Some, like PAF, allow you only to incorporate citations into the text (or “notes”). BK and Roots LII let you place citations into the text, but you can also make them part of each event field you enter. These footnotes remain hidden, but can be retrieved by the touch of a key -you can print them in your reports, or not. Both programs let you reuse a footnote for more than one field or record, modifying it each time for different page numbers.

    Footnote reuse may seem a minor point, hut when you must cite the same source for each parent’s and child’s birth, marriage, and death, you will appreciate the convenience of this feature. It also seems more natural to cite sources at the data-entry rather than text-writing level. I’d like to see every program allow the option of footnoting in data fields.

    What do friends and relatives use?

    The above question is important. You may want to share data with other family researchers, and thus your programs should be compatible with theirs. Compatibility means more than GEDCOM, which lets users of genealogy programs share data via a common format. GEDCOM doesn’t necessarily transfer ALL data from one program to another. You may, for example, purchase PAF and one day offer to exchange data with a relative who uses Roots III. To a point all is well, since all names, with their event dates and places, will transfer from one system to the other using GEDCOM. But the Roots III user must transfer your footnotes (in the PAF text portion) into his Roots III footnotes which are (in all probability) adjacent to the fields they document. This transfer process can be tedious. The real difficulty comes with data the Roots III user shares with you. The footnotes aren’t accepted by PAF, which has no place for them. Notes about the reliability of one source or another (called “surety code”), and the extra fields which Roots III allows its user to create for such items as occupation, residence, cause of death, etc., will not be incorporated into PAF (unless you enter these items manually) because PAF has no equivalent fields.

    If you plan to share much data with other users, consider purchasing the same program. Then you will have complete interchangeability. A major source for [114] “downloading” information from another computer to yours is one of the many Family History Centers of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. All six of the programs here discussed will accept data from these centers through GEDCOM.

    Ease of Data Entry

    Some programs have developed shortcuts to speed data input (and make it uniform). PAF allows you to move about on a pedigree chart and add to or subtract from it. PAF also allows you to view on one screen all data about an individual (including multiple marriages and notes) and move to various editing screens from it. BK uses the ditto mark to copy the previous location field (useful when a person is born and dies in the same place). It also uses an equal sign (=) to copy information from the same field in the previous record (useful for entering several children born in the same place). EFT utilizes keyboard macros (up to 10) for fast insertion of frequently used names. Roots III and BK let you enter the first few letters of a locality, and press a key to bring into view all place names beginning with those letters. You then choose which one you want. This feature is a big time saver and markedly increases the uniformity of place names.

    Everyone eventually finds duplicate entries. Such entries often occur when you enter each of a couple’s children, and a few months later again enter the name of one of them as someone’s spouse. A match/merge feature (like the excellent one in PAF) allows periodical searches of your entire database for POSSIBLE duplicates. The PAF match/merge then displays two possible matches on the screen simultaneously, allowing you to decide whether they are, in fact, the same person. If they are, you have the option of merging them into one record. Roots III will also search for possible duplicates, but it isn’t so easy to evaluate whether they are duplicates, and the merge must be done manually. I haven’t discovered a match/merge feature in the other programs.

    A Comparison of Disk Requirements

    I ran a test to see how much disk space would be needed for identical data and text in the various programs. The source data was in PAF. It took only ten minutes to create the GEDCOM file needed to transfer this data to the other programs. Several facts became evident from the test. EFT uses a LOT of disk space for its data and text; I don’t know why. Roots III, the program with the most features, uses the least disk space both for program and data. However, Roots III also created the most files, which lengthens the backup time. After three months of using Roots III (and transferring all my footnotes from the text area to the data area), I cut the number of files to less than half. The total required disk space remained about the same. FTM and FR were not included in this test, as I did not then have access to them. Since FTM is limited to 1200 individuals in each “tree,” my sample database was too large and would have to be split.

    Where to Obtain Programs

    Please contact these companies for the latest prices and ordering information.

    Brother’s Keeper: John Steed, 6907 Childsdale Rd. Rockford, MIl 49431. BK may also be downloaded from bulletin board services.
    Everyone’s Family Tree: The Dollarhide Systems Inc., 203 W. Holly St, Suite M4, Bellingham, WA 98225. (1-800-733-3807).
    Family Roots: Quinsept Inc., Box 216, Lexington, MA t)2173. (1-800-637-7668; 1-617-641-2930, if calling from inside Mass. or outside the U.S.).
    Family Tree Maker: Banner Blue, Box 7865, Fremont, CA 94537. (415-794-6850). FTM is also sold by software retail stores.
    Personal Ancestral File: Salt Lake Distribution Center, 1999 West 1700 South, Salt Lake City, UT 84104. (1-800-453-3860, ext. 2584).
    Roots III: Commsoft Inc., Box 310, Windsor, CA 95492-0310. (1-800-327-6687). Roots III is also sold by mail-order discounters.

    Ordering information for Roots III books: Kay Ingalls, Getting Started with Roots III (1990) is available from Commsoft, Box 310, Windsor, CA 995492-0310; Donna Przecha, Understanding Roots III (1990) and More Understanding Roots III (1991) may be ordered from the author, 10576 Rancho Carmel Drive, San Diego, CA 92128.

    Donald MacDonald, a native of West Bridgewater, Mass., has been a Library Assistant at NEHGS since 1989. A member of the Society’s Computer Committee, he is compiling a Genealogy of the Descendants of Thomas Chubbuck of Hingham, Mass.

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