For optimal effectiveness in ancestry research, our desktop genealogy software needs to share data (“sync”) with our online family trees. So, how well do the “Big Three” software packages sync? In this next installment of the Desktop Dilemma Series, we continue our side-by-side analysis of the Big Three — Family Tree Maker®, Legacy Family Tree®, and RootsMagic™.
To view the comprehensive scorecard as it develops and access earlier discussions, see The Desktop Dilemma Series: features in a nutshell.
Important note before we begin
As many of you are aware, both the Software MacKiev Company (owner of Family Tree Maker) and RootsMagic Inc. have announced they will be expanding their sync capabilities by the end of 2016.* MacKiev plans to add FamilySearch sync capabilities to Family Tree Maker (FTM), and RootsMagic (RM) plans to launch Ancestry.com syncing. But, while FTM syncs to Ancestry.com today, there has been speculation that this feature will disappear by January 1, 2017.* Further, while Millenia Corporation has announced its desire to sync Legacy Family Tree (LFT) to Ancestry.com, I don’t know of a partnership along those lines. I’ll be evaluating all of the products based on the way they work today, with the knowledge that I’ll likely be revising this post in the months to come.
*UPDATE: MacKiev sent a November 2016 email that Ancestry's sync feature will remain in operation with Family Tree Maker until MacKiev's replacement software is ready. The rumors that it will disappear December 31 are incorrect. In December 2016, RootsMagic sent a message that the sync capability is well on the way, but will not be ready by year's end, as hoped.
Syncing genealogy software with online trees — verdict in a nutshell
We all have different ideas about what we want from the syncing features of our software — and some simply have no interest in syncing at all. For me, I want the robust power of a desktop genealogy program on my computer, but I also want to be able to work on my family tree from any internet-connected computer. While I might not have all the software features with me, I want all of the essential data.
Here is how I rate the Big Three, as of today, on their syncing capabilities overall:
|* * * *||* * ½||* * * ½|
All three packages have syncing capabilities. As of now, though, FTM is the only one that can rapidly transfer all of my essential tree data to an online tree — Ancestry.com, in this case. Of course, this means you have to have an Ancestry.com account, but for me, that is a given.
For those who use FamilySearch exclusively to display and work on their online tree, FTM does not sync to it yet, so you would not give it four stars. RM and LFT both sync to FamilySearch, using interfaces that are nearly identical, presumably interfaces therefore designed by FamilySearch, with minor creative differences between them. For reasons I will describe below, I must opt for the package that supports Ancestry.com over those that support FamilySearch, when it comes to having my genealogy work accessible everywhere.
Syncing genealogy software with online trees — scores by aspect
This table gives a high-level score to each product for various aspects of its syncing function. Read on below for a fuller explanation.
|Ease of use||* * * * *||* *||* *|
|Control of privacy||* * * *||* * *||* * *|
|Control of details||* * * *||* * * * *||* * * * *|
|Speed to update||* * * * *||* *||* *|
|Sync to multiple services||* *||* *||* * * *|
|Go-anywhere capacity||* * * * *||*||* * *|
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Ease of use
In all fairness to the Big Three, the “ease of use” category has more to do with how Ancestry.com and FamilySearch are designed than it does about how the desktop software is designed. So, while the Big Three might not have much choice about the presence of and design of these syncs, my job it so ask which is giving me most of what I need.
Ancestry.com allows its users to have multiple trees, fully in the control of the user. They can be made fully public, fully private, or private with permissions to individuals by invitation. And while people view and borrow from public trees, they do not collaborate on a shared three.
FamilySearch is a collaborative environment, except for the records of people who are still living. Given that multiple people may all share a FamilySearch ancestor, the syncing process cannot arbitrarily overwrite information. Nor would you want changes someone else made to your FamilySearch shared ancestor to sync automatically to your desktop software, overwriting your data. Changes to any existing ancestor require you to make and justify decisions one fact at a time and one source at a time.
Even in cases where you are trying to add a brand new person via RM or LFT — cases in which there would be no one to overwrite in FamilySearch — only the most basic information is carried with the person into FamilySearch. Most of the facts tied to the individual have to be carried over one by one, writing justifications for each; then you have to do the same with each source.
The Ancestry.com/FTM “TreeSync” partnership, on the other hand, requires the user to do nothing. If you set up automatic syncing, FTM will sync any changes between the two when the software opens and closes. Since you alone have made any changes on either side of this equation, you want the sync to overwrite the other side. The syncing looks like this, activated at the start-up and shut-down of FTM, unless you prefer a manual option.
I can only assume that the upcoming changes to RM and FTM will bring the two into much closer ranking, if MacKiev has a TreeSync replacement ready by January 1, 2017. FTM will undoubtedly have to employ the same FamilySearch interface the other two products use. And RM will likely be able to offer an automatic syncing of full trees once it syncs to Ancestry.com.
The ease factor, therefore, really gets down to whether your preferred online tree is Ancestry.com or FamilySearch. If it is FamilySearch, you will work harder to make it happen but will have your service free. With Ancestry.com, you will pay a monthly fee to have a much easier time of it.
Control of privacy
While each of the Big Three offers privacy controls, their effect on syncing varies. Living people are hidden in both FamilySearch and Ancestry.com, so none of the Big Three packages will show the details of living people to the public by accidental syncing. They display only a silhouette indicating the presence of a person.
Since Ancestry.com allows you to hide your tree from the public entirely, FTM users can allow all details to sync to Ancestry.com for their own use without public exposure. If, however, the tree is made public, everything not consciously marked private (or associated with a living person) will be visible to all.
FTM gives you the power to mark facts or sources private. To make a person private, unfortunately, you have to remove death information to flag them as living. This is not good record-keeping and needs to be fixed.
There is one more level of privacy that needs to be considered in the Ancestry.com/FTM sync partnership. What if you want to conceal that a person existed at all, rather than having Ancestry.com put a silhouette with the word “Private” across it? Perhaps you don’t want anyone to know that your grandmother had and gave up a child before she was married. Ancestry.com/FTM needs to offer an “Invisible” option, as LFT has done (though LFT’s invisibility flag apparently has no effect on syncing either).
While LFT and RM both offer privacy options on facts and sources, the privacy is related to reports, not to syncing. The programs do not notify a user that they marked a fact private, when they start moving a person’s data over to FamilySearch .
Admittedly, users are choosing person by person, fact by fact, and source by source to transfer the data. But will they remember that there was a reason a particular source needed to be kept confidential? I recommend both products alert users that a data element is private before a sync happens — or to simply remove private elements from the syncing map altogether.
Control of details
RM and LFT offer detail control to the meticulous degree. Syncing, as I have said, is person by person, fact by fact, and source by source in these programs. As you bring up a person-to-person match between either product and FamilySearch, the software identifies where facts are already matched, and where one source has something the other is missing.
As you see in the Legacy FamilySearch panel below, colors indicate the agreements and differences between your desktop data and FamilySearch. The green indicates a match, yellow indicates that you have opted to keep certain facts unmatched, and pink identifies where new information has been added to either side.
LFT data appears in the center panel and FamilySearch data appears in the panel to the right. In this case, there are changes to both. You choose, one by one, whether you will sync each change. RM works pretty much the same way.
Both packages then offer you the chance, one by one, to move your sources over. Only the sources attached to a subset of vital fields (name, gender, birth, christening, death, and burial) will be tied to a fact in FamilySearch — a limitation of FamilySearch and not the software. All other sources will be appended to the FamilySearch record as, in essence, a bibliography.
As you add each fact and source, the LFT and RM systems will require you to type a justification for the action you are taking. This is your only way to flag that a particular source supports a particular fact. While neither software package can control FamilySearch’s design, I would encourage them to populate this justification field with the source’s name. (Better yet, lobby FamilySearch to begin to tie every fact to its source, as Ancestry.com does.)
FTM, on the other hand, assumes you want to move everything over, unless you have manually flagged something as private. This lack of control I gladly accept, for the privilege of moving everything to the cloud.
I do not want to move details one at a time. As I put new information into FTM, I am at that moment most conscious that a particular fact or source needs to be kept private. I flag it then and do not have to think of it again. So, while on “control of detail” I give FTM a lower score, I truly do not see a need for change beyond what I mentioned about making people invisible.
Speed to update
The first time any of the Big Three syncs to online trees, it will take some time. It might take FTM five minutes or so for a database of 5,000 people. For LFT and RM, you are offered an option to automatch records in your database to records in the FamilySearch tree. This can take hours, and will not move any data over. But it will tell you there is a record you might want to sync, and you do them one by one.
The screen print below shows the RM screen when it has completed its automatching. It found likely matches in FamilySearch to 1,723 of my 5,237 ancestors. Over to the right, you see that it will flag the records that have data in either FamilySearch or RM that does not match the other tool.
All of the information above speaks to the vastly different time requirements for syncing each of the three products. Once the initial sync is done, I have timed FTM at between 30 and 50 seconds to sync my entire database, with all facts and sources. It takes longer to sync a single fact and source between FamilySearch and LFT or RM.
Again, I must point out that this is a FamilySearch limitation. When Software MacKiev begins to sync FTM with FamilySearch, I do not anticipate that FTM will do it much better than RM and LFT. At that stage — when RM and FTM are both syncing to Ancestry.com and FamilySearch — we can fairly assess them side by side (again, assuming FTM hasn’t lost its Ancestry syncing capability by then).
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Sync to multiple services
LFT and FTM both sync to a single service. LFT syncs only to FamilySearch, and FTM syncs only to Ancestry.com (until the end of the year).
RM has another sort of information-only semi-syncing happening. It is drawing “hints” from FindMyPast and MyHeritage, along with FamilySearch. This tool does not appear to transfer data from the online trees to RM or vice versa. It does show you information you can use, however, which is a nice feature.
As you see below, you are told there is information that could match. You need an account with MyHeritage, FindMyPast, or FamilySearch, in order to see the records fully. When you see the information, you can choose to reject or accept it, which determines whether the information will keep showing up in the WebHints.
If you have been following the Golden Egg Genealogist blog for some time, you probably already know how passionate I am that we be able to take our genealogy with us wherever we go. We need to be able to work on it from various locations, even if we don’t have our own computer with us.
I can be away from home in the middle of the day when someone emails me a piece of information I want to go ahead and post in my family tree before I forget it — before that email becomes lost in the endless forest of yesterday’s mail. Or I might have a meeting at the state archives, which ends earlier than I expected. I want to use that blessed hour to do a little research there, with all my data at hand, though I didn’t bring my laptop with me.
As of today, the FTM/Ancestry.com syncing partnership is the only workable option between the Big Three that can do this. I can open Ancestry.com on my iPad or phone or a library computer and look up any data. I can make changes, which will be picked up by FTM the next time I open it. It is almost as good as having FTM with me.
With RM and LFT, you can work with anything you have synced to FamilySearch, but that might be a fraction of your database. And you will have to manually sync the data when you get home. This will only be a true go-anywhere solution if you are meticulous about syncing every fact and source as you add material to your desktop software. And you will not necessarily be able to tell which sources are tied to which facts, due to the FamilySearch limitation already mentioned.
This is not a sync option, but RM offers a way to create a viewable version of your RM tree on a flash drive or cloud dropbox, which will offer you a fuller picture of your data. But it won’t let you change anything. You have to take notes and make the changes when you get home. It’s nice to have the information on hand for reference, but will you remember to put a fresh copy on your flash drive every time you make changes to your RM data? I can only say I cannot remember to do that.
Desktop Dilemma Wrap-Up
Clearly, at the moment, I favor FTM’s syncing feature. The absence of an Ancestry.com sync in RM and LFT presents a serious limitation. If a person only desires syncing so that they can move a fact between FamilySearch and their desktop software, RM and LFT offer that option and FTM does not. So your evaluation of the three really gets down to what you want to be able to see and do with online data.
What have your experiences with syncing any of these products been? What would you like your chosen software provider to change to make syncing better for your needs? Do you disagree with the statements I’ve made about the products? I welcome your (civil) comments below, or feel free to email me at email@example.com. Let’s learn together.
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