Family Origins for Windows version 5.0
A genealogy software review
by John Cardiff     October 1996

Frankly it has always amazed me that so many genealogists give so little thought to the genealogy program they use. Genealogy is a time-consuming hobby that often stretches over several years, so, I allege, it only makes sense to invest the few dollars required to make all those hours as pleasant and productive as possible.

Recently I took a tour of some of the most popular genealogy programs to see what the world has to offer.
And I think I found a winner.

Family Origins for Windows version 5.0 is the finest genealogy program I've ever used. It is slick, feature-laden, runs on either Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, and (at approximately $35) it is competitively priced.

It isn't perfect - What program is? - but Family Origins merits more than a casual look. Version 4.1 is available now, version 5.0 will be released in standard (diskette) or deluxe (CD- ROM) versions next month, in time for the Christmas buying rush.

Perhaps its biggest competitive advantage is its manufacturer. Family Origins is from Parsons Technology, an Intuit company. Via its flagship product, Quicken personal finance manager, Intuit has earned an industry-wide reputation for relentless and constant product enhancement, typically updating products annually.

That means if you find something you don't like something in the current version of Family Origins, chances are it will be fixed in the next release. That's no small consideration for a genealogy program, software you will probably be using it for years as you search out that last relative or historical reference.

From the ground up, Family Origins was designed with the novice user in mind. Most of its features are just a menu selection or button click away. For example, the features that make it easy to document your sources won't get in your way if you want to ignore them, but are right at hand when you realize the importance of sources.

Following a recent industry trend, most of Family Origins' manual (how-to program documentation) is provided in its on-line help file rather a printed book. This ensures you don't have to worry about losing the printed manual. Unfortunately, it also ensures most users will eventually need to print several of Family Origins' Help topics.

Recognizing Personal Ancestral File has the lion's share of the genealogy software market, Parsons made importing PAF data child's play. (Just select the File menu option "PAF Import," and tell Family Origins which subdirectory the PAF database you want to import is in. A reassuring counter window even pops up to report importing progress. My 9,000-record PAF data set imported perfectly, automatically, in just a few minutes.

Family Origins also provides GEDCOM importing and exporting capability.

By now DOS-based PAF has grown more than a little long in the tooth for my taste. Even its printed charts and lists look stale and flat. That has provided a window of opportunity for PAF's competitors.

Virtually all of PAF's serious competitors are Windows-based programs. That guarantees they won't run on the oldest PCs or perform sluggishly at best. It also ensures that most users will find them more intuitive, easier to use. Most Windows-based genealogy programs also allow you to include photos of recent ancestors in your printouts a capability few DOS programs provide.

Unfortunately, most Windows-based genealogy programs allow you to enter no more than the family tree, the bare skeleton as it were. Names, birth, marriage and death dates and places (and hopefully source documentation) is about all they permit. Darn few allow you enter (and document) gobs of free-form text, the flesh on those bones (leaves on the tree, so to speak).

Family Tree Maker, for example, provides the capability of printing great looking family tree charts, but just try to enter document more than fourteen source documents.

In truth darn few genealogy programs provide the option to print your family history as an indexed desktop published book. Family Origins does, complete with photos. This capability is built in. There's no need to purchase an auxiliary report generator. Which makes Family Origins all the more price competitive.

Those familiar with PAF know it provides two primary data entry screens. The first is a fill-in-the-blanks form for each individual's name, plus dates and places for the individual's birth, baptism, death and burial. The second is a free-form Notes screen, where you can enter the individual's biography and/or references to source documents.

Family Origins is considerably more sophisticated. It invites you to enter specific data regarding over 50 major events in the individual's life, then (optionally) source and/or comment on every one.

These events or "Facts" in Family Origins' jargon, equate to the source tag lines compatible with other genealogy programs. And, although this may be overkill for most users, the pre-packaged list of facts can be expanded with user-definable facts to meet each user's specific needs.

Family Origins users can also enter free-form data to the Notes section to their heart's content. Source referencing, is always just a mouse click away and there-fore readily available. But Family Origins does not insist novices source anything. (A mixed blessing, to be sure.)

Family Origins provides a wide variety of chart, book, and list printing options. All print options send previews to the screen first, so you can see what your printed pages will look like. Or you can print to disk in either plain text ASCII format, or in the format-retaining "rich-text format."

So those who want to go the extra mile perfecting their output, can save their book or chart to disk in rich-text format, then import that file into Word for Windows to massage it further. (WordPerfect can also import a rich-text formatted file, but when I tested this, WordPerfect 7 would not index the test rich-text formatted file. Bummer!)

One of the down sides to printing your family research is the expense. The market for most family genealogies simply isn't large enough to warrant volume print runs. Consequently, each book produced has to sell for big bucks, which many potential purchasers often find discouraging.

The size of this expense also discourages most genealogists from printing work-in-progress copies of their findings. That, in turn, ensures that decades of research is made available only after the fact. So much for maximizing the potential of peer sharing.

There is a further pill to swallow on this front. The off-setting expense of publishing ensures too many of us wait until it is to late to go to press. Most of us have our own horror stories about the genealogist's children throwing out years of unpublished research because the genealogist died or took ill before going to press.

Net, one of the things the hobby of genealogy needs is a quick, easy and inexpensive alternative to traditional printing costs.

The first appeared just over a decade ago when the original laser printers arrived, making it possible to desktop publish genealogies in small quantities.

The second arrived just last year for most of us. Instead of publishing on paper, why not publish electronically, on the Internet? You could submit your work-in-progress file today, and update it at any time, virtually for free. (Although your target audience would have to be 'on the net' to access your work, these days most people aren't too far removed from someone who could assist with access.)

All you need to get started as a genealogy web publisher is a genealogy program that provides the facilities of exporting your files in Web-ready format.

Roots already does. So does Family Origins 5. Others will soon. Within a year every genealogy program with a future will release a "new and improved" Internet-compatible version.

But Parsons Technology has gone the extra mile when it comes to Web compatibility. They provide a web server you can access for free which is designed to accept Family Origins databases and make them available to Web surfers. There is no charge to the surfer, no charge to the genealogists. Think of it as Web publishing for free.

As much as I like Family Origins, it still has a way to grow. Here's my nitpicking list.

Book printing features (although improved since the Nov 1995 release of version 4.1a) are still rather scant. In this, desktop publishing's second decade, we've come to expect more than what Family Origins provides, even from spreadsheets and databases. Users shouldn't have to pull their Family Origins output file into Word just to gain control of the default font or justify text.

Personally, I never want to print output without the "Prepared by:" tagline. So version 5.0's insistence that users select this 'option' every time soon feels like a real drag. This option belongs in the program's Options: Preparer's Name data entry window, rather than in each and every Reports: Print window.

Most of my other quibbles are significantly smaller as far as individual home users are concerned. They concern features that an institution such as the Norfolk Historical Society may expect or need when building a county wide genealogy; for example, the ability to mark a database "read only" so that a neophyte can't mess with verified files.

What's the difference between the Standard diskette-based release of version 5.0 and the Deluxe CD-ROM-based release? According to the Parsons Technology representative I talked to, the CD-ROM version includes companion products that the lower priced diskette release does not. (One of these auxiliary programs apparently prints maps showing where family members live.)

At the risk of repeating myself: Family Orgins for Windows version 5 is the finest genealogy program I've ever found. How good is it? My second favourite found is Family Origins for Windows version 4.1a, the version dealers will still be selling for another month.

email the author at: [email protected]

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Copyright © 1996 John Cardiff