MacFamilyTree 5.3 Beta Review

A beautiful, capable, moderately priced Macintosh genealogy application.

Product Overview

MacFamilyTree is one of the most popular genealogy data management programs for Macintosh. With it one can store, update, explore, and report on family history data. The data can consist of names, events, sources, notes, and multimedia files (images, video, sound). Interacting with family data is done via nested data entry panels and slick diagrams. A basic selection of charts and reports are provided and can be customized, viewed on-screen, and printed. The application integrates tightly with iPhoto, the web (via MobileMe or a free page hosted by Synium), Google Earth, and the iPhone (via a separate product, MobileFamilyTree).


MacFamilyTree is compatible with Intel and PowerPC Macs running Mac OS X versions 10.4 (tiger) to 10.5 (leopard). There is a graphics card requirement (ATI Radeon 7500 or GeForce 4 MX Graphics Card or Intel GMA 950 or better) due to its stunning graphics. A new copy will cost you $49.00 USD while an upgrade runs $25.00 USD. There is a competitive upgrade incentive that will net you a 25% discount on the regular price if you can prove you bought a competing product. A limited demo version is available for download.


A comprehensive table of features is provided in the Macintosh Genealogy Software Feature Comparison. This section describes remarkable functionality and behaviors observed or found lacking during my evaluation. Each application reviewed in this series was subjected to the same set of scenarios designed to represent normal usage.

Data Entry

The MacFamilyTree interface is generally easy to navigate. The “Navigation Bar” is helpful in this regard. Bookmarks for people and families make returning to commonly or actively researched subjects quick and easy. There are fields for some data that one must navigate more deeply to reach. For example, setting the country for event locations takes an extra step. If you include the country in events like I do you may also find this annoying.


Dates are not automatically formatted upon entry. To me, this is like intermittent wipers on a car—one can manufacture a car without the feature, but why? It’s everywhere else, so the lack in this product makes it stick out like a sore thumb. Dates can be reformatted, but one has to use the “Database Maintenance Editor” to accomplish it.


Event support overall is solid. Events can have associated icons which simplify locating them in a list. There is a notable, additional event type: miscarriage. Unfortunately, one cannot create custom event types. There is an “other event” type that, when coupled with descriptive text, is an acceptable work around. All event types have the same fields, so the type is just a categorization tool—it doesn’t change what data is collected.


Determining relationships is problematic in MacFamilyTree. This may be because parental relationships such as adopted, step, and foster are applied to a family not individuals. This causes inaccurate representation of relationships in the family charts, views, and reports (see the Reports section for details).

That said, the “Person Chart” graphical view of a section of the family tree clearly illustrates relationships and makes navigation simple; although, it could be improved by providing a visual indicator of connected, but un-displayed people. A new feature in the beta version of the software is the differentiation of graphical depiction of relationships in the person chart; a natural relationship is indicated with a solid line while a non-natural one is represented by a dashed line.


Source data entry and citation is generally good, but could be improved by more granularity. Sources are cited at a high level. For example, birth date and birth place are cited together in a “topic” called “birth.” Source citations can be applied to persons, events, families, and media.

Source record types cannot be customized. The source fields are limited to:

  • title
  • author
  • publication
  • page
  • abbreviation
  • date
  • place
  • authority
  • reference number
  • reference type
  • credibility
  • label
  • notes
  • media

There are a couple of wonderful surprises in the supported source data. Sources can be rated “unreliable,” “questionable,” “second hand information,” or “first hand information.” They can also be labeled “important,” “incomplete,” or “noteworthy.” Sources can contain pictures, audio, and video. These media files can also have their own source records. Very nice!

There is no report listing of all sources in the database.

Management Tools

The database tools are minimal. They provide the ability to change date formats en masse, remove “empty entries,” and search for mismatched partners.

MacFamilyTree includes a media browser. I’m not sure that it’s especially useful, but it is pretty. Audio, images, and video can be added to a person or source, but the media browser is limited to images.

There is no automated way to list people who are not connected to others. It can be accomplished manually by looking for isolated people in the “virtual tree.”

Comparing, Merging, and Splitting Trees

There is no facility for comparing, merging, nor splitting databases in their native format. While one can export a database to GEDCOM format, then import it into another database, it shouldn’t be necessary to go through all those steps.


Joining a GEDCOM file to a database is easy and feels natural. There are two approaches that can be taken. Firstly, the GEDCOM can be joined using the “Append GEDCOM File to current Tree…” feature found on the “Special” menu. This is best used when the GEDCOM data does not include any duplicate people. After this merge, one needs only to connect a person in the original database to their parent(s) in the joined data. Be careful to establish these connections by adding the child to the family, rather than adding the parents to the child. Doing the latter will create a duplicate family in the database. Lastly, one can use a feature, also on the “Special” menu, called “Merge GEDCOM File with current Tree…” to do just that. Use this when the GEDCOM file to be joined has, or may have, entries that duplicate one or more already in the database. The software will identify the duplicates and on a case-by-case basis, allow one to indicate which entry to replace.


The GEDCOM export file I generated as a test contained many tags that are not defined in the GEDCOM 5.5 standard. This data will likely not transfer to other genealogy databases.


MacFamilyTree includes support for common charts (ancestor, descendant, family, fan, and timeline) as well as some unusual ones.

The virtual tree is a three-dimensional view that includes ancestors and descendants of the selected person. See the virtual tree glossary entry for more information and a picture.

There is a chart in MacFamilyTree that I was previously unfamiliar with. It’s called a genogram and it’s used to depict a person’s relationships (family, emotional, and social) and medical history. Genograms typically have specific symbols to represent family and emotional relationships as well as medical conditions. Unfortunately, MacFamilyTree’s nascent implementation includes only basic social relationship symbols and no emotional or medical symbols. It also has anomalies in the information it does display. For example, the genogram incorrectly shows my maternal grandmother as deceased. It also did not include adoptive parents even after checking the box in the view options.

The Virtual globe is informative, but faulty. It plots events on a globe that can be manipulated in three dimensions. Unfortunately, the data it gets from the “Look Up Coordinates” feature is often incorrect. Once I corrected the obvious errors (e.g. Saline, Washtenaw, Michigan being on the other side of the planet in Cyprus and Fine, St. Lawrence, New York being in South America) I found looking at the geographic proximity of events on the virtual globe to be intriguing. The events in a person’s life are shown as interconnected dots.

The statistics chart is a multi-function chart that allows one to view the following data in either a bar or line graph:

  • age of living persons
  • age at death
  • children per family
  • year of birth
  • year of death
  • month of birth
  • month of death


Several reports are supported by the application: list of persons, person, place, event, distinctive persons, and birthdays. Several other basic reports are missing. See the Macintosh Genealogy Software Comparison for details.

The Kinship Report does not correctly show half-sibling relationships. Nor does it show adoptive parents. In my tests it listed a woman as an aunt, who was neither the sister of the person’s father or mother, nor the wife of an uncle. In fact, she is the first wife of the person’s biological father. As expected, these kinship identification errors are also in the kinship section of the person report.


Integration is a competitive advantage for MacFamilyTree. One can launch Google Earth from the “General Information” panel. A separate product, MobileFamilyTree, can synchronize MacFamilyTree databases to an iPhone. When choosing images to add to a record, the application can present lists of images in the iPhoto library and albums. This level of integration is one of the aspects that make using a Mac feel so right. It’s great to be able to experience it in a genealogy application.

Help and Support

I’m giving MacFamilyTree the benefit of the doubt with respect to bugs I encountered during my review process since I’m reviewing a beta version; however, judging by the questions and comments on Synium’s online forum, they’ve got some work to do to make this product as solid as Reunion 9 and iFamily for Leopard.

The “Help” menu contains a link to the online forums where any question you may have has likely been addressed. There is a spartan users guide in portable document format (PDF) that is also accessible from the “Help” menu. Its coverage of installation and registration of the application is thorough. The main features and functions of the application are given only cursory treatment. Finally, there is a tutorial document that covers much of the same information in the users guide. It also includes answers to frequently asked questions. Its use of screenshots with call-outs make the information clear.


MacFamilyTree is a promising genealogy database application. It’s well suited to family historians who highly value the way an application looks. It’s a particularly good fit for those who want their data on their iPhone and those who want hassle-free, no cost web publishing.

It Started with a Burglary

At least the October 6, 1892 Rock Valley Register article started there. The event actually started with a man working in a local hardware store, about three years before the newspaper article and the story told therein. The man was named Peter Klein and he was previously employed in the store when it was under different management. At the time of the event the store was called Smith, Rees & Stengle.

On the morning of September 30, 1892 the store was burglarized. Knives, scissors, and spoons valued at $200 were taken. On the evening  of this same day my great-grandparents, John and Ella Dussel, reported the suspicious behavior of Peter Klein to the store owners. Mr. Klein was staying with his brother, Jonas Klein, on a neighboring farm. The store owners came to the Dussel place and set up surveillance. The following morning, while Jonas and his wife were at church, Peter Klein was observed to be burning something in a sack. My great-grandmother and visitor engaged the man in a dialog and “secured the sack.” She took it to her house and discovered that it contained the packaging in which the stolen articles had been stored.

This news was conveyed to town. Two constables followed by “a large crowd” arrived to find Peter Klein attempting to escape at their approach. He was ordered to stop. He did comply and was fired upon “several times,” ineffectually. He fled into a corn field. Fortunately the crowd was large enough to encircle the obscured thief. He was soon captured and questioned.

He led the constables to a hidden box he recently manufactured. The article described the container as “ingeniously contrived containing a false bottom.” During the preliminary examination the box was opened and the stolen goods found therein. The man the paper described as “always [having] been wayward,” was jailed.

On Monday afternoon he escaped. He was discovered hiding in a different corn field, re-captured, and transferred to the county jail. At the time of the article his guilt had not been officially established. In the article’s final sentence, the paper excoriated the man and stated its belief that he was guilty and in a display of concern for his family that is uncharacteristic of our time, took great pains to exonerate Peter Klein’s brother:

“His relations here repeatedly implored him however to lead a steady and upright life, especially his brother here, who has done a great deal for him, but without avail, and it is due alone to young Klein’s perversity that he has reached this end.”

I was delighted to discover this article within the holdings of Prior to this, I had no information about these great-grandparents. Now I know them to have been bold, civic-minded, and determined. I feel more complete now that I can imagine Ella Dussel and her friend confronting the man, winning possession of the sack, and reporting the tale to the authorities. Unfortunately, the digging that yielded this treasure unearthed another mystery.

One night in August of 1894, not even two years later, an unidentified person attacked John Dussel’s visiting brother, Henry, outside John’s house. The attacker was fired upon by Henry. Neither Henry nor the culprit were harmed. I do not yet know whether the events are connected. I also do not know if the Dussel family’s departure for South Dakota in 1895 was a result. The answers may be in newspapers yet to be scanned and put on the Internet.

Macintosh Genealogy Software Comparison

The first release of the Macintosh Genealogy Software Comparison table is available. It contains information on iFamily for Leopard, Heredis Mac X.2, MacFamilyTree, ohmiGene, PAW2X, and Reunion 9.

The people behind Heredis Mac X.2, ohmiGene, and PAW2X completed the survey, saving me hours of time so that I could more quickly complete the first of the reviews to accompany this comparison table; Thank you Sylvette, Theirry, and Gus!

[Read more…]

Plenty of Fluids, Rest, and Genealogy

Doing family history research is a fine way to pass the time when one is sick. The sleuthing has the magical ability to fully absorb me, making time flow quickly and smoothly past. Under such conditions my symptoms are scarcely felt and the entire situation seems not so bad at all. It almost makes me want to be ill more often. Almost.

How to Customize Your Home Page

If you’re an subscriber like me, you may have noticed that The Generations Network, Inc. have improved your home page. You can now move the content of the page around to put things where you like. They also created a My Quick Links box in the right column. This enables you to add links to your favorite and commonly visited sites right on your home page. Please follow along with this video from the MacGenealogist Archives to add to your quick links and to see the other configuration demonstrated.

GenealogyTools Members, download this video to your computer for your private use.

What is a Screencast and How Can I Use One?

A screencast is a video recording of a computer screen, usually with audio narration. Often they use special effects to call attention to a specific area of the screen or to actions like mouse clicks and key-presses.

Screencasts are excellent for demonstrating computer software features and how tasks are accomplished. They are a helpful tool for learning how to use computers.

On this web site, the screencast videos are embedded in the articles and play within the browser window when the play button is clicked with the mouse. The playback can be controlled using buttons having the same icons as on modern VCRs and DVD players. Pausing and rewinding are helpful in following along with the video. Working along with the video is highly recommended because it aids comprehension and later recall.