At the recent conference of the National Genealogical Society, I had a chance to look at a new Windows genealogy program. To say that I was impressed would be an understatement. This program has the best user interface I have ever seen in any genealogy program on any operating system. It looks like Google Earth for genealogy.
I returned home after the conference and soon downloaded the program, installed it, and have now used it for a few days. I am still very impressed with Branches.
Branches is advertised as "Genealogy Software of the 21st Century." That is in reference to the user interface. I would rate the rest of the program's features as "good" to "very good," but the user interface deserves a rating of "outstanding." But I am getting ahead of myself.
Branches is a brand new genealogy program for Windows produced by Sherwood Electronics. I published the company's press release a few days before the conference at http://blog.eogn.com/eastmans_online_genealogy/2010/04/sherwood-electronics-launches-branches.html. However, that press release doesn't do justice to the program. In fact, I'll have difficulties describing the program properly in this text-based review. To full understand and appreciate what this program does, you must see it in operation. Luckily, that is easy to do. You can download the program and use it for 30 days at no charge.
Branches is a full-featured genealogy program, fully competitive with most any other genealogy program on the market today. It works on Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7. There is no Macintosh version yet although I did install it on a Mac. I'll write more about that later. Branches requires a 1.5 gigahertz or faster processor plus a minimum of 50 megabytes of disk space for the program plus enough additional disk space to hold your data. Sherwood Electronics does not specify a minimum amount of memory; however, like all other programs, the more memory available, the faster it should run. Any Windows system built in the past three or four years should be able to run this program without difficulty.
What makes Branches stand out from its competition is its graphical user interface. You can view, manage, and organize your genealogy data in a modern graphical environment. Underneath that graphical interface lies a very powerful SQL database.
When I experiment with new genealogy software in order to write reviews, I often feel as if I am stuck in a time warp. There are several very good and very powerful genealogy programs to choose from these days, but some of them have data entry screens and navigation screens that have not changed much since the mid-1980s! Of course, entering any data in any genealogy program is going to be keyboard-intensive; I don't believe there is any easy method of avoiding data entry. However, navigating around your family tree, identifying various "branches," and other navigational tasks should not be text-based. With most of today's genealogy programs, we have to visualize the connections between various people mentally. Yet our computers are fully capable of displaying that information visually if the software is written properly for that task.
Branches is the fourth genealogy program I have seen that does present family tree information graphically and allows the user to navigate around the family tree in almost the same manner as online maps or a video game. Using a graphical interface becomes second-nature within a very few minutes.
NOTE: The three graphical genealogy programs I have seen previously that use visual family trees are Generations Grande Suite by Sierra Home (a Windows program that was dropped about ten years ago when the company went out of business), iFamily for Leopard (a Macintosh genealogy program) and MacFamilyTree by Synium Software (another Macintosh program). All three are (or were) excellent programs, but the new Branches for Windows is even more sophisticated than any of those. Several other genealogy programs use text-based screens to navigate up and down a family tree but are not capable of zooming in and out or scrolling in the manner of Branches. With Branches, you will see your genealogy in a whole new perspective.
At the recent NGS conference, Mike Miller of Sherwood Electronics gave me a demonstration. He also referred to a conversation that he and I had about five years ago concerning the design of genealogy software. He had earlier described his vision of an ideal graphic genealogy program. To be honest, I had forgotten about that conversation. Obviously, Mike did not forget. He and his co-workers have been working for some time on the new program, and Branches is the result.
I cannot possibly describe all the features that Mike demonstrated; there were too many. However, here are some of the highlights that I remember:
Branches is FUN to use. Clicking on a pedigree chart and dragging it, zooming in, zooming out, and otherwise moving around your family tree is an interesting and enjoyable experience.
The graphical interface in Branches is very similar to modern mapping software. In effect, your family tree is "mapped," and you can zoom in or out or move in any direction in much the same manner as using Google Maps or MapQuest.
Some other genealogy programs insist on always displaying COUPLEs in the center of the screen, then attempting to show parents, siblings, other spouses, and children around them. I'm sorry, but my mind doesn't work that way. I research INDIVIDUALS, not couples. Indeed, all of the people in my database started out as individuals at birth with many of them later being married two, three, or more times. In other words, they became part of several different couples. Why do we try to force-fit them in as couples? In my mind, all of them will always be individuals. I prefer Branches' method of displaying information about individuals.
Those who insist on heavy duty source citations will be pleased with Branches. All events, sources, repositories, and even photos and images of source documents are linked to the individuals. The source citations database has fields to record the repository, call number, date of publication, and much more.
Branches handles contradictory data properly. Do you have two or more birth dates for one individual? How about places? Branches records them all.
Branches has about the easiest method I have seen of pruning a database. For instance, perhaps you want to send a GEDCOM file to a distant cousin who wants only information only about his or her branch of the family tree. With Branches, you simply draw a box around the people you want to include and then select EXPORT. All the people inside that box will be included in the newly-created GEDCOM file. Branches will even find the related photos and scanned documents, and copy them to a folder so that you can e-mail them along with the data file.
Adding people is done in roughly the same manner as with other genealogy programs. That is, you must enter the data via the keyboard or by importing a GEDCOM file. However, deleting individuals is easily accomplished from the graphical interface.
In a large family tree, it is easy to become confused about "where you are." With Branches, a small "mini-map" is shown in the upper left corner of the window that gives an overall bird's eye view of the entire map, proving a graphic display of "you are here."
All searches for text will simultaneously search names, locations, and even text notes. Matches are displayed in red in the graphical map instantly.
No one gets lost in Branches. When you open a database, the program immediately shows you a list of all the unlinked trees and individuals. You can then choose which tree you wish to look at. Linking and unlinking various parts of your database can be accomplished quickly and easily.
I downloaded Branches from the www.branchesgenealogy.com web site and installed it. The installation required a couple of minutes during which files were copied and Microsoft's .NET software was installed.
While Branches is advertised as working only on Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7, I did download it and install it on an iMac. I used Oracle's VirtualBox virtualization software running Windows XP. In effect, I installed Branches on Windows XP that just happened to be running in a virtual process on a Macintosh. It worked flawlessly; I encountered no problems at all. Branches ran on my Mac with a virtual processor and Windows XP in exactly the same manner it would have run on PC hardware. It should run the same on any Windows XP, Vista, or Windows 7 system.
After installation, I did have to reboot Windows before using Branches. (I did not have to reboot the Macintosh operating system, however.)
When launched, Branches asked for the preparer's name, address, email address, and web site (if any) and saved that to be included on future reports. I then imported a GEDCOM file of about 3,000 individuals. Within twenty seconds or so, I was looking at my 3,000-person family tree in graphics mode. I could drag the tree in any direction by clicking with the mouse key and holding the button down while moving the mouse. I could zoom in and out with the scroll wheel on the mouse. The big surprise was how many people and how much detail can be displayed in a pedigree chart. This patent-pending family structure shows all relationships: fathers, mothers, children, multiple spouses, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc. at the same time.
When I right-clicked on any individual's name, a menu appeared with a long list of options: Add parents, add spouse, add event to the individual's record, add source citation for the individual, add a note to the individual's record, add an address, add a multimedia item to the individual, edit the individual, delete the individual, unlink this person from parents, unlink this person from a spouse, reorder parents, reorder spouses, reorder events, merge individuals, link this person as a child to an existing family, link this person as a spouse of an existing person, change this person to the permanent root person, change this person to a temporary root person with descendants, change this person to a temporary root person without descendants, or print reports.
Quite a few reports are available in Branches, including Pedigree Chart, Family Group Sheet, Individual Summary, a list of ancestors, a list of descendants, list of individuals (sorted in any of several methods), place list sorted alphabetically, end-of-line individuals, LDS missing marriage sealings, LDS missing individual ordinances, and lists of highlighted individuals. I was impressed by the number or reports. Version 1.0 of other genealogy programs typically have fewer reports available, then additional reports are added as the program matures and is updated. In contrast, version 1.0 of Branches already has quite a few reports although I do suspect more will be added in the future. Many of the reports, such as the Pedigree Charts, are graphical.
All reports can be seen on the screen first before printing on paper. That was a good thing when I created a pedigree chart of 225 pages. After viewing it on-screen, I decided to not print that much paper. I printed only the first three pages.
I was a bit surprised to see many source citations embedded in the pedigree chart displayed on the screen. I am not used to seeing that in pedigree charts. In fact, there were many source citations shown all over the chart for the various individuals in my database. The pedigree charts were also unusual in that they displayed the names of siblings and additional spouses.
I did not have an opportunity to experiment much with multimedia files, but I did note that Branches will handle pictures, audio files, movies, and most any other common multimedia format.
Branches can store databases of unlimited numbers of people. However, Sherwood Electronics reports that the program begins to slow down on databases of more than 30,000 names due to the amount of on-screen graphical displays being generated. If your database is significantly larger than 30,000 names, the company suggests splitting it into two or more databases.
There is no user's manual for Branches and I believe you won't need one. The program is simple to use and does include perhaps 200 or 300 pages of help files. If you have a question about anything at all, click on HELP. In effect, that is the user's manual.
One thing jumped out at me that was not mentioned in the documentation: Branches does an excellent job of displaying pedigree collapse (when one ancestor or married couple appears in more than one place in your family tree). Pedigree collapse is actually quite common for almost everyone and doubly so for anyone with French-Canadian ancestry or ancestry from many other small, isolated communities. Duplicate lines show in green on Branches. My father's family of mostly northern New England families has one known case of pedigree collapse where two brothers married twin sisters. That relationship was easily identifiable by green lines on the pedigree chart. In contrast, my mother's ancestry is entirely French-Canadian, and hundreds of green lines were woven into the pedigree chart. When I zoomed out, the chart had one green "blob" to the right of my mother's name. However, as I zoomed in, each line became separately discernable, and the multiple lines of descent became obvious and easily understood. I rather like using Branches for displaying multiple lines of descent from one couple!
Branches sells for $39.95. However, I'd strongly suggest you first download the FREE trial version of the program and use it for a while to see for yourself if it meets your needs. (I think it will.) The trial version is fully functional; all reports work; you can store 30,000 or more people in the database, and everything will work the same as the paid version with one exception: the program will stop working after thirty days.
If you purchase the program, Sherwood Electronics will send you an "electronic key" to unlock the program, and it will then work forever. You can continue to use the original program with the data you have already entered. There will never be a need to re-enter your data again.
All in all, I am pleased with Branches. I get to see lots of new genealogy software, and it is rare that I get to see a new program that is as polished as Branches or as radically different from existing genealogy programs. To Mike Miller and the other folks at Sherwood Electronics, I'll tip my hat and say "Well done." This is a great genealogy program and I suspect it will do well in the marketplace.
If you are looking for a new genealogy program or for a better program than the one you already have, I'd strongly suggest you download the trial version of Branches at http://www.branchesgenealogy.com and use it for up to 30 days. I suspect you will be as impressed as I am.
Mike Miller also revealed that he is a Macintosh user at home, even though he uses Windows at the office. He reported that the company has always planned to release a native Macintosh version of Branches although he declined to provide any estimate of a possible release date. He did say to not look for it any time soon, but "someday..."