Genealogy Apps Part 1: GEDCOM Viewers

Originally posted on 18 June 2009 on The author regrets that this post is a bit out of date and doesn’t include some of the newer GEDCOM Viewers that are out in the App Store these days.

Genealogy On-The-Go

When I go off into the world of paper and archives I like to have my whole family tree with me. My whole family tree amounts to over 7,000 individuals at this juncture in my research. You can imagine the number of tour buses that I’d have to rent in order to cart all those relatives around. Lucky for me that developers have begun to release apps for the iPhone that allow me to just catalog their information! And yes, the birth dates, death dates, marriage dates, and where everyone lived at any point during their life span is totally necessary when I go do research! I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve run across an ancestor that I wasn’t researching and knew that we were related but just couldn’t put my finger on how, or his birth date, or his first wife… or whether or not he was excommunicated from the church (long story). I’ve found that having all the info at my fingertips lets me do a quick query and know for certain if “John Doe” is really my John Doe or someone else’s.

After I gave up on the tour bus idea, I used to carry my MacBook Pro around with me to every library. It was convenient, I could take notes on it and see my family tree data. But the problem I ran into was that often the libraries weren’t as tech savvy as I was. I’d be lucky to find an open power outlet; and likely that open power outlet was in the deepest, darkest, dankest corner in the library.

Now that Genealogists are getting out there and starting to be more tech savvy there actually apps out there for the iPhone! It’s been a long wait for people like me, but they’ve got some good solutions now; cheaper than tour buses and less power-draining than a MacBook Pro!

Types of Genealogy Apps

There are two major categories of genealogy apps. First, there are those apps that are GEDCOM viewers and importers. These apps let you import the standard genealogy database, a GEDCOM file, produced by most major genealogy desktop software providers. The good thing about these apps is that they seem to load quickly. The down side is that they are uneditable on the iPhone. Any changes you might want to make you’ll need to make on a desktop application and then reupload the GEDCOM to your iPhone. You will need a wifi connection to up load your GEDCOM file from your computer to your iPhone.

Second are the apps that were created to be a mobile solution for actual desktop genealogy applications. These applications function with your desktop software and allow you to sync data back and forth between the iPhone app and your desktop. This means that you can jot quick information into your iPhone on the go and then be able to come home and via a wifi connection sync your new or changed data to your desktop software.

Unfortunately, the GEDCOM viewer is the only solution for our Windows PC iPhonespazzes. No developer has yet released an iPhone app that runs with a Windows based genealogy software product.

GEDCOM Viewers


famviewerFamViewer (iTunes Link, $14.99)
For a GEDCOM viewer, I was mostly impressed with FamViewer, it’s load speed is phenomenal (both in uploading a GEDCOM file to the program as well as the program actually starting up). I was a little concerned about how easy it would be to load a GEDCOM file into the program because I’ve had some problems in the past using wifi to sync with iPhone programs, but the interface was nice, clean, and very simple. I took all of literally 1 minute to have my GEDCOM file loaded and ready to go, which is particularly impressive since the GEDCOM that I was working with is 2.5 MB!

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Enable uploading
Now you can enter the URL in your browser window Select your GEDCOM file Upload the file You're done! iPhone importing GEDCOM iPhone done!

I can honestly say I had sticker shock when I downloaded this app. $14.99 for an app that I can’t even edit the data I put in it?!? Not impressed. It does adequately display all the data that I need to do a quick search when I’m doing research, but I was terribly disappointed that there was no editor function at all in the app.

I was also disappointed that in the search window, you absolutely have to search by Lastname Firstname. When I tried to do a quick search for myself typing in only “Whitney” I came up with someone named Jennie Lulabelle Whitney. And while that person is hanging out in my family tree, I’ve got no idea who she is! I can see that as being a complete frustration if I just wanted to quickly search for someone. After all, the iPhone Contacts app allows you to search by any combination of names Firstname only, Lastname only, Lastname Firstname, Firstname Lastname. I think that this program should at least do that much.

Finally, the source citations. Between the two GEDCOM Viewer apps, FamViewer is a little better than Shrubs (which I’ll discuss below). My genealogy desktop software has template forms that allow me to quickly create complete source citations that the program then parses into the right format for whatever document I’m creating. That info is stored in the GEDCOM file. However, it seems like these GEDCOM Viewers for the iPhone don’t always know what to do with that info. FamViewer gives me the source number that corresponds to the source in my genealogy software (a totally arbitrary number that doesn’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things) and it also gives me anything that happened to be stored in the raw text field of my citation forms. However, for the citations that I derived from a printed source where there was a template that I used, all I get is the source citation number. Not particularly helpful if I don’t have my MacBook Pro to quickly look up the citation source number and find out where I found the info.

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Your Home GEDCOM list
Essential Family Group Sheet Easy 2nd marriage viewing Marriage detail screen Children list
Person Index, Sorted Alpha by Last Name Program info / GEDCOM info Download screen (alternate way of getting a GEDCOM) Edit your GEDCOM list easily!

Over all, FamViewer gets a 2.5 spaz rating from me.


shrubsShrubs (iTunes Link, $9.99)
Already, we’re doing a little bit better with the price. $9.99 is still on the high end of iPhone apps, but it’s a far cry from the $14.99 that FamViewer requires you to pay. And for $9.99 Shrubs is actually seems to give you more bang for your buck.

What you get in feature set, you do sacrifice a bit in speed. My 2.5 MB GEDCOM file loaded in just over 2 minutes (same wifi connection on the same day as when I loaded the GEDCOM into FamViewer). The interface was nearly identical to the one that I encountered in FamViewer, easy, quick, and no frills. The immediate difference between Shrubs and FamViewer, however, was that Shrubs gave me the option to review the GEDCOM file and approve it before the app officially adds the file to your iPhone.

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Shrubs iPhone Load Tree page
Web Browser upload window, choose your file Click upload Upload is complete - go back to your iPhone! Upload Complete! Analyze Tree screen

Speed and price tag set aside, I immediately liked Shrubs better than FamViewer (yet another reason why I think the App Store should offer some kind of trial run before you buy, that that’s a different topic entirely). Why is Shrubs so much better you ask? I think the interface is more intuitive. You can tap anywhere on the person’s listing instead of having to be dexterous enough to tap the person’s name to get into their details. I may have tiny lady fingers, but there are probably a lot of men out there who do genealogy too. And I doubt that they’re as skilled at micro-tapping as I am!

Next, I love that there is a “favorite” feature. Unfortunately, in this version you’re only able to save one individual as a favorite. It’s handy if you’re working on someone’s information but then need to go check another person back further in your family tree and want to get back quickly to the previous person. I think they missed their mark by not allowing multiple favorites and then adding another screen to access people selected as favorites.

But the most helpful feature that I think Shrubs has but FamViewer lacks is the ability to make notes for a person! In each person view, there’s a little icon that looks like a little sheet of paper. Tapping this takes you to a text field where you can enter whatever notes or data you might want to remember in the future from your research session. This all but makes your paper / laptop obsolete for research trips. Suddenly those archives that you’re not allowed to take even a pencil inside, let alone paper, you’ve got the ability to make notes right there.

Where Shrubs fell massively short was on citations. None of my citations from my GEDCOM file transferred, not even a little bit. Citations are so important for genealogists and to have an iPhone app that can’t even import basic data from these fields is a complete disservice I think. I’d like to see Benoît Bosquet go back to the drawing board and rework this feature completely. Something’s not translating right between the GEDCOM file and the app if none of my 250 sources transferred at all!

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Family Group Sheet, single marriage family
Family Group Sheet for individual with multiple marriages (note: rings in the marriage field) Individual index, alpha by FIRST name Marriage index, alpha by Groom's LAST name
Making an individual a Favorite Person Individual info screen Family information screen You can only have one GEDCOM at a time uploaded

Over all, Shrubs gets a 3.5 spaz rating from me.

Final Thoughts

I think that GEDCOM viewers will get you by, especially if you’ve got a Windows machine and are running Family Tree Maker or one of the other exclusively Windows programs. If you’re running a Mac, you might be frustrated like me with these programs. I think the desktop software linked apps just take this to a whole different level without sacrificing too much on speed, performance, usability, and features.

Stay tuned next week for my review of the desktop software linked apps! You won’t want to miss them!!

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