Comparing RootsMagic to Reunion

It seems kind of odd to compare Windows and Mac genealogy apps. But, these two apps seem to be the best or at least among the most used for their respective platforms.

I’ve been using Reunion 9 since 2009. There is much to like about it. It’s powerful and capable. I don’t think there would be much argument that it is the most powerful of the Mac genealogy applications. While that isn’t saying much by itself since the state of Mac genealogy apps is rather woeful, Reunion is generally quite good.

It allows you to define custom events, create source templates, link to media, create multiple kinds of notes, generate many charts and reports, autocompletes fields and even gives you control over what gedcom tags are associated with each event type.

There’s an awful lot that Reunion gets right. But, what does it get wrong?

It has no mapping functionality. There is no way to visually see how events and people relate geographically within the program.

The source template functionality is useful but isn’t very portable. If you export your sources as “structured” (with each source field as a separate gedcom field) the odds are good that no other program will import most of that information. If you export it as “flat” (with all the fields concatenated together) it doesn’t format then nicely and makes it hard to read and parse.

Reunion lacks the idea of concept of a master source or repository so it’s impossible to really organize sources. On the positive side, it make the citation process very easy. You can drag from a list, select a recent citation from a drop-down or enter a number. It’s easy to get a list of all the events that use the citation.

Most windows in Reunion aren’t modal with the major exception of the data entry for a person. Because of this you can’t have two or more people open at the same time. If you are updating a family of five for a census, it would be nice to open all five and do the data entry together. Reunion forces this to be a linear process: open person 1, edit, cite, close, open person 2, edit, cite, close, and so on.

I’ve been looking for a good online home to share my research, both with family and other interested parties. The gedcom files that Reunion produces are generally not imported without loss of data, particularly with source and note information.

Finally, Reunion hasn’t had a major update in the three years I’ve been using it. In one sense that’s a tribute. It just works. But, nothing new has come along and they’ve done nothing to address any shortcomings. They say they are working on Reunion 10 but won’t offer any insight into when it will be available or what it might contain.

Despite those problems, it generally outclasses the other major Mac app, MacFamilyTree. MFT is slicker from a looks perspective but has a very clumsy UI and drops a lot of information on gedcom imports.

Because of those limitations I took a look at RootsMagic 5. I didn’t really want to run a Windows app, but I’ll use the best tool for the job. I know a lot of people think highly of RootsMagic.

Compared to Reunion, the RootsMagic UI fees less polished (and Reunion could stand a fair bit of polishing itself). It has a late ’90’s Windows feel to it. To be fair, this is coming from a Mac biased person but I tried to be as objective as I can.

RootsMagic suffers from the same modality problem as Reunion. I can only edit one person at a time. Worse, when editing a person I can’t open any other windows (save for a few that are opened from the editing dialog itself and they are themselves modal). Sigh. One big hope was dashed.

On the positive side, RootsMagic can check (some) of your place names for correctness and you can also enter place details. It’s likely that no other app will understand the exported place details but that’s more a statement about gedcom interoperability than either RootsMagic or Reunion.

RootsMagic can also geocode place names and show them on a map. You can show all the events at a place or all the places for a person. But, the UI is fairly ugly. There is also no easy way to look for migration paths over time.

RootsMagic place checking is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice to know you misspelled a county name or that this county didn’t exist in 1847. But, if you are geocoding from the place list as I am having done an import from Reunion then it offers up the standard, modern place name. You have to pay attention rather than blindly accept this if you want to preserve your historically accurate place names (“Province of Massachusetts Bay” vs. “Massachusetts, United States”). Even so, it’s a feature that shows a great deal of promise and hopefully they will expand upon it in the future.

RootsMagic claims that citations are a major strength and they seem to be. They provide templates following the Evidence Explaned format and allow you to specify whether a citation is primary or secondary and the quality of the citation. Great stuff!

Unfortunately once you choose a template you can’t change it without reentering a new citation and then having to re-cite wherever it was used. Reunion gets that right even though their template system isn’t as useful out of the box. This means that I am stuck with badly formatted sources unless I go back and re-cite everything and that’s a challenge for a database with 800 people in it. It’s a major disincentive to switch.

RootsMagic imported the media links from Reunion and allowed me to specify a new directory for the images and in a few moments all my images were re-linked! This was unexpected and very nice! I know Reunion can do a similar thing because I moved my images to a new disk and it was very easy to relink them though I’ve never had reason to do an import and see if the links were preserved.

One of my problems with Reunion’s gedcom exports is that event comments are generally not imported by other apps. RootsMagic did import them but as event notes. It would be possible to move them manually into RootsMagic event description field which most other apps do seem to import. That would be a nice thing though a bit tedious to accomplish since I’ve used comments extensively in Reunion.

RootsMagic has extensive reports and charts but many things that need to be active parts of the UI and buried in reports. Getting a list of what events use a citation can only be done through a report and not through an active UI element that would let me navigate through them and make changes. That’s a bit clunky at best.

I’m at a bit of an impasse. RootsMagic does some things that Reunion doesn’t. Its gedcom exports seem (I haven’t tested exhaustively by any means) to be somewhat more interoperable than Reunion’s. But, it’s UI is a fairly big step back from Reunion’s thanks to being more modal. It’s source management is impressive but it gives you no help on migrating to it.

To best utilize RootsMagic I would have to spend days, if not weeks, fixing citations and converting notes to descriptions. The only incentive I have for doing that is that online sites seem to consume RootsMagic gedcoms better than Reunion gedcoms. I’m not yet certain that it is worth the effort. The problem is the longer I wait the worse the problem becomes as my Reunion database grows.

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