Family Tree DNA review: Unique genealogical collaboration, but an outdated interface

It was the first to popularize consumer DNA testing.

Credit: Dominik Tomaszewski/IDG

Family Tree DNA is the oldest DNA testing company—and it shows, for the wrong reasons. Its website and results appear outdated compared to newer, sleeker services like 23andMe and AncestryDNA.

That said, Family Tree DNA has some intriguing features you won’t find elsewhere. It takes a collaborative approach by letting you share your genealogical and genetic info with a project, where you can help uncover the shared lineage of families. It can also test up to three different parts of your DNA, depending on which versions of the test you pay for.

Most tests, like AncestryDNA and MyHeritage DNA, test just your autosomes. These are 22 of your 23 chromosomes containing DNA that you share with people on both sides of your family. Autosomes are great for finding relations up to 10 generations back with up to to 95 percent accuracy; the accuracy declines as the relation grows more distant. Autosomes are also very good at estimating your ethnic heritage.

family tree dna kit parts Dominik Tomaszewski/IDG

Here’s what’s in Family Tree DNA’s kit.

Like 23andMe and Living DNA, Family Tree DNA can also test your mtDNA and yDNA (if you’re male). mtDNA comes from your mother while yDNA comes from your father. These types of DNA can reveal your ancient forebearers on either your mother’s or father’s side, known as a haplogroup. With this information, the test can show you the supposed ancient migration patterns of your ancestors.

But Family Tree DNA disappoints with confusing pricing that requires you to pay extra to get more results about your DNA. The service charges separately to test your autosomes ($79), yDNA ($169), and mtDNA ($199). So it sets you back a whopping $447 to get everything tested.

23andMe and Living DNA, on the other hand, test all these three parts of your DNA for just $99. Of course, Family Tree DNA isn’t the only one to charge separately: Helix also nickels-and-dimes you with “upgrades” after you take your test.

To justify the costs, Family Tree DNA argues that its test more closely examines your DNA than its competitors. While other tests typically identify mutations to estimate an individual’s ethnicity, Family Tree DNA compares up to 500 STR (short tandem repeat) markers, which are specific segments of DNA that people share, and thousands of SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphisms), known as “snips” of DNA, that can distinguish a specific population.

Because it provides a low-level analysis, Family Tree DNA is the only major DNA test that can specifically identify whether a relative is from your mother’s or father’s side. This feature alone makes Family Tree DNA a test to consider.

For our review, we tried out the $79 Family Finder autosomal and $169 yDNA tests. So let’s get started.

Note: This review is part of our best DNA test kit roundup. Go there for details about competing products and how we tested them.

DNA collection

Family Tree DNA’s kit collects your DNA with cheek swabs that you send off for testing. This is what’s in the kit:

  • Two cheek swabs
  • Two vials
  • Specimen bag
  • Return mailer
  • Instruction booklet
  • Registration form

The company just redesigned its packaging and provided PCWorld with a demo kit. Much like MyHeritage DNA, Family Tree DNA’s kit now includes two mouth swabs that you break into vials of DNA preservation fluid. Before, it provided no preservation fluid for the swabs.

It’s easy to take the test. Simply assign each swab to one side of your mouth and rotate it for 45 seconds. Then, you can place each swab in a vial and snap it along the designated line, screwing the vial’s cap on tightly afterward. Place the vials in the specimen bag, seal it in the return mailer, and send it off to the lab.

Unlike other tests, Family Tree DNA doesn’t require you to register your kit online. Instead, you’re given login information in the email confirmation of your order. Make sure the kit’s number matches the one you got in the email.

Speed

Since Family Tree DNA offers different types of tests, the time it takes to get results can vary. The basic Family Finder test for your ethnicity and DNA matches takes 4 to 6 weeks, while the other tests are 6 to 8 weeks. That makes Family Tree DNA more or less comparable to MyHeritage DNA, which also takes 4 to 6 weeks for the same kind of results, while AncestryDNA and 23andMe take 6 to 8 weeks.

Results

Family Tree’s online dashboard isn’t streamlined and is sometimes disorienting. There are just so many tabs under each test you purchased. Each tab opens up a page where you can learn another piece of your DNA story. It doesn’t offer any guidance about where and how you should begin. I’d prefer a vertical layout that guides you through your results like 23andMe’s and Living DNA’s approach.

family tree dna dashboard Dieter Holger/IDG

It’s hard to know where to start.

But my biggest problem with Family Tree is that the ethnicity results, found under the myOrigins tab, were way off. Family Tree identified me as 78 percent British, 20 percent Eastern European, and 2 percent Scandinavian. Considering my father emigrated from Germany and both sides of his family were natives with some Swedish lineage, these results were very, very off. My mother’s side has some British and (suspected) Eastern European ancestry, but nowhere near enough to constitute 78 percent of my ethnicity as British.

This is a pattern I’ve noticed in other services such as MyHeritage DNA and Living DNA, which also identified me with mostly British ancestry. I suspect it’s because British and Germans are genetically very similar as Europeans go. (The Angles and Saxons from today’s Germany invaded Britain in the fifth century.) 23andMe and AncestryDNA didn’t make the mistake of misidentifying my German ancestry, though.

Like every other ancestry DNA test out there, you can view your results in an interactive map under the myOrigins tab. This was a fairly simple and pretty unremarkable map. It also includes a My Ancestral History panel that updates with some historical context on each ethnicity.

family tree myorigins map Dieter Holger/IDG

Family Tree DNA’s myOrigins map is typical of what you find from other DNA tests.

By far, the most interesting part is the ancientOrigins page. Here you will get a percentage breakdown associating your autosomal DNA with ancient peoples based on archaeological dig sites. It said I was descended 46 percent from hunter-gatherers, 42 percent farmers, and 12 percent metal age invaders.

You can then click on this map and hit different icons to learn more about the dig sites your ancient ancestors are associated with. Each section also shows the migration routes these people followed into Europe.

family tree ancientorigins map Dieter Holger/IDG

The ancientOrigins page is a fascinating look at your DNA story other tests didn’t offer, but it’s only available for people of European descent.

Unfortunately, this feature is only available to people of European descent. Family Tree DNA notes that most of the world is non-European, saying they “currently do not have enough scientific data” to group them in the same way. This kind of racial bias is widespread across the DNA tests, but companies are working to fix it.

Family Tree DNA says, “As more significant DNA evidence is found in other regions of the world, we will work to continue to connect the ancient with the present in our effort to further our understanding of the interconnectedness between us all.”

Now let’s move to Family Tree DNA’s motherline and fatherline tests. I didn’t take the Maternal Ancestry test on my mtDNA, but I did take the paternal test for my yDNA. And the results were underwhelming.

At the Y-DNA section of the dashboard, you find eight different tabs. Most of them are just tables with percentages or numbers for how much your DNA compared to samples it tested against. Pretty boring and not interactive at all.

Then there are the maps. The SNP Map page shows the locations of samples your haplogroup matched with. Sounds interesting, right? Unfortunately, it’s an incredibly slow, confusing tool in desperate need of an upgrade. You have to select your haplogroup from a drop-down menu of thousands of options, instead of the map just automatically loading up your corresponding data. It’s really unwieldy and frustrating.

The most disturbing visualization was the Migration Maps because it required Flash Player to run. (I mean, who uses Flash these days?) It displayed some interactive information on migration patterns associated with certain haplogroups, but it made me feel nostalgic about the internet in a bad way. It also didn’t bother to mark what haplogroups you were associated with. So it was an information dump that didn’t make much sense.

family tree dna y dna migration map Dieter Holger/IDG

The awful Flash-based Migration Maps.

You can also explore matches with other people who share some of your paternal yDNA, and apparently, I only had one match in the entire system. Family Tree DNA is the only test PCWorld reviewed that matches you specifically by paternal or maternal line, so we can’t compare its results here to other services.

Overall, the entire Y-DNA section was unimpressive and doesn’t seem worth the $169 Family Tree DNA charges. But if you are trying to find relatives on your father’s or mother’s side,you might feel differently.

Family Tree DNA’s most redeeming quality is the collaborative way you can contribute to genealogical projects. For example, my surname of “Schmidtmeier” is one of the last names involved in a project tracing lineages originating from the German Principality of Lippe. This was interesting since I’ve never heard about any ties to this obscure region of Germany.

You can join these projects and choose how much information you’d like to make available. There is a minimum setting, a recommended one, and an advanced one. The minimum gives information such as your haplogroup and matches, while advanced lets the project administrator download your raw DNA data.

group project access Dieter Holger/IDG

The levels of data you can provide to a group project.

After you join, your genetic information is made available to the volunteer who is managing the program. You’ll receive updates by email as the project progresses and the administrator may reach out to you.

Other projects identify specific variants in your DNA that tie you in. All of them have the aim of tracing the lineage of broad swaths of people who share some DNA. This feature gives Family Tree DNA long-lasting value. Not to mention, you can easily get engrossed for hours in the many projects out there. Maybe you’ll even decide to start your own project?

DNA matchmaking

Like just about every other DNA test kit, Family Tree DNA has a DNA matchmaking service that pairs you with people who share your DNA. This can help you find relatives you never knew existed (if they have also taken the test),  or you can just gaze in wonder at the thousands of random people whose DNA you share.

But the matchmaking system doesn’t let you do that much. You can send a message to someone you matched with, see the surnames each person has listed, and add some personal notes about them if you’d like. And while it does tell you the relationship you have with that person, such as if they are your second cousin or sibling, it doesn’t tell you the percentage of DNA you share, unlike competitors 23andMe and MyHeritage DNA.

Good news: My sister took Family Tree DNA’s test, and I’m happy to report it correctly identified us as siblings.

Privacy

One of the promises of Family Tree DNA is to never sell or share your genetic data. The company’s policy is that the only person who should have your DNA information is you. “We don’t believe it should be sold, traded, or bartered,” says Family Tree president Bennett Greenspan, in a video. (See Family Tree DNA’s privacy statement here.)

That should be welcome news if privacy concerns have kept you from taking a DNA test. Other services, like 23andMe and AncestryDNA, can share your genetic DNA if you opt-in to certain consent agreements, which can result in genetic data falling into the hands of businesses. One example is how 23andMe announced in July it would share the genetic data of millions with drug giant GlaxoSmithKline.

You can take more control of your privacy under Account Settings, where you’ll find the Privacy & Sharing tab. Here you can choose what information you want available to people you match with, including things like your ethnic estimate.

If you wish to delete your genetic data or have your sample destroyed, you’ll need to contact customer service. Unfortunately, there’s no way to easily request this in the portal, unlike with AncestryDNA.

Value

Family Tree’s pricing system is our least favorite thing about the service. There are three different tests: Family Finder for $79, Paternal Ancestry for $169, and Maternal Ancestry for $199.

The thing is, you can pay even more to upgrade your results further. These upgrades add genealogical features to pair your DNA with records on your family and build out a fuller picture. (We didn’t review Family Tree DNA’s genealogical service so we can’t tell you much about it.)

family tree upgrade pricing Dieter Holger/IDG

Family Tree DNA’s confusing pricing tiers.

For example, upgrades to the yDNA test can set you back as little as $69 to as much as $459 for the “advanced test for experts.” Family Tree DNA argues that its test is more low-level than competitors like 23andMe, which just look at mutations to analyze your mtDNA or yDNA. As such, Family Tree DNA can match you with relatives specifically from your mother’s or father’s side. So that is a unique offering you won’t find from competitors, possibly warranting the higher price tag.

If you don’t care about learning about the ancient ancestors on your mother’s or father’s side, you can just buy Family Tree DNA’s Family Finder service for $79. It’s essentially the same service you get from AncestryDNA, breaking down your ethnicity on a map and matching you with relatives it identifies in the system. It’s also $20 cheaper than AncestryDNA but $10 more than MyHeritage DNA (our “best bang for your buck” test).

Editor’s note: Because online services are often iterative, gaining new features and performance improvements over time, this review is subject to change in order to accurately reflect the current state of the service. Any changes to text or our final review verdict will be noted at the top of this article.

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Dieter Holger

PC World (US online)
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