If you’re not using the Ancestry Apps for genealogy research on your mobile device, you are missing out on some excellent features. But there are also some clunky parts to avoid. Here is a round-up of the best features you may not know about, and a review of some common problems and work-arounds.
Is There An Ancestry App? Yes, Several!
In 2020, these are the four mobile apps published by Ancestry:
- Ancestry App
- AncestryDNA App
- Find A Grave App
- Ancestry Academy App
This article is about the first two, but I’ll touch on the others now. And I’ll mention another that is gone but not forgotten…
The “Find A Grave” app provides a dedicated search for the FindAGrave.com website. You can also use the app to upload photos and edit memorials. Perhaps the most useful feature is using GPS to find cemeteries close to your location.
Ancestry Academy App
I can’t say much about whether this app works well, as installation is not allowed in my region of Europe! But it’s basically a way of watching the tutorial videos that are freely available on the Ancestry website.
If you’re also geo-blocked and feel like you’re losing out – this is the link to the same videos.
We’re Related App
Notice that I didn’t list the much-lamented (or lamentable) “We’re Related” app? Ancestry discontinued it in 2019. Oddly enough, they say on the support page that it has been partly replaced by a new product called “We Remember”.
Anyway, I don’t see much similarity to the “We’re Related” app. If you missed the boat on this app – basically, it informed every user that they were an eighth cousin of Barack Obama through his Norwegian Barakssen line. I jest a little. But it was a bit flaky.
The Ancestry and AncestryDNA Apps
Once there was a single Ancestry app for working with your family tree and your DNA. Then Ancestry spun off a second app aimed at DNA testers. But kept much of the DNA functionality in the original app, while making the features look and behave quite differently.
At the time of writing this article, you can access ThruLines, DNA Matches, and Ethnicity Reports from the Ancestry App. But this app launches a web browser that takes you to the Ancestry website. You are simply browsing your DNA pages on Ancestry.com on a small screen.
In contrast, the AncestryDNA app has screens for these features that are designed to be easier to use in smaller dimensions. Unfortunately, as you’ll read later, some of these screens didn’t work properly for me (evaluated in September/October 2020).
An App Alternative: Your Favorite Browser
You don’t need to download and install any app to access Ancestry features from your phone or tablet. You can use your favorite browser to log in and work on the Ancestry website.
The downside is that mobile apps are supposed to be designed for the smaller screen. Ancestry may not have got a perfect implementation, but some app features are well-designed, provide good functionality, and are not available on the website. That’s what this article is about.
How to Download the Ancestry and AncestryDNA Apps
Go to your app store of choice, and search for Ancestry. You only need to download and install the Ancestry app. If you click on a few links within the Ancestry app, you’ll soon find that it prompts you through a sequence of installing its genetic sister: the AncestryDNA app.
There have been recent updates to the two main apps, so try to ensure that you are running on the latest versions of the operating system on your device. I have a troubleshooting section at the end of the article – but if you have an old device and the apps are not working, it may be due to the OS and not the app.
Can You Use Ancestry Apps on the iPad or Kindle?
I’m using the Ancestry apps on my Android cell phone, but they are also available for the iPad and Kindle. However, I notice several people commenting on social media that they prefer to use their web browsers on these bigger screens.
Can You Run the Ancestry App on Windows 10?
The apps aren’t meant for windows laptops and PCs. Ancestry doesn’t provide desktop software, it expects you to access the website via your browser.
If you really wanted to use the app on a Windows machine, you could take a look at some Android emulators. The only reason I would make that effort is for the Ancestor Location feature. I actually tried the free BlueStacks emulator on my Windows laptop – I won’t link to the software here because my experiment wasn’t a success. I was able to get the apps to launch, but the features were unusable.
The “Nearly Great” Ancestry App Feature: Ancestor Locations
The “Ancestry Locations” feature shows you the locations of birth, marriage, and death events associated with your ancestors. It starts with a global map view, and lets you drill-down and zoom in to the villages and streets where your ancestors lived. It is very cool, and is currently only available on the Ancestry website under limited circumstances.
When you open the Ancestry App, you are asked to choose a tree to work with. The family tree screen has is an icon at the top right – it’s circled in the image below.
Honestly, I first thought the icon was some kind of financial chart. Which would be a bit weird for a family tree. Is it supposed to signify a map? Well, never mind the iconography – this is a serious piece of functionality that was developed by a 3rd party company called mapbox.
The icon opens a world map, which allows you to zoom down to locations associated with your direct ancestors. In the image below, I’ve zoomed over Ireland and the United Kingdom. The feature tells me I have one direct ancestor who had a birth, marriage, or death event in England. “T G” is my great-grandfather, who was born in England.
More interestingly, I see two separate geographic clusters of ancestral events in Ireland. When I zoom down to the lowest levels, I see ancestral events in tiny Irish villages and townlands. What I also see is the proximity of different lines in certain areas. This points me towards potential inter-marriage across my branches, which in turn will inform my research of DNA matches.
Ancestor Locations – A Video Walkthrough
The Ancestor Location feature is the reason why I downloaded the Ancestry App in the first place. I read about it on a social media forum, and rushed to try it out.
This video is my “first look” video walkthrough of using the feature. You may wonder why I can’t stop chuckling about a “perambulator”: it’s an old-fashioned term for a pram or baby stroller (this will make sense when you see the icon for birth events).
Two Limitations with Ancestor Locations
It would be great if the feature extended to all people in a tree. But it’s limited to your direct line. So we still do not have a comprehensive location search feature from Ancestry. If you need full functionality, you’ll have to download your tree and use third party software. Family Tree Maker has a location search feature, and I have a video walkthrough of using the free MyHeritage Family Tree Builder for location analysis.
The second limitation is a glitch in the app functionality. I get a visual pile-up of ancestral events situated in a town center. That town has the same name as its wider district. It seems that events that I’ve located to villages within that district are all being lobbed incorrectly into this town. It’s as if a host of my ancestors were born in one post-office in the middle of the town…which isn’t true (at least I’m pretty sure it’s not true).
Other Musings about Ancestor Locations
I notice that where I’ve only got locations at country level, the little icons are dropped right into the middle of the country. That’s okay once you’ve got used to it. But I think I’d prefer them to be somehow off to the side.
A British user comments that if she has forgotten to enter a country for an old English place name, the app situates the event in the United States. This is one way of double-checking your work! But I can understand how it would be annoying.
Ancestor Locations on the Ancestry Website
One of our newsletter subscribers kindly told me that the ancestor location map is also available on the Ancestry website. He’s absolutely correct, but you only get to see the feature under restricted circumstances. I opened a few of my higher DNA matches, and the map didn’t appear so I took a closer look at the criteria. The map shows for DNA matches who have:
- a linked tree
- direct line ancestors with a common birth location to your tree
Perhaps the easiest way to see this in action it to use the Birth Location search feature on the DNA match list. Throw in a birth location of one of your direct line ancestors:
Open a DNA match and scroll down toward the end of the pedigree page. The map feature is from the same 3rd party company (mapbox) that drives the feature on the Ancestry App. You can zoom in to a detailed level:
The Ancestry App “Show Relationship” Feature
This is another family tree feature that is not available on the Ancestry website. When you’re looking at a tree profile, the option to “Show Your Relationship” is available from a drop-down menu. Here’s an example from a tree profile. I’ve cut off a few entries at the end, but it finishes with myself.
There’s nothing revolutionary about this display. But it’s really neat if you’re trying to explain a relationship to someone less familiar with a “3rd great grandfather”. Yes, it’s the same look as the ThruLines feature. I’d like to have it on the website, too.
The Ancestry App “End of Line” Feature
This is another tree menu item that you won’t find on the Ancestry website. When I first saw it, I thought that “End of Line” meant tree profiles with no children. It’s actually the opposite i.e. it applies to the other end of the line.
The definition of “End of Line” is your direct line ancestors who have no parents in your tree. If you have a large tree, this could be a great reminder of people that you haven’t worked on for a while. I can’t imagine you’d be opening it every day, but I could seem myself using it at the end of each year when I’m taking stock of my research.
Don’t Miss Profile Search in the Ancestry App
This feature is similar to what’s available on the Ancestry website. I mention it here because it may not be as obvious as the General Search feature that you see on the App’s home page.
General Search is launched from the menu strip at the bottom of the screen. As with the Ancestry website, you fill in empty boxes for names, dates, and locations.
Instead, launch your search from a tree profile to avoid endless form-filling. This prepopulates the search fields with names, dates, and locations from your tree entry.
The search interface is a little different from the website version. If you play around with the menu items, you’ll find category filters and options to narrow your searches. The look-and-feel is a little different to the website – well, it is for me because I don’t use the sliders on the website search.
Limitations of “Filter by Category”
Notice that the Category Filters are single-choice options?
You can choose “All Categories”, or you can choose one option. But you can’t choose to filter by Census records AND birth/marriage/death records. It’s an odd limitation that is not present on the website, and will only serve to be a little more cumbersome.
Checking New Matches with the Ancestry DNA App
So, that was a round-up of my favorite features in the Ancestry App.
We move now to the Ancestry DNA App. This app is quite a recent development. Instead of using an internal web browser on the Ancestry website, the Ancestry DNA app has separate screens designed to show you similar information but optimized for smaller screens. At least, I think that’s the aim. I couldn’t get some of the screens to work on my Android phone – but more on that anon.
The basic match list feature worked fine for me, and it may be what I’ll end up using the most.
When you open the Matches page, I think the default listing is from close to distant relationship. One commentor on Facebook says that she uses the app daily to check whether she has a new close match. My problem with this is that there’s only enough space to see four matches before you have to start scrolling to spot new folk.
I tried to change the sorting option to “newest to oldest” and kept getting an error message. When I launched app later that day – the list now opens already sorted as I want. I’m happy now, because I can take a quick daily look at the matches who have rolled in within the last week.
Using the Apps as an Extra Monitor
The choice of using the apps or the Ancestry website doesn’t have to be an “either/or” scenario in your research sessions.
Sometimes you need to have your tree and a ThruLine open side-by-side. And switching between browser tabs is slowing you down. So you spend time launching new browser windows and arranging them on your screen. Aarrgh.
But how about this? Open the ThruLine on your cellphone. Balance the phone upright beside your laptop. And cancel that order for a new $200 monitor.
Answering Questions at Family Dinners
The best apps serve to increase our esteem in the eyes of friends and family. This is what the Ancestry apps do for you: become the star at family get-togethers.
How? You just need to steer the general conversation toward your favorite hobby.
Maybe start with a little ice-breaker: Hey, listen up. Remember how nobody knew the name of Great-Aunt Harriet’s first husband’s mother? I’ve got great news, people.
Whip out your phone, and show off your research. Every day can be a school day.
Filling in Time in the Outside World
Sometimes you’ve got to leave your sofa and step out into the great wide world. Where there is a whole lot of queues and waiting around. Use your Ancestry Apps to dominate down-time. Check out your new DNA matches, or run the End Of Line tree report to start a new search odyssey.
That stranger queuing next to you is squinting at your screen? Show him the records for Great-Aunt Harriet’s first husband’s mother. Every day can be a school day.
Ethnicity as a Conversation Piece
When I took my first look at the Ancestry app, I wondered why the ethnicity breakdown (DNA Stories) was kind of hidden away under the “More” menu. It takes a few hops and clicks to get to the report on the Ancestry website.
Then I downloaded the Ancestry DNA app – and there it is on opening screen.
Now I’m wondering why it’s so prominent. The ethnicity algorithm changes maybe once a year. How many times do I need to “check out my ethnicity estimate now”? Personally, not very often.
But going by social media forums, there are lots of people who like to share their ethnicity reports. If that’s you, then you’ll love this feature. Whip out your cell phone, and a couple of clicks will open your ethnicity estimate.
If you can get the ethnicity screen to load. It hasn’t worked for me in days of trying. “TRY AGAIN”, it yells in encouragement (yes, it’s in caps).
The alternative option is to use the Ancestry App which goes to the website page. This works fine.
Problems and Poor Features
There’s a degree of negativity in social media discussions about the Ancestry apps. Many people dismiss them out of hand. I’ve been a little light-hearted in some of my “best feature” descriptions, but I do want to counter the view that these apps have no value. I think it’s worth giving them a whirl.
However, I’ve already mentioned that I can’t get the ethnicity screen in the Ancestry DNA app to display properly. That’s just one glitch amongst a number of issues. I also took a look at the more common complaints in the forums – with possible solutions. The rest of this review is on problems and fixes.
Ancestry DNA App – Some Screens Won’t Load
Apart from the ethnicity screen, I have similar problems with the Ancestry DNA Match Compare screen. I’m informed that the profile isn’t displaying correctly. Well, it doesn’t display anything at all. I presume this is where I see shared matches, which play an important role in research.
In both cases, the work-around is to use the alternative Ancestry App – these features are accessed on the Ancestry website via a web browser within the app.
It’s possible that my android phone or network connection is at fault. But my OS is up to date, and I’m using wifi in my home. The AncestryDNA app is relatively new, so this could be teething problems. I’ll check back periodically and update this article if I get some success.
Some features with the Ancestry App use a web browser to navigate the Ancestry.com website. For example, you access ThruLines via the Discovery menu.
Usually when I’m browsing the Ancestry website, I make liberal use of opening links in new browser tabs. The Ancestry App doesn’t work that way. So if you use the Ancestry App to go down deep into a ThruLine, you have to click the back button a gazillion times to return to where you started.
If you feel this pain, you may as well use a separate web browser on your phone to access the Ancestry website.
Large Trees May Be Problematic
When you first install the Ancestry App, it downloads all your trees from the Ancestry website. Some people report that very large trees can stall on the download. There are also comments that the app can be sluggish when viewing the downloaded large tree.
If you’re experiencing similar, you may be able to mitigate the issues by ensuring the app has plenty of memory available to it. Close down other apps that are running in the background. And make sure your battery has good juice – one guy with a tree with sixteen thousand people reports that he has no problems unless his battery goes below 5% power.
Messaging May Be Problematic
There’s quite a few complaints on the forums that the messaging screen doesn’t load properly, or that recent messages don’t appear. Personally, I’ve had problems with other screens, but the messaging feature has worked fine for me.
But Ancestry has been rolling out structural changes to the messaging system this year. So, these problems may not be related to the app per se.
AncestryDNA App Teething Problems
The AncestryDNA app is the newest addition to the app family. There’ll always be a few glitches with new software, you’ve just got to hope they get fixed fast.
Or maybe not so fast. There were reports that the DNA app was showing full names of DNA matches where the website was showing initials. One commenter said “if you have initial-only matches, its worth installing the app if you can.” Yikes! That would be a security issue. I’ve checked my DNA match list in September 2020, and this issue – if it existed – has been fixed.
A different issue cropped up for people who had tested a parent. All their close DNA matches were being lumped into either the maternal or the paternal side. I can’t evaluate this one, but judging by the recent comments – its been addressed.
Some people report that features are missing in the DNA app. For example, one commenter says that she can’t add DNA matches to a custom group. It’s true that there is no group feature appearing on the main DNA match screen. It may be available on the “Compare” screen – but as I mentioned before, this screen simply doesn’t load for me.
Questions are also asked about receiving invites to view other peoples’ trees. If you’re looking at the invite link in the App messaging screen, you currently can’t activate it from there. Use the website messaging page, or access it from the forwarded email.
What to do if your Ancestry Apps Stop Working
This advice applies to any mobile app, particularly when an update has been rolled out…yep, turn it off and on.
Specifically, uninstall and reinstall the app. If that doesn’t work straight away, uninstall the app again and then reboot the device (i.e. power down and turn it back on again). Then reinstall the app again.