Update: This article is now obsolete, but I’m leaving it for historical context.
One of the questions most often asked today is which autosomal DNA test, or testing company, is the best, meaning Ancestry, 23andMe or Family Tree DNA.
The answer is often that it varies depending on your goals, individual priorities and budget. As with all things, circumstances with the vendors change over time. They offer new products, change features and overall, sometimes their actions and choices make them more or less valuable and attractive to the consumer.
This article reflects my opinions about what is good, and bad, at each vendor, today, in February 2015, and what they do best and worst. I am reviewing them in alphabetical order.
- Ability to download matching information about who your matches match that you match as well, along with common matching DNA segments, allowing direct triangulation.
In the example above, you can select the profile of any person you match and match against the profile of anyone else you match, showing you the common DNA segments of all parties.
- Chromosome Browser
- Ethnicity feature tends to report minority Native and African when other companies sometimes fail to do so.
- Ethnicity painted on chromosome segments.
- Matching names provided in order of frequency found – of course this assumes that the matches have entered a list of family surnames, which isn’t often the case.
- Y and mitochondrial DNA haplogroup estimate provided.
Not So Good
- Trees – were horrible before. 23andMe has recently partnered with MyHeritage which will require a subscription if your tree is larger than 250 individuals. The jury is still out on this but the initial release has been rocky and appears untested.
- Most of their customers are not genealogists and are not interested or know little about their genealogy. Fortunately, serious genealogists often test with multiple companies so you’re likely to catch them at either Family Tree DNA or at Ancestry.
- Very low match response rate to inquiries. Positive response is required to see matching DNA segments.
- Must communicate through internal message system.
- Unfriendly website – difficult to find information.
- Big Pharm alliances, contracts and medical patents – and your DNA is included one way or another, individually or aggregated, depending on the level of your authorization.
- Corporate focus is on medical and not genealogical.
- Customer support is poor, slow and often never replies.
- Limit of roughly 1000 matches, at which point your matches begin to be trimmed. You can retain more if you have established communications with people. I have over 1200 matches today, but I don’t know how many I have lost. This can make your effective matching threshold much higher than their published number by virtue of the fact that your smallest matches are forever being trimmed after you reach the 1000 match threshold.
- Spit kit versus swab kit.
- Cannot adjust matching threshold.
- V4 chip precludes data transfer to Family Tree DNA
- Test not available worldwide, meaning data base is not worldwide. Also not available in NY or MD.
- Horribly cumbersome and confusing multiple introductory and authorization/acceptance hurdles cause many people to not contact, communicate with and authorize sharing with most of their matches. I wrote about this here.
- The shakey leaf hints that show you who, of your DNA matches, also share a common ancestor in your pedigree chart. This drastically reduces the amount of initial footwork you need to do.
- The size of their data base increases likelihood of matching.
- DNA Circles provides additional evidence of ancestral connection.
- They are a genealogy, not a medically focused company.
- Provides list and links to matching surnames on matches trees, even when no common ancestor is identified.
- Clean, easy to use interface, although major changes have been announced and I have no idea whether that will be a positive or negative
Not So Good
- Some people have private trees which means they can see your match information, including a common ancestor if there is one, but you cannot see theirs.
- Ancestry ethnicity sometimes finds minority amounts of admixture, but can also be significantly incorrect on majority ancestry, so it’s difficult to have confidence in the consistency of results.
- Subscription required (starting at $49) to see matches/circle members which may not be fully understood before testing by consumers. In my case, I have a full subscription, so it’s a moot point, but that is not the case with everyone and it can be an unwelcome surprise.
- Ancestry’s consent allows them to sell anonymized results to buyers, including Big Pharm, should they choose to do so. As of October 2014 when I visited Ancestry as part of DNA Day, they stated that they had not sold any DNA data at that time.
- Communication is only through internal message system.
- Spit kit versus swab kit.
- Customer service is often uneducated about genetic genealogy in general, although they are responsive.
- Combination of matching and Circles leads people to believe that these are confirmed genetic matches to that particular line, even though Ancestry states otherwise, if one reads the text.
- DNA is an auxiliary tool and not a primary or priority corporate focus.
- Corporate history shows lack of commitment to DNA and to clients who tested – meaning their on-again-off-again DNA history the destruction of the Y and mtDNA data bases in October 2013.
- Academic phasing may have trimmed real matches.
- Test not available worldwide, meaning data base is not worldwide, although Ancestry has just announced availability in the UK and Ireland.
- Y and mitochondrial DNA ignored.
- No chromosome browser or equivalent type of tool or tools. I can’t state this strongly enough and it is a HUGE negative and requires that you transfer your results to either Family Tree DNA or to Gedmatch where you do have tools.
Family Tree DNA
- Full service genetic genealogy company – focused on genetic genealogy.
- Accepts transfers from Ancestry and V3 chip from 23andMe
- Partnership with National Geographic for research.
- Chromosome browser which includes in-common-with feature, search by surname and search by ancestral name.
- Matching Matrix individually and within projects for administrators.
- Projects and the ability within projects with advanced matching to see everyone you match autosomally within that project.
- Match names and e-mails provided – not forced to utilize an internal messaging system.
- Consent signed when ordering test is all that is needed for full matching and all features.
- Does common surname matching with all matches – bolding the results.
- Matching attempts to take highly endogamous populations into consideration.
- Includes access to other genetic genealogy tools like various levels of Y and mtDNA tests.
- Data base includes results for all tests, in one place, and resulting matches show Y and mtDNA haplogroups if that test has also been taken.
- Searches can include multiple types of test results, like everyone who matches both the mtDNA and the Family Finder test.
- Archives DNA for 25 years, allowing upgrades to be done on order without re-swabbing if DNA is adequate and viable.
- Testing performed in in-house lab.
- Project administrator liaison provided.
- Educational webinars for general genetic genealogy education and new product/feature releases. Archived webinars available on demand.
- Project administrator conference annually for the past decade.
- New features regularly released.
- Swab kit versus spit kit.
- Responsive to customer and project administrator needs and requests.
- Their customers more likely to be serious genealogists versus someone who tested initially for medical information (at 23andMe before December 2013) or impulse buyers.
- They do not sell and do not request consent to sell your personal or aggregated data to outside buyers. If your DNA data is ever requested for an academic research project, you will be individually contacted for consent.
- No subscription that increases actual cost of utilizing the test results.
- Available worldwide (unless illegal in the location, like France.)
Not So Good
- Cannot see if your matches also match each other on a specific segments, so cannot directly triangulate.
- Cannot adjust matching threshold for initial match, but can after initial match.
- Ethnicity often does not pick up small amounts of minority admixture found by other vendors and at Gedmatch.
- Trees are difficult to use.
1. In light of the above, my recommendation for autosomal DNA testing for genealogy if you can take only one test, order the Family Finder test with Family Tree DNA. They are unquestionably committed to genetic genealogy, have the most comprehensive set of tools, including a chromosome browser and other matching tools, and are overall the best company. The Family Finder test costs $99, unless you purchase when it’s on sale or have a coupon. (Current coupon code for $15 off is 15for15.)
2. If you can test with two companies, test with Family Tree DNA and Ancestry.com. You can do this by testing with Ancestry.com and transferring your results to Family Tree DNA, This approach costs about $187 total: to test at Ancestry ($99), for the first year basic subscription at Ancestry to see all your matching results ($49) if you aren’t already a subscriber, then to transfer the results to Family Tree DNA (free) and unlock the results ($39) unless you find 4 more people to transfer and then the unlock is free. Note that you will still need to swab to obtain the genealogy benefits of Y and mtDNA testing if you choose to take those tests in addition – and I hope you will because those are very valuable genealogy tools too and not available at the other vendors.
3. In my opinion, 23andMe has become a distant third in DNA testing due to their floundering and lack of commitment in the genealogy market-space, their prohibitively difficult introduction system that requires individual approvals for communicating and then for sharing of DNA (meaning matching) for each person you match, their recent alliance with Big Pharm, and their continuing lack of responsiveness to requests for genealogy enhancements. Lastly, you can no longer transfer your results from 23andMe to Family Tree DNA because 23andMe moved to the v4 chip (in December of 2013) which reduced the number of SNPs tested from about 900,000 to about 600,000, making the results incompatible with Family Tree DNA. However, just because they are third doesn’t mean you shouldn’t test there if you are really serious and want to fish in all of the ponds. It’s just the third choice if you can’t test at all three.
Judy Russell, The Legal Genealogist just wrote an article, 2015, Most bang for the DNA buck, which I suggest you read as well. She makes some very good points, although our approach is a bit different. But then again, I’d expect that. I’ve spent my life doing “analytical” types of things and she has spent her life doing “lawyery” types of things, and there is nothing better than two perspectives to draw from.
It will be interesting to see what the landscape looks like a year, 2 and 5 years from now. I think the X-prize (pardon the pun) will go to the company or companies that provide comprehensive tools and make genetic genealogy as easy and productive as possible – for both the beginner and the advanced user. No small feat – that’s for sure!
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DNA Purchases and Free Transfers
- Family Tree DNA
- MyHeritage DNA only
- MyHeritage DNA plus Health
- MyHeritage FREE DNA file upload
- 23andMe Ancestry
- 23andMe Ancestry Plus Health
- Legacy Tree Genealogists for genealogy research