Yes, every time you turn around it seems like ads for DNA services are all over the place. The first reason is obvious. Genealogy is the second most popular hobby after gardening. Genealogy websites are the second most visited category of websites. Genealogists and genealogy companies have figured out that DNA has a tremendous positive impact on solving family mysteries and getting to the truth. I can’t imagine trying to unravel some of the mysterious I have solved in the last 6 months without the help of DNA.
The second reason you’re seeing so many ads is because they are working. Spit in a tube and find out suddenly you’re Native American or Scottish versus German. People take the test to see the pie chart of where their ancestors came from. They also might look for a couple of family members or other easy things. The majority will never complete a family tree or do any serious genealogy work on their past. But they can be very useful…especially if their DNA can be compared to yours with a chromosome browser. I’ll cover more on that later when we start talking about how to do matches.
The third reason is less obvious but is the real driving force behind this growth – the value of the DNA databases. Ancestry has over 3 million in their database and it won’t surprise me to see that number hit 5,000,000 before the end of 2017. 23andme is running counter ads focusing on finding out about yourself as much as you can. Frankly, I’m glad to see it. More people testing means more matches and eventually a match will solve a mystery. But have no doubt about it, those databases are incredibly valuable. They could give the tests away and still make money… It would just take longer.
I’m going to conver the main DNA testing companies in this post. I’ll cover strengths and weaknesses. I’ll even make some recommendations based on what you are trying to accomplish by testing.
Ancestry is the largest supplier of consumer based Autosomal DNA testing in the world. They currently have over 3 million DNA samples in their database. They also focus on genealogy and selling their subscription service while selling the DNA kits. Ancestry has massive amounts of searchable records to assist in genealogical research. I do most of my work on Ancestry but they are not without problems.
Things I Like:
- The largest database of autosomal test results. Lots of matches. (As of March of 2017, I have over 36,000 total identified cousins on Ancestry with 1500 4th cousins or closer)
- Shared Ancestor Hints – They compare your tree with the trees of your matches and try to find the common ancestor.
- Ability to download raw data DNA
- Massive searchable genealogical database
- Ability to share your results with others
- Ability to manage multiple tests with just one account (Possibly changing)
- Reasonable responses from other users when contacted
- Generally good customer service. Two of my kits were lost in the mail and they replaced them without question.
Things I Dislike:
- No chromosome browser – Ancestry so far has resisted all the numerous requests for a chromosome browser feature. I’ll cover why it’s important in another post on matching but trust me – they need a browser.
- Their internal messaging system between customers sucks. Messages never arrive at times and they require the person log in to get their messages. Here’s an idea – just use email. It works.
- Tinder – Ancestry uses their own proprietary software to analyze and compare DNA between customers. I’m not huge fan of how it works. Gedmatch, 23andme and Family Tree DNA all have matching algorithms that don’t require valid segments to be split apart, etc.
- No ability to upload raw data from another company
- Only offers autosomal testing
Family Tree DNA is basically a one stop shop for DNA testing and genealogy. They offer autosomal, mtDNA and Y DNA testing and the ability to create and manage your genealogical tree. The also offer projects administered by volunteers based on DNA and broken down by surname, location or haplogroup. I’m co-administrator of the Adams surname Y DNA project as an example. As of February 2017, they have about 850,000 DNA samples on file. They also have the largest database of Y DNA test results available.
Things I Like:
- Comprehensive testing available. All your tests can be done in one location.
- Projects – Well run projects like the U-106 group are a huge benefit.
- Chromosome browser
- Ability to upload other autosomal DNA results so you don’t have to test twice. Only $19 one-time to unlock all of the features of Family Tree DNA once you upload including the chromosome browser. A Bargain.
- Extensive DNA database – especially Y DNA
- Uses e-mail to contact matches
- Probably the most responsive group of users of any of the three major testing companies
Things I Dislike:
- Research must be done elsewhere for genealogical records
23andme is the last of the big three. They launched with the idea to provide medical information based on DNA results. They ran into some issues with the FDA and had to suspend selling DNA kits until they fixed the issues. The resulting fix removed the offensive material but also hurt their marketing efforts.
Things I Like:
- Their collection of tested points gives the most medical information available on an autosomal test (Ancestry V2 comes pretty close)
- They have separated their product into just the test and genealogy info or a combination with the reduced health reports.
- A reasonable number of people tested (1.2 million)
Things I Dislike:
- Easily the least responsive group when requesting information to help with genealogy.
- Anonymous users
- Anonymous users (yes – I dislike it that much)
- Interface – my least favorite by far
Before I proceed with the rest of the companies in part 2 of this post, I’m going to make some recommendations based on what you desire out of the test.
Heredity – If you just want to know what your ancestral make up is, any of them will do. Understand that autosomal DNA varies greatly and your results will always be a best guess. Ancestry is rolling out some new features this spring that may make them the clear winner. I’ve seen preliminary results of their new features and they are impressive. If you already know for sure that your lineage has a large portion from the British Isles, you might want to read my part 2 post where I cover Living DNA.
Medical Info – I would go with 23andme and use their genealogy only version (the cheaper one). It doesn’t come with the health reports but you can run the raw data through Promethease and get all the results for $5. I’ll cover Promethease more in detail on a post about tools. If you want a combo of genealogy and medical, I would use the Ancestry test. In 2016, Ancestry changed their test and added a whole bunch of medically related snps.
Genealogy -I would go with Ancestry and then upload the raw data to both Gedmatch and Family Tree DNA. I use all three daily.
Adoptee or birth parent – all of them. If you can’t afford that, do Ancestry first, upload to Family Tree and Gedmatch and then test at 23andme as soon as you can afford to. Also, I would strongly recommend joining a Facebook group called DNA Detectives. It’s all about helping people find the birth family members. Gedmatch is a must.
Next post, I’ll cover some of the other companies that offer testing.