Two volunteers and I spit and swabbed our way through eight ancestry services’ DNA collection kits. Below are the volunteers' and Checkbook's staff's impressions of the reports each company sent us.

For costs, we cite companies’ list prices, but most frequently offer discounts.

A big disclaimer: While we prefer to rely on rigorous research, neither we nor anyone else can assess the accuracy of the ancestry reports these services supply. While some companies are better than others at explaining their findings and placing them into the proper historical context, others sent skimpy summaries. Some companies’ ads and marketing clearly overpromise, and some companies’ estimates overreach by providing the impression of precise measurement when that’s not really possible.

All of the companies need to improve their data and methods to better serve people of non-European descent (the vast majority of genetic research has so far been done by European and North American scientists studying those populations). And for all of the companies, we’re concerned that not enough is being done to protect consumers’ privacy. When you submit your DNA for testing on your own, you don’t get the same legal privacy protections you receive when doctors or hospitals initiate medical genetic tests.
 

AncestryDNA


What it offers/hypes:

  • Ancestry estimates by more than 500 regions. Uses the largest DNA reference dataset—16,000 individuals.
  • Conventional genealogical info available via Ancestry.com (separate membership fees).
  • Discover and connect with relatives who have submitted their samples.
  • Reports on 18 non-medical traits, such as sweet sensitivity, eye color, and finger length.

Cost:

  • $99 for DNA ancestry report. Separate memberships to Ancestry.com, its conventional genealogical/family tree site, cost $198/year, but the extras add up fast (total cost is $298–$398/year to add access to its international records, for example).

What we like:

  • Clicking on ancestry estimates pulls up statistical confidence intervals. (Because estimating ancestry is so imprecise, we think all the companies should show these ranges.)
  • We were overall disappointed by the reports we got from AncestryDNA but think Ancestry.com, its conventional genealogical site, is worth checking out. Although expensive, it can quickly present users with tons of details and family trees based on info submitted by relatives and its massive collection of historical records.

What we don’t like:

  • DNA ancestry reports were overall thin on details and explanations. Our staff kept asking one another: “Is this all we get?”
  • Ads overpromise. “AncestryDNA doesn’t just tell you which countries you’re from, but also can pinpoint the specific regions within them, giving you insightful geographic detail about your history.” They can’t do that—and the reports our three volunteers received did not pinpoint regions anyway.
  • Autosomal testing, which means it can’t offer separate info for each parent.
     

FamilyTreeDNA


What it offers/hypes:

  • Breakdown of ancestry estimates for the last 500 years by 24 “population clusters,” plus an “ancient origins” report.
  • Discover and connect with relatives who have submitted their samples.
  • More intellectual than the others. Offers lots of detailed, granular data. Smart people hang out here.

Cost:

  • $79 for autosomal report; $169–$649 for paternal ancestry history; $199 for maternal history.

What we like:

  • The most transparent of all the services we tried. Reports indicate how submitted samples match to its reference dataset for each region it has defined. Marketing doesn’t overpromise.
  • Ancient origins reports offer interesting migration maps and history lessons.
  • Offers paternal and maternal lineage studies.

What we don’t like:

  • While lots of detail and data are good for transparency, they got in the way of comprehension. We wished there were more summaries or boiled-down explanations.
  • Website less user-friendly than the others. When explanations exist, they’re in the form of long PDF documents.
  • More expensive than the others.
     

HomeDNA


What it offers/hypes:

  • Ancestry reports! Paternity tests! Customized weight-loss and skin-care regimens based on genetic samples! Genetic testing for your pet!
  • Ancestry estimates by 41 historical gene pools. Claims to offer “highest-resolution DNA test available” and that it can target ancestral roots even to the town or village level.
  • Offers African and Asian editions.

Cost:

  • $124 for “advanced” ancestry test; $199 for “GPS Origins” DNA ancestry test, which is the same thing but allows users to download their results. $69 additional for each separate maternal/paternal lineage report. $69 for “starter” ancestry test, but this option provides very little info.

What we like:

  • Offers African and Asian editions, but we can’t tell if it really has diverse enough data to make these services better than others for these groups.
  • Provides a lot of interesting lessons, maps of migration patterns, and historical context for each gene-pool group.
  • Doesn’t share customers’ DNA with any third parties or researchers.

What we don’t like:

  • Ads overpromise: “Pinpoint your ancestry—even to the town or city—with the highest-resolution DNA test available.” They can’t do that. We were unimpressed by the hype of most of this company’s marketing materials.
  • Uses unique terms to describe ancestral regions that confused our volunteers and staff. We had to click for long history lessons and explanations to determine what it meant by “Orkney Islands” or “Tuva” groups. The website overall wasn’t as organized or as intuitive as 23andMe and LivingDNA.
  • Expensive, especially if you want any add-on options.
  • Unless you pay extra, you won’t get separate results for each parent.
  • Doesn’t report Jewish heritage separately from its regional definitions.
  • Doesn’t let you discover relatives who have submitted their samples.
  • Its “healthy weight” analysis was thorough but silly. We don’t think genetic testing is necessary to formulate a sensible and balanced eating plan.
  • The skin care and pet and food sensitivities report add-ons were beyond silly. That it sells these reports made us question the reliability of the company’s ancestry tests.
  • Our staff is divided as to whether the pet testing stuff is “dumb” (non-dog owners) or “kinda fun” (dog owners).

LivingDNA


What it offers/hypes:

  • Ancestry estimates by 80 regions, including 21 sub-regions for Great Britain.
  • When we submitted our tests, it wasn't offering to connect customers with relatives who have submitted their samples. It has since rolled out a "beta" family-finding feature.

Cost:

  • $99 for DNA ancestry report.

What we like:

  • Well-designed site allows users to examine their results at three geographic levels: “global” (least specific), “regional” (more specific), and “sub regions” (for the British Isles). This lets users view their ethnic estimates using three confidence levels: complete, standard, and cautious. Given the high degree of uncertainty for these types of analyses, we wish the other sites offered these types of options.
  • Offers interesting regional detail for those with British roots.
  • Provides easy-to-understand explanations on its process, findings, and limitations. Lots of cool science and history lessons for us nerds.
  • Reports results separately for each parent.

What we don’t like:

  • For those without British roots, not as useful as many of the other sites.
  • Because it does not yet report Jewish heritage separately from its regional definitions, other services are better options for them.

MyHeritage DNA


What it offers/hypes:

  • Ancestry estimates by 42 ethnicities.
  • Can discover and connect with relatives who have submitted their samples.
  • Conventional genealogical info available via MyHeritage.com (separate membership fees).

Cost:

  • $79 for DNA ancestry report.
    Separate membership to
    MyHeritage.com, its conventional genealogical/family tree site, costs $129–$299/year.

What we like:

  • Inexpensive—often available for less than $60.

What we don’t like:

  • Thin on details and explanations of results and limitations. When we clicked a link to get more details on its analysis, the website offered a 45-minute consultation with one of its genetic genealogists—for $100.
  • Ads overpromise. “We analyze your DNA to determine which portions are estimated to originate from each of our 42 supported ethnicities—the largest number offered by any major DNA testing service.” Our three volunteers got back pretty basic reports on their ethnic estimates.
  • Autosomal testing, which means it can’t offer separate info for each parent.
  • For conventional family-tree building, we preferred Ancestry.com. We found it easier to navigate and quickly build family trees.
     

National Geographic Geno 2.0


What it offers/hypes:

  • Breakdown of “deep ancestry” from 200,000 years ago to today.
  • Whether users are related to its “historical geniuses.”

Cost:

  • $100

What we like:

  • Well-designed, straightforward site. Easy-to-understand explanations on its process, findings, and limitations. Excellent job placing its reports’ information in historical context.
  • Provides separate estimates for each parent.
  • Unlike many of the other ancestry services, doesn’t overpromise in its marketing. Its reports explain that, because our genes derive from so many ancestors, often from widespread regions, our ancestral maps are similarly widespread.
  • Its “deep ancestry” reports concisely illustrate how various haplogroups migrated throughout history.
  • The genius match feature is fun and helps illustrate human genetic interconnectivity—even though its list of geniuses is pretty random (website does properly admit its selections are arbitrary).

What we don’t like:

  • Doesn’t let you discover relatives who have submitted their samples.
  • Doesn’t let users upload their data from samples sent to other services.
     

23andMe


What it offers/hypes:

  • Ancestry estimates by more than 1,000 regions.
  • Can discover and connect with relatives who have submitted their samples.
  • Currently the only service that offers genetic medical tests without a prescription. At the time of this writing, tested for 10 or more genetic conditions, including BRCA1/BRCA2 (for some cancers), age-related macular degeneration, Parkinson’s, and late-onset Alzheimer’s. (Seeking FDA approval to report on additional conditions.) Click here for more info and discussion on medical genetic testing.
  • “Wellness report” that tests for eight inherited traits, such as lactose intolerance, sleep habits, and weight.
  • “Carrier status” report on more than 40 inherited traits, including sickle cell anemia and cystic fibrosis.
  • Report on whether more than 30 other traits are more or less likely, ranging from back hair to freckles to mosquito bite frequency to toe length ratio.
  • Percent Neanderthal DNA (potentially hilarious).

Cost:

  • $99 for DNA ancestry report, $199 for DNA ancestry report and health/traits.

What we like:

  • Provides a ton of info. Does an excellent job explaining how genetic science works, indicating the limitations of its work, and placing its estimates in historical context. Allows users to examine their ethnicity estimates at different confidence levels (but you unfortunately really have to dig to find that feature).
  • Has a neat timeline that estimates when ancestors likely descended from a single population or ethnicity.
  • Health reports are interesting and very inexpensive, but before you buy click here for further discussion.
  • Provides separate ancestry estimates for each parent.
  • Marketing doesn’t overpromise too much.

What we don’t like:

Vitagene


What it offers/hypes:

  • “No more fad diets. Take control of your health.” Claims to use customers’ DNA to create custom recommendations for diet, exercise, and skin care (and sells expensive said products).
  • Basic ancestry estimates.
  • Tests for 35 healthcare-related traits, from weight to vitamin absorption to effect of exercise.
  • Detailed diet plans for weight loss.
  • Can link accounts to FamilyTreeDNA to discover and connect with relatives who have submitted their samples.

Cost:

  • $99 for ancestry report and diet, exercise, and supplement recommendations; additional $40 to add skin-care recommendations. For $259 you get all that plus a “personalized supplements package.”

What we like:

  • Not much. The dieting plans we received seemed sensible, but we don’t need genetic testing to formulate a sensible eating plan.

What we don’t like:

  • Because we’re admittedly a cynical lot, this company’s claims nearly broke us. The operation seems mostly geared toward pushing—in our view—dubiously researched and expensive supplements. But we’ll give it a bit of credit for being somewhat subtle about selling these items: You can sign up to receive regular shipments of supplements based on its customized report, but its marketing efforts are not overly obnoxious.
  • A lot of the supplements the site recommends might do you more harm than good. Much recent clinical research recommends avoiding most supplements.
  • Ancestry reports were absurdly vague and included basically no explanations or details beyond a map and estimated ethnic percentages for a handful of regions.