When I decided to look into DNA testing, I wasn’t really looking for relatives exactly. I am quite interested in my heritage though, and I had exhausted other avenues for finding out more about my family line. Surprisingly, the cost of genealogical DNA testing has gone down significantly. I found several services that were under $200, but ended up being torn between AncestryDNA (as I already had a tree there) and 23andme. Eventually I ended up testing with both, primarily because I couldn’t find any information on which was the best DNA test. Now having tried both I thought it might be helpful to share an in-depth comparison of the two services.
First, the basics, what does AncestryDNA or 23andme DNA testing cost and what do you get with each?
AncestryDNA: $99: Ethnic mix profile, DNA matches, DNA circles, genetic communities (new 2017) and raw DNA. The AncestryDNA test is actually cheaper via Amazon Prime, because you get free shipping, but if you order direct from AncestryDNA you can get 10% off with this referral link. With both options it’s worth checking out Ebates. They are a cash-back shopping site that pays quarterly via PayPal. AncestryDNA is usually at around 7.5% cash back, and Amazon is about 3%.
23andme: $99 plus shipping (for me that came to $108): Ethnic mix profile, ancestry timeline (new 2017), maternal/paternal line origin (paternal for males only, requires Y chromosome, updated 2017), Neanderthal percentage, top surnames, DNA matches, and raw DNA.
Note: 23andme offers two service levels, if you wish to include medical risk profiles, the test cost increases to $199. Recently 23andme also became available on Amazon Prime for $99 with free shipping or $199 with free shipping. This page was updated in 2017 to reflect the new 23andme site and options. I have also published an in-depth comparison of the two testing options here.
So, price wise, AncestryDNA and 23andme cost the same.
Now, what the heck are all those DNA services you get and how do they compare to one another?
Ethnic Mix profile: Both AncestryDNA and 23andme offer this. Basically, your genes are compared to samples from specific populations of people, and then you are given a percentage for each. Below are my personal results for both.
As you can see, in ways they were the same. Both profiles found a very small percentage of West African (Mali) and Native American, with the vast majority being European. AncestryDNA claimed a large percentage was “Western European” and “Great Britain” while 23andme seemed to favor “Broadly Northern European” and “British and Irish.” Though you can also view five different calculation options at 23andme varying from 90 percent “conservative” to 50 percent speculative—each “guessing” to different degrees. The more conservative of course will have the most “broadly” percentages. The image is from the default setting “50% speculative.” In reality, from what is known of my family lines I have a great deal of Norwegian, French, British, and Scottish, so both profiles seem plausible. This brings me to an important point.
Ethnicity estimates from DNA testing like this are genetic heritage, not genealogical. You could think of your genes like one big historical bag of traits including genes from all of your ancestors. The actual genes that make you up are just a random roll of the dice from those genes. So while the last 3 generations of your line may be say, straight from Norway, your genes could represent family from thousands of years ago. That being said, then why did ancestryDNA and 23andme get different results? It’s all in how they are weighing their sample sources. Personally, I felt both profiles useful, particularly combined. Europe is such a jumble of genes in cases it’s hard to say what came from what population, that’s where “broadly” European comes into play. To me this says my genes are heavily European, likely northwestern—Scotland, Norway, Britain, and France—my actual known heritage— included.
AncestryDNA and 23andme do differ in that at 23andme if you have a parent test, they will update your genetic report by incorporating your parents results. You can read more on this process here. After this review was written my mother tested at 23andme my percentages did change. You are also given a side-by-side look at your composition next to your parent.
Early in 2017, 23andme also upped their game a bit, adding in a new ancestry timeline to ancestry composition results. This is a timeline guessing at the time frame that certain genes entered your ancestry. You can hover over each bar to get more detailed information, such as which ancestor the genes may have come from (ex/ great grandparent).
Possibly in reaction to 23andme, AncestryDNA revealed another feature this March called genetic communities. It’s a very nice addition to their already superior family tree research tools. By comparing your DNA to your matches and their family origin locations a map is built guessing at areas your family actually may have lived. You can see some screenshots of my results below. You get a short history of the region (not pictured), the probability of this match being accurate for you, matches that were used to determine the region, and common surnames in the region.
Over at 23andme you get a few more genetic heritage profiles that AncestryDNA does not offer as well.
I’m not a scientist, so I’ll just use their description of this service,
“…haplogroups are families of mitochondrial DNA types that all trace back to a single mutation at a specific place and time. By looking at the geographic distribution of mtDNA types, we learn how our ancient female ancestors migrated throughout the world.” My results (to give you a sample)
As a female, I only got my maternal line. The paternal haplogroup is from a Y chromosome, so to get this info my father or brother would have to test. To clarify here as there have been numerous comments now asking about this, 23andme and ancestryDNA are both autosomal DNA tests. This means that no matter your gender, you will get results from both your maternal and paternal lines in regards to ancestry. My note here about a brother or father testing was ONLY for the haplogroup information given at 23andme shown above.
NEW August 2017: 23andme expanded their haplogroup information to include a much better explanation of what haplogroups are as well as the ability to trace your line back throughout time. You get a brief look at where and when each mutation in the group occurred, how common your group is, and famous relatives that also shared your haplogroup (I got Marie Antoinette!).
Neanderthal percentage: This is what it sounds, a percentage of your DNA that is inherited from Neanderthal genetics as well as traits likely to result of the variants you have in particular. For instance, I have a variant more likely to result in straight hair (though my hair is not straight). I do question the accuracy here. I tested with AncestryDNA first, and curious about this part I ran my DNA though a calculator designed by an expert in Neanderthal DNA at Standford (you can do it too here, it’s free) It counts known Neanderthal alleles and lists them. I had 16, the average is 5-6. My husband also tested at 23andme. According to them, he is more Neanderthal than I am, but according to the Interpretome calculator it’s significantly the other way around (he had 11). (pics below) I suppose what this will confirm is that you have some at all (most people do.)
Top surnames: This is found on your DNA relatives tab, it combs through your DNA matches and compiles a count of surnames associated with those matches. My matches, for example, told me I had 44 matches with the surname “Smith” and 33 with “Johnson.” This is a fast way to identify likely family lines.
DNA matches: Back to a service both tests offer. Both show you DNA matches and estimate closeness. Here were my match stats:
AncestryDNA: 2 second cousins, 2 third cousins, 93 fourth cousins, 5,003 distant cousins!
23andme: 10 2/3rd, 852 fourth, 62 distant
Results there will obviously vary, but I’d wager AncestryDNA has a larger pool of matches from those results. The real difference is in ease of genealogical use though. Why I’d recommend Ancestry if you’re looking to confirm or create your family tree is that they filter your matches by name matches in your tree. No effort. You click the leaf filter, click a match with a leaf, it shows common names in your trees so you can see just where you relate. Now the catch, some trees are private, and out of over 5,000 matches, I had 14 DNA/common tree member matches. These helped me tremendously, but it is disappointing the percentage was so small. Even without a common member, many matches’ trees were a click away to search for common surnames. AncestryDNA match screen:
I did attempt to make a tree over at 23andme, but they outsource that to “myheritage tree” a family tree service that is in my opinion a bit clunky—and worse expensive—more so than ancestries tree builder even, which side note, with purchase of AncestryDNA you get 50% off family tree builder services. I also could not and still do not see an easy way to compare matches to trees at myheritage, in fact, I don’t even see an indication of whether a match has a tree. To find out, you have to contact every single match to ask. Something I could see wasting a great deal of time. Sample of 23andme match screen (updated since original stats were taken):
Finally, raw DNA download. This is a just a copy of your raw DNA results, you can do some other cool things with this, such as the Neanderthal test I linked back there. My favorite though is Promethease. This report costs $5. What it does is cross checks your genes against studies done on individual genes. For example, it found I have a gene that makes me sneeze at sun light and my husband had a gene that made cilantro taste like soap. It also reveals more serious info, like increased genetic risk for medical conditions. It is well worth the $5. If you’re interested in weight loss and exercise, Athletigen is fun too.
If you can only afford one test, I’d say it depends on your reason for wanting a DNA test. If it’s to find family or expand your family tree via genealogy, I’d vote AncestryDNA. If you want genetic heritage info, 23andme offers more.
Also note, my processing wait time on both tests was about the same ~1 month, however, wait times depend on how busy the labs are, so in times where test sales tend to be higher, such as after sales or around Christmas, wait times tend to be longer. To my understanding the month I saw was about standard, but some people see double that.