Do-it-all databases – five full-featured DBMS products – Software Review

Do-it-all databases – five full-featured DBMS products – Software Review – Evaluation

David Haskin

Lose that wimpy PIM or contact manager and check out these five easy yet powerful databases

Sometimes a little power isn’t enough. Your personal information manager (PIM) is fine for tracking the names, addresses, and phone numbers of your close friends and daily appointments, but only a full-fledged database program can deftly handle 5,000 sales leads. Similarly, your office suite’s trusty spreadsheet is terrific for crunching numbers, but a database provides the flexibility you need for managing your home office’s ordering, payment, and contact information.

Simply put, a database is a highly structured program that manages a wide array of information. With it, you can collect individual records–sets of information about specific people, products in inventory, and so on–and perform complex searches for the records you need with the click of a mouse. Better yet, you can use your database to comprehend the nuances of your home-based business–to find, say, all clients who live on the Pacific Rim and earn more than $100,000 a year, or your best customers in New England who pay their invoices on time.

For this buyer’s guide, we gathered five full-featured database packages. Although each of the big three office suites contains a database, they’re usually found in the professional rather than compact editions of those bundles. Microsoft Office 97 Small Business Edition, for example, doesn’t include Microsoft’s Access database (it comes with Publisher 98 instead), but the upcoming Microsoft Office 2000 Premium and Professional editions will include Access 2000. Lotus SmartSuite Millennium Edition relies on Approach to manage records, and Corel WordPerfect Office 2000 Professional will ship with Paradox 9.0. If you’re looking for a database that isn’t yoked to an office suite yet can share data with all major word processors and spreadsheets, we also examined FileMaker Pro 4.1 and Alpha Five 4.0.

BREAKING THE RECORDS

All five databases in our roundup are suitable for use in large corporations and home offices alike. They include high-end tools that many homeworkers will never use, such as SQL for performing mainframe-strength searches, and programming languages for creating custom applications. Typically, these features are the province of corporate IS departments.

For the rest of us, we tested each program’s wizards, genies, and experts–aides designed to walk new users through complex tasks such as creating tables, forms, and reports and performing results-oriented queries. Because of the complexity of these programs, we also tested how easy (or hard) it was to perform more, difficult database tasks, such as importing a sizable DBF database file from our contact manager, creating a sales report including total monthly sales calculations, and printing mailing labels. And because wizards or genies can’t do everything, we also performed the same tasks without the help of these electronic hand-holders.

Alpha Five 4.0 8.1

The independent Alpha Five has endured the onslaught of suite-based databases for good reason: It’s simple to use, yet has all the power you’ll ever need for managing data. And at $129, it’s the most affordable package in this group.

Like Microsoft Access, Alpha Five 4.0 has a tabbed dialog box design: You click the tabs to create, view, and edit tables, forms, and reports. The program’s genies proved helpful, if a bit less thorough than Microsoft’s wizards, especially when importing new information. Although Alpha Fire’s genie for importing database files performed flawlessly, it’s limited to text, Microsoft Excel 3.0 and 4.0, and Lotus 1-2-3 files, in addition to its native dbase (DBF) format. We were dismayed that it couldn’t import recent Excel spreadsheets.

Worse, the default field length for incoming text fields is eight characters or less. If the database you’re importing has fields with long names such as Home Address, you must manually shorten them. If you don’t, Alpha Five will truncate the content of those fields. In this age of long file names, we can’t excuse this oversight.

The program’s genie for creating reports lets you easily select specific fields to include. Similarly simple genies help you create labels and form letters, which work like mail merges in your favorite word processor–you select and filter the fields of records you want to include. You can create merge templates for letters in your word processor and import them, complete with formatting, into Alpha Five for the merge.

Perhaps the most useful genie is dedicated to developing complex queries, which greatly simplified that process. But you won’t get much help from the genie for creating forms, which merely dumped us into Alpha Five’s form creation utility. Trust us: Beginners will be lost.

To simplify assorted tasks, you can create macros (dubbed operations) that automate chores such as copying or exporting records. In addition, Alpha Five has a script recorder that watches your keystrokes and mouse movements and records them as macros without having to learn the scripting language.

Alpha Five has as much power as any database in this roundup, and is at least as friendly as Microsoft Access. But its method of importing data is maddening, and it’s not as easy to use as Lotus Approach.

Corel Paradox 9.0 7.2

Are you serious about data-shuffling? Let the other packages cater to database-phobes; Paradox 9.0 is a high-end record-keeper designed for unabashedly experienced, if not adventurous, users.

This component of Corel’s forthcoming WordPerfect Office 2000 suite (also to be Offered alone), which we tested in beta form, greets you with a welcome screen that lets you click on icons to open an existing database or create a new one from scratch. Other icons offer a template to create a new database or wizardlike experts for record-keeping tasks.

The term expert is appropriate because only experts will be able to take full advantage of them. For instance, Paradox’s expert for creating a database prompts you to select a template, but most of the other programs’ assistants help you build your database from the ground up. The expert then helps you add fields to those already in the template, but it doesn’t help you redefine field properties. To do that, you’ll have to use the regular dialog box, which is full of database jargon.

Although most of Paradox’s experts won’t clarify matters for newcomers, their results are powerful. For instance, some templates automatically create a series of related tables, making Paradox the only database in our roundup to do so. On the downside, precisely defining and managing related tables was a puzzling chore.

Similarly, the expert for creating a report assumes you’re familiar with sorting and grouping information, and it doesn’t provide much explanation about these operations. But it packs plenty of power, including the ability to select multiple tables from which to draw information, a feature the other programs lack. To define fields, you must go several layers deep into Paradox’s Tools menu. Once there, however, the five-tabbed dialog box lets you manipulate virtually all parts of the table.

We found one exception to this good news-bad news approach: Paradox’s expert for creating mailing labels was the clearest, most thorough aid for that job we discovered in any database.

Database experts will love Paradox 9.0, but its complexity will leave casual users scratching their heads. It’s undeniably powerful and it can handle almost anything you throw its way, but you’ll need to set aside considerable time to learn the program before you start using it productively.

FileMaker Pro 4.1 9.2

FileMaker Pro 4.1 won’t woo database rookies with automation aids like wizards or genies–it has none. That makes getting to know this program a bit difficult at first. But once you learn its basics, you’ll find FileMaker a delightfully simple and flexible database that costs a reasonable $199.

And if you have both a Windows PC and a Macintosh in your home office, FileMaker Pro is the only database for you, because it’s available for both operating systems. For this guide, we reviewed the Windows version. Windows users may find the program’s Mac-like design an impediment at first, because the usual array of toolbars and menus is slightly different than what they’re used to. After a few hours using the program, however, these cosmetic concerns disappear.

In fact, we liked FileMaker Pro right off the bat. It imported our test database file without a hitch, and we admired its collection of 45 database templates, more than half of which are dedicated to business operations. The program’s dialog box for creating databases from scratch is a marvel of simplicity–making it easy, for instance, to create a field that automatically provides a calculated value based on two other fields.

Although FileMaker Pro isn’t difficult to use, we did miss the presence of wizards when creating forms and reports. Database veterans will find FileMaker’s layout tools quite straightforward for generating these items, but neophytes will be daunted.

Like Lotus Approach, FileMaker Pro doesn’t have separate modules for managing different items such as tables, forms, and reports. Instead, it displays layouts, which can be forms, reports, or any other database objects. You switch between layouts by clicking on a toolbar button. This method simplifies moving between different views of your information.

Even beginning database users are destined to leave the safety of wizards and genies one day. When they do, they should think about adding FileMaker Pro to their list of indispensable programs.

Lotus Approach Millennium Edition 8.6

Known as the anti-Access because of its user-friendliness, Approach remains the easiest-to-use database in this quintet. But over the years, Lotus’s entry has gained plenty of muscle as well.

Approach imported our contact manager data flawlessly, without requiring anything from us beyond selecting the file. If you’re building a database from scratch, Approach comes with more than 50 templates for tracking accounts and contacts. Along with these head starts, Approach offers several helpful assistants and a generally intuitive design: You’re greeted with understandable, tabbed dialog boxes for tasks ranging from creating tables, reports, and forms to performing complex queries.

Approach’s assistants will help you out of any recordkeeping jam, but the package really shines for its precise searching–making it amazingly easy, for example, to create a selection list of values for a specific field (searching for, say, clients only in the six New England states). The only downside is that the assistants, though helpful and responsive, don’t go as far as Access’s wizards do.

Although Access 2000 and Alpha Five both have tabbed designs for managing items like tables and reports, Approach’s design resembles FileMaker Pro’s. That is, you view tables, forms, and reports that you can change on the fly, by applying previously saved queries. When viewing your inventory of widgets, for instance, you can select a query from the drop-down list and change the report to show only your inventory of red widgets. By contrast, in Access 2000 or Alpha Five, those would be two reports you would have to load separately.

Approach makes some advanced features accessible to nontechnical users. Its intuitive macro recorder can save either keystrokes or mouse movements to be repeated later. And its slick e-mail capabilities let you select the currently viewed information and route it to colleagues or clients so it automatically moves on to Manager B after Manager A signs off on it.

Overall, Lotus Approach does the best job of walking the line between simplicity and power. We wish it were available separately as well as part of SmartSuite Millennium Edition.

Microsoft Access 2000 8.4

Although Word and Excel win rave reviews, Microsoft Access has a reputation for being tough to use–for owing its market leadership not to its own merits, but to the overwhelming marketing success of Microsoft’s Office suite. But that’s no longer a fair criticism. Even if you’re no fan of Bill Gates, it’s hard to deny that Access 2000, which we reviewed in a late beta stage, combines an industrial-strength database with excellent automation capabilities for home office workers.

As with other programs in Microsoft Office, the first things that caught our eye were Access’s helpful wizards, which are hands-down the most thorough in this group. For example, the table creation wizard helped us link relationships between tables and also offered us the option of creating a data entry form; no other assistant was this thorough.

We were also impressed that the reports wizard enabled us to sort the report and include subtotals. The only wimpy wizard is that for performing complex queries: It merely prompted us to select the tables we wanted to query, then it loaded the complete query interface. This cluttered dialog box for performing searches will be intuitive for experienced users, but it’s bound to baffle beginners because it expects you to understand complex query syntax.

Indeed, that’s the rub with Access 2000: When the wizards fail to handle common database tasks, the learning curve steepens significantly, because the overall design isn’t always intuitive. For instance, there’s no wizard at all for importing data, which is the first task a new database operator must perform unless she’s entering information from scratch.

Still, some parts of Access’s design are simple and powerful. Although the Query Creation window won’t be immediately obvious to beginners, it’s still the simplest tool in the group for querying multiple tables. Access 2000 doesn’t have a macro recorder, but comes with a reasonably intuitive drop-down list of actions you may want to automate, such as selecting a specific table and printing. You then modify each action in the bottom part of the dialog box by selecting, for instance, how many copies to print.

Although Access 2000 will be available both by itself and as part of the Professional and Premium versions of Microsoft Office 2000 when that suite ships later this year, it won’t be part of the popular Small Business Edition, according to Microsoft statements. But if you’re looking for a powerful database that provides many tools to simplify common tasks, Access 2000 is a strong choice.

RELATED ARTICLE: CHEAT SHEET

DATABASE GLOSSARY

Field: A basic unit of information in a database record, such as a client’s name, city, or state.

Form: A simplified front end for entering and editing data. It contains only the fields needed to perform a specific task, such as adding a new record or logging a product order.

Record: Provides information about a single entity, such as one of your customers.

Relational Database: A database that stores information in multiple, related tables.

Report: An easy-to-read view or subset of selected information from the database.

Sort: The ability to arrange records in your database based on the contents of one or more fields.

Structured Query Language (SQL): A method of searching for information used by corporate databases such as Oracle.

Table: A collection of related records. For instance, you might have a table containing basic information about all of your clients.

Validation: A feature that makes sure you don’t enter incorrect information, such as the date April 31.

YOUR PERSONAL SHOPPER

“I don’t need to spend $200 or more on a database program,” you might say to yourself. “I’m already using the most popular database on the planet–Microsoft Excel.” Well, it’s true that today’s superpowered spreadsheets can easily sort and stack lists of products or customers, with multiple-page worksheets mimicking the multiple tables in a relational database. But the more complex your queries and reports, or the more you long to work with friendly onscreen forms instead of unwieldy grids of rows and columns, the more you’ll be tempted to take the database plunge. Put it this way: Even Access is friendlier than Excel’s pivot tables and cross tabs.

–ERIC GREVSTAD EDITOR IN CHIEF

RELATED ARTICLE: DATA BASICS

Sure, professional databases have recently incorporated plenty of easy-to-use features from PIMs. But they still require more work than these friendly address and appointment keepers. Here’s a shod list of what you’ll need to do when putting your ducks in a row.

STEP ONE: Classify and organize. All databases consist of records, which contain fields for specific information such as first name, last name, address, and phone. To begin, you must determine which fields you need and the type of data they’ll contain–say, a date field followed by a text field and a numeric field.

STEP TWO: Go relational. A flat-file or card-file database contains all your information in a single table or set of records. All of the programs here, by contrast, can link information in one table to data in another. This relational ability means you might have one table with such basic customer information as names and addresses, another containing information about each customer’s ordering history, and a third for inventory.

STEP THREE: Create forms. When adding a new record, a form will simplify inputting new information. Acting as a front end to the database record, this electronic form or arrangement of empty fields resembles the paper forms we fill out in real life. Forms are easier to read than tables and typically contain only the fields you need.

STEP FOUR: Making queries. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there are clumsy queries. Simple queries require you to type in a single word, such as a last name, into a dialog box. More complex queries look for multiple factors from different tables, such as clients who live in a range of zip codes and are more than 60 days late paying their bills. Queries have their own syntax, such as symbols to signify that you’re looking for values below or above a specific level.

STEP FIVE: File a report. Reports show specific information in an easy-to-read format. For instance, you may want a database report that shows your receivables for the coming month, sorted by client or price. As with a spreadsheet, you can add formulas to reports to, for example, include the total amount of money due to you each month. –D. H.

David Haskin, who also reviewed monitors in this issue, uses a database to track his dwindling free time.

COPYRIGHT 1999 CURTCO Freedom Communications

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group