Databases add power and flexibility

Which new personal database has the right features and ease of use for your customer?

Editor's Note: This review originally appeared in the June 1 issue of Government Computer News.

Choosing personal database software that matches the needs of your customer's organization can be difficult. There are many options to pick from, and they all pretty much do the same thing: aggregate and store data and provide users with a robust mini-search engine to retrieve the stored data.

However, there are six additional criteria that good database software should be able to meet.

1. Easy installation and setup. In the recent past, databases could take hours to install and set up. They also came with complex wizards that could monopolize your afternoon while you got your settings right.

2. Compatibility with other databases. For some reason, a new database will often cause another one to crash. That is most often the case with free databases you find online. Those programs are not tested as rigorously as personal databases from a large vendor, and they frequently end up costing you more in time and patience than their free price tag would suggest.

3. Minimal training requirements. At least the basics should be easy to perform, such as creating, running and saving queries. Another quick task should be inputting common forms of data, such as contact lists and addresses.

4. Data protection. A good database should keep information safe from program-associated vulnerabilities such as crashes. That feature can be especially important for government agencies.

5. Reasonable price. A lot of bells and whistles are nice to have, unless you are paying by the gizmo.

6. Spreadsheet compatibility. The best features of a good database include its ability to work with complementary programs such as spreadsheets. That capability morphs a simple stand-alone database into an advanced data-mining and analysis tool.

For this review, we developed a 10M mass of data in a spreadsheet to test the interoperability between the databases and complementary software.

We reviewed five of the latest personal databases using the six criteria listed above to determine the best overall solution for agencies.

We should note that, despite repeated requests, IBM chose not to participate with its Lotus product.


Alpha Five Version 9 Platinum

Alpha Five Version 9 Platinum

Pros: Robust Web capabilities.
Cons: Steep learning curve, expensive.
Features: A-
Performance: B+
Ease of Use: C
Value: C
Price: $399

You can tell a lot about a database by the size of the reading material associated with it. Maybe I'm not a strong reader, but I don't see anything pleasant about a 961-page manual titled "Alpha Five Made Easy." A second book that came with the $399 Alpha Five explained why there is so much reading material: Alpha Five is a lot more than a database. It's also a tool for designing extensive Web applications with little or no programming. All you need is time to read and learn.

Nothing with Alpha Five is easy. And that includes testing our spreadsheet file. Of four ways to input an Excel file, the least difficult was to make a copy of the data you want from Excel and paste it into a new sheet in Excel, then save that new sheet as a DBF IV file. Finally in Alpha Five, add the DBF file to your database. In FileMaker and Access, all I had to do was navigate to the document and click Open.


askSam Professional Version 7

askSam Professional Version 7

Pros: Easy to use for basic features.
Cons: Limited functions, expensive.
Features: B-
Performance: B
Ease of Use: B+
Value: C-
Price: $395

The previous version of askSam, 6.1, introduced us to a new way for users to organize and navigate data. In Version 7 of askSam, the developers added some of the bells and whistles of larger databases. However, the ability to analyze and examine spreadsheet data is far less robust than in Access and less user-friendly than in FileMaker. Aside from being able to run simple queries, there isn't much else you can do using askSam.

The other databases in the review offer most of the new capabilities in askSam 7. For example, the new Add to Folder option will allow you to select an existing folder or create a new folder and automatically add a new document to that folder. Microsoft products have had that feature for years.

Despite the capability issues that askSam 7 suffers from, it's still a good piece of software for novice to intermediate users who need to run simple database functions.

Corel Paradox X4

Corel Paradox X4

Pros: Easy to use; robust features.
Cons: Difficult to find many features.
Features: A
Performance: B+
Ease of Use: B+
Value: A
Price: $269, includes WordPerfect Office suite

Corel's new Paradox X4 has the most features of any database in this review. However, a slightly clumsy interface made it difficult to find many of its best features.

We had no trouble importing and analyzing Microsoft Excel data. Paradox delivered the second-best performance, behind Access, in data analysis. With regard to data reporting, Paradox was the best in the review.

Despite several new features, Paradox is dogged by the same issue that haunts many databases: finding a better and easier way for users to access those features.

FileMaker Pro 10 Advanced

FileMaker Pro 10 Advanced

Pros: Great support for Microsoft SQL Server and PDF.
Cons: Lacks interoperability with other Microsoft Office programs; expensive.
Features:
A+
Performance:
A
Ease of use:
A
Value:
C+
Price:
$499
Reviewer's Choice

FileMaker Pro is among the easiest databases to use. Features such as the Quick Start Screen, conditional formatting and e-mail links to hosted databases are helping FileMaker close the gap between it and Access on the technical advantages of Access.

The latest version of FileMaker also improves the program's ability to work with Microsoft SQL Server, Oracle and open-source MySQL databases.

In Version 10, Web Viewer has simplified the process and provided a live connection with SQL Server as opposed to just a snapshot. The feature is so easy to use that we watched people who had never before connected to SQL Server do so effortlessly on the first attempt.

Whether you're an advanced or intermediate user, FileMaker is a solid database platform. Despite its steep $499 price tag, FileMaker Pro 10 Advanced merits our Reviewer's Choice designation.

Microsoft Access 2007

Microsoft Access 2007

Pros: Versatility with the templates and compatibility with other Microsoft suites.
Cons: Difficult to master.
Features: A+
Performance: A
Ease of Use: A-
Value: B
Price: $229
Reviewer's Choice

Access is no longer inaccessible — that is, unless you are working on a complex schema or using some of its advanced features. The key to Access 2007's new accessibility is its robust and intuitive database templates. There are dozens to choose from, particularly if you tap into the repository of templates available online from Microsoft.com.

Access shares its strongest bond with Excel. The ability to play well with Excel, in addition to a new feature called Automatic Data Type Detection, makes schema and table creation easy.

Another neat feature in Access is its ability to attach external documents and files to individual records in the data store, which lets you incorporate even more information into your applications.

The options are endless, and the learning curve is, too. But with Access you get more bang for the buck than with any other program of its kind. It merits a Reviewer's Choice for personal database software.

Click here for the complete product reviews.

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