Personal DBMSes gain power

GCN Lab tests five new database management programs and finds progress

A few years ago, the poor quality of interfaces for desktop database programs discouraged many workers from getting rid of their filing cabinets and Rolodexes.

Now most programs are easier to use, and database software is no exception. Up-to-date desktop databases let users import various kinds of files, build with templates or custom-build, and post their databases online.

But not all users need to do all those functions. The work you do is key to choosing the right program, and most often users need ease of use, flexibility and scalability.

The GCN Lab tested five leading desktop database programs for easy use and convenience in editing templates, importing a diverse range of file extensions, and adding graphics and data tags.

We particularly wanted to see HTML output generation, as well as Web services capability via the Extensible Markup Language and Extensible Stylesheet Language. XML tags make content reusable, whereas XSL specifies the layout of the content for different kinds of displays.

All five databases we tested were relational. That means, for example, that if you keep an expense report database and a separate personnel database in your RDBMS, and you change an address, it automatically changes in the other database.

We assigned final grades based on these features and our top criterion'ease of use.
The last time we tested FileMaker, we found two problems with the Pro 5 version. Its Sliding option, which was supposed to eliminate gaps between lines of text for printing, didn't work. And, despite claimed compatibility of Microsoft Windows and Mac OS versions, only one out of five files we generated under Mac OS would open on a PC.

But FileMaker's ease of use, logical interface, simple installation and robustness made putting up with the glitches worthwhile.

Steps forward, mostly

Despite our best efforts, we couldn't find much wrong with FileMaker Pro 6. It continues to be the easiest relational database to learn and use. The tutorial no longer appears whenever a new database is created from a template, however, which is a small step in the wrong direction.

Likewise, a user can't click on the template window after creating a database but must access it the first time by going to 'Records, New Record.'

One good addition: If the user performs certain functions incorrectly, a pop-up window explains the right procedure.

Most of the differences from Pro 5 have to do with Web features and template editing. Not only does Pro 6 autogenerate HTML, but an embedded XML parser engine can import and export XML data with an XSL transformation spreadsheet.

Pro 6 maintains its flexibility. Users can edit the 30 embedded templates and augment a database with graphics or certain media formats, including audio files.

If you don't find a suitable template, you can download others from FileMaker Inc.'s Web site.
The user manual, like the affordable $299 program, is easy to follow. Pro 6 can import comma, tab-delimited and other file types. Aesthetically, it looks as if it came from the same designers as Microsoft Windows XP. The soft colors and large, puffy text give it a familiar look.

Better and better

Our most-improved designation goes to Microsoft Access 2002 for its very helpful database wizard. Unlike FileMaker Pro 6, which starts out with a generic template to which you add or subtract, Access 2002's wizard lets you customize a template with an illustrated example at the left side of the screen.

It's easy, quick and logical, but not perfect. Although Microsoft claims that Access 2002 can import data from various file types, we found it difficult to import anything non-Microsoft'specifically, FileMaker data.

When we imported from FileMaker into Access, we saw gibberish, which the database structure would alter into unidentifiable text.

It isn't too surprising that these two database leaders don't play well together. FileMaker has similar problems importing Access 2002 data.

Like FileMaker Pro 6, Access can generate HTML, is XML/XSL-compliant and has downloadable online templates. It supports most graphics and audio file types. It costs slightly more than FileMaker: $339. An upgrade from Access 2000 costs only $109, worth every penny.

Two clear advantages of Access 2002 over most of the other databases in this review are Microsoft Office compatibility and fluid expandability via the larger-scale Microsoft SQL Server.
Its disadvantages? Database expansion demands a well-versed database administrator, and the interface is less clear and easy to use than that of FileMaker Pro 6.

GoldMine Business Content Manager 6 is the odd duck in this roundup. It's not an all-purpose database; it's designed for an office that manages finances or sales. GoldMine is nevertheless a powerful database for any user with a large number of contacts.

What makes it powerful is that it works seamlessly with Microsoft Outlook and other third-party software to update users with the latest information.

Although starting a GoldMine database is logical and easy, the program as a whole is complex. Remotely synchronizing teleworkers' data with the office databases takes some effort on the part of the network administrator.

GoldMine's installation was the longest in the review. Every action had multiple steps, in contrast with the one-click options of most other programs.

Although GoldMine Business Content Manager 6 can import and export data in XML format, it can't automatically generate HTML. The user has to make a stylesheet to transform XML data into HTML.

Likewise, Excel documents must be converted to dBase, SQL, XML, SDF or ASCII format to be imported into a GoldMine 6 database. Graphics and audio files can't go into a GoldMine database, either, which is odd. The best way to keep track of a large number of people is to put their pictures next to their profiles.

We believe user guides for every software program should come in the package. Corel Corp., FileMaker Inc. and IBM Lotus followed this practice, but the guide for Access 2002 was online. GoldMine appeared to have nothing except a quick reference and installation guide.

Priced at $295 for a single-user license, GoldMine Business Content Manager costs a bit more than $1,000 for five users.

Lotus Approach 9.5 was approachable and easy to use. Its nonproprietary format accepted many kinds of files.

Street smart

Lotus bundles Approach in the $235 SmartSuite and doesn't sell it separately. But even in a bundle Approach 9.5 is still the least expensive database in the review.

It's not as powerful as the others, especially for Web posting. Approach doesn't have XML/XSL built in and can't autogenerate all HTML for Web use. Nor are extra templates available online, so what you see in the bundle is what you get. Also, templates are modifiable only to a certain extent.

Approach can store images and graphics. It's the least comprehensive database in the review but among the easiest to use and very affordable.

The user guide for Corel Paradox 10 is like the software: paradoxical. Corel has made few changes in Paradox in several years, but the tutorial still leaves the user confused and overwhelmed.

The welcome window, which holds all the wizards, comes up only in the beginning. To get that window back, you must restart the program.

Just about the only change between Paradox versions 9 and 10 is the price, which has risen to $250 for an upgrade or $490 bundled in the Corel WordPerfect Suite. The database application isn't sold separately.

Although Paradox 10 can publish HTML, it's only for static Web pages. There is no XML parser. Paradox can still work with XML documents, though, if the user has a Corel Web server and can program in ObjectPAL, Corel's object-oriented proprietary language. Paradox 10's templates cannot be modified, nor can more templates be downloaded.

We think it's a good thing that almost every database in this review shows improvements. It's an even better thing that the improvements focus on making the software easier to use.

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