FileMaker Pro is logical database pick

FileMaker Pro is logical database pick

Powerful, versatile and easy-to-use desktop product stands out compared with three other packages

By Carlos A. Soto

GCN Staff

The makers of the four leading desktop databases all make the same claim: Our product is the best and the easiest to use.

But how suitable is Microsoft Access 2000 for small departmental or workgroup use? Can Lotus Approach 9.5 make database work more approachable? Is Corel Paradox 9 easy or paradoxical? Can you become a pro at FileMaker Pro 5 without too much effort?

After reviewing these four products, which range in price from $100 to $250, I found that FileMaker Pro 5 delivers the most overall value. All four packages do a decent job, but FileMaker Pro 5 stands out.

It organizes and stores data logically and easily. It's not perfect, however, and some features in the latest version might leave veteran FileMaker users frustrated.

Sometimes what you think you see isn't exactly what you get.

I exchanged FileMaker files with another reviewer who was testing the Apple Macintosh version. My Microsoft Windows 98 file opened up without problems on his Mac. But on my Pentium II system, only one out of his five Mac-created FileMaker files would open.

Even the original file that I sent to him came back with the message, 'Not created by FileMaker or damaged, cannot open.'

FileMaker Pro 5 got even quirkier than that. Some of its functions simply didn't function, even though they appeared to do so.

The Sliding and Printing option, activated in Layout Mode, lets you slide lines of text up to tighten them and eliminate gaps. The problem is, it doesn't work. A space between two lines of text still shows up when printed even though everything looks correct on the screen.

Likewise, a blank line appears in labels. The software automatically sets up single spacing and creates the label fields. All a user should have to do is fill in the fields with the appropriate information and print, not fiddle with the spacing.

So why did I give FileMaker Pro 5 a Reviewer's Choice designation? Despite the flaws mentioned above, I found FileMaker logical in its operations from the moment I launched it.

For example, it took me only 45 minutes without reading any instructions to create a test database of work-related contacts from the past two months. Then I set out to test FileMaker's prowess at database management.

An effective, interactive tutorial showed how to use the program and did a good job of keeping me awake.

Caution: Be sure to follow the 'Getting Started Guide' instructions during setup, or you could easily miss the tutorial. It takes about four hours to complete, demonstrating procedures for things as basic as how to find specific data and create values using calculation fields, all the way up to using relational databases in general.

FileMaker Pro 5 also comes in an Unlimited version, which lets you publish databases to the Web for an unlimited number of clients. The Unlimited version arrives on two CD-ROMs that must both be installed for database'Web connectivity.

If you're not a certified Oracle database manager and don't know how to use Micro-soft SQL Server 7, but you do know your way around a computer, FileMaker is a good choice.

Its functions, its instructions, and its sheer ease and logic make it well worth the $250 price. The glitches mentioned above are simple discrepancies rather than serious problems.

Speaking of discrepancies, Paradox lacks any. But it definitely lived up to its name. Paradox left me perplexed.

The latest version of the Paradox line of database software comes with some new capabilities. It still falls short in practicality and logic, however.

This database manager is just plain tough to figure out, and the frustrating tutorial is a waste of time. The software itself doesn't make much sense, either.

When you launch the program, a welcome window presents several options. At first blush, I thought the window looked helpful and well done. But after I had made a selection, the only way to bring back the window was to restart the entire program.

The more I used Paradox, the more I saw that the welcome screen didn't really help at all. It's more of an aesthetic feature.

The tutorial about the welcome window, on the other hand, is long, boring and poorly designed for interactivity. The absence of procedures to follow or exercises to complete will have you dozing off in no time.

Paradox is constructed from confusing multiple toolbars and menu items. All should be better organized and better explained. To figure out how to create the test database of work-related contacts'effortless in FileMaker Pro 5'I had to consult the thick Paradox user's guide, and even that wasn't easy to use.

Its 500-plus pages of database jargon left me feeling sleepy, but it did make an excellent reference guide for figuring out Paradox 9. Eventually I found myself vacillating between two windows, trying to add fields and not understanding why some fields wouldn't add. I didn't have to do that in FileMaker.

Then I began getting error messages saying that I could not run the template application because I had previously run it and it was still running on my desktop PC. But it wasn't.

What a headache. I decided to change templates and start fresh. By the time I completed the test database, it had taken more than an hour and a half.

It does the job

Don't get me wrong, Paradox does work well and is potent. It can, for example, conduct advanced queries to find specific data. You can ask what-if questions such as, 'How much would NASA have to spend if its budget increased by 5 percent?'

Paradox 9 also can send Messaging Application Programming Interface mail to different e-mail systems. It's a lot more than just a database builder, and that makes it harder to use than other database software in the $160 price range.

Saving a data table, for example, is a four-step process in Paradox, whereas some of the other programs save automatically. But if you're an advanced user and enjoy reading about databases, this product might be for you.

If you're not so advanced and you need a personal organizer, look to Lotus Approach 9.5, which takes the Bang for the Buck designation at only $101.

Like a Swiss Army knife, Approach performs hundreds of functions and is extremely easy to use. Despite its ease and versatility, however, it's not very powerful.

Approach's templates focus on favorite authors, movies, musical groups, house inventories and so on. The list might help you manage your life, but it won't do much to help you manage your work.

Approach is so easy to use that it's fun. It's designed like a pseudo-Web page to let you go forward and back. The toolbar design is as easy to understand as the Microsoft Word toolbar.

Approach's SmartMaster wizard steps you through starting a database and initiates when a selection is made in the welcome window.

Using SmartMaster, I started plugging in my data fields within seconds without any previous information on how Approach works. My test database was done almost as quickly as in FileMaker, but it wasn't as professional-looking.

Doesn't come easy

Approach 9.5 gets harder to use when you're doing custom work on a database. That's probably the reason why it has more templates and preset applications than any other database software I reviewed.

Approach 9.5 gets a little tougher when you make your own database, and it took me about 70 minutes to complete my test case. Using the templates cut that time in half.

One thing that caught my eye was the Lotus .apt file extension, which makes it possible to merge all Approach data into one easily accessed file'a real convenience.

Even though SmartMaster works decently, the welcome window is what makes Approach 9.5 so easy to use. It lists all the saved files, the applications and the templates in one easy-to-read chart. All you have to do is select.

If you don't like what you've selected, click on the 'New document' button and the window comes back for another selection. This is the function I missed so much in Paradox 9.

Approach's cute icons and colorful screens lack Paradox's professionalism. Although I liked Approach just fine, it's far more lightweight than FileMaker Pro. Approach acts like an organizer, whereas FileMaker acts like a filing cabinet and has a more robust feeling.

On the subject of robustness, Microsoft Access 2000 has that down pat. Difficult to use without the wizard, Access just might be the most potent database manager of the four.

A solid program with extensive features, Access ties easily into the more scalable SQL Server. The problem is, Access isn't very user-friendly.

I had some minimal problems creating the test database and had to spend a good hour. The Access wizard, designed to step through setting up blank databases and templates, took me to a window to choose the database topic and the fields to include.

The window is similar to but better de-signed than the one in Paradox 9. The wizard is not as elementary as Approach's SmartMaster and can render more options.

Microsoft's demonstration databases, called NorthWind, require you to have the Office 2000 CDs on hand for viewing. NorthWind incorporates bitmap images and looks impressive, but Access never goes into detail on how to create such databases yourself.

Quite a wizard

One thing that caught my eye about Access was the SQL Server wizard, which greatly eases connection to a Structured Query Language database server. But once again, you must keep your Office 2000 disks handy because the SQL wizard is not installed in the original setup.

As a standalone database manager, Access looks way too complicated and cries out for a tutorial or something better than the NorthWind samples.

The menu items are much easier to understand and better organized than in Paradox. But Access still seems intimidating, and the user needs database know-how. Setting up even the simplest database is complex under Access.

If, however, you need a potent database that can organize large-scale data, Access might be what you're after.

The choice you make depends on your needs.

Users who want simplicity more than power or versatility should check out Lotus Approach 9.5.'Those who want versatility and power and have enough time on their hands to study might want to take on Corel Paradox 9 or Microsoft Access 2000.

If you want power, versatility, ease and time efficiency, FileMaker Pro 5 is the best choice.




Real-life requirements

Overall grade
Paradox 9

Corel Corp.




+Powerful queries

+E-mail integration

-Poor tutorial

-Confusing interface

Windows 9x or NT,

Pentium II or faster

processor, 64M of

RAM, 65M of free

storage, CD-Rom drive

FileMaker Pro 5

FileMaker, Inc.

Sanata Clara, Calif.



+Easy to use

+Powerful for a beginner

-Not true WYSIWYG

-PC and Mac transfers

don't always work

Windows 9x or NT,

Pentium II or faster

processor, 64M of RAM,

25M of free storage,

CD-ROM drive

Approach 9.5

Lotus Development Corp.

Cambridge, Mass



+Good basic templates

+Great price and


-Childlike interface

-SmartMaster needs


Windows 9x or NT,

Pentium II or faster

processor, 64M of RAM,

25M of free storage

Access 2000

Microsoft Corp.

Redmond, Wash.



+SQL wizard eliminates



-Other wizards not friendly


Windows 9x or NT, Pentium II or faster

processor, 64M or RAM,

150M of free storage,

CD-ROM drive


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