GCN Lab Review: 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

If you have all the time in the world to learn a personal database, Alpha Five Version 9 Platinum is for you. However, if you want an easy-to-use program that you can learn as you go along, you might want to try one of the other databases in this review.

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 entitled, “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.

Like FileMaker, Alpha Five has a big developer community. However, unlike FileMaker, Alpha Five provides far fewer templates and seems to target medium to advanced users. Alpha Five has wizards, named Genies, that are easy to use and are relatively intuitive. However, these Genies are less refined than their FileMaker counterparts, and their interfaces are a little more cluttered than those in FileMaker and Access.

Nonprogrammers will have a hard time with Alpha Five, but you can still create powerful applications without scripting. All you have to do is what I did, spend a lot of time reading help files and studying the examples. I usually can figure out most things on my own, but I needed help with Alpha Five, particularly in understanding the Web applications that this software is capable of performing or even designing.

Alpha Five has a more cluttered and overwhelming environment than its competitors but still manages to pull off a sleek and modern look. You can now add buttons and images that are conditional on data in browse views. For example, I was able to easily add a button that would send an e-mail message to a person in that row. Likewise, you can configure a button to bring up a photo from a connected personnel database.

Other important features in Alpha Five include a Cascading Style Sheet builder for better Web form designs. Extremely strong client/server desktop support now lets you work directly with SQL Server databases. And a query optimizer for working with SQL data is new, as is the ability to build highly responsive Web 2.0/Asynchronous JavaScript and Extensible Markup Language applications in less time than in Visual Studio, Ruby or PHP.

Perhaps the most important feature for government agencies is a well-designed Web Security framework, which lets you define privileges for users and groups for pages or groups of pages in your Web application.

A new feature named Super Controls lets you place live reports, Web content and PDF documents directly into forms. Alpha Five can create virtual tables, XML Parser and HTML memo fields with hyperlinks.

However, 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.

FileMaker's simple-to-learn nature, coupled with its robust template library, SQL capabilities and instant Web publishing, makes it the better choice for typical small-agency users. But Alpha Five has FileMaker beat when it comes to advanced features, such as script building and Web application development.

Alpha Software, 617-838 4488,

About the Authors

Carlos A. Soto is a former GCN Lab technology analyst.

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