6 databases and how to pick one

The Lab compares a half-dozen personal databases for features, ease of use and value

Finding the right desktop database software can be an onerous task. There are five large companies that make their own proprietary programs, and when you include open-source software, the number of choices can easily triple. But as long as you stick to five general principles for selecting a database, you’ll be able to sift through the bells and whistles and find the right fit for your needs.

1. Look for software that provides an effortless install and setup. In the recent past, databases could take hours to install and set up, and that’s if they didn’t cause a conflict with other programs on your computer. Now, even the open-source options are pretty tame and relatively painless. But keep in mind how much time you want to devote to getting started. Otherwise, you could wind up with a program full of complex wizards capable of monopolizing your afternoon while you get your settings right. And that does not even count installations on multiple computers.

2. Choose a personal database that plays well with your environment. You want your database to be able to aggregate and store data and provide a robust mini-search engine to retrieve the stored data in a specific fashion and with multiple operating systems. Compatibility issues are often the norm with free databases that you find online. These cost-saving programs are often not tested as rigorously as personal databases that you buy from a large company, and they frequently end up costing you more in time and patience.

3. Choose a database that doesn’t require a lot of training to perform the basics, such as creating, running and saving queries. Another quick-and-easy step should be the simple input of common forms of data, such as contact lists and addresses. All too often with this technology, the simplest actions can be as difficult as the most robust applications. If you’ll pardon the ski analogy, you want a program that has as many operations in the bunny slopes as possible but also offers blue and double-black diamond hills for experts.

4. Look for one that keeps your data as safe as possible from program-associated vulnerabilities, such as crashes. And no company is immune in this category. Microsoft Access 2007, for example, even has some quirks that cause it to crash every time under certain circumstances.

5. Get a good price. A database program should be affordable while still offering some bells and whistles.

The best way to test drive a database is to see how it handles spreadsheets. The key feature of a database is its ability to work in concert with complementary programs, such as spreadsheets, converting a simple stand-alone database into an advanced data mining and data analysis tool. That’s how we tested the databases in this review.

We also developed a 10M mass of data in a spreadsheet to test the interoperability between these relational databases and complementary software, such as spreadsheets.

Using the criteria listed above, we set out to determine the strengths and weaknesses of the programs. It’s important to note that, despite repeated requests, IBM chose not to participate and had no interest in going head-to-head with others. Read into that whatever you will.

Microsoft Access shows its strengths

Despite the fanfare for Microsoft Access 2007, beware of some of its odd quirks, particularly if you telecommute. Part of my testing involved using each program while remotely connected to a secure network, just as if an agency user logged on to work from home. For some reason, every time we ran queries or tried to execute any function in Access 2007 while on a remote, secure connection, Access slowed to a crawl. When I wasn’t logged on to a secure network, the software returned to normal speed.

It might have been an issue with my modem or the type of standard encryption that made up my secure, remote connection, but none of the other competitors in this review experienced such issues.

Despite this flaw, Access’ accessibility, particularly in robust and intuitive database templates, remains second to none. There are dozens of templates to choose from, especially if you tap into the repository available online from Microsoft.com. And the templates that Microsoft makes range from asset databases that let you track resources to templates for faculty, students and marketing-related projects. These templates are ready to be used with little setup and can be greatly modified and re-created to meet any need.

Perhaps the best aspect of Access 2007 is its appearance, which stems from its ribbon technology. Also found in Word and Outlook, the ribbon facilitates the user experience by removing the clutter from the interface. As a result, you can focus more on your project.

A second advancement in Access is the way users enter and manage data, which is almost identical to Excel in that one can start throwing data in an Access cell just as if it were an Excel field and then format it later after having inputted all the data. Columns can be added to a table, as in Excel, taking seconds to populate your project. And you can edit the same columns without needing to switch to the Design view. In many ways, this combination of the two suites makes you wonder if one day Microsoft Office will only consist of three main programs.

Microsoft Access 2007

Being a powerful software developer, Microsoft has instilled capabilitiers in Access that even appeal to network admins, like issue tracking.

Another common feature of Excel and Access is a data transfer capability that lets you paste an Excel spreadsheet table into a new Access table for easy data transfer. The ability to play well with Excel and a new feature called Automatic Data Type Detection has made schema and table creation a simple action to execute.

Access was by far the easiest database in the review for uploading, expanding and analyzing data. Its ability to run pivot tables and PivotChart views eliminated the need to export data back to Excel, making this software even more valuable to have.

Another neat feature in Access is the ability to attach external documents and files to individual records in the data store, which enables you to incorporate even more information into your applications. Access can now save frequently used import and export operations for quick reuse. And a new Navigation Pane provides easy access to all object types, including tables, forms and reports, making Access 2007 one of the most powerful databases in the roundup.

A new tabbed document window displays all open objects in the same window for easier navigation. As in Word, you can now modify a form layout while viewing the results of your changes in real time.

An obvious strength Access has over its competitors is its connectivity to data in other Microsoft products. Excel tables, open database connectivity connectors, SQL Server and SharePoint Services sites can all be connected to and used as live data sources. One of Access 2007's new functions is the native ability to connect to and export an Access database to a SQL Server database. Exporting to PDF is also a new feature, although you need to install a plug-in. That is a big mistake that burns time for the user because this capability, as a default, is critical to have.

If you have a lot of data to move and even more analysis to conduct, the $229 price tag will seem insignificant — and so will your workload once you learn and get used to Access 2007.

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

Microsoft, www.microsoft.com

FileMaker Pro makes it easy

FileMaker was the easiest database in our roundup to use. It’s far from the most robust but definitely the most user-friendly and good at easy to medium-level tasks. Features such as the Quick Start screen, conditional formatting and an e-mail link to hosted databases have helped widen the gap between FileMaker and Access in terms of ease of use, while closing the gap between the technical advantages of Access.

The Quick Start Screen is an easy start-up wizard that lets you choose between creating a new database, opening an existing database or learning more about FileMaker. In previous versions of FileMaker, you had to navigate all over the interface to create a database. Now all you have to do is point and click.

One thing that makes FileMaker Pro 10 so easy to use is a feature that lets you choose a single command to create an e-mail with an automatically generated hyperlink. In the past, creating a hyperlink was an advanced capability. Now you don’t even need to figure out the URL for your hosted database.

It is now easier to apply conditional formatting to fields and objects so that users can notice changes or trends in their data. All formatting is automatic and completely user-defined. In the past, this type of formatting relied on calculated fields, which was time-consuming and inefficient.

Unlike Access, by default, FileMaker generates each report into a PDF. FileMaker is more robust than Access in this respect because you can consolidate multiple reports into one PDF, as opposed to having each report occupy its own PDF. For example, if you create a database of contacts and save the records as a PDF, an option from the List view gives you the ability to append this file to an existing PDF.

FileMaker Pro 10

FileMaker puts a lot of effort in each template creation: even a standard address template looks cutting-edge and becomes more effective to use than a tranditional rolodex platform

FireMaker Pro 10 also continues the big advancement in Version 9, which was its ability to work well with SQL Server, Oracle and MySQL databases. With Pro 9, you could create a live connection between such data sources, making Pro 9 the ideal solution for a federal agency with mixed/multiple database systems.

In the previous version of FileMaker, you could query a SQL Server data source through open database connectivity, create a table for the data source and import that data into FileMaker. That was a lengthy process riddled with complications. Since Version 9, the addition of the Web Viewer has simplified this process and provided a live connection with the SQL server as opposed to just a snapshot. We found this feature to be so easy that we saw people who have never connected to a SQL server do so effortlessly with the first attempt.

For advanced users, such as developers, FileMaker Pro 10 has features that make it easier to organize your scripts, such as Script Grouping. Other features make it easier to design better layouts, such as character auto-resize and enhanced tab control, which lets you set the widths of the tabs.

Our biggest surprise with FileMaker Pro 10 came with how well it plays with Excel files that are formatted in XML. FileMaker was easier to use than Access for manipulating and reporting our test data. FileMaker doesn’t have the depth of data analysis that Access has, but for what FileMaker can do, it does as well as Access does.

We tested a $499 developer version of File Maker Pro Advanced, but the client version sells for a reasonable $299. It’s a solid tool for most jobs.

Pros: Great SQL Server and PDF support.
Cons: Needs interoperability with other Microsoft Office suites.
Features: B+
Performance: B+
Ease of Use: A+
Value: B
Price: $299

FileMaker, www.filemaker.com

Alpha Five is capable but complex

As usual, Alpha Five takes the cake this year for robust qualities and complexity. It’s the only participant in this roundup that can compete with larger databases. And because of a rapid development tool for building Asynchronous JavaScript and XML Web database apps against major SQL back ends, Alpha Five Version 10 is directly competing against PHP, the widely used, general-purpose scripting language. Alpha Five also moves into the territory of Ruby, an open-source programming language, and Microsoft Visual Studio .NET.

In an attempt to make the AJAX Web development attributes more user-friendly, Version 10 has an improved interface offering codeless AJAX Web development. We found moving to a fully graphical interface a solid step in the right direction. But at times, we were left confused and had to resort to the “Alpha Five Made Easy” manual, which is about 900 pages. I don’t see anything easy about 900 pages, no matter how much you love database Web development.

Nonprogrammers will have a hard time with Alpha Five, but they will still be able to create powerful applications without scripting. All nonprogrammers have to do is what I did: spend a lot of time reading help files and studying the examples. I usually can figure most things out on my own, but I needed help with Alpha Five, particularly in understanding the full capabilities of the Web applications that this software offers.

For example, smart phones are an increasingly popular platform for running Web applications, particularly in the federal government. However, on a smart phone, the small screen makes Web development a challenge. With Version 10, a user can design liquid forms that automatically reconfigure themselves based on screen size.

Although we found Alpha Five to still have a more cluttered and overwhelming environment than its competitors, the new version offers a world of advancements. A new feature to Version 9 is the ability to add buttons and images that are conditional on other data in browse views. For example, I was able to easily add a button that would send an e-mail to a person listed in a row. The ability to configure a button that brings up a photo from a connected personnel database is one of the most undervalued benefits of this software, especially if you use it in a large, hybrid environment.

Alpha Five Version 10 Platinum

Alpha Five version 10 offers script Genies that are like navigation wizards, only the complexity of the navigation is as robust as the programs features.

Like FileMaker, Alpha Five also has a big developer community. But unlike FileMaker, Alpha Five provides fewer templates and seems to target the medium to advanced users more aggressively. Alpha Five has wizards, called Genies, that are easy to use and intuitive. However, they are less refined than their FileMaker counterparts, and the interface is a little more cluttered than those of both FileMaker and Access.

Perhaps the most important feature for federal, state and local government agencies is a well-designed Web security framework. This framework lets you define privileges for users and groups to either pages or groups of pages in your Web application.

A feature called Super Controls lets you place live reports, Web content and PDFs directly into forms. Alpha Five can create virtual tables, XML parsers and HTML memo fields with hyperlinks.

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 from Excel, paste it into a new sheet in Excel and save that new sheet as a DBF IV file. Then, in Alpha Five, add the DBF file to your database. By comparison, with FileMaker and Access, all I had to do was navigate to the document and click the open button.

Despite its complexities, Alpha Five beats FileMaker and even Access when it comes to advanced features such as script building and Web application development tools.

Pros: Robust Web capabilities.
Cons: Steep learning curve; expensive.
Features: A-
Performance: B+
Ease of Use: C
Value: B
Price: $349

Alpha Software, www.alphafive.com

askSam Professional covers the middle ground

The free-form development nature of askSam makes it a decent choice for small to midsize enterprise environments. But when compared to its competitors, you ultimately don’t get the same bang for your buck.

AskSam folders are displayed dynamically. You select a field in your database and the software builds the folder view based on the contents of this field. You can easily change the field that defines your folder and display your information organized in a different set of folders. This is a unique way to analyze information and a cool approach to making databases more user-friendly.

One feature that makes askSam a good basic database is its ability to save Web pages directly from an Internet Explorer browser into askSam. You can not only save the current Web page but also the current page and linked pages. Typically, a feature like this comes with an organizational burden of remembering what each link is. But askSam lets you enter a title, keywords and notes about the pages you save, making it easier to keep track of where you collect your data.

Despite a high price tag of $395, askSam has a lot of standard features, including being able to organize documents into folders and subfolders, provide easy browsing through your documents, and the ability to view your information from several different perspectives.

In Version 7 of askSam, the developers added some of the bells and whistles of larger databases, particularly in the look and feel of more polished applications such as Access and FileMaker. However, the ability to analyze and examine spreadsheet data is 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.

askSam Professional Version 7

askSam's contact list looks good and does the trick until you compare it to a similarly priced competitor like Paradox or FileMaker who offer a more sleek and easier to use design.

One problem with askSam is its interface, which lacks the modern look of its competitors. The software could use an easier way to look at documents and folders. The next version will have a Folder Bar Tab to give you convenient access to commonly used files. The tab will let users quickly toggle between folders, attachments and document properties. You’ll also be able to view attachments with image thumbnails, edit document properties, and access commonly used tools for entry forms, reports and searches.

Most of the new capabilities in askSam 7 are things already found in most of the databases in this review. For example, a new Add to Folder option lets you select an existing folder or create a new folder and automatically add a new document to that newly created folder. This is a feature that Microsoft products have had 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. We were put-off, however, by the steep $395 price tag for a new top-of-the-line single-user copy of the software, even if that includes all the features of Version 7 and adds programming and full-text indexing. This is the version that earned the C- grade for the Value category.

Pros: Easy to use for basic features.
Cons: Expensive for what it offers.
Features: B-
Performance: B
Ease of Use: B+
Value: C-
Price: $395

Seaside Software, www.asksam.com

Paradox X4 has lots of features, if you can find them

Much to our surprise, Corel’s Paradox X4 offers the most features of any database in this review. The templates seem to cover every aspect of work and personal life. Unfortunately, a slightly clumsy interface and the inability to easily locate many of its best features make this database program paradoxical in nature.

We had no trouble importing and analyzing Excel data. Paradox delivered the second-best performance behind Access in data analysis, and for data reporting, Paradox is among the best we’ve ever seen.

Corel Visual Intelligence SE, a new member of the WordPerfect Office Suite, works in concert with the spreadsheet and database counterparts to provide robust, clear and powerful reports. In many ways, we were more impressed with this Paradox sibling than we were with Paradox itself. Using Visual Intelligence and Paradox, you can easily identify trends in your data and intuitively custom-build data analysis with a single click, including performing what-if analyses to explore your options.

WordPerfect X4 lets you take further advantage of PDFs with importing, editing, archiving and exporting capabilities, along with giving you the ability to edit and access text locked in a PDF.

Paradox X4

Paradox offers a breath of different templates that can help managers do everythiung from manage associates to put together travel planners for group activities.

But despite these new bells and whistles, Paradox ultimately is still haunted by the same issue many other databases suffer from: finding a better and easier way for users to access these features.

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, www.corel.com

Brilliant Database good for the basics

At $149, Brilliant Database is a bargain for any agency that needs a bare-bones, all-in-one database solution. Aside from the low sticker price and sturdy — albeit outdated — interface, there’s little else brilliant about this product.

An up-to-date engine supports databases as large as 4G. Easy-to-use designers and wizards help you create forms, reports, scripts, queries and timers. A customizable, old Microsoft Outlook-style interface leaves you with a déjà vu feeling as you navigate from one operation to another. The interface looks like a traditional tree of folders with your records on the left, a list of records in the selected folder at the top, and a window for viewing the current record at the bottom.

The one concern I had with Brilliant initially was its compatibility with Microsoft. But the program does a solid job of interfacing with Word, Excel and even Access. Using Visual Query Editor and Report Style Editor, you can create queries to a database and print any document you build.

Its import and export let you send e-mail messages, generate Word and Excel documents and Web pages, and import data from Outlook or directly from Web sites. For example, you can automatically import currency rates or generate reports, all in Excel format. The software includes a number of tutorial videos and databases, and the program is easy to use in the first place.

This database program offers a robust and easy feature set at a brilliant price. Unfortunately, the outdated interface and lack of bells and whistles tarnishes the sterling performance.

Pros: Easy to use.
Cons: Outdated Interface.
Features: B
Performance: B
Ease of Use: A
Value: A+
Price: $149

Binary Brilliant, www.brilliantdatabase.com


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