Product review: Alpha Five combines simplicity, power

If you are looking for a database that's easier to use than Microsoft Access and yet offers plenty of power, then you would do well to consider the venerable Alpha Five, a simple, powerful, and elegant relational database.

I find Alpha Five as easy to use as Lotus Approach and as powerful as Microsoft FoxPro, to name two databases that have impressed me. Alpha Five gives its users more control for advanced data operations than do similar products, and its layered structure lets it appeal to all types of users.

Organised in layers, Alpha Five lets novices simply use the provided tool bars and menus, or employ the Genies (wizards) for normally difficult database operations such as exporting or importing records, formatting fields, and posting or summarising data. The Genies' instructions make it virtually impossible to make a mistake in creating recallable operations; you can use these Action Scripts singly or in combination to run several operations sequentially. Genies are also used in creating elegant forms, launch buttons, labels, reports, and letters for mail merge.

Easy-to-customise forms have traditionally been a big part of Alpha Five, not only in displaying actual and summarised data from your table(s), but also in acting as control centers for many standard and custom operations. Button Genies walk you through the steps required to place launch buttons on your forms and define what actions they should take when pressed. Your buttons trigger pre-defined actions for, among others, recording navigation; recording operations (such as enter, change, mark/unmark, delete); and printing. You can also trigger previously saved data-processing operations or macro scripts; these let you perform virtually any database procedure with a single click. For more complex data operations and applications, Alpha Five has a built-in script programming language, Xbasic.

Version 4.0 now provides Script Recorder, which records your actions as you use Alpha Five and writes the corresponding Xbasic code. My tests showed that, unfortunately, not every interactive action I performed was logged, but the Script Recorder is an excellent way to learn Xbasic while creating effective operation routines.

Smart Fields, new to Version 4.0, convert standard type-in text boxes into special fields that display a button which you can click for assistance. For example, clicking the X-Y icon to the right of a Filter-Expression field pops up the Filter-Expression builder. Smart Fields will display file-selection boxes, file-save dialogs, the Expression builder, the Filter builder, the Order builder, listed fields, and Spin Controls that increase or decrease field values.

Using Alpha Five's new ODBC support, you can read and write data stored in Oracle, Microsoft SQL Server, Access, and other ODBC-compliant databases. I noticed, however, that when you're working with external ODBC tables, not all of Alpha Five's options are supported, no matter which version of the ODBC manager or ODBC drivers you're using.

Although Alpha Five uses indexes to speed up text searches, they help only if the queried text is at the beginning of the indexed field; there was no boost with memo fields. Full-text indexes now accelerate text searches anywhere in a character or memo field.

New in Version 4.0 is Network Optimisation, which makes a local copy of certain database application files (forms, reports, field rules, etc.). Alpha Five then accesses these files from your hard drive, while it continues to read database records from the shared network drive.

If you are tired of Access' limitations, or FoxPro's tedious programming conventions, then it's time for the simple, powerful, and elegant Alpha Five.

Geoffrey Hollander (mpouch@teleport.com) owns and operates a direct-marketing business in Lake Oswego, Oregon.

THE BOTTOM LINE: VERY GOOD

Alpha Five, Version 4.0

Alpha Five is a full-featured relational database that combines the ease of Approach with the power of FoxPro, while leaving Access in the dust.

Pros: Much greater access to sophisticated data operations (posting, summarising, cross tabbing, mail merge, etc.) than similar products; straightforward, strong, fast, and elegant, layered structure suitable for any user level; excellent price; good user manual.

Cons: Could use an Xbasic tutorial for intermediate users; script recorder does not record all interactive actions performed by users.

Platforms: Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT 4.0.

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