Act! 2.0 for Windows. (contact manager) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Richard O. Mann
If your business day includes telephone calls, meetings, or other people-intensive interactions, you're a natural prospect for a contact manager program. With a good contact manager, you take a quantum leap in effectiveness as you dump your ragged pile of old business cards, your appointment book, and your briefcase full of odd notes napkins and backs of envelopes. Your memory suddenly seems improved, and your ability to follow up on commitments you've made and those made to you is limited only by your time. All you need is a computer and a good contact manager.
Symantec's Act! 2.0 for Windows could well be the contact manager of your dreams. The newest release in an honored family of best-selling Act! programs, Act! 2.0 for Windows deserves respect. it combines a friendly ease of use, a common-sense approach, and powerful customizable features into a program you'll be itching to use.
Although you'll probably want to customize Act!'s database, it's usable right out of the box. For each contact, the program displays two full screens of data; you toggle between them with the F6 key or a clickable icon. You get 76 fields, 11 of which are system monitored, such as the date of last contact, edit, and merge. The standard fields in the default database include company name, contact name, address fields, three phone numbers, title, assistant's name, E-mail address, and a variety of other fairly standard items, including 15 user-definable fields. Date, time, and descriptions of the first of your meetings, scheduled calls, and to-dos for each contact also appear,
So far, Act! sounds like a big address book. There are three hidden data sets for each contact, however, that transform it from an address book into a serious contact manager. First and foremost is the note field. Press F9 or click on the notepad icon to bring up a half-screen window already marked with the current date, ready to accept whatever notes you enter. New notes appear at the top of the window; saved ones proceed down the screen in reverse chronological order. The note window is essentially a linked word-processing document that you can search, print, or use however you want; there are no length limits.
Second is the related task list. For any contact, you can enter single-line tasks as calls, meetings, or to-do items. Assign dates, times, and priorities to these tasks; Act! alerts you when the appointed time arrives. Review your open tasks by contact or by day, week, or month. This replaces your appointment book and ties each task to a single contact whose information will be immediately at hand when the computer reminds you of the task.
As you mark these tasks done (or not done), they go into the third data set - a history file - along with any directly entered calls, meetings, or to-dos. A quick click displays the history for each contact - handy for those many events that don't call for a longer text entry in the note window.
Chances are you'll want to change some of the fields and the screen layout. Changing a field name and type (text, phone number, numerical, date, and so on) is a snap, making it simple for you to build the exact database you need. There's a drawback, though: You aren't really changing the database; the program retains the original field names and merely displays your aliases on screens and reports. if you want to query by field or design a report, you must know the original name of that field. Thus, if you declare field USER-1 to be BIRTHDAY, your queries to find all birthdays in July will have to refer to USER-1 . You'll probably want to keep a chart of field names to track this.
Act!'s interface is standard Windows, but it lacks many of the newer features found in the latest high-end programs, such as right-button clicks for speed menus and display function descriptions as the cursor passes over icons. The icon bar across the top of the screen has a good selection of the most commonly used functions and has room for a half-dozen custom icons.
In an era when many mainline Windows applications balk at anything under 8MB of memory, it's refreshing that Act! 2.0 is zippy with only 4MB. Version 2.0 also vastly improves the printing capabilities, adding a suite of day, week, and month calendar reports that challenge those of dedicated time managers. They print in all the standard day-planner book sizes. And Act! automatically rolls over uncompleted tasks each day.
Act!'s time management features don't rival those of full-scale personal information managers (PIMs), but the program is quite effective for persons whose tasks are primarily time related. It's less effective if your day includes prioritizing long lists of tasks that you can do in any order.
Included in Act! is an uninspired but serviceable word processor for writing letters, faxes, and other documents that automatically grab the contact data from the database. Mail-merge operations are easy to set up and use.
If you have the fax software WinFax Pro, you don't even have to exit Act! to use it. Also, you can create a template form letter for the fax and mail-merge a broadcast fax to multiple recipients automatically.
Act!'s database is a DBF file in standard dBASE IV format, making it easy to access from other programs. The files grow large rather quickly; my 285-name database occupies over 2MB of hard disk space.
Although file size complicates matters slightly, it's fairly easy to use Act! on a desktop computer and a laptop simultaneously. You can either copy the entire database between machines (if only one set of files has changes) or merge the two databases. The intelligent merge compares two databases and adds only the new data to the existing database.
Version 1.1 users may wonder if 2.0 offers enough new features to merit the cost and trouble of upgrading. The primary improvements lie in networking ability, E-mail enhancements, and reporting. Version 2.0 is network ready. E-mail enhancements allow you to send and receive E-mail messages directly from Act! through Lotus cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail, and CompuServe (although CompuServe users report difficulty in getting the connection to work without tech support's help).
But there are even more reasons to upgrade. About half the items on my version 1.1 wish list are in 2.0, along with several other small (but welcome) improvements. For instance, in 1.1 the alphabetical lookup Window takes you to the nearest contact to a letter you type - but only one letter. Version 2.0 tries to match whatever you type.
Unfortunately, the new version brings its own new frustrations. For example, the automatically supplied date in the note window also adds your user name on every note entry, which is fine for a network installation but incredibly wasteful for a stand-alone version. There's no way to turn off the feature. Similar glitches mar an otherwise admirable program.
Act! is simply much more than the sum of its parts. As soon as you see it, you'll see how useful it can be. The pop-up note window gives you all the flexibility you need to record lengthy text information or short notes. You'll find the program comfortable and responsive. Unless your contact management needs go beyond the norm, Act! 2.0 for Windows makes capturing and using your contact information pleasant - even exciting.