Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 128 / APRIL 1991 / PAGE 89

Personal R:Base. (database software) (evaluation)
by Steve Hudson

Ease of use and power in an inexpensive relational database? That's what Personal R: Base promises, but is that advertising hype or a home office dream come true?

Personal R:Base is, in fact, a powerful, functional program. It's got the features you'd expect any topflight database to have, including mouse support, a multitude of functions, and the ability to handle existing R:Base, dBase, or Lotus 1-2-3 files. It's upwardly compatible to regular R:Base, too. And perhaps best of all, it's not impossibly difficult to use.

Database come in two flavors, flat-file and relational. A flat-file database can be thought of as a giant blackboard; if you want to put something on a particular part of the board (that is, add something to the database), then you've got to write it there manually, by hand. A relational database, on the other hand, is like a stack of blackboards that can talk (and write) to one another. In practice, a relational database can eliminate a lot of duplicate inputting.

Take a simple example: filling in someone's address. With a flat-file database, you type the entire address every time you enter it. But with a relational database, you enter it once (in what's called a table) and then have the program look it up in the table whenever you need it.

Like its big brother regular R:Base, Personal R:Base is a relational database. It stores data in tables that can be linked (related) to one another. An interface with intuitive pulldown menus greatly simplifies use, and if you get lost, context-sensitive help is just a keypress away.

Installation involves not only transferring the program files but decompressing them, too. It went quickly on a 386 machine, but on an XT the decompression was slow. One other thing to keep in mind is the sheer size of the program. Although you can run it on machines with 640K of RAM, it takes up far more than 640K of your hard drive space. To install it all - the program, the tutorial, and the bundled applications - you need a whopping six megabytes of available space, four megabytes for just the program.

When you install Personal R:Base, you may notice some notable omissions on the printer setup list - no Panasonic printers, for instance. This won't trouble seasoned veterans, but the less-seasoned user may be thrown for a loop when the family printer doesn't show up in the list. Such unfortunates are advised to check their printer manuals or contact their printer manufacturers for compatibility details.

Once installed, Personal R:Base is fairly easy to use. You start by naming the database. Next, define each table that the database will include and assemble the columns that the table contains; each column gets a name and, if you desire, a description. Then you're prompted to enter the data type (currency, text, time, date, various numeric formats, and so on) or specify if the column is to be a computed column.

How big can your R:Base database be? There are limits - 80 tables and 800 columns - although for most personal or small business applications that's more room than you'll ever need.

How could I put this thing to use doing some real work? As it happened, I needed an invoicing application for a small home business. I had been preparing invoices on a word processor, creating each invoice manually. That involved not only manually typing every customer's name and address but also manually typing complete entries for each and every item ordered. Then I had to figure subtotals and sales tax. Could Personal R:Base make invoicing quicker and easier? I decided to give it a shot.

I first designed my database on paper. It would initially include three tables: one holding customer data, one holding pricing data, and one holding individual invoices.

I set up my database and defined the three tables. All went smoothly. My customer info table included columns for first and last names, addresses, phone numbers, and date of last order. The stock info table included product stock numbers, descriptions, and whosesale and retail prices. Then I set up the invoice table so it would look up info from the other two. It worked - and I found it remarkably satisfying to enter a customer name (or stock number) and then watch as the complete address (or product info) was automatically filled in. Using computed fields, I even convinced the program to figure sales tax and totals.

The last step was to design a report - that is, set up the invoice-printing routine. The so-called Quick Report option would've yielded a basic report with only a few keystrokes, but I opted for building a custom report instead. Personal R:Base allowed me to position various fields wherever I wanted, making it easy to create a truly custom invoicing form. In addition, its drawing option allowed me to include boxes and rules for further clarity and a nicely finished look.

Of course, I also needed mailing labels. Personal R:Base includes more than a dozen predesigned templates for a variety of labels, one of which I used. I could've easily customized my own format, however.

It worked fine, and now I'm thinking enhancements. An early project is to use Personal R:Base's sorting capabilities to create alphabetical and chronological customer-activity reports. Next will come scrolling data regions to simplify data entry, and I'd like to add autonumbering of invoices.

Except for the absence of explanations for the included applications, the documentation for Personal R:Base is lavish. It's divided into topical sections, with each section indexed and a glossary and appendices at the end of the book. There's an interesting onscreen tutorial, too.

Initially, being the determined sort, I spent only a few minutes with the manual and the tutorial before jumping into the program - and I was able to make a little progress anyway. But I'd have felt better (and made a heck of a lot faster progress) if I'd at least taken time to go all the way through the tutorial. For, despite its "personal" qualifier, Personal R:Base is a powerful package that you won't conquer in a day.

But as you work with it, you'll learn its features. You'll use it, and you'll like it. And once you do, your approach to data management may never be the same.