Packrat 4.0. (Evaluation)
by Peter Scisco
PacketRat 4.0 from Polaris Software stores, organizes, and provides easy access to every detail of your office. While several personal information managers (PIMs) fly the Windows banner, PackRat 4.0 ranks as the premier implementation of this application group. No other PIM quite matches its scope or capabilities, yet it doesn't ask you to sacrifice a lifetime in learning. The program's overall integration, intuitive functionality, and well-developed links to other Windows applications make it a natural leader.
Comprising 15 separate activities, called facilities, PackRat can be configured to be as simple or as complex as you want. This eases the way for first-time users, while offering the expandability that a growing business requires.
For users who fear such an armada of applications, one of PackRat's best features is its ability to display only those facilities that you want or use regularly. Customize the interface to streamline it and keep the screen simplified. This is especially important in the beginning, for too many options at the start may intimidate you too much to allow you to make the most of PackRat's many features.
The facility to which most users will immediately gravitate is Phone Book, an excellent database for telephone numbers, addresses, and contact names. PackRat even accesses your fax software--so you don't have to keep a separate directory of fax numbers. Windows word processors can use macros to gain access to addresses stored in Phone Book. These are simple examples of how the DDE links in PackRat manage information across all of your applications.
Phone Book's companion is Phone Log, which tracks calls you make or receive. You'll find such a log invaluable if you must track phone costs from a home business or bill a client for phone calls related to a particular project.
PackRat's To Do and Agenda facilities are comparable to similar features in most other PIMs. Each keeps track of appointments and projects, supports repetitive and custom scheduling, and displays scheduling conflicts.
Besides these fairly straight-forward facilities, PackRat offers more exotic but still useful options. For example, the Financial module lets you track expenses and account balances for any number of accounts. While not a replacement for a dedicated financial package, the Financial module can be designed to perform most of your accounting functions.
Index Card is a free-form card file for storing miscellaneous information. Use Index Card to store information for proposals, for brainstorming ideas, or for lists. Think of it as an electronic equivalent of Post-it Notes.
Track the history of documents created in other Windows applications and launch documents with their associated applications with Disk File. You can also launch DOS files with accompanying applications, provided you've defined the document extension and its accompanying application in your WIN.INI file.
PackRat's Resource Management facility is designed for people who monitor the use of company equipment or bill clients for the use of special resources. You may define each resource item (conference room, computer, and so on) and its billing amount. As you attach a particular resource to a project, the billed amount is automatically calculated for the accrued time of the project.
PackRat attachments are particularly significant, for they govern the way information can be retrieved and linked. A Phone Book item linked to a project gives you a means of tracking who has been contacted for each stage of a project. Any facility item can be linked to any other.
Project Management tracks projects and the tasks associated with them. Tasks can show dependencies, and prospective completion dates can be calculated and refined as the project proceeds. Like the Financial facility, Project Manager isn't meant for large projects better served by dedicated applications. But for small projects requiring the completion of smaller tasks, this manager performs nicely.
PackRat's Time Management module tracks the elapsed time spent on user-defined projects, tasks, clients--anything to which you want to assign a timed task. This facility can double as a time/billing module, as each Time item can be assigned a resource rate, which is then multiplied by the elapsed time for billing purposes. It's a very workable and elegant solution for home office workers or small businesses that want to track the amount of billable time spent on particular tasks.
An Alert facility allows you to schedule reminders for any task, call, or appointment. A pop-up window will occur in any other Windows application once an Alert has been activated. If you're using a DOS application in a windowed environment, the program will automatically be minimized, and you'll drop to the PackRat Alert screen.
A Global facility allows instant access to a variety of informational tidbits stored throughout PackRat. This can be very helpful when you're trying to pull together all of the information for a particular task. You can also use Scratch Pad to assimilate information from different databases as you work toward the next stage in a project.
Essentially, all of these separate facilities act as modules for a simplified, intuitive database. As such, PackRat provides ample opportunity for you to define each entry you make in a way that allows you to search and retrieve that information easily.
For example, in a simple module like Phone Book, you can enter all the basic information: name, address, title, position, company, business phone, and so on. In addition, you can fill four User Key fields to refine your entry. If you needed a report on all of your suppliers located in the Northeast, you'd type supplier in one of the User Key fields and northeast in another. Then, before traveling to the Northeast, you'd search using those criteria and the Boolean search routines that PackRat provides. The intuitive and powerful search routines are a major part of PackRat's power.
As another indication of its powerful database activities, PackRat can issue a variety of reports based on parameters defined in a similar way to the search parameters. It includes several standard reports and provides tools for defining and designing your own. You can save your reports as a Print Catalog that you can call up later--so you have to define the report only once.
Is PackRat the perfect personal information manager? Almost. There's still room for improvement, especially in the program's manuals. A more thorough examination of each of the intricate and varied functions is needed. Certainly, instructions for reporting functions, printing, and the Resource and Project Management modules all need to be more detailed.
A second caveat is the power you really need for this incredibly disk-intensive application. I've been using the program for several months on a machine with 4MB of memory, but I feel the distinct need to double that amount of RAM to accommodate this program, the Windows environment, and Ami Pro 2.0.
Still, you'll have to look pretty hard to find a program that does so many things so well. PackRat is billed as a "complete information manager," and it lives up to this claim in grand style. If your work requires you to balance several projects, think creatively, and stay in contact, PackRat 4.0 might be as perfect as it gets in this world.