Approach for Windows 2.0. (data base management system) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Richard Rapp
Love it or hate it, no one can deny Windows' overwhelming success in both the home and business markets. Applications like Excel and Ami Pro offer enough power and flexibility to handle almost any job that comes along. But despite its excellent applications, Windows has been woefully deficient when it comes to database management systems. Until recently, that is.
Approach for Windows has changed the picture. Its initial version offered plenty of features and an easy upgrade path from existing database packages. Now, in version 2.0, it provides the speed and power necessary to make it a leader in the Windows database market.
One of Approach's main strengths has always been its excellent compatibility with existing products. Third-party products enable it to access DB2 databases, and it can also import and export data from both Lotus 1-2-3 and Microsoft Excel.
For network users, Approach supports most major networking systems. Best of all, there are no LAN packs to buy and no special setup is required. System security features have also been upgraded in version 2.0, offering a variety of record-locking and password-protection options.
Approach's designers have updated its interface with Windows 3.1 in mind. It now uses the most current versions of Windows' common dialog boxes to maintain consistency of look and feel with other Windows 3.1 applications. It also sports new thermometer gauges to show the progress of sort and find operations, and it has a preview-mode button to allow the user to access this frequently used option with a single mouse click.
Approach offers the user many options for manipulating data and uses the Windows environment to good advantage with its PicturePlus fields. These fields enable it to handle some data types not supported by standard databases. Validation options allow the user to enter data automatically in some cases or to ensure that it meets specified criteria. Approach also supports check boxes, radio buttons, and several styles of pick lists to help ensure fast, consistent data entry.
PicturePlus fields have been greatly enhanced since Approach's original release, and they offer some interesting possibilities. Using Windows' OLE capabilities, they allow the user to store objects created in other applications in Approach databases. Such objects could be graphs, charts, pictures, or even sounds. The objects maintain a link with the applications in which they were created, so with a simple mouse click, that application can be called up and the object edited. For graphical objects, Approach supports most of the popular formats, including BMP, EPS, PCX, and TIFF.
Approach's paper metaphor makes designing forms and reports a snap. Graphical objects represent fields, headings, subtotals, and the like, and the user simply drags them into place with the mouse. Optional rulers and a user-definable grid help keep everything aligned properly. Pages can include headers, footers and multiple fonts, and you can specify automatic insertion of the time, date, and page number. Files can include up to 50 forms, reports, and mailing-label definitions, a hefty increase over the previous limit of 16 definitions per file. Approach can also perform mail merges.
The program makes short work of producing mailing labels. If you use Avery-brand labels, you simply choose the appropriate part number from a pick list, and Approach formats the labels automatically. No hassle, no bother, no wasted time. Approach can handle about 50 different styles of labels, so even if you're using a different brand, you can probably find one that works. If not, you can still easily create custom formats.
At the heart of this program, though, lies a powerful relational database. Approach allows up to ten databases to be joined at a time, in any combination of file formats. It also presents a graphical depiction of the relationship among joined databases, so you can confirm that you performed the operation correctly. You can create one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-one relations with a few mouse clicks, and Approach handles much of the formatting of information from the child records automatically. In network environments, you can choose between pessimistic record locking, in which only one user at a time may access a particular record, or optimistic record locking, in which Approach allows simultaneous access but keeps users informed as changes are made.
Approach uses a form of query by example to specify search criteria. It displays a blank version of your regular data-entry form, and you simply type the search criteria into the appropriate fields. The criteria may contain wildcards or specify a range of values, and searches can be case sensitive or not. A new wrinkle in Approach's search capabilities is its ability to perform "sounds like" searches. This feature enables Approach to find records that are phonetically similar to the search criteria, so that finding oddly spelled last names, for example, is no longer a hassle.
Though Approach doesn't support a full-fledged programming language, such as one of the various xBASE dialects, it does have a very complete macro language for automating common tasks. Creating macros can be as simple as clicking your way through a couple of dialog boxes, and you can attach macros to on-screen buttons. Features added in version 2.0 allow you to assign macros to function keys, chain macros to unlimited depth, and create special macros that execute when a file is opened or closed. Approach also now supports variable fields, which act just like global variables in a regular programming language.
The designers have done an excellent job of improving the program's speed in several areas. Claimed improvements include the ability to sort 10 times faster than version 1.0 and save files 100 times faster. It also is said to be 100-percent faster in importing and exporting data. While an in-depth evaluation of these claims is beyond the scope of this review, my impression is that the speed improvements are substantial, though Approach itself still takes far too long to load. PicturePlus fields represent an improvement in its support for Windows' OLE capabilities, and system security is greatly enhanced by its support for read-only fields and many password options.
Still, despite these improvements, Approach has its share of faults. It supports only one level of undo, the unfortunate standard among Windows apps, and its icons' functions are not always obvious. Plan to spend some time thumbing through the well-written manuals familiarizing yourself with them.
Upgrading from version 1.0 is easy. Approach can install itself over the older version, leaving all user files intact. When opening view files or using indexes created under version 1.0, Approach gives you the option of updating them so they can take advantage of the new features. Once they're updated, though, they won't be readable by version 1.0, so make a backup if you plan to run both versions.
With the recent release of several products and the promise of more to come, the Windows database market is heating up. But if you need a powerful relational database right now, Approach for Windows 2.0 has no equal.