Fast facts: PFS revisited? Bill Jacobson.
Fast Facts: PFS Revisited?
The PFS series of programs from Software Publishing Corporation is one of the major success stories of the microcomputer industry. The first PFS entry, File, permits computer neophytes to create customized database applications, sans the necessity of learning intricate programming languages, or more powerful but complicated database packages. The recipe for File and other members of the PFS family--Report, Graph, and Write--is a cup each of ease-of-use and flexibility, with just a smidgin of sophistication.
Fast Facts from Innovative Software was designed to compete directly with PFS:File. Fast Facts is not a clone of File, even though the design philosophies of these programs are virtually identical. The proof of the program is in its special features. As you will see, Fast Facts offers an abundance of features that set it apart from its progenitor, PFS.
The Way It Works
Both Fast Facts and PFS are screen oriented file management programs. Routine data entry and search activities are accomplished with user defined data forms/screens. An example of a Fast Facts form is shown in Figure 1.
Unlike most database programs, Fast Facts defines forms and fields at the same time. Fields do not have fixed parameters. That is, you cannot restrict either the type of data entered (e.g., alphanumeric; numeric; date) of the length of a fild to a specified number of characters. This means that special care must be taken during the data entry process to ensure the accuracy of the information being keyed in.
File managers like Fast Facts and PFS enjoy certain advantages over more conventional databases. Many programs are limited to 30 to 80 characters per field. With Fast Facts and PFS, however, an entire form can be one long text field, if you so desire. You also can search on any word or phrase, regardless of the number of forms in a record. Thus, if long text field and word search capabilities are important, one of these programs may be your cup of tea.
Individual Fast Facts records can contain up to 50 forms, and each form up to 100 data fields (i.e., items of information). It is hard to imagin a record or form reaching the maximums allowable, so these limits are of little practical value. Normally, forms have no more than 10 to 30 fields, and records do not exceed two to three forms.
To start a new file, select the "Design a New Form' option on the Main Menu. After you name the file in which your new forms will reside, a black design screen is displayed with various command options listed at the bottom. Move the flashing cursor to the spot for the first field and press function key FI on the IBM PC. You can then enter a field name up to 20 characters.
This process sounds and is incredibly simple. Within a relatively short period of time, you have designed a custom file layout which can be used for data entry, access, and output. Editing of your creation is equally easy, using the commands noted on the screen.
To improve the appearance and readability of a form, you may draw divider lines on the screen, and sprinkle the screen with textual comments or identifiers. The form in Figure 1 uses this technique. For instance you can draw boxes around various titles or sections of data to make them stand out and be easily identifiable. The use of such a feature is purely a matter of taste. However, an attractively designed, easy to read form can relieve some of the tedium of data entry and search activities, and in so doing may decrease the potential for data entry errors.
Once you have completed the design, you press E (Enter, Search, or Display) on the Main Menu and begin data entry. Data on each form may be printed, with or without field names.
If your data entry needs exceed the limits of a form design, you may press the specified function key and create one or more additional pages. These are totally blank pages in which you can enter any text desired. This means each form is, in essence, open ended, and as much information as needed may be stored.
A very useful feature is the calculator function. You can add, subtract, multiply, or divide data in equations of up to 254 characters, and enter the results of the calculation into any data field on the form. This function is important, because neither PFS nor Fast Facts permits computed fields, in which the values of two or more fields on a form can be used to automatically compute the value of a results field.
Data search is also conducted in this mode. Search conditions can be entered for any field listed on any form, and such searches may be literal (exactly as entered) or wildcard.
The data entry and search functions work beautifully. I did not test search speed with a large file, but the program has a crispness of execution that portends a quick overall response time.
Three types of structured output are possible: quick print, custom reports, and mailing lists.
The Quick Print function prints 12 characters from each of the first five fields of every record. Only those fields on form one are shown. Its features cannot be modified. Quick Print enables you to scan all records in the file on a one line per record basis, rather than having to display entire forms. Output can be to screen or printer. This is a useful feature if you want a quick fix on what records are in a file, or a relatively short reference list for more detailed data searches.
With the Custom Report option, you can design columnar reports containing up to 20 existing fields, plus computed fields. Numeric columns can be subtotaled, totaled, subaveraged, and averaged. In addition, there are several numeric format options, including commas to set off thousands (e.g. 1,000,000); dollar signs to the left of an entry ($121) or percent signs at the right of a number (23%).
The screen for designing a custom report is shown in Figure 2. Fields are displayed one formful at a time, but you may page back and forth. Fields can be selected from any form and in any order. Once a selection has been made, you can change the column heading for the field (from that used for the data form) or data display conditions, using the criteria listed on the righthand side of Figure 2.
After field selection is complete, you can create computed columns using any numeric fields included in the report specification.
The Custom Report function works well, but there are some annoyances. For example, complex record retrieval specifications cannot be saved. They must be re-entered each time a report is run--a rather cumbersome procedure.
In addition, the fields used for creating a computed column must be included in the report, even though they may not be relevant and take up valuable space. For example, any fields used in the equation Price x Quantity x Discount must be included as columns in a report to produce the computed column Total. It is preferable to permit non printing fields in a report specification. These fields can then be referenced when you define a computed column like Total.
The Mailing Label function works extremely well. Two of the design screens for this feature are shown as Figures 3 and 4. I experienced no problems in designing several different formats. Because labels can be 10 lines by 60 columns in size, they may be used for an enormous variety of jobs, such as index cards and monthly billings. This is one of the most versatile label functions I have ever used.
Fast Facts can create a DIF file of records that can be read by Lotus 1-2-3, Visicalc, or any other program with DIF capabilities. In addition, Fast Facts can write comma delimited data to a standard ASCII text file, so that it can be read by WordStar, dBase II, Supercalc, and many other programs. Conversely, ASCII files prepared by such programs also can be read by Fast Facts. These utilities work extremely well.
Ease of Use and Documentation
A hallmark of this type of program is ease of use, and Fact Facts lives up to its billing. You can move quickly from file design to data entry to report design to report generation, etc. Help is provided every step of the way, and the necessary commands are listed on each screen.
The well organized manual is contained in a tabbed loose leaf binder, and the tutorials and other materials in it are easy to use. Innovative Software opted for less rather than more verbiage, under the premise that a combination of limited text and liberal use of simulated program screens might communicate better. I think they were correct in this judgment.
The manual is not indexed, a feature I normally demand of any computer documentation. An index is still desirable, although less so with a program as transparent as Fast Facts.
Fast Facts vs. PFS
Table 1 compares the major features of Fast Facts and PFS. The former includes a report writer, which is an extracost option with PFS. The report generation options of File are very limited. Thus I elected to compare Fast Facts with the tandem of File and Report, in order to judge the full capabilities of our contestants to input, store, access, and output data.
PFS permits many more records per file, but otherwise does not have the flexibility, speed, and features of Fast Facts.
Fast Facts should please anyone who needs a text oriented database program that is easy to use and extremely flexible. It will not take the place of dBase II and similar programs, which have incredible power and the capacity to handle large data files. If your needs are not that extravagant, Fast Facts may satisfy you without the bother, expense, and frustrations of learning and using a complex program.
I rate Fast Facts much higher than its chief competition, PFS:File and Report. The basic design of both programs is similar, but Fast Facts can do more things, with greater flourish than the PFS tandem, and it costs less.
Table: Comparison of PFS File/Report with Fast Facts.
Photo: Figure 1. A sample file form.
Photo: Figure 2. Custom Reports can be designed using existing fields with options from right column.
Photo: Figure 3. Mailing Label options.
Photo: Figure 4. Mailing Label design.
Products: Fast Facts (computer program)