UltraFile. (evaluation) Bill Jacobson.
The Quest for Sophisticated Simplicity
Perhaps the most overworked term in the dictionary of computerese is "userfriendly.' Although many hardware and software companies describe their products as such, the claim is not always justifiable.
In software the most commonly used techniques to evoke friendliness are menus and sub-menus, on-screen icons, help screens, and "English language commands.' They are supposed to hold user confusion and learning time to a hypothetical minimum.
Like most of its competitors, Continental Software makes grandiose claims about the friendliness of their new UltraFile database program, to wit: "If you can press a button, you can use UltraFile to manage and organize information for your business or your home.' Let's see how true this claim is.
The Architecture of UltraFile
UltraFile is a file manager program of classic design. That is, only one file can be open or accessed at a time. Unlike more comprehensive and expensive programs, two or more databases cannot be used simultaneously for data entry and report generation. This limitation is significant only if you have complex inventory, accounting, or other business systems that require the integration and simultaneous updating of several files. For mailing, client, and other types of single purpose lists, a database program like UltraFile is more than adequate and usually much cheaper.
The data storage capabilities of UltraFile are: 99 files per data disk; 32,000 records per file; 1000 characters per record; 50 fields (data items) per record; and 100 characters per field.
The Main Menu (Figure 1) provides an excellent overview of UltraFile functions. Although it is not readily apparent from this listing, UltraFile is divided into four quite distinct modules: Design, Update, Report, and Graphs. In fact the floppy disk version of UltraFile is contained on four 320K disks, each corresponding to one of the modules.
Despite this profusion of disks and programs, disk swapping is a surprisingly minor inconvenience. Each module (disk) can be booted separately. Thus, once the database and its reports have been designed, you usually boot the program with the Update disk. Obviously, the disks for Report and Graphs are needed for those specific functions.
For file and report redesign, the Define disk must again be used. The other options on the Main Menu are available on each disk.
If you have a high capacity hard disk drive, of course, all program modules may be mounted on that device, and you can access any segment of UltraFile without concern for such mundane matters as disk swapping.
UltraFile is the ultimate menu driven program. In addition to the menu shown in Figure 1, a wide variety of other menus and sub-menus guide you through an impressive array of tasks.
UltraFile master disks are not copy protected, so backups may (and should) be made using the Copy function of PC-DOS. The program can be easily adapted to your hardware by booting the Design disk and sequentially selecting the Utilities Menu and Hardware Configuration options.
After naming a new file, you immediately begin the field definition process, during which you must establish the data entry characteristics of each field. Samples of the options available are listed in Figures 2 and 3. Such features enable you to control the quality of data entries, as well as to simplify entry of certain types of information.
Once all fields have been defined, you can elect to use standard or custom data entry screens. On standard screens, all fields are aligned at the left margin. An example of a custom screen is shown in Figure 4.
An important bonus of the custom screen feature is Footnote, in which user-defined instructions for each field can appear at the bottom of the screen during data entry. An instruction message can be up to 50 characters in length. It appears each time you add data to or edit a field. An example of a footnote is shown in Figure 4.
The well devised field definition and custom screen functions should improve data entry speed and accuracy.
Data Entry and Search
To add information to your new file, simply return to the main menu, and select item 10 (Enter Data Via Questionnaire). The custom screen that you just defined appears, and you can begin data entry. Available options are listed at the bottom of the page, and help screens appear with a touch of a function key.
Another form of data entry is the Batch File mode, with which you can read information prepared by most other programs into an UltraFile database. In addition, the Batch mode can be used in place of normal UltraFile data entry. This is important: if you find sequential data entry faster and more convenient (e.g., using commas to separate sequential strings of data fields); want to enter only a few fields; or need to replace (overwrite) records already in the file. Each record entered in the batch mode can be "confirmed' (visually verified in the questionnaire format), and all data entered are automatically checked against your data entry standards. This is an enormously powerful function, and is far and away the most versatile one I have encountered.
Once data entry is complete, you can print a register of the data you have just entered. This is an excellent idea, as it allows you to maintain a chronological listing of changes made to a file and to verify the accuracy of any entry. All database programs should have this capability.
Record search capabilities are divided into two types: Browse and Question. Browse is intended for scans of the entire file; Question for examination of a user selected portion of the file. Otherwise their capabilities are nearly identical. You have the following types of options:
These search functions are well designed and executed.
Custom reports are columnar, and a wide variety of formatting and calculated column options are offered. Report width can be up to 132 columns. The design screen scrolls to the right for report columns that exceed the standard 80-character width of a CRT.
Columns can be "stacked,' so that data items from each record can be located one over the other. Thus, there can be multiple lines of information per report, with data arranged for maximum legibility. See Figure 5 for an example of a report using stacking.
The output destination of a report can be of several types. In addition to printer and screen destinations, data can be sent to DIF, text and sequential files; to a special Data Statements file that can be incorporated into Basic language programs; and to form letters created with any text editor, including the EDLINprogram on the PC-DOS master disk. You can, for example, edit an UltraFile-generated report by saving it to a text file, and then modifying and printing it using WordStar, or any word processor that can read such files.
Finally, you can design mailing labels using the Produce Reports/Files/Forms option on the Main Menu.
The number, type, and quality of data output devices available with UltraFile are impressive. Continental's designers seem to have accounted for every contingency.
This function can be used only if you have a color graphics board or the equivalent in your IBMPC. If so, your data files can be graphed in monochrome or color using three-dimensional and standard bars, area graphs, connecting lines, overlays, and other display methods. It is not possible, however, to do pie graphs and more complex displays.
The results of your graphics designs can be saved to disk or printed with a dot matrix printer. An example of an UltraFile-produced graph is shown in Figure 6.
This is a simple to use, if relatively unsophisticated, graph function for those who have only an occasional need for such a device.
Ease of Use and Performance
Each function is clearly defined, and on-screen instructions are easy to follow. A helping hand is extended each step of the way.
A variety of "goof' protection techniques also are used. For instance, those actions that may destroy data require more than a conventional yes or no response (e.g., to delete a record from the search mode, you must enter the full word delete).
Ease of use can sometimes translate into poor performance. The program overhead required to provide the menus and other aids in a "friendly' program can have its effect on how fast and well a program executes. Fortunately, this is not the case with UltraFile. Aside from a long program booting period (40 seconds), you can jump from one program function to another with alacrity. This was a pleasant surprise, given the impressive variety of features offered by this fine program.
The user manual for UltraFile is contained in a loose-leaf binder, which is indexed but not tabbed. This is unfortunate, as tabbing would have improved its usefulness greatly.
The manual is well written, and I found most of its guidance and tutorials easy to follow. Many example screens are used throughout the manual, an excellent training and reference technique.
As indicated earlier, UltraFile is designed to be error resistant. It is hard to destroy data or pre-formatted reports inadvertently, or to back yourself into a corner. If you do get into trouble, the program advises you on the corrective steps needed.
Most software producers offer technical advice at no cost to registered owners of their software. Some even provide free program updates as well as toll free telephone numbers. Such is not the case with UltraFile. If you want the niceties of advice and updates, you must pay a one-time up front fee of $20. The cost of a call is not included.
A small charge for program updates is certainly reasonable. Fees for technical advice seem out of line, however, especially for a program that is touted as a paradigm of friendliness.
UltraFile is an easy to use database program with many attractive features. Its data entry, search and output operations work extremely well, and the built-in graphics function is an added attraction.
If you are in the market for a general purpose file manager that is versatile, highly capable, and relatively foolproof, you would be hard pressed to beat UltraFile.
Photo: Figure 1. Main Menu.
Photo: Figure 2. Data Entry Option A.
Photo: Figure 3. Data Entry Option B.
Photo: Figure 4. Custom Data Entry Screen.
Photo: Figure 5. Custom Report Sample.
Photo: Figure 6. Graphics Example.
Products: UltraFile (computer program)