Sophisticated Mail-Merge Program For Small Businesses
REVIEWED BY DAVID PLOTKIN, START CONTRIBUTING EDITOR
|AT A GLANCE|
Tracker/ST is a mailing list database that lets you compile a list of names, addresses, phone numbers and associated information, then use that list to generate form letters and mailing labels in an impressive variety of formats. It is menu-driven and employs on-screen buttons, but is hampered by a non-standard interface, and some functions that do not work under TOS 1.4.
First, The Entry
Tracker/ST is divided into three sections: the Entry screen, the Power Station and the Text Editor. The Entry screen is where you enter data. The data format is fixed - but the screen includes all the "normal" mailing-list fields as well as a few special ones that can be quite useful. Fields include name (first and last), salutation, company, address, three phone numbers (home, work and fax), date, ID number, category, rank, source and a single line called "short notes."
Fields such as category and rank aren't for any fixed use, but can have a variety of purposes. A special characteristic of rank (which must be a number) is that there is a menu command that "counts down" rank. That is, each time you implement that command, all the values for rank decrease by one. Thus, rank can be equated to "number of issues remaining" in a subscription database, and each time you send out an issue, you can decrement rank by one very easily. The Entry screen includes a "long notes" field that invokes the text editor. The long notes can be of virtually any length and are saved as part of the database.
|The Entry Screen|
The menus on the Entry screen pack a lot of power. The File menu lets you load/save a database, import and export your data in several different formats, rename, delete and start a new database. The Edit menu lets you add or delete entries, or just edit a certain field of every record. The View menu lets you move through the entries (including a search by name or company) or look at them in Browse mode (columnar format, like a spreadsheet). The Settings menu lets you change your defaults, such as whether the first or last name is automatically shown in the salutation field. Additionally, you can sort by company or last name, spool to a RAM disk and set the time and date.
One of the most powerful features of Tracker/ST is the Update menu. This lets you change any field with a specified value to a different value. This can be very handy, for example, if you misabbreviated a state, and you want to go back and correct it. The final menu, called Extras, lets you perform housekeeping, such as cleaning up your database (which should be done periodically after heavy activity), counting the number of records, printing a single label and deleting the long notes for an entry. The screen also contains a series of buttons that work much like the menus. Click on a button or type the first letter of the button name to activate its function.
Moving through the Entry screen to enter data is a little bit strange, because even though the screen looks just like a dialog box, it is not. You can't click on a field and then enter data for that field. Also, neither [Tab] nor the up/down arrow keys work to move from field to field. Instead, you must press [Return] to move forward.; [Control] -[Return] to move backward. Clumsy, but manageable.
The Power Station
The Power Station is where you use the data you've entered. You can run reports, do a mail merge or print labels. Each of the main categories has its own box on the Power Station screen, showing the important settings. Again, this screen is misleading because you can't click on a setting and change it - you must make a menu selection to make any changes. To then perform an action, such as run a report, you must click on the appropriate button or press the keyboard equivalent.
The first step in using the Power Station is to set the filter. Once a filter has been set, only those records that meet the conditions of the filter will be affected by further operations. For example, you could print out labels of only those people in the state of California. The filter can be based on any field, but not a combination of fields (i.e., you can't do something like "people who live in Alabama and have a rank less than four").
|The Power Station|
Tracker's Mail Merge function is based on a template. This template is constructed using the text editor. It is not a true mail merge, as the address information and salutation is all that is added to each copy of the template in use. You cannot ask for any of the fields to appear in the body of the letter as you can with "real" mail merging. A variation on this is the "Quick Letter," where you can modify a template and print it out for a single name, without affecting the model template it was taken from.
Tracker/ST can also generate labels. It comes with standard and Rolodex-style labels built in, but you can design and save your own label formats. These formats can specify which fields appear on each line (multiple fields can appear on each line), how many labels across you want to print and spacing. it takes a certain amount of experimentation to get the format to match the labels exactly, but there is a function that generates Xs to quickly test your format. Once you have it right, you can save it to disk for future use.
The Editor in Tracker/ST doesn't appear on any menu or button, but the program is smart enough to take you there when need be - such as when you want to add a template or modify some long notes. The Editor has enough functions to get the job done, including filing, block operations, cut and paste, styles (bold, italics, underline, etc.) and a ruler for setting margins. These margins can be set for each paragraph. It does not do tabs, nor can it search and replace. Fortunately, at least for templates, you can import an ASCII file from another word processor, though you must then add any styles you want in the Tracker/ST text editor.
An Excellent Database, But...
Tracker/ST is an excellent database, but, as mentioned earlier, it is hampered by an interface that is clumsy in spots, dangerous in others and is partially nonfunctional under TOS 1.4. To be fair, it is not the fault of the author (Nevin Shalit, who certainly knows what an interface should and shouldn't do). The program was written in compiled Superbase command language. This language is pretty fast and loose about the "rules" for programs on an ST. For example, many alert boxes do not have the heavy box around the default choice (the one activated when you press [Return]), yet a choice does take effect when you press [Return] - but which one? The buttons on the alert and dialog boxes are fixed text and there are a set number of them. Thus, you may have to click on Cancel when you want to select "next line," and you have to remember to type in keywords such as "no" or "done" instead of clicking on buttons. More importantly, you are sometimes presented with a button or a file-selector line that the manual warns you not to use. Problem is, these things couldn't be turned off.
This is also true about the Entry screen scroll bars. You're warned not use them, but if you do, you're faced with a blank screen. Further, and much more dangerously, clicking on the right scroll arrow causes a two-bomb crash (at least in my case - Shalit wasn't able to duplicate this problem). The number of menus is also limited by the language, so that there isn't room for all the necessary entries. Thus, some menus include a choice to call up a different set of menu items. What this means is that some menu items require two mouse actions.
Under TOS 1.4, mouse clicks on buttons don't work. This is not a big problem because each button has a keyboard equivalent. However, Precision Software, Superbase Pro's creators, doesn't seem inclined to fix the problem.
Tracker/ST has an excellent manual, which includes a tutorial and extensive reference section, index and appendices detailing such important information as importing data from other databases. In fact, if anything, the manual might be a bit too extensive, repeating passages of text over and over for commands that work the same.
Making allowances for the interface, Tracker/ST is an excellent database for handling phone/address lists and simple mail-merge needs. It is powerful and easy to use, and if you have extensive needs in this area, it's definitely worth a look.