Ottawa PC Users' Group, Inc.
 Product Review 


Alpha Five v4.5 Relational Database
by
Bob Gowan

For as long as I’ve been a regular (daily) user of personal computers, some 15 or 16 years, I guess, I’ve had the most fun working with databases. With my first “real” PC, a used laptop (that had dual 3.5” floppy drives and no hard disk drive), I got a copy of a “home-made” personal organizer that the original owner had developed. I used this application extensively for several years, and although I never got it to do everything I wanted, I had a great time trying to figure out how it worked, and in trying to customize it to suit me. Since then, I have continued to dabble with databases whenever I can. Over the years, I’ve used most (at least a dozen different ones) of the popular “personal” database software products, and seen a number of them come and go. Although I am by no measure a serious developer, I have created a number of “quick and dirty” applications for use by me alone, or my family and friends, and even a few for co-workers and student employees, to collect, analyse and report on specific sets of data. In recent years, I’ve had less chance to work with databases and had almost forgotten how much I enjoyed it.

Then, a little over a year ago, I dug out a copy of the Alpha Software’s original Windows product, Alpha Five version 1, which I purchased at (I believe) a surplus sale, but never really used. I remembered, however, that this one was known for its ease of use, and its field rules to control and validate data entry, and this was what I needed for a new “project.” Alpha Five “fit the bill” all right, and renewed my interest in database programming. Anyone who read my report on the recent Alpha Five Developer’s Conference, in the May newsletter, will know already that I’m impressed with this product. Since then, I’ve received a review copy of the current version of Alpha Five – version 4.50 (build 266). As expected, this is a whole new world from the original version, so this article will not attempt to compare the two, nor to describe all the “new” features. And I have not tested this copy in a networked environment. Instead, this review will simply try to introduce to the OPCUG a few of the many terrific features of this little known gem of a product. 

I should point out that Alpha Five is not easy to find in “bricks and mortar” stores. Your best bet may be ordering it directly from Alpha Software, where it can be obtained as a download or on CD. The URL for Alpha’s web site is provided at the end of this article. Take a look at this excellent site, check out its variety of resources for Alpha users, download a time-limited trial of version 4.50 and try it out for yourself before committing to purchase. Alternatively, I can direct you to a Canadian supplier, who features Alpha Five prominently in both its mailed catalogue and online store. The CD version comes in a striking orange and blue package that does seem to be designed for recognition on a store shelf. Inside, there is a single jewel case and CD, and a single sheet of paper containing the software registration key. Following an all-too-common trend, all of the documentation for this version is digital. While I do not mind this approach if the software is easy to use, I suspect many users do expect some printed documentation; at least a “getting started” guide. The CD label does indicate that this guide is available on the CD, so those that think they need it could print a copy before starting. 

The CD label also lists three simple steps (Start –Run – Setup) for installation of the software and documentation. From this point, the Wise Installer guides you through selection of program files destination and what other components (templates, documentation, etc) to install — indicating space requirements for each. Both Adobe Acrobat (PDF) and Word (DOC) versions of all documentation are available for installation. They appear in a sub-menu called “Books” under both the Start … Program Group and under Alpha Five’s Help. I will return to the documentation later in this article.

When you start Alpha Five, the Welcome dialog gives you a choice to create a new empty database, to create a new database from an existing template, or to open an existing database, either from a list of those recently used or using the Browse dialog. Alpha provides many step-by-step procedural guides, called “genies” to help you complete most operations. The New Database Genie give you a choice of a variety of complete “real world” applications, such as an Invoicing or Inventory systems, Employee Records, Membership or Mailing List Managers and a Contact Manager, that could be used as created, without modification. Alpha Five uses “sets” to define the linkages between “tables” in its relational database structure. The tables use the well-known DBF format so can easily be exchanged with most other “Office suite” software. 

Each of the application templates includes a fully-working sample of the components of a typical Alpha Five application: menus, sets, tables, field rules, forms, browses, reports, letters, labels, operations and code. Using Alpha’s Control Panel one can examine, under separate tabs for each of these components, any object or detail of these components and learn a great deal about relational database design or Alpha’s programming language, Xbasic. A right-mouse-click on any object opens a context-sensitive menu dialog giving access to any of that object’s properties or the operations that can be performed on it. For instance, for a table, the right-click dialog menu includes edit table structure, edit field rules, define index, pack, and more. By simply exploring these options, it’s easy to discover the power and ease of use of Alpha Five for yourself. 

Whether you use one of the sample application templates above, or create a new database from scratch, when you add a new table, the context-sensitive New Object Genie allows to pick from a list of about 35 table templates. These samples are suitable for a variety of business (personnel, finance, sales) or home (collections, friends, memberships) applications. Tables can contain any of the usual types of data fields, including RTF or BMP memos and OLE objects. But one of Alpha’s most widely-acknowledged features is it’s comprehensive set of Field Rules for speeding up data entry and preventing data entry errors. Alpha Five v4.50 has 20-some field rules covering masks or templates for data entry, data transformations and validation expressions, a whole range of look-ups (from lists, cascading lists, tables, etc) and even postings to another table. It is the ease of use of this extensive collection of field rules that initially grabbed my attention. To create similar data entry control capability in most of the other database software requires extensive coding – in Alpha Five, it is done in a few mouse clicks.

Among Alpha’s long list of Genies, more, they claim, than any other database program, are those for many table and record operations: joins, intersects, crosstabs, imports, exports, search and replace, copy, subtract, mark duplicates, unmark, delete, post, query and more. There’s a Button Genie that makes it a snap to add to a form a button that will perform some task like posting data to a master table, or printing a report. Alpha’s Query Genie allows you to pick either Query by Form or Query by Table to find any records in the most complex data sets. The reports designer makes it easy, by simply dragging and dropping, to create impressive reports and there are specific genies for letters and labels. Alpha Five’s network optimization, full-text indexing and ODBC support for SQL databases make it simple and fast to find any of your data.

Alpha’s very extensive programming language, Xbasic, makes it possible to extend the capability of Alpha Five about as far as you could imagine. And you don’t have be a programmer already to take advantage of this language because Alpha provides an easy-to-use features and tools like its Action Scripting, Xbasic Explorer and Script Recorder that will guide you through the learning process. New Scripts, Menus, Toolbars or Functions can be created step-by-step with Action Scripting using the New Code Genie, and then converted to Xbasic. Though I have not yet made much use of these tools, it seems to me that the code they generate is very “clean” as compared to other code generators I’ve seen in previous database development work.

No doubt the best way to become proficient in Xbasic is to work through the sample applications and the 500-page Xbasic Reference Manual included with the on-line documentation. While I have heard some complaints about Alpha Five’s documentation, I think this must be simply about the lack of hard copy. I found that overall, the documentation is well-written and extensive – 900 pages in all – and each document includes a table of contents and an index, both very detailed. Alpha Five’s Help files are also comprehensive, well-organized and consistent with the the PDF and DOC Books. In addition to the Xbasic manual, there is a “Getting Started” guide, a Users Guide (258 pages) and a “What’s New” guide, all based on the 4.0 version; as well as a “What’s New in Version 4.5” document. In addition, there are other published books, written by third parties, at both beginners and advanced levels, and available through Alpha’s web site.

There are many more things I could write about – perhaps in a future article – hardly covering the basics of what this software can do. Those interested in databases should check out Alpha’s website for more description of features and testimonials from users much more experienced than me. While a new version, 5.0, is expected this summer, anyone interested should not wait – there is lots they can learn and do with the current version. Besides, Alpha will credit the full purchase price of the current version towards upgrading to the next version on its release. You just can’t lose !!

System Requirements (as stated by developer):

  • 486 or better processor
  • 32 MB RAM 
  • 12 MB of Disk Space (32 MB recommended) 
  • VGA Display 
  • Microsoft Windows 95/98/NT/2000/ME/XP 

Bottom Line:

Alpha Five version 4.50 
US$145 (Download) or US$149 + S&H (CD) 
(3- and 5-user network packs and unlimited runtime version also available) 
from: Alpha Software
Web site: http://www.alphasoftware.com


Copyright and Usage
Ottawa Personal Computer Users' Group (OPCUG), Inc.
3 Thatcher Street, Ottawa, ON  K2G 1S6

The opinions expressed in these reviews may not necessarily
represent the views of the OPCUG or its members.