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
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
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)
Originally published: June, 2002
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The opinions expressed in these reviews
do not necessarily represent the views of the
Ottawa PC Users' Group or its members.