FileMaker Pro 4.1 for Windows Review
by Fred Kagel, Dir. Freehold Computer Training
FileMaker Pro has a long track record in the Macintosh world and has tried for years to make inroads in the PC database minefield. It is a worthy contender. This is not my first encounter with FileMaker Pro as I had taught and customized an application using version 2.1 a few years back.
FileMaker Pro 4.1 is a powerful, easy to use relational database suited for Win 3.1 or Win 9x/NT. Windows and Macintosh files can be shared over a LAN or an Intranet. Each workstation must have a separate licensed copy of the software, and, together with a separate host server, can support up to 100 users at a time. Files can be converted from Excel spreadsheets and can be queried and imported from Access and other sources via ODBC, which is a new feature in version 4.1. The program itself, however, cannot act as an ODBC source, and, as far as I could determine, does not simply link files --- it actually imports the data. FileMaker has its own SQL Query Builder, which is real neat and is a great teaching tool for learning SQL. FileMaker also works with Microsofts SQL Server and is BackOffice certified, but I did not actually explore these capabilities. Also, FileMaker joins the growing ranks of applications that can publish to the web, albeit static pages only, unless a Web companion module is also purchased.
Installation went quickly and smoothly on a Pentium II 266Mhz system with 32 MB of RAM running Windows 95B. A full installation soaked up 55 MB of measurable hard disk space, but I am sure there was some additional overhead in the Windows folder. A minimum install could be squeezed into 10 MB plus whatever space was needed for data. The recommended RAM is 16 MB.
Filemakers main screen has a simple navigation tool in a left frame. There are four selectable modes: browse, find, layout (design), and preview (report). Switching modes is a single click. In addition, a mode can have various customized views: forms, lists, reports, and help or info views. I thought the latter was kind of neat, whereby a customized help screen can pop up to give the user a detailed explanation of a form.
FileMaker comes with a nifty group of templates. I thought I would first try the membership one. The template pops up in a flash sans wizards, thank god. Two tabbed forms appeared, one for membership info and another for personal information. Various view buttons, including two customizable ones also were part of the design. Of course since it was a template, the whole design was customizable.
As I started to enter data, I did not see any of the customary user prompts on the status bar. Nor did I see picture formats for phone numbers and dates, but the program is capable of doing the latter. In fact, I tried to fool the database by putting in a date as month dd, yy. While the field accepted my input, the record did not accept the data when I completed the form and was ready to move on to the next record. Phewy! I wish all databases, not just FileMaker, would validate at the field level.
A cute little telephone icon, let me call up a dialer right from the database. Similarly, a script could be created to send an e-mail message. Overall the templates looked very well done, and while not a perfect 10, score 9½ points.
The databases structure was located three levels deep under File | Define | Fields. FileMaker supports, text, numbers, date, time, binary OLE objects called containers, calculations, summary, and global field types. I had forgotten what global types were, so I looked for Help or the question mark. No such luck, but F1 came to the rescue. A global field is a field for which the same value appears for each record. Now that made sense, but FileMaker went a bit further in that it could be also be used as a temporary storage area for scripts. What a strange place for scripts --- in a field! Oh, well!
FileMaker also uses number types in a non-traditional way. Numbers can be text, so a zip+four zip code can be numerical, including a leading zero and the hyphen. Yikes! --- after all that Ive taught my students. Oh well, now I know where Lotus Approach got the idea. In fact, I am told by a knowledgeable source, that Approach was developed by the same team that created FileMaker Pro.
FileMakers rich data structure also permits default values, serial values, validation ranges and rules, pick lists, fields with multiple values, calculated values, lookup values, and values from previous records. All fields can be indexed, which pushes the program beyond Works and into the semi-pro leagues. To index, however, FileMaker has a button called Storage Options under the field options. Come on now, beginners wont melt if programs use such words as index!
I was anxious to see FileMakers relational capabilities. FileMaker, since I had known it, always had foreign file lookup fields; however, I and others never considered FileMaker to be a full blown relational database. The proclamation by FileMaker Pros Bible that FileMaker was a "semi-relational" database only clouded the issue.
I immediately aimed for ODBC with some trepidation, because, first of all, it was listed under File | Import. The last thing in the world I wanted to do was to import the file --- I just wanted to link to it. No such luck --- ODBC imports! Okay, lets try File | Define | Relationships. Oh, no! --- the related file had to be a FileMaker 3 or 4 file. Unless I seriously missed something, FileMaker is relational --- but only in its own league. Score only a 5!
Overall FileMaker Pro is an excellent choice for someone who needs to track a simple expense accounts or someone who needs to create a complex inventory system or for a company that needs to share data, including relational data as long as the data is all within the FileMaker family of file formats. FileMaker is easy, yet powerful, and enables one to design pleasing, user friendly forms across Mac and PC platforms.
The program comes with a two-hour on-line tutorial, a new features guide, and a users guide.
FileMaker Pro 4.1 lists for $179.95 and FileMaker is offering a competitive upgrade rebate of $50, good until 12/31/99. A trial version is offered at www.filemaker.com.
PROS: Quick and useful jump off point with templates for home, business, and education. Networkable (TCP/IP or IPX/SPX).
CONS: Use of numerical field types in a non-traditional way, but now that I think about it, one could add "2 dozen plus 2 dozen" all in the same field. The real minuses were the lack of more extensive relational capabilities and incomplete ODBC support.
© 1999 by Fred Kagel, Dir. Freehold Computer Training. All rights reserved. Permission granted to republish in non-profit publications provided this notice appears in its entirety. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.freeholdcomputer.com.