A Full-Powered, Programmable Relational Database Manager
by Heidi Brumbaugh
START Programs Editor
In the Winter 1987 issue of START I reviewed Superbase Personal, a relational database manager from Precision Software Ltd. (See that review for an overview of Superbase's interface and basic design.) At the time, I found Superbase to be adequate for some database procedures, exceptional in its user interface but lacking in the flexibility needed for complex database functions.
Precision Software's Superbase line consists of Superbase Personal (now $79.95), Superbase II and Superbase Professional. Superbase II was not available for review at presstime, but it's basically a down-scaled version of Superbase Professional. It includes a built-in text editor and mail merge facility and is an improvement over the original: it no longer requires two keystrokes to enter data and it has a batch mode so you can enter a number of records rapidly. The records are stored in RAM and are only sent to disk when you're finished.
Other improvements include the ability to define default file paths for data, temporary data storage and the parameters settings file. You can save Update specifications to disk and Superbase now remembers which fields in a file are open. There are also improvements to the data types available; for example, you can define a type as a time and perform all sorts of calculations on it. Also, you can set up a field that has multiple values--like an array.
Professional includes all of these changes and adds features that make it really soar. The most dramatic improvement is a Database Management Language (DML) that lets you program your Superbase application, customizing it to your own environment. The other major addition is the Forms Editor, a separate program that allows you to generate customized forms. You can also store up to 21 keywords, commands or text for later use by pressing a function key, both the Shift key and a function key or the Help key.
Precision's upgrade policy lets you move to more powerful products as your needs increase. You can buy the next product in the family for the difference in retail price, plus $10. When you upgrade, you can keep your original package.
|The Forms Editor, a
that allows you to
A Basic DML
The main feature of Superbase Professional is a programming language you can use in your own applications. The Database Management Language is based on BASIC for ease of use. If you're coming from a dBASE environment, learning DML should be a breeze. DML gives you the power to do everything from creating a file to processing a report. It uses arithmetic and string functions such as INT, SQR, MOD, INSTR, MID$ and the logical operators AND, OR and NOT. Program control statements such as WHILE. . .WEND, IE . .THEN. . .ELSE and FOR. . .NEXT and labels for GOTO and GOSUB help to make longer, structured programs possible.
This language is designed for complete control over your environment. You can create your own alert or dialog boxes or even menu bars. It allows arrays of up to three dimensions. You can open any kind of sequential file and search through it. To execute a program immediately on running Professional, simply name it START.
You can pop into the program or text editor from Professional's main menu screen, and run programs from within Professional. The editor is adequate for the task but not much more than that. Fortunately, you can edit your programs in your own word processor or text editor and import them as ASCII text files.
Here A Form, There A Form
The Superbase Forms Editor is so complex it requires its own separate program. Think of it as a page layout program for forms--you can graphically edit a page of information containing data from Superbase files. You can use this facility in three ways: as a front end to Superbase, as a forms generator and as a reports generator.
The Forms Editor lets you combine fields, text, boxes and lines to produce professional-looking forms just by pointing and clicking where you want objects to go. You can use an array of colors, fill patterns, line thicknesses, point sizes and styles to produce a form or report. The program comes with GDOS, so you can use multiple fonts in your reports. You can also load a picture into a form, clip a block of it and move it anywhere in the page. If you have a digitized copy of your company logo, for example load it and combine it with text and data for internal company forms.
Using forms as a front end to Professional improves the interface dramatically. You can block out fields you don't need, use text to describe fields in more detail than you can with field names and link fields from multiple files. To further customize data entry, you can even write a short Professional program to monitor the user input and cross-validate data as it is entered.
When Superbase Personal first arrived at the START offices, I intended to use it to coordinate a file of product information with a file of software company information. Personal let me combine the two files into a report, but it wasn't until Professional that I was able to link the two files in the data entry process. You can use the Forms Editor to generate reports with headers, footers, calculations and summing. If you create a report form, the Forms Editor creates a DML program for you to generate the report. This lets you go in and fine-tune the program itself later.
The Superbase Text Editor
Being able to pop in and out of a text editor while using a database manager is a big convenience. You can type yourself notes, draft letters or memos or simply use the screen as a scratch pad. You can define a Superbase data field as an external text file and then use the text editor to create the text files. This makes it easy to get around Superbases limitation of 255 characters in a text field.
This is a bare-bones text editor; it doesn't have block copy or search and replace. It does let you set and change margins, delete lines and set text attributes like underline and bold. A major problem with the text editor is that it's slow; it's very easy to outtype it.
How Do I Merge Thee?
Superbase Professional's new built-in mail merge feature saves you the trouble of outputting records to ASCII format and then setting up your word processor's mail merge feature (if it has one) to use your Superbase data. You can type your letters directly into Superbase Professional's text editor or load them as ASCII files. The mail merge feature is very easy to use; you simply type in the names of the fields to use in the mailing, delimiting the fields with ampersands (&). Next, open the relevant text and database files and click on mail merge.
You can also access the mail merge function from the DML, so for more complicated merging operations you could write a program to control the text file contents, database contents and conditions of the merge.
Limitations And Lamentations
As much as I liked the power and flexibility of Superbase Professional, I found three consistent ways to crash the program and experienced a few unexplained program crashes during normal use. I reviewed version 2.03; according to the company they are now selling version 3.0 and some of these bugs have been fixed.
Professional was translated from an IBM environment--and it shows. IBM programs generally must preserve every byte of RAM--and IBM programmers can safely assume every user has a hard disk. Like many ports, Professional doesn't really take into account that on the ST the opposite situation is more common. The program constantly accesses the disk, since it reads records from a file as it needs them rather then loading the file into memory all at once. Also, the Forms Editor uses the disk as a clipboard for cut-and-paste operations. This problem is made up in part by a feature that lets you set aside a certain amount of RAM to use as a cache buffer.
Professional uses a non-standard file selector box that doesn't let you search through more than one directory or drive for a file. Technically, you can open a file from a different directory by typing in the full file path before the name. However, the program is designed to work with everything in the same directory. On a floppy system this means all of your files should fit on one disk. If they don't, you'll be in for lots of disk swapping and you won't be able to combine two files from separate disks into the same form or report. The program documentation recommends a hard disk. So do I.
I find Professional's single-directory limitation very difficult to work with, even on a hard disk. You must put everything--forms, programs, databases, reports--in the same folder. You can store pictures and text files for external file fields in separate folders, but Professional's system commands (directory, copy, delete) use the same single-directory file selector.
Running On Manual
Superbase Professional comes with two manuals: one for the database manager and text editor and one for the DML and Forms Editor. It also has a large README file on disk that covers enhancements to the program not mentioned in the manual. The documentation is clear, but occasionally omits information: for example, it doesn't mention that fields must have an index to be linked together in the Forms Editor. Professional comes with an entire disk of sample files, but not all of them are referred to in the manual.
In general, the manuals are good for getting started, but they don t give you much help on sophisticated applications.
Superbase Professional has some great features, but some features aren't complete. Allowing a field to have multiple contents is a great idea, but you can't really do anything with the secondary field contents from the Forms Editor. The programs editor is adequate, but it wouldn't let me indent anything. Since I'm a programmer, not being able to indent statements inside loops and multiple-level IF THEN statements was maddening.
Finally, Professional is copy-protected. Following the instructions in the manual on running the program from a backup disk simply will not work; they're superseded by a "Read me first" card that comes in the package. You can install the program on a hard drive, but the original disk must be in one of the disk drives for the program to run. Considering how long it takes to load the program anyway, this is very inconvenient.
I urge Precision to abandon their copy-protection philosophy. Professional is simply too powerful and complex a package to use without the manual anyway.
Software With Precision
Precision Incorporated, the UK-based developer and publisher of Superbase, has recently opened offices in Texas and now offers North American distribution and customer support from there. (Previously, Progressive Peripherals and Software was supporting the product in the U.S.) The Superbase family, which includes versions for the IBM and Amiga, has sold over 130,000 copies, mostly in Europe.
|You can pop into
the program or text
editor from Profes-
sional's main menu
screen, and run
The latest version of Superbase Professional is 3.0. It offers telecommunications functions, both from the front menu and DML, full transactional browsing (you can link more than one record from the same file in a form), cut and paste in the text and program editor, and program indentation. It will also be able to read dBASE files through version III+. Professional version 2.0 owners can upgrade to 3.0 for $39.95.
Professional is designed to compete with corporate databases in the IBM market. Although many ST owners will find its price tag of $349.95 daunting, the same program on the IBM sells for $795. Professional is a developer's tool, and Precision hopes to see vertical applications spring up as they have for the dBASE market. (A Superbase run-only package is in the works, but pricing and availability haven't been announced.) Precision offers developers both technical and marketing support.
Because the ST and IBM programs use the same file types, ST users will have access to IBM Professional programs and files; ST vertical application developers will be able to market their product for both machines. The company also plans to port their product to Windows and Unix. Precision is finishing up a book on Superbase Personal and is planning a programmers guide.
Customer support services for registered owners includes free premium technical support for 90 days after you purchase the product, a quarterly newsletter and access to a Superbase bulletin board (OSIN).
When you consider an application that you use every day, little things really do make a big difference. I commend Precision for their changes; Superbase II and Professional's improvements over Superbase Personal are strong indicators of Precision's commitment to improving their products.
With Superbase Professional, Precision has increased the power of the program a thousandfold without sacrificing one iota of the ease of use that made the program so attractive in the first place. Complaints aside, Superbase Professional is the relational database manager for the ST.
Superbase Personal, $79.95; Superbase II, $149.95; Superbase Professional version 3.0, $349.95. Precision Incorporated, 8404 Sterling St., Suite A, Irving, TX 75063, (214) 929-4888.