|★ APPLICATIONS ★ BUREAUTIQUE ★ Your office on a disc|Computing with the Amstrad) ★|
|Arnor - Protext - Making the Most of Protext (Amstrad Computer User)||Protext Office|
TONY KENDLE investigates database and invoice generator add-ons for Protext
IT is inevitable that the barriers between traditional programs such as databases and word processors are going to be broken by releases which can handle several such tasks.
Of course integrated programs already exist for the CPC. At best these save having to exit one task to start another, or needing to learn different styles of program control.
At worst they fall between several stools; amalgamations of half-baked utilities that are poor excuses for useful programs.
The problem largely results from a lack of memory. Protext Office -Arnor's new bolt-on database and invoice generator for the Protext/ Promerge combination - is different from most integrated programs because Protext itself can be run from rom, leaving the bulk of your CPC's memory free for the other jobs.
Even with the disc versions the data space lost as a result of installing the new modules is surprisingly modest, as great use is made of routines that already exist in Protext/Promerge. The result is a powerful combination with several advantages over traditional packages.
Protext Office has two parts -Protext Filer, the database, and Invgen, an invoice generator.
Like all databases, Protext Filer uses records made up of several fields, which can be of fixed or variable length. Fixed length fields always take up a nominated number of lines. Variable fields are useful where the information is unpredictable, for example lines of an address.
The fixed field option is unusual in that the files created are still very memory efficient - many databases such as dBase pad out fixed length records with blank characters.
Data can be entered into a Protext file, which makes typing in and amending the information incredibly quick and simple. Most databases have cumbersome data entry and revision procedures, and mistakes are easy to make and awkward to correct.
Arnor's release enables you to make use of all of Protext's sophisticated editing functions, spell checking, and so on. It also means that data for mail merging can already include printer control codes. It is this fluent merging of database and text editing features that make this program such a pleasure to use.
If you insist on being traditional, data can also be entered into an existing file in response to prompts. Once the file is created Protext Office can search, sort or select the data according to specified criteria.
Individual records can be selected from the menu by a simple search that looks for a given string in a given field. The first matching record is marked as a block ready for saving, printing or direct insertion into a document using the swap mode.
The options for selecting several records are more sophisticated. Data can be tested using any of the standard logical tests (=, >, <= and so on.) Additionally there are the operators IN and NOTIN which test whether a certain string or number is found anywhere in the text.
Individual fields can be tested, or the whole record, and several tests can be combined using the AND, OR and NOT commands. A maximum of three such tests can be made on the data at any one time (for example name=fred AND town=London OR town=Manchester). This is probably as complex as most people will need, but is not as good as some specialist databases.
Once the selection is complete, all matching records can be displayed, printed or written to a new file for mail merging. There does not seem to be an option for writing only some of the fields to a new file.
The sorting options are extremely powerful and can be done through a menu choice or a stand-alone program called Fsort. Using Fsort is more complicated but offers more features. The sort options include the usual numeric, alphabetic and reverse alphabetic orders. Also a personal name mode sorts fields like A.J. Smith according to the surname.
Unlimited levels of sort can be identified, so that if two of the first fields are the same alphabetically, the next field (such as customer account number) can be used to put these into numeric order and so on. One nice touch is that the program can bring to your attention apparent duplicate records within the file. It even does its best to identify records which are just very similar, to take account of small differences in the typing of a name and so on.
A mark of a useful program is that you constantly curse when you realise how much time was wasted on jobs in the past. An additional feature - a stroke of genius - is that any table of text or figures can be treated as a datafile. In this case each line is taken as one record, and individual fields must be separated by tabs. The table can then be sorted by any one of the columns of data, for example, in numerical order, or alphabetically. For many people this is just a luxury but if you have need of such a tool you are probably running to the shops already.
Once selected, and possibly sorted, the data may be required for mail merging. Arnor has recognised that some people find the mailmerge abilities of Protext rather complex, and Protext Office supplies you with simple menu-driven options and standard templates such as for address labels. Again these can easily be edited to meet your exact needs.
On its own Protext Filer costs £24.95. The £10 extra required for Protext Office with Invgen must be a bargain for any small business.
Invgen is really a specialised mailmerge program. It can read two data files - customer records and a product file giving information on the items the company deals with. Products can, but need not, have one of five levels of VAT additions (to allow for future changes in the law) which are calculated automatically. Conversely different products or customers may qualify for different discounts on normal prices.
Invoices are generated from a standard editable template, and show customer address, account number, invoice number, the products ordered, the total charged (including VAT and so on) and a special message such as Merry Christmas. All of these options can be entered in their entirety from the keyboard in response to prompts, or taken from the disc files.
Some of the entries - such as VAT or invoice number - have default values, but these can be overridden. The program can also prepare credit notes or statements of the invoices sent out, including payment received and so on.
Most good stocktaking and sales accounting programs will of course do all of this, but they are expensive and few are as easy to use as Invgen. For many companies, particularly those that deal with services rather than products, such specialist programs usually constitute sledgehammer tactics and I am sure that Arnor's solution will be welcomed.
Various permutations of Protext and Protext Office are available for the CPC, and it is worth running through the possibilities. If you have Protext and Promerge on rom, you can run the Amsdos version of Protext Office with no trouble. Anyone with Amsdos Protext and Promerge on disc can run the Office programs, but the Fsort utility must be used separately, and one or two small features have been left out.
There is also a CP/M Plus version for those with the appropriate release of Protext. Memory limitations are no problem here because of the disc buffering of data files.
However, it is worth pointing out that any version of Invgen works much better with two drives, not because it is memory-hungry but because it saves a copy of every invoice created and, together with the program files, these soon use up the 64 file limit on Amstrad 3in discs.
I found the two programs excellent value for money. Unlike many databases, Protext Filer is quick and easy to use. The range of options available is better than that of most competitors, if not quite as good as the specialist releases. Like all databases, you must make sure it is capable of handling the tasks you need it for. However, Arnor seems to have thought hard about what features most people will find useful.
Protext Office probably has a more limited niche, in that Invgen will only interest companies with a reasonable amount of invoice work yet who are not big enough to require a specialist program. Even so it is a remarkably cheap buy and very competent.