Firstbase (Computing with the Amstrad)Applications Bureautique
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I HAVE written many times of my belief that users frequently get more software than they need and therefore suffer a whole raft of problems. In general I therefore advise getting the simplest software that will do the job.

Quoting from Minerva's First Base handbook, this system is meant to fulfil just such a need for:

  • "A simple to use introduction to the database world."
  • "Mail merges ... using ... Loco-Script."
  • "The facility to output files in Ascii format... into a more complex database."
It will therefore come as no surprise that I immediately accepted these as genuinely worthwhile goals. What was more pleasing was that within minutes of working with First Base it was also evident that this system also met these needs very well.

Nevertheless the more time I spent with this product, the more it set me thinking about the point at which this principle is taken to excess. For the person who genuinely requires, and more importantly will continue to need a minimal system, Minerva have produced a sure-fire winner. However users who are merely nervous about their first tentative steps in computing must accept that while First Base will provide them with an outstanding introduction to databases, they could quickly have a product which will prove a frustratingly inadequate business tool.

The more I looked at each of the three Minerva aims in turn, the more it appeared to me that while a simple introduction to databases is definitely needed, it is only likely to be required for the first few hours of familiarisation. After a month or so, extra facilities would probably be sought, and then First Base would have to be ditched. This is despite the sorting, searching and record selection being first rate if limited to single fields at a time.

Records with a maximum file size of the capacity of the disc, a maximum record length of 1,920 characters, and/or a maximum of 255 fields with a maximum field length of 80 characters should be enough for most users, new or otherwise. The problem arises in that no arithmetic is provided, which reduces the functionality to little more than an electronic card box.

If this is all you need, then First Base is a gem. It took me less than ten minutes to produce the example shown, in Figure I, of a database I maintain on another system for keeping track of the software I receive for review. Providing so little does make First Base delightfully simple in operation. The problem is that it can not handle the many tasks a database can be put to, such as the simple cash book application I described in some detail in the July issue of Business Computing with the Amstrad.

First Base is ideal for creating and maintaining name and address files, consequently the second need Minerva identified, mail merge, can definitely be used throughout the requirement's life. Sadly this too faces a restriction, albeit not of Minerva's making.

The cause is the PCW itself. This computer brought equipment with a price and performance into a market which hitherto had not existed. Nevertheless it must not be forgotten that it has been produced to meet a price of £399 or £499 while allowing Mr. Sugar to enjoy a pleasant life style. Full marks to him for having provided a printer at all, but make no mistake it is inadequate for mail merge. The reasons are simply that it is too slow in NLQ and also does not have a multi-sheet feeder.

PCW timings in mail merge quickly become horrifying. Consider the example of a simple 30 line letter for 100 clients. Each letter would require about 45 seconds of actual printing time. If you can stand loading and aligning paper every minute into the PCW printer, then all well and good. If iike me you are unwilling to become first cousin to a yo-yo, there is no alternative to buying a printer with a stacker. I particularly like the Star, which would bring the time down to under an hour with only a single recharge of the paper from the PCW printer's two hours plus however long you need to relax in a foam bath, easing calf muscles made sore from all this bobbing up and down.

Compare this with a maximum of two hours to create and load the name and address file including writing the letter and you can see why First Base is not the problem. These timings are based upon the time required to produce a letter and its associated database, plus 50 per cent to allow for a first time user's slowness.

Figure I: The Review Record in use

Figure II: A complete record ready for merging

The mail merge is as easy to use as everything else about First Base, but again suffers from being just too minimal. Unless you know how to get NLQ printing from within CP/M + (and the First Base manual gives no guidance in this area), the natural print style is draught mode which rather defeats the whole point of the facility. It is just the first time user market that is likely to struggle to get NLQ at the correct pitch.

I believe this is another case of simplicity having once again been taken too far. Even if this is not the case, all that was needed was a paragraph in the manual explaining how to achieve NLQ and perhaps another two describing the layout settings to be used in Locoscript.

I have made much of these misgivings, but do not dismiss this system as merely a toy. It is far better than that. Furthermore, in one of my pieces, I wrote that Mini Office II at under £20 is an excellent buy, even if you eventually replace all its modules with separate and more sophisticated packages. Once you had familiarised yourself with Mini Office II you would know the precise features that are required.

The same is equally true of First Base since until such time as a PCW version of Mini Office II is available, it can serve this purpose as far as databases are concerned. However be warned that this is not as simple as Minerva claim. They are quite right in saying that £29.95 is not much in terms of an organisation's turnover, but do not forget that if huge files have been built, the investment in time is another matter. I would hate to transfer 5,000 records of 200 characters each to a different system, and then still have to bolt on the computational fields required. What is worse is that sadly this is not all that may be involved.

Using the Ascii output facility is no problem, and at first sight seems like a wonderful tool for transferring data from one micro to another. This sounds marvellous in principle until you realise that many databases spew strange characters throughout their records, to identify all manner of parameters and controls to the database software itself. You are going to be overjoyed if your Mk II database chews up your simple Ascii records in trying to read them in without these control codes.

The original file on First Base will not be corrupted, but you will have to choose the more advanced system very carefully to ensure that re-entering all the data from the keyboard is not needed. By the time you read this Minerva will have just such a database available, and if it is as well written a piece of software as this, then look no further. However should it not prove suitable, Minerva must also indicate which other database(s) they have planned this facility to link up with.

Putting all these comments together one fact should now be clear, despite my criticisms. First Base is certainly ideal for the first time user, but the prospective purchaser must decide what he will want from his PCW in the months and years that follow. The software is so exceptionally easy to use that you could not get into trouble despite those seven pages of manual, no matter how inexperienced you may be.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of users that First Base is aimed at will not remain for long in First Base's market sector. Consequently, only if you are a new user and the features that it lacks will not prove to be serious long term limitations, can I give this database an unqualified recommendation.

I just can not help thinking that First Base may have gone too far in the direction of simplicity. The market niche is certainly there, and Minerva have the only product I know of that currently even attempts to fill it. My doubts are that it may not be as large as we all believe.


★ PUBLISHER: Minerva Systems
★ YEAR: 1986
★ CONFIG: 128K + CPM + PCW
★ AUTHOR(S): ???


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L'Amstrad CPC est une machine 8 bits à base d'un Z80 à 4MHz. Le premier de la gamme fut le CPC 464 en 1984, équipé d'un lecteur de cassettes intégré il se plaçait en concurrent  du Commodore C64 beaucoup plus compliqué à utiliser et plus cher. Ce fut un réel succès et sorti cette même années le CPC 664 équipé d'un lecteur de disquettes trois pouces intégré. Sa vie fut de courte durée puisqu'en 1985 il fut remplacé par le CPC 6128 qui était plus compact, plus soigné et surtout qui avait 128Ko de RAM au lieu de 64Ko.