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HanDBase 4.0

Thu Feb 14, 2008 - 12:57 AM EST - By Harv Laser

Database programs - don't be afraid of this one..

Mention the word “database” and one’s eyes are likely to glaze over or send you into a deep slumber. I know, you just want to hit the snooze button until the review is over. But wake up and pay attention to this one. You’ll be glad you did.

Why? Well.. if you want a way to track your coin collection, comic books, CDs, and recipes, or just about anything else, you can do that. If you want to have descriptions of meds available when your doctor gives you a prescription, log the results of your kids’ annual checkup for future reference, or even keep tabs on your diet, you can do that. If you want a way to track your travel expenses, or manage your projects at work whether you’re in or out of the office, you can do that.

And the beauty of it is you don’t need to find a half dozen mobile applications to do any of this - you can do it all with one solitary mobile app installed on your Treo.

It’s been a long time since we’ve reviewed a mobile database program, so when I got the news that DDH Software was rolling out version 4.0 of its excellent HanDBase program, I figured this was a review whose time had come.


What is it?

HanDBase is a “relational database manager” for desktops, PDAs, and smart phones which offers data entry, searching, sorting, filtering, printing and synchronization between desktops and the Treo (the company also offers versions for BlackBerry and Symbian devices).

This review only looks at the Professional version (available in Palm OS and WM) of HanDBase, as the less-expensive Standard ($24.99) and Plus ($29.99) versions don’t include some of the excellent synchronization features that I think make HanDBase such an outstanding program for both business and personal users. If you don’t need all the bells and whistles of HanDBase Professional, check out the comparison chart detailing the various flavors of the program here and note that all of them are “try before you buy.”

Some of the HanDBase features that have made it one of the most successful mobile database programs as it has continued to mature over the past decade include:

  • Cross-platform compatibility makes it possible to seamlessly share database files and records with owners of other types of devices – a Treo 750v user can share his time & billing records with a S60-toting HanDBase user.
  • With the HanDBase Forms Designer you can easily create your own custom interfaces for your database, letting you shape the look and feel of your records.
  • The ability to sync data from more than one user into a single database, which makes it easier to collaborate on, say, taking inventory in the warehouse, with more than one handheld used as input devices.
  • Conduit tools to automate data integration with Microsoft Access and other ODBC databases.
  • Build and print custom handheld reports, view image files and more using HanDBase Add-ons, such as the Camera Plug-in for PalmOS with which you can take a picture with your Treo’s camera and store the image data so you can view it later from directly within a HanDBase record, or the Treo Dialer plug-in which will dial a number from a field in your database.
  • The HanDBase Runtime tool, useful for anyone who has ever dreamed of being a software programmer, but didn’t want to learn coding. With the HanDBase Runtime tool, you can turn your databases into free-standing PalmOS and Windows Mobile applications! You can even arrange to sell your applications commercially!
  • Bundled with Desktop software for your Mac or Windows PC (the latest version supports Vista), which is the best place to actually develop your databases; from the desktop version you can create databases, perform data entry, print, export and import data and MUCH more.
  • Last but not least, one of the best things about HanDBase is that you don’t have to start from scratch. If you have a cool idea for a database, chances are someone else has already beat you to it and uploaded their database template in the Gallery at ddhsoftware.com.

There are currently an astounding 2,000-plus titles to choose from, providing an excellent starting point. You can easily download and install a database template created by someone else and modify it for your own special needs.


So what’s new in 4.0?

HanDBase is such a deep program that it is perfect for you “Alice in Wonderland” types who have the time, talent and wherewithal to see how deep the rabbit hole goes, but also for those who want to spend 15 minutes coming up with a way to track how many miles they walk each day.

The new version of HanDBase is ripe with brand new features that will be handy for both groups.

Other than the aforementioned support for Vista, which enables syncing with Vista's Mobile Device Center, new features for both Biz and Personal users include support for syncing databases stored on memory cards, a feature I really like since I don’t particularly care for the idea of stuffing my Treo’s precious memory full of database files. And whether you’re a Windows Mobile or PalmOS user, there are new features specific to your device:


PalmOS:

  • Category support for databases stored on memory cards (see below).
  • Speedier navigation of large databases using a new scroll bar in List View (anything that makes it easier to find your way around a big database is a plus).
  • The handiest of databases will be one that enables one-handed navigation, and most all of HanDBase’s screens include forms which can be navigated with one hand.
  • You can now filter on a date that is based off the current date, like 'This Month', 'Next X days', or 'Today' and hence see only the records that match, based on the current date.


So what’s the big deal with Category Support for Databases Stored on a Memory Card?

In previous versions, HanDBase had a category for all the databases on a memory card. For example, you may have had categories such as:

  • All
  • Business
  • Personal
  • [2 GB SD card] Unfiled

So even if your database was a 'Business' one, if it was on the card it would show in the “[2 GB SD card]” category and not ‘Business’.

But now, in this latest version, the categories of the databases on the card are indexed, letting you have your databases either in RAM or on a card.

And since HanDBase now supports synchronizing of databases on a card, there's really no big disadvantage or downside to storing them on the memory card.


Windows Mobile:

  • Most key screens in HanDBase now support the 5-way navigator on Windows Mobile 5 and Windows Mobile 6.
  • A choice between showing menu items using the newer soft key style or the traditional toolbar format.
  • You can now tap and hold for common commands for records and databases in the List view and Choose Database screens.

For everyone, there are forms enhancements aplenty:

  • Pictures can be used in a database form, and HanDBase now lets you show them either as buttons or graphical elements and / or backgrounds.
  • You can choose to show or hide various elements on a form.
  • Forms can be much bigger than the screen size, and scroll bars will appear automatically as needed.
  • And just what us simpletons need, a “wizard” to create starter forms automatically.

And to keep Grandma’s secret meatloaf recipes safe (or to protect those little insignificant things such as bank account numbers, ATM PIN codes, and Web log-ins from potential identity thieves), there are new security features…

In addition to its improved 128 bit Safer-SK encryption, HanDBase’s encryption password caching is a cool feature, with the program remembering and recalling passwords for subsequent saves/closes of the database. This feature reduces the likelihood that you’ll enter an incorrect password when re-encrypting and is also far more convenient.


HanDBase Desktop

When you purchase HanDBase, you get BOTH the hand-held and the Desktop components. The desktop companion program has seen a facelift too. This appears to be a lot more than just a little nip here and tuck there.

Its user interface sports a fresh, new look and is more intuitive to use than before. It also makes it easier to find the databases you’ve recently worked with by listing them on its “Opening Welcome” screen, giving you the ability to see and select new or recently opened databases.

And with all the new options HanDBase offers for synchronizing data, you can now easily jump to the settings for conduit and sync exchange right from the desktop so you can pick and choose exactly how you want everything to hook up.

The list of new features and enhancements in 4.0 goes on and on, and since so many of you are using different handheld devices and syncing them with either a Windows or Mac computer, there’s no point in cataloging each and every one of them here. You can find the features that are new to your particular device and desktop OS here .

You may or may not think this is something you could get into, or want to spend a bit of time creating your own mobile database. Hey, it comes with a free 30 day trial. Pretty generous, considering how many others limit their trials to 10 or fewer days, so you should at least give it a whirl to see for yourself during that free month period.


The Downsides

While HanDBase is a well-designed app that shows its maturity from a decade of development, there’s no such thing as a flawless software program. One tough thing about HanDBase is simply in the nature of this type of application. It’s not one of those programs that require little brain power.. you can’t just launch it and start tapping away to fulfill the app’s purpose in life. You need to shift your brain out of neutral, and unleash your inner creativity to make the most of it, and at the same time figure out the logical approach to setting up your database. A little right brain / left brain coordination goes a long way here.

To their credit, DDH knows this, so they’ve made getting started easier with slick, voice-narrated tutorials, such as this one that demonstrates the basics of setting up a database.

One disappointment with the program is that while HanDBase has numeric only fields, it doesn't auto-shift the keyboard into numeric mode when you're editing those fields. Manually hitting the shift button anytime you hit a numeric field is a pain, especially in databases containing a lot of numbers! DDH Software recognizes this and said they will be enhancing that in the near future.


A Quick Q&A

Since DDH just completed a milestone of 10 years in the mobile software biz, I thought I’d shoot a couple questions over to Dave Haupert, the company’s founder and CEO, so we could learn more about the past and future of HanDBase.

ME: DDH just celebrated its tenth birthday. Can you give us the story behind it and the concept behind HanDBase?

DH: Sure! I started DDH Software back in 1997, when Palm Pilots (as they were called way back then) were a very new concept. At the time, the company was just me, and I was doing the coding over my lunch hour and at night. My first application was the first multi-language translator program for the Pilot. Thankfully, that grew fast into a full time endeavor with the introduction of several other products leading up to the launch of HanDBase in mid-1998. We experienced our most rapid growth from late 1999 through 2002 when the Palm Pilot became a household name and was the “iPod” of that era.

HanDBase came about because of our customers’ need for something more than simple flat-file lists of data on a handheld. It was mainly physicians and the medical community in general that fueled our explosive growth at that time as we were fortunate enough to become one of a few applications that most every doctor wanted in their virtual “toolbox.”

And as this industry grew, we grew right along with it, expanding our staff and delivering our solution to other platforms along the way. Thankfully the response has always been great, and many of the awards we’ve received have been on the newer platforms as well as the originals.

It’s always been difficult to describe HanDBase in short form. The simple explanation is that it lets you track pretty much anything, and saves you from purchasing other applications that can be replicated with HanDBase.

But it sounds like something too good to be true, too much of a magic pill.

On the flip side, if we focus on just a few things you can do with it, from managing rounds at a hospital, to tracking your time and billing on various projects, to tracking customers and sales calls (ala CRM), to tracking a list of movies you’d like to rent, groceries you need to buy, favorite recipes, Bible verses, or jokes, we’d also be missing out on a lot of the potential uses and needs of each individual user.

ME: Any sneak peak into DDH’s future plans?

DH: Now that we’ve finished our successful launch of HanDBase 4.0, we’re going to get more heavily involved with our web/server syncing solution, “Global Share.” These enhancements will be a great complement to HanDBase on a Treo, as it will give Treo owners the ability to share databases through a server on the Internet! And this gives the devices live database capabilities in addition to the offline/synchronization capabilities we already offer now. I hope these capabilities will really help small and larger business stay connected with the most up-to-date information and changes.


Conclusion

Don’t let the words “database programs” scare you away. Although they’ve been around for ages, and they may not be the most thrilling category of programs out there, once you wrap your mind around how useful a well-coded database program can be, you’ll probably think of hundreds of ways you could use HanDBase in your daily personal and professional life.

Yeah, there’s a learning curve here, and DDH knows it, so with all of the templates and tutorials they provide, plus that generous month-long free trial period, if you need this kind of power, it’s mainly a matter of choosing which version suits your needs and your wallet the best, and then setting aside some quality time to learn its ins and outs. The training and tutorial resources on DDH’s Web site speak reams about their professional attitude.

HanDBase is another one of those rare, high-quality apps backed by a company who obviously cares about their customers and that shelf-full of awards they’ve earned proves it.






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Criteria 

Rating

Design 5
Usability 4
Innovation 5
Cost/Benefit 5
Overall
(not an average)
Pros
  • Syncing databases stored on memory cards
  • Gallery of free applets so you do not have to start from scratch
  • Cross-compatibility with other mobile platforms
  • Advanced connectivity with ODBC databases
  • Stellar synchronization options
  • Video demonstrations online provide terrific tutorials
  • Generous 30 day Trial period.
  • Cons
  • Novices may find it difficult to get started
  • HanDBase does not auto-shift the keyboard into numeric mode when you are editing numeric fields


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