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Panorama II Review

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I think it's fair to say that everyone has need of some sort of database software, even if only for keeping track of names and addresses. I'll admit that I'm no database guru, although I have worked with Double Helix a bunch, rescued some data from an old version of R:Base, and fiddled with various other programs.

For a long time I used HyperCard to do all my database work, but I was always frustrated by the way my stacks looked and worked, not to mention the fact that HyperCard is not exactly speedy. I'm sure much of that was my fault, and I know of ways that I could have done things better. But I didn't have to because of Panorama II from ProVUE Development.

Panorama II Introduction -- Panorama II is a flat-file database, but it sports a rather powerful programming language called PanTalk that includes lookup statements to achieve much of the relational features of the high-end databases. I'm no expert with FileMaker Pro, but I believe that the two are fairly comparable in terms of abilities, although I think that PanTalk is more full-featured than FileMaker Pro's scripting language. Actually, since you can create multiple forms in Panorama II that correspond to FileMaker Pro's layouts and since both databases can run with multiple users over a network, the main difference I've found is that Panorama II is blindingly fast in comparison to FileMaker Pro. To be fair, I've heard people say that FileMaker Pro speeds up significantly if you put it in a RAM disk, but that's a kludge and may not be possible on a machine with only a few megabytes of RAM.

Panorama II gets its speed from running directly in RAM, and even there it is efficient. The program is 600K on disk and prefers 976K of RAM, although it can run with less. ProVUE tells me that the default memory setting is enough RAM to open a 600K database. The other advantage Panorama II reaps from running in RAM is that it doesn't require the indexing structure that most databases use for fast searching. This shrinks Panorama II files so that they are only a third to a quarter the size of an equivalent file in another database.

Of course, the price ProVUE had to pay the RAM devil is that databases cannot grow beyond the limits of memory, but I think that's becoming less of an issue these days with cheap RAM and virtual memory. I'm not going to do benchmarks, but suffice it to say that with my SE/30 I have yet to notice any delay in finding a single record in my 1000-record address database, which has quite a few fields. Access is simply instantaneous. Sorting the database on a field takes a little longer, but only a few seconds at most. Every action that I've performed with Panorama II from opening a database to saving and quitting has been similarly fast with sole exception of exporting text, which is a bit slower. Obviously ProVUE doesn't want you exporting out of Panorama II all that often. :-)

Forms -- Panorama II is based on the concept of the form as a window into a certain set of data, much as FileMaker Pro uses layouts. You can create multiple layouts and customize them with relatively sophisticated graphical layout tools, better than are in FileMaker Pro but not the level of Canvas, for instance. (Picky, aren't I?) ProVUE has obviously put a lot of time and effort into their layout tools, and while they are very good on the whole, I'd kill for movable guides like PageMaker has. Snapping grids and a cursor with tracer lines to the rulers just don't quite match up. I wonder if Aldus has a patent on those guides?

It always takes some effort to design a nice screen layout, but Panorama II helps you out with its internal scrapbook, called the Flash Art Scrapbook. Once an image is in there, using it only generates a pointer rather than an image, saving disk space. The scrapbook can even hold imported EPS graphics. For those of you who prefer to click buttons and choose things from pop-up menus, Panorama II does all those things (including checkboxes and radio buttons) and the buttons especially are trivial to set up. For those of you with newer Macs or MacRecorders, Panorama II even has Flash Audio, which lets you include sound in your database.

Data & Design -- Things you won't find in FileMaker Pro include the Data Sheet and the Design Sheet, both of which are holdovers from previous versions of Panorama and even go back to OverVUE. The Data Sheet is a spreadsheet-like view of your database with the fields in columns and the records in rows. It's fast to move around in, faster than a list view you could create in a form, and has the added advantage of working much like a spreadsheet, which can be powerful and confusing. The power becomes apparent when you want to group the records by a certain field or total a row of numbers. Then you just click in that field and select the appropriate command from a menu. New users may find this confusing though, because some actions take place in the Data Sheet, like sums and averages, that cannot be done in PanTalk in a form. When you combine this with the lack of something like Double Helix's inert fields, which merely display data and don't save anything, it can be hard to get Panorama II to calculate and display statistics in a single result form. I get the impression I can do it, but I'm just not sure how at the moment. Panorama II and PanTalk combine to create a rich environment and I'm not surprised that it takes a while to fully understand it.

The Design Sheet also looks like a spreadsheet, but in this case, each row holds a field definition with each option for that field in a column. I see why ProVUE stuck with their spreadsheet metaphor here, but frankly, I think a custom interface to modifying and creating fields would be easier to use, and in fact, there is a Field Properties Dialog box (though it doesn't have options for three of the least used field options). There are 17 options for each field (name, data type, etc.). A few of the options are especially useful - output pattern for number and date display, input pattern for social security numbers and the like, ranges for defining sets of allowable data, choices for defining specific acceptable values, link for setting links to other databases, Clairvoyance for reading your mind, dups to prevent or allow duplication, default values, and equations that will activate when the field changes.

Clairvoyance -- The feature that sets Panorama II apart from all other databases that I've used is Clairvoyance. Simply put, Clairvoyance quickly scans the data you've previously entered (in another database even, if you like) as you're typing and tries to finish off the entry for you. It waits until it has a good chance of getting the entry right, but you can always just keep typing. It's a little disconcerting at first, much like having a small child destroy you at a video game, but after a while you can't remember how you did data entry without it (unlike a small child). The added advantage is that because it always enters an existing value, there is far less chance for typos and errors to creep in. It's almost worth buying Panorama II for Clairvoyance alone.

Macros, Formulas, and Crosstabs -- As I said, much potential programming can be done directly in the Data Sheet rather than in a macro. Once you've figured out what sort of thing is best done where, you can start creating formulas and macros. Formulas are relatively simple statements using built in functions to modify data in some way. For instance, I have a database to keep track of my running, and although it's not entirely trivial to calculate pace per mile, a formula does that fine. A formula also strips out the area code from local phone numbers before dialing, which is in turn controlled by a simple macro. Macros can do more sophisticated stuff like looking up values from other databases, and power users can even create menus in ResEdit and access them through macros, thus creating turnkey systems. The macro syntax is relatively easy to use, but like most other languages is extremely picky about the details of field types and punctuation. For those that don't want to write simple macros, Panorama provides a Macro Recorder for registering mouse clicks and menu commands. It's hard to say much more about macros except that you can probably get them to do what you want with a little work.

One of the most powerful features in Panorama II is what ProVUE calls crosstabs. In reality, there's nothing new about crosstabs; they are merely rows and columns of data like you would see in a spreadsheet. What's neat about crosstabs though, is that they aren't in a spreadsheet, so you can use the database features in Panorama II to enter, sort, categorize, and select the data. That sort of thing is difficult to do in a spreadsheet, but relatively easy in a database.

Problems -- So it's not perfect. I have two main gripes with Panorama II. First, the interface is strange, and although sometimes ProVUE has hit upon a great way of doing something, other times it just falls flat. Second, although the manual does contain all the information you will need and is quite well-written, it's organized in an odd way that makes looking for the specifics of anything rather tedious. The manual problems may be my personal opinion though, because as much as I appreciate the descriptions of how to do something, I often have trouble flipping to the right section. It looks reasonable in the Table of Contents, but I often have to poke around in the index to find what I want. There is also a Picture Index that provides page references to graphical elements and menu commands in the interface. I haven't been using it but should give it a try.

The interface is a tougher matter. As I said, parts of it are great. Whenever you click on a tool in the toolbar to the left of any window, not only does the icon light up, but a two word description pops to the right, making it easy to figure out what each icon does. It's not obtrusive and it works. What doesn't work is the input box. Whenever you click in a field, you select it, and copy and paste work fine. The confusion starts when you double-click on a field, or select it and start to type. A little box springs up around the field for you to enter and edit data. The advantage of this is that you can increase the size of the input box as much as you want, which is handy for large amounts of data that won't display fully. The problem appears when you want to go on to the next field. Hitting the tab key will close the input box as you would expect and move you to the next field. However, clicking in the next field or in a button will only close the input box, so you have to click again to select the next field or button. It sounds minor, but I find it can be a big pain when doing data entry and unfortunately encourages mouse-less design since the tab key works so much better. In this respect FileMaker is much more cleanly implemented, though perhaps not so flexible. I prefer clean in data entry, and it's especially distressing since Panorama II does so much to speed and ease data entry.

Panorama II has a few other minor interface quirks, like trying to get a box around a field and not have that box overwritten when the input box pops up. Panorama II supports multiple monitors, but not automatically. You open forms and macros in new windows by command-selecting an item from a pop-down menu in each window's title bar, at which point you can draw out on a representative desktop where you want the window to go. I'd much rather have it know how to zoom to the current monitor and pick a default size. I suspect that some of these quirks are left over from previous versions, and I hope ProVUE is evaluating the utility and design of them.

Panorama II Conclusions -- I'm happy with Panorama II. I primarily use it to keep track of my addresses and phone numbers because I've never seen an address/phone DA that I liked entirely. It took a bit more work to set up in Panorama II, but now I have a database that can dial phones and print smart envelopes with EPS graphics on them, and a single click will copy an entire address for use in a letter. The program is fast and responsive and it took me less time to figure out than FileMaker Pro. I've been pleased with the limited contact I've had with ProVUE too, since they independently sent out a free upgrade which added a few features and supposedly fixed a few bugs, although I've never had the program crash on me. When it comes right down to it, I have very little to complain about with Panorama II, and I fear only that I've been unable to completely do it justice in this limited space since I haven't even touched on things like its graphing or outline capabilities. Highly recommended.

ProVUE Development
15180 Transistor Lane
Huntington Beach, CA 92649
800/541-5137 (fax)
ProVUE on America Online


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