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You can read my 2005 piece about FileMaker Pro version 8 written for The Sydney Morning Herald below.

Like much of my work I wrote it for business users, not geeks.

Much of what I said still stands with FileMaker Pro version 10. Most of the time FileMaker is easier to use than Microsoft Access if you’re not a coder.

I’ve recently discovered some areas where Access is simpler than FileMaker. Access makes it easier to turn two straightforward flat-file databases into a relational database. FileMaker does the job, but it is not intuitive.

I can’t say why Access beats FileMaker in this department. I suspect it is because Microsoft designed Access from the ground up as a relational database while FileMaker was originally a flat file database. Filemaker bolted on relational capabilities later. If you know of a better explanation please comment below.

FileMaker 8 by Bill Bennett

Unless you happen to have the kind of brain that is politely described as ‘antisocial’ storing, tracking, sorting and retrieving large amounts of information is best left to a machine.

Data processing is what computers were doing for most of the past 50 year before they escaped from their air-conditioned bunkers and made their way on to our desktops and into our homes.

These days, the database software handling these tasks can run on standard PCs. But there’s a big problem with most of the programs designed to help you sort digital wheat from electronic chaff; they are either so complex you need a PhD in computer science to use them or they are too simple to be of much help outside of limited applications.

Microsoft’s Access sits at the difficult end of the spectrum. There’s no doubt the database packaged with some versions of Office is incredibly powerful. You need to be comfortable with programming code to perform even the simplest tasks. And a lot of Access’ features are geared towards IT departments, not individual users. Which means it is strictly for professionals.

Most easy-to-use databases tend to be geared towards specific functions, such as contact managers and helping you keep track of music collections. They’re useful, but not flexible and you need to buy a different product to manage each task, which can get expensive.

FileMaker Pro (now on version 8, $499) bridges the gap. It manages to be both powerful and relatively easy-to-use mainly because it has stayed focused on usability and not packing-in every conceivable feature.

Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising, Filemaker is owned by Apple, which knows to build computers and music players capable of hide complexity behind simplicity.

Creating a database in FileMaker Pro is largely a matter of manipulating items on a cleverly designed graphical screen. It is mainly about building tables then dragging, clicking and filling in forms.

To get you started the software comes with 40-odd pre-built template databases for different home and business applications. Some of these will fit your needs out of the box. More often, a template will need  tweaking – this generally won’t present too many problems for most people. FileMaker lends itself to tinkering. So set aside some time to learn its ways you’ll find it rewarding.

One interesting aspect of FileMaker is its close ties to Microsoft Office – for example you can use data from an Excel spreadsheet as a way of kick-starting a database. It is also easy to move information from FileMaker to Office applications. The software can also output information as .PDF files.

Building simple databases from scratch isn’t too hard. But sooner or later you may need to get to grips with the software on a more technical level. FileMaker is a relational database, this means it can use multiple tables and link information between them. So you might keep people’s names and address in one table and things they buy in another. Making the most of this functionality can get tricky, although it is worth the effort.

The great thing about FileMaker is that creating databases doesn’t have to be complicated. It remains a great tool for non-programmers to build quick and dirty database applications. And that’s what matters.

While F-Secure’s Health Check 2.0 looks useful, it is nothing to get excited about.

Health Check is a Java program. It works with a browser to check a computer’s security then reports on risks.

On the plus side Health Check is free, quick and simple to use. The code loads directly from F-Secure’s Health Check web page and after the fuss of accepting terms and conditions it downloads in seconds.

Basic PC health check

Once leaded the software steps through four wizard stages. The first is automatic. It checks you have up-to-date anti-virus, anti-spyware and a firewall.

The ‘next’ button moves things to stage two which investigates back-up. Stage three checks key programs are up-to-date. The last stage is a summary screen linking to solutions to problems.

Even if everything is perfect, which it isn’t, PC Health Check 2.0 is of limited use.

Alternatives do the same job either as well or better. Secunia offers a free Online Software Inspector and the more complete downloadable Secunia Personal Software Inspector.

Sadly Health Check 2.0 is mainly a crude promotional device for F-Secure’s paid products.

Failed to find back-up

My computer failed the second stage back-up test. Health Check told me it didn’t find a back-up. This is wrong. There are three back-up applications on my computer. I back up regularly to an external disk and to a server.

When I clicked on the Health Check 2.0 ‘solve’ button to troubleshoot the ‘problem’ found by the software it told me I could protect my “valuable content” with F-Secure Online Backup. And gave a link to the F-Secure store.

I live in New Zealand. My computer has almost a terabyte of data. I’m theoretically on an unlimited broadband plan, but with shaped bandwidth for almost the entire working day. In other words, online back-up isn’t realistic. And yet PC Health Check tells me it is.

If the application gets this advice wrong – what use is the rest of its information?

When the program finishes, there’s the opportunity to register an email address with F-Secure. Now why would I want to do that?

For an alternative view see F-Secure refreshes online PC Health Check by Stephen Withers at iTWire. His found other shortcomings, but reached a similar conclusion.

Plaxo is part social media tool, part address book. It is useful for keeping contact names and addresses up-to-date.

Useful, but not as elegant or as handy as Linkedin. Not that I’d recommend LinkedIn to anyone.

Plaxo has a chequered history. In the early days it’s messages looked like spam and were annoying. The company climbed aboard the cluetrain and the unpleasant stuff stopped.

While Plaxo needs to make money – don’t we all? The company’s current approach may not work. It certainly doesn’t work for me.

Plaxo operates a so-called “Freemium” business model. The basic product is free, if you want to do more with the tools you have to pay. In theory it is a good business model and there are many cases where it works well.

I’ve recently come across three ways it aims to get money from me. I wouldn’t pay for any of these:

  1. Outlook sync. This was free, with a paid-for version allowing more features. Now sync is part of Plaxo Premium and costs US$60 a year – around a NZ$100.
  2. Then there’s Plaxo Pro available in three versions; Basic, Plus and Power. The Power version is a whopping US$250 a month and essentially provides you with a way to spam members. It includes Premium.
  3. Then there are e-cards, basically electronic birthday cards and similar stationary at a cost of US$20 a year.

You can forget the e-cards. Why would I ever want to pay US$20 to send them?

I’ve no wish to spam, this rules out the Pro version.

Which brings us to Plaxo Premium – paying for support is fair enough. Paying for back-up is reasonable. Paying to remove duplicates is a bit on the nose, but we’ll let that go.

I can’t use the sync to Windows Mobile and I used the Sync to Outlook when it was free and was not impressed.

Plaxo is an OK online address book although not as usesful as Facebook or Linkedin. It has around 15 million users – Linkedin has 43 million, mainly business oriented users, Facebook has 300 million.

It’s hard to tell if AVG Anti-VIrus Free 9.0 offers decent PC security. That’s because the application is so annoying, it imposes such an overhead that it had to be deleted before testing finished.

At times free is too high a price.

AVG Anti-Virus Free 9.0 is still only two weeks old. It arrived about the same time as Windows 7 and is compatible with Microsoft’s new operation system.

The program is available at AVG’s free web site – but I don’t recommend it.

It is only a small download at 869Kb. It takes seconds with broadband. The first file is a downloader which fetches and installs the rest of the software.

The process is easy enough. Yet the second screen you see is only the start of what becomes an annoying and shrill sales pitch designed to control your choices and trick you in to paying money. It appears AVG has learnt from the scam artists the software promises to protect you from.

Flakiness abounds

Your first choice is to select either free basic protection or a 30-day trial of the company’s comprehensive protection.

The implication is responsible people will choose the second option. Which means in 30 days AVG will ask you for money. Don’t worry – you’ll get plenty more opportunities to pay AVG if you choose not to do so at this point.

I thought I was downloading the free software – that’s what I clicked on at the AVG web site – so that’s what I proceeded with.

During the download AVG asks you to remove existing anti-virus software. This makes sense, anti-virus applications can conflict with each other and anyway, as each program imposes an overhead, the performance drop can multiply.

Annoyingly AVG doesn’t remove the other software. It halts and opens the Windows uninstaller so you can manually remove it. Even more annoyingly, the AVG installer closes itself at this point. You need to hunt around in your download folder to find it and start all over again – by now many megabytes have been wiped off your download cap.

Click, click, bloody click

There’s a lot of clicking throughout this process – some of it unnecessary. Then it asks if you wish to install the AVG Security Toolbar.

The software has also helpfully pre-selected the option to change your default search engine to Yahoo. This is spam – of a sort. In both cases I choose No.

It is tricky – if you click off the first box, the Yahoo box stays ticked but grayed out. This can only be designed to trick you into selecting the search engine choice.

At this point the installer had to close Firefox. Not wanting to be sent all the way back to the start like that horrible long snake at the end of a game of Snakes and Ladders, I clicked to close Firefox held my breath. Phew. The install resumes.

We are now 40 minutes into the process. Even at minimum wage rate this free anti-virus program has cost me the price of lunch and a clutch of grey hairs.

Finally

Suddenly the process is over. A box appears telling me the install has finished. But wait, what is this?

More stuff to click.

Do I agree to give anonymous information? Oh alright then. And now would I like to receive spam? (Sorry news and alerts). Please enter your email address. Are you kidding? No.

While AVG starts its first scan. I reload Firefox. In the meantime I notice the program has installed an icon on my Windows desktop. Did I ask for this? No I damn well did not. AVG asks tons of questions during the install – but doesn’t allow me to choose whether the icon despoils my desktop. At this point I’m starting to get angry.

Not responding

Meanwhile Firefox is failing to load. What’s going on here? There was a string of open tabs – none of them are visible. Windows tells me Firefox is “not responding”.

Eventually – more than an hour after the first download, Firefox opens. And what’s this? AVG has installed AVG Safe Search. Is this the toolbar I choose not to install? The name is different, so let’s assume it isn’t the same thing. I wasn’t warned or asked about it, but hey, let’s go with the flow for a moment.  So, Firefox opens at the home page – my tags are all lost.

AVG is now scanning my computer looking for viruses. I open up the scanner’s display and see what looks like a banner ad for the paid for software at the bottom of the screen.  Fair enough, the software was free and these people have to eat. I can accept advertising as the price to pay for free anti-virus.

It has to go

Before long my computer started crashing, randomly. And things went s l o w   l i ke  w a d i n g t h r o u g h m o l a s s e s. There could be only one explanation for this. I removed AVG, reinstalled Microsoft Security Essentials and performance returned to normal.

Of course, you mileage may vary. AVG Anti-Virus may rock your boat. But for me it has proved so disastrous I couldn’t even test its efficiency as an anti-virus tool. I give it zero stars out of five.

Microsoft Security Essentials

I would like to try Microsoft’s new free Security Essentials. I’m in New Zealand and locked out of the official download site. Yes, I know there are ways around the lock-out. I’m aiming to stay ethical. If you know how I can get hold of a legitimate copy please leave a comment or use the contact page.

Updated: Microsoft Security Essentials, an impressive alternative.

Avast

When I installed Windows 7 RC on my computers I loaded Norton Internet Security 2010 beta on the desktop and a free desktop security application from Avast on my ThinkPad. We also tried AVG’s free anti-virus software on a ThinkPad.

Both free anti-virus programs are functional and handle everyday security. We’re behind a NAT firewall and keep our machines clean, so our security needs are basic. The features not included in the free versions of the programs are of no interest to me. I would like to schedule Avast to scan my laptop at regular intervals.

Avast appears to do a better job at hunting down problems, but AVG has a better user interface. We’ve now standardised on Avast on our laptops because the software appears easier to deal with and, when it comes to this kind of work, a good brain trumps a pretty face.

Both programs slow the computer down less than Symantec‘s Norton Internet Security 2010 beta – that wouldn’t be hard. Their overhead is barely noticeable.

Free anti-virus negatives

Both free anti-virus programs are difficult to find and download. They are hidden behind paid-for products from the same companies. And both nag about updating – in ways that send you off to pay for versions of the software.

Of course, developers have to eat. I’m not complaining, the price of free security software is a small annoyance. Or to put it another way, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. On a point by point basis Avast seems less of a problem than AVG – but this could be perception and not reality.

One downside of the free software asking for updates and not automatically scanning is it  feels as if the PC lacks proper protection.

Update: I took a later look at  an updated version of AVG and hated it in AVG Anti-Virus Free 9.0: far too much trouble

Panda Cloud Anti-virus

For now I’m sticking with Avast on my ThinkPad and we’ve switched from AVG to Avast on my wife’s ThinkPad. But Avast didn’t feel satisfactory on my main desktop, so I searched for an alternative and discovered Panda Cloud Anti-virus.

Panda Cloud Anti-virus looks and feels different from other security software. Panda is a software-as-a-service application that sends data about dangerous looking files to its own servers for closer inspection. This means no noticeable performance overhead. It also means the checking database is always bang up-to-date.

Panda is still a work in progress. Or more to the point, a beta. But unlike Symantec’s Norton beta, it seems fully functional. I’ve run Panda Cloud Anti-virus for roughly one month without any problems. My biggest fear is I never hear from the program, so I need to check to see it is running – which it always is.

Given the ease at which Panda slips into the background, to the point where it is unnoticeable, I’d have to say this is the most promising security tool I have found so far.