I’ve put the Kindle and the Sony Reader aside for a day to finish writing my latest comparative review of database software for Australian PC User magazine.

I’ve been writing such reviews since the early 1980s, when dBASE was top dog in the database stakes. It was a seriously buggy program, but in the very early ’80s it was one of the very few choices for anyone wanting a PC database. Then, around 1983-1984, there was an explosion of such applications. Over a period of 18 months, I wrote reviews of 14 database products in a series of articles called ‘The Great Database Search’.

You won’t find 14 serious desktop database contenders these days, and you won’t find many of the products I wrote about back in 1984: dBASE is still in existence, entirely transformed, and Dataflex has morphed into Visual Dataflex. They’re both very much developer tools; not the sort of thing a home user or small office manager would choose for managing data.

Although the number of desktop databases has declined, the quality of the products available has steadily improved. When I sat down to compare Microsoft Access 2007, FileMaker Pro 9 and Alpha Five version 8, I found myself hard pressed to pick an overall ‘winner’. These are all excellent tools. My sense is, after all these years, desktop databases have finally come of age.

I’ll post the full review online once it’s been published in Australian PC User, but if you’re currently thinking about buying a database, here are my recommendations:

Buy FileMaker Pro 9 if:

  • You have little database experience and no-one to whom you can farm out the job.
  • You want to get up and running as quickly as possible.
  • You have modest database needs, with expectations of moderate growth.
  • You want to be able to create databases which run on the Mac and Windows and the Web (in the latter case, you’ll need FileMaker Pro Advanced).
  • You don’t find the price tag offputting ($US299 for FileMaker Pro; $US499 for FileMaker Pro Advanced).

Buy Alpha Five version 8 if:

  • You have some database or programming experience, or access to someone who has, or you’re prepared to devote a slice of time to absorbing all that’s on offer.
  • You have modest to quite complex database needs, believe you may need to scale up your database applications in the future, or need to access data in SQL databases (for which you’ll require the Professional version, not the cheaper Desktop version).
  • You want to publish your data on the web (you’ll need the Professional version for this, too).

Buy Access 2007 if:

  • You need serious database power, or
  • You need to buy at least a couple of other Microsoft Office 2007 components (Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, Excel, Publisher). In that case, because Access 2007 is bundled with Office 2007 Professional it becomes a very inexpensive option ($US499 for the whole suite, but chances are you’ll qualify for the upgrade pricing of $US329).

There’s another alternative to consider: Base, the database component included with the freeware This is a relational database which handles DBF (the old dBASE format) files as well as SQL data (SQL is the industry standard for corporate databases). It has wizards for creating tables, forms and reports. It lacks the sophistication and advanced tools you’ll find in the other database management systems, but you can’t argue with the price. If you have previous database experience and don’t mind winging it (the documentation is sparse and you’ll come across some bugs in the system), it’s certainly worth a try.