Sage 50 ACT 2008 review
The installer splash screen proudly informs us that ACT is now 20 years old – a ripe old age for any software, and all the more impressive in the field of contact management and scheduling.
ACT’s purpose is to bring together on your PC all the data and documents that relate to clients and other business contacts. It provides scheduling, reminders, sales tracking and a range of analysis and reporting tools. Every meeting or exchange with a company or individual can be logged to build up a history of the business relationship. You can also attach notes and documents from other applications. The aim is to provide access to all the material, both for analysis and to ensure that you have everything to hand when a customer calls or when contacting them.
Integration with other applications is an important part of this and ACT has direct links to Microsoft Word, as well as to Outlook, Outlook Express, Eudora and Lotus Notes. It also provides a competent word processor and email client of its own, allowing users to do almost everything from within it.
At its heart, ACT is a relational database that runs on Microsoft SQL Server, a copy of which is included with ACT and installed at the same time. Database concepts such as tables and relations are hidden away, so the user is presented with self-explanatory buttons labelled Contacts, Companies, Opportunity List and so on.
A system of groups and subgroups is used to assemble data according to user-defined criteria. Groups are, in effect, stored database queries and will change dynamically as the data changes. However, as well as dynamic group members, you can add static ones that always belong to that group, even if they don’t match the criteria.
ACT is on a fixed annual upgrade cycle, and the principal innovation this year is the introduction of a Dashboard interface, which allows you to arrange various lists and graphs as tiles within a window. If you hover the cursor over a graph or list element, it reveals additional information about that item. You can create multiple dashboards for different purposes and there’s a graphical editor – the Dashboard Designer – where you assemble and edit the components into a suitable layout. As a means of visualising and presenting essential data, dashboard interfaces have become very fashionable in the business intelligence market. It’s good that ACT is now embracing this, although it isn’t yet particularly elegant. We found some problems with graphics not scaling properly, for example, and the overall aesthetic is rather basic. Even so, it’s a welcome addition.
Among other new features there’s the ability to edit fields within a list view, a few security improvements, automatic duplicate checking in Groups and Companies, as well as provision for adding multiple contacts to an Opportunity record.
ACT is a large and intricate program. Learning it fully will inevitably take some time, but it’s clear that a lot of thought has been given to making the interface as usable and logical as possible. The animated tutorials do an excellent job of guiding you through the different features and many will also find the sample database helpful when getting started. Documentation is in PDF form, but there’s a hardcopy quick-start guide to refer to while you get set up. That said, installation take a significant period of time, as you’ll need to download and install the .NET Framework 2.0, if it isn’t on your machine, after which SQL Server has to be installed. It’s also important to follow the installation instructions exactly, since the process will fail if, for example, you forget to temporarily disable the Windows XP Firewall.