askSam 5

Reviewed by: Howard Carson, send e-mail
Published by: Seaside Software/AskSam Systems, go to the web site
Requires: Windows 95 or later
MSRP: US$149.95 (Standard); $395 (Professional)

I talk too much. I write too much. I'm a news and information junkie. I'm in the investigative research and development business. I manage software development. Like a lot of people I work with, I'm busy. I generate a lot of documents. I do a lot of Web searches. I do a lot of database searches. The problem is that when you've got access to so much data, finding what you need is a big chore. As a matter of fact, it's a big fat chore even if you've only got to slog through 5% of what I've got. askSam 5 is the tool of choice for a lot of people like me who need a fast way to find what they need without also having to be a database genius.

So does anybody remember the first version of Enfish Tracker Pro? It was (mostly) a powerful search tool which could be used to search massive Outlook PST files - even files hundreds of megabytes in size. No Internet. No Web. Some HTML as long as it wasn't too complex. That was 1997. Five years later and the online world has changed - search software along with it. In fact, since 1985 there has been a growing need for effective and comprehensive search software. Google's success is not a fluke and neither is the success of forensic search tools such as TextSearch Plus. But as the rest of us slog through endless pages of search results, saving the pages we need (Excel spreadsheets, Word and WordPerfect documents, Outlook and Eudora e-mail, databases, text, RTF, news, buying information, vacation and travel information, ad infinitum), more and more software developers have responded with increasingly comprehensive tools. The corporate database business is worth a trillion dollars worldwide. That's a lot of money.

askSam is a program for organizing most of the information which flows through your office or across you desk. Type, scan, or import post-its, phone messages, memos, faxes, resumes, depositions, newspaper articles, or e-mail into askSam, then search for words or phrases. The software provides a range of searches typically found in database programs, including full text, fuzzy, wildcard, Boolean, proximity, date and numeric. If the information is structured (e.g.: names and addresses), you can take advantage of askSam's freeform database capabilities by creating custom data entry forms. As you add documents, call up the entry form and fill in the fields. askSam does not appear to require pre-defined field lengths or field types - fields expand as you enter information and can be edited or altered at any time in a process that doesn't muck up your data. Basically, you can find any piece of text inside any document - ideal for legal, medical or research knowledge workers.

I found that using askSam is a bit like using a word processor. Typical database management chores such as those associated with Microsoft Access, FileMaker Pro and Oracle simply don't exist with askSam. It's a reasonably powerful freeform database which provides flexibility by letting you import a large range of file formats including PDF files, e-mail (from Eudora, Netscape Mail, Outlook, Outlook Express and PocoMail). There's no support at this time for Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes. You can also enter data manually. As an information organizer, askSam excels at keeping track of e-mail messages, word processing documents, spreadsheets, addresses and HTML files.

Testing askSam was quite straighforward. In the CompuNotes tradition of reviews by real users, I threw askSam at a new employee of ours who had the task of sorting through archives of about 3,000 text documents related to Eastern European politics. Everything had to be fully searchable by date, document size, subject, title and so on. Setting up a database template was a breeze. askSam imported everything cleanly with the exception of a handful of corrupt files, and all of the searches requested of our staffer produced clear and legible reporting output from askSam. The only letdown was the absence of any charting or graphing functions in reports. We did not try the askSam Electronic Publisher (for creating CDs) or the Web Publisher (for creating online reports) - both items are add-ons.

Cons: Although it's not our primary database, we've been using askSam in our research offices for several years in conjunction with SurfSaver (and more recently) BullsEye, so we're a bit disappointed that the askSam 5 format has not yet been released inside SurfSaver (which is still based on the askSam 4 engine). We're hoping the next release of SurfSaver will include askSam 5 compatibility. Ditto for BullsEye. Unlike FileMaker Pro and Microsoft Access askSam has no data type, range or foreign key constraints, all of which are crucial for complex searches and foreign language searches. askSam database was not accessible using our existing data reporting software. No data validation utility which means that it's harder to catch data entry errors. No graphing in its reports.

Pros: No data management of any kind in place? askSam is a decent choice and a heckuva lot cheaper than much of the competition. The Insert Entry Form lets you add a field to all existing documents - very cool and useful new feature. Original documents can be linked (via Hypertext) or embedded in the askSam database - a bigtime feature. An ActiveX control is included for programmers interested in providing access to askSam databases from ASP-based Web applications. Recommended for small businesses, individuals and SOHOs.

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