As a user/developer of Crystal Reports since version 1.0, I have just one thing to say to Crystal Decisions about the new version 9.0: You’ve come a long way, baby!
Before I delve into this too far, allow me to preface this review by briefly describing how Crystal Reports is used in my IT shop. We are, for the most part, a homogenous Microsoft shop developing only in Visual Basic, ASP and C++ using SQL Server 2000 as our database. Version 126.96.36.199 is the current version that we use and stored procedures are the data source enforced by our development policies. .NET development weighs very heavily on the minds of IT executive management here and is a consideration for every development platform we choose.
Anyone even remotely familiar with Crystal Reports will tell you that the first task in creating a report is connecting to a data source of some kind. My first reaction in attempting this task in Crystal 9.0 was WOW! Noticeably there are Considerably more data sources available. Java developers will note that they can now connect to custom data sources via JavaBeans. Microsoft developers can take comfort that ADO.NET and COM have been considered as well. However, nothing is probably more notable than the newest data source feature–the command. For the first time ever, Crystal Reports allows anyone SQL savvy enough to actually code SELECT statements as a data source. Furthermore, these commands can be saved and stored for reuse in another new feature known as a repository. Adding input parameters to commands lend tremendous flexibility to ad hoc reporting. These parameters can be given names, types and even prompting labels. Unfortunately, Crystal Decisions didn’t consider common IT matters such as change and version management when adding this feature. I will have a difficult time selling this feature as anything other than a report prototyping feature or an end-user feature in my IT shop.
Crystal Decisions definitely had developer productivity in mind by adding many new features implementing the concept of reusability. As mentioned earlier, a repository stores common reusable objects during the development of one report and reuses them later for the development of another report. Not only can the repository store SQL commands, but it can also store images and text objects. The repository comes with a Repository Explorer, which allows the developer easy search and select capability of repository objects. Developers creating multiple reports in compliance with appearance standards will appreciate this feature greatly! However, I still wish that Crystal Decisions had considered change and version management.
Reusability fanatics will appreciate even more the template feature, seen before in Microsoft products. The developer creates a Crystal Report with a common look and feel needed for future reports. After that, it is a simple matter of applying the template to subsequent reports. Again, anyone who has ever suffered the rigor and tedium of applying the same look and feel over more than 1 report, say 20 or so, will find this feature to be most refreshing!
As if templates and repositories weren’t enough to boost productivity, Crystal Reports also includes Report, Repository, and field Explorers that enable the developer to quickly build a report simply by dragging and dropping objects from those explorers onto the report. Enabling these explorers can be done from the View menu.
Formula aficionados will be pleasantly surprised to find the dramatic overhaul in the user interface for formulas. The Formula Expert, as it’s known, is far more intuitive than its CR 8.0 predecessor. The custom functions are much easier to find through the tree-like navigator. The biggest plus is that all the guesswork in understanding the parameters of these functions is gone. There are detailed descriptions of the parameters and prompts for selecting values for the parameters.
To say that Crystal’s web interface has been a boon to my career here is a huge understatement. My internal customers can’t lift up enough kudos on my behalf regarding the Crystal Reports web interface. Well, that is about to be elevated to a whole new level in Crystal 9.0! Crystal 9.0 has a new feature called an Advanced Search Wizard or Advanced Interactive Wizard that will absolutely dazzle my clients. This apparatus comes about as close to enabling Query by Example as one can come. It offers more control allowing users to select report fields and set selection criteria. Of course, it also offers the ability to save results to Excel, Word, and other formats, as CR 8.0 users have come to expect. However, there are some restrictions, and end users aren’t given carte blanche with the database. Users must first select an existing report, which obviously will have a more restricted view of the database. I see IT departments leveraging this as a mechanism to retain better control over the database.
The business users I support have constant need for charts and graphs for the various industry-wide publications they author. Until Version 9.0’s arrival, getting such objects into publications has been limited to screen snapshots, often followed by a long and tedious Adobe Photoshop editing session. Furthermore, changing data made this tedium unbearable through constant repetition. No more! A new feature dubbed Smart Tags enables the user to insert these objects in Office XP documents with relative ease. Moreover, these tags also eradicate the rigor and repetition attributed to constantly changing data. All the user has to do is a “refresh” within the document.
Data warehouse and business intelligence developers will find vast improvement to Crystal 9.0’s OLAP reporting features. The user interface is far more intuitive and developer friendly than its predecessor. Drilling down through cubes appears to be far more doable and intuitive than it was in previous versions. Anyone who has ever attempted to report on a cube only to find a big shaded box with illegible headers and wonder what to do next with it will greatly appreciate the improvements made in version 9.0.
In summary, I believe version 9.0 delivers added value and is well worth the cost of an upgrade. I hope that in future versions, however, Crystal Decisions will be a bit more mindful of change and version management with regard to the repository.
Jerry Dunn is an independent reviewer.