This review took longer that I'd expected. The reason for this is because this is really a large application environment. SYWARE's Visual CE 8 is a database, forms and report design application for the Pocket PC and Windows CE devices. Even users with no previous programming knowledge can easily develop a fairly complex data oriented application, and expert users can develop and deploy a large functional application.
For my our tests I have used the Enterprise Edition. This version also includes a built-in report generator called Report CE to create ad-hoc reports and the sqlceEnable plugin which allows reports to read SQL CE databases.
After installation you'll find a Visual CE application in the Pocket PC, under the Programs group. It will also be available on the desktop, allowing development to be undertaken in either device. I decided to start on the Pocket PC. The program gives the option to either open an existing form in design mode or to create a new form or a new table. When creating a new form, the user can relate it to a table stored in the \Database folder (a Pocket PC Store), or a table belonging to a Pocket Access (.CDB) database. There's also the option of creating a form with no related table.
If the user wants to create a table the program provides the function to perform this task. The new table will be created as a database in the \Database folder, and the user will be presented with the option to create a new form based on this table, automatically. Once the form is created the user can change its attributes, including colours, text, field types, etc. Icons are added to the Programs group for each new form, so the user doesn't need to start Visual CE and look for the forms to execute them.
For this test I have created a Levels table containing just user_level and description. The Users table contained user specific information, including a user_level field, key to the Levels table. It's interesting to note that Visual CE also supports fields like scribble and images.
Selecting the data sourced for a new form
Creating a database table
Designing a form
After accepting the form automatically created, I proceeded with some customisation. I changed the user_level field to a dropdown list, and linked the content of this list to the Levels table. This way, when entering data in the Users form, I can select from the list, which will contain only valid entries. Fields attributes include minimum and maximum values, read only, money format and others.
Controls available during design
Linking a dropdown list to another table
The dropdown list during runtime, now populated
Table view: alternative
Entering information is very easy, and the Record menu provides access to records by using First, Previous, Next, Last and a Search function. It also provides Print, Save, Delete, Insert. The application also provides a table view and filtering capabilities. The user can exchange information with other Visual CE users via infrared or Bluetooth, and can select to beam all records or just the current record. Forms can be locked, so that after the final touches, no one (not even the creator) can modify it. Other interesting functionality is the automatic date picker when entering date/time fields.
Visual CE also provide Macros that aexecute functions actioned from buttons added to the interface. Macros include navigation and control, but also includes sophisticated functions like Alarm and even SMS sending from the application, either using a Pocket PC Phone Edition or a mobile phone via Bluetooth). The ability to include macros in forms, plus being able to link form fields to related tables gives the user power to develop complex applications.
Forms and database tables can also be created and maintaned from the computer side. When the Visual CE is started it will look for the Pocket PC and make all the existing tables on the handheld available to the desktop. This includes even the built-in tables like Appointments, Contact, Mail, etc. Quite handy. Like the Pocket PC side, users can automatically create a form and customise it. When saving the form, the program gives the option to install the forms file directly to the device.
Selecting the data source on the desktop
All database tables available on the Pocket PC can be accessed from the desktop tool
An automatic form to list the Appointments database
The desktop version also offers a runtime utility that will create a distribution folder containing the form and other files required to execute Visual CE forms on other users' Pocket PC.
Using Visual CE we can read and update Pocket Access databases (.cdb) , the handheld version of Microsoft Access databases (.mdb). These can even be synchronised using a standard functionality available on ActiveSync. I tested this by creating a Users table on a test.mdb on my desktop, and then creating the ActiveSync link to a test.cdb on my Pocket PC. Changes to records on my desktop when running Microsoft Access would be replicated to the handheld - and vice versa when using a Visual CE form on my Pocket PC. While Pocket PC tables are stored in the \Database folder, synchronised .cdb files can be stored anywhere, even on a storage card. This is the best option in terms of memory usage.
Creating a synchronisation item: Microsoft Access to Pocket Access
The Report CE program available on the desktop side is a handy tool. Even though it may not be available in some versions, it can be purchased separately, which is a sensible thing to do. Like Visual CE on the desktop, the Report CE program gives the user total access to databases residing on the Pocket PC while it's connected. Reports are easily created by selecting tables and fields, and changing headers and footers, all through a graphical interface.
Creating a report
The report on my desktop, listing data directly from my Pocket PC
Visual CE comes in different flavours: 13265 Enterprise Edition, 13263 Professional Edition, 13261 Personal Edition, and 13262 Lite Edition. The SYWARE website compares all editions.
Report CE is also available in different versions (13264 Personal Edition and 28339 Professional Edition) for users who want to add the reporting capability to a lite version.
SYWARE also offers another plugin called mEnable, which allows wireless access to remote servers, with automatic data synchronisation. I plan to test this and post a specific review at a later date.
Visual CE is a very interesting tool, and although the pricing for the top version seems a little high, users can easily find a version that will fill the requirements, and even buy separate components (like the Report CE and sqlceEnable). It's indeed very easy to use, and requires no programming skills. Using the table design tool requires some common sense, and like other relational tools the user must be thoughtful when creating tables and assigning foreign keys to link to other tables.
Applications like data collection, prescription management, inventory and others that require mobility can certainly benefit of this program, but even users looking for a tool to help them manage a collection or personal data can use Visual CE (in its Lite or Personal versions) to help them in these tasks.