Crystal New Features – Past, Present
I’ve seen comments out and about regarding the lack of new features in the next release of Crystal Reports due this year (see this pdf) . As far as I’m concerned, SAP have deprecated the awkward ActiveX viewer, so I’m willing to forgive them anything!
More seriously, this is mature software, so changes are going to be gradual, the last truly revolutionary release of Crystal was version 5 when all the conditional formatting, multi-section & sub-reports appeared. I know there have been subsequent changes to the database connectivity that were significant from an engineering perspective, but not important to end users. I need to qualify this paragraph by admitting I like Office 2010, especially the ribbon, so maybe my opinions are odd (I’m not too impressed with Firefox 4 either).
Moving on, this post isn’t about Crystal 2011 (sorry, SAP Crystal Reports 2011, the marketing police will be calling), it’s more retrospective. I’m about to do some work using Crystal Reports 8.5 (sorry, Seagate Crystal Reports 8.5). This got me thinking about all the new stuff that’s appeared over the years, some new features have seemed trivial but have become must-haves, whereas other features have seemed major, but have never been used. One last mention of Crystal 2011 – no matter how few new features there are, it will be more than in Crystal 8.5 – erm – pdf export and support for Crystal Enterprise, that’ll be ££££ please.
I can’t remember when all these things appeared, so I’ll not bother. If you don’t remember any of these, then you’ve probably a lot less grey hair than me! I’ve excluded some of the exciting stuff (eg Dynamic Parameters) simply because they did seem important, and have remained so.
Things I’d be upset to lose, but didn’t seem important at the time:
- Resizing the Database Links Window (aka Visual Links) – sounds like a daft one to start on, but it used to be a fixed (tiny) size and having to scroll around all the database tables used to drive me nuts! Such a trivial change that made life so much easier.
- Duplicating Formulae – it’s common in Crystal to have many very similar formulae running across the page. All that cutting and pasting from one formula to another was made so much simpler when you could just duplicate and rename.
- Formula Workshop – I really didn’t see the point of this when it first came out, but it makes finding formulae so much simpler. Add to that, being able to find a formula’s dependencies is priceless.
- Sub-report linking – not the ability to, but the user interface. Remember that tiny box with drop-downs that never seemed to link quite as you’d expect? Then, you’d try to remove a link and – oops. The current version is far from perfect (not visual enough), but at least it works.
- Saved data selection formula – really geeky choice, this is the less glamorous part of being able to edit the parameters in the viewer. Great idea, well executed. I’ve been working on some reports based on an XML data source where the initial report takes a while to load the data, I wouldn’t want to repeat the delay every time the user changed a parameter.
- Longer formula text – once upon a time there was a fairly small limit on how long a formula could be (can’t remember how long). First report I wrote for a major customer (Computacenter) blew that away so I had to break the formula down into many smaller parts. I then had to cut and paste as the formula was replicated 31 times.
- Format Painter – Just looking through the old new features documents and can’t believe this didn’t arrive until version 10. I know it still doesn’t quite work as it should on some formatting, but it’s a great help.
- Charts – there have been many changes to the charts interface over the years. There used to be the separate chart application where you could do advanced edits, then you’d add the chart and it would all change ever so slightly! The current interface is nearly right with the exception that some of the changes can only be made in design, not preview, and that resizing the chart messes things up – maybe next time?
- Report Explorer – another new feature that I didn’t use for a while. Then I spent 20 minutes trying to select lines in a crowded section! Just click in the Report Explorer and you have it.
Things that seemed important, but ….
- Maps – I loved to demo the maps. Here’s my report, insert a map just like you do a chart and bingo – map of USA with sales by state colour coded. As you can probably tell from my spelling, I’m in the UK, not US. The UK map looked great, but there was no way to sensibly place your data onto the map as the regions made no sense. The only option was to buy another map, but the licensing was so horrendous that nobody did. Moral of story: if you want maps, buy a mapping application.
- Workbench – The ability to group all your reports into a selection of projects seemed like such a good idea. I spent ages creating a project per customer and adding their reports. Then I fired up my laptop to find there was no simple way to keep the two synchronised. Nor did the workbench add much to windows explorer other than the ability to check some dependencies.
- Running Totals – It used to take 3 formulae to create a running total – one to initialise, one to increment and one to display. New Running totals were supposed to make life so much simpler with a simple interface to define what you were adding up and when to calculate it. Then you’d try and do something complex and have to delete your running total and go back to the 3 formulae solution. For anything beyond trivial, I stick to 3 formulae now.
- Basic Syntax – There are millions of VB programmers, and millions of Crystal Reports users – what could be more obvious than letting Crystal use Basic. Except it wasn’t Basic, it was just different words to those used by Crystal, a bit like describing the Crystal Syntax as Pascal. That meant that neither VB programmers nor Crystal Reports users could use the new syntax. Let’s get rid of it and let the people writing the documentation work on something else.
- Templates – there used to a joke about the paper clip in Microsoft Word – “You appear to be writing a letter, would you like me to @%@^@ it up for you?”. This was Crystal’s answer to the paper clip – “You’ve spent hours placing those fields on your report, would you like me to randomly rearrange them for you”. With the initial release, it wasn’t even possible to undo the changes! Maybe it’s improved since then, I don’t want to take the risk – I’ll stick to modifying an existing report that has the correct formatting.
- Autosave Report – This seemed to be such a great idea – you have a program that does (occasionally) fall over so why not save your work as you progress? Except it saved the report over the existing file so if you wanted to just test a few changes, you lost your stable file – I know you should work on a copy, but welcome to the real world. I much prefer the method used by QlikView where the filename is automatically incremented with a version number.
- Sort Control. I think many people will disagree with this one! When I used to demo Crystal, I was often asked about dynamic parameters – they were a feature that lots of people wanted. I was never asked about on-report sorting. They look like something that someone who had used WebI would ask for. Newsflash – WebI and Crystal have different uses. Add to that, the clunky formatting – they look really nasty.
- Highlighting Expert – look! I can change the colour of this field based upon it’s value. However, I also want to change the colour of a second field based upon the value of the first, so now I have to do the same thing in two different ways on the same report.
- Xcelsius objects – I can see the thinking in development – our chart engine doesn’t always work as we’d like, let’s add one that’s really difficult to use so that we can tell people they have a choice. I love Xcelsius (I know the name has changed), and think it makes a great dashboard tool, but it’s too complicated when you add it to Crystal. Add to that the problems of testing all these disjointed bits and it gets worse. Maybe the integration interface will change in the next release, then I can move this up the page to features I don’t want to lose.