PackRat, AskSam Different, Useful

RICHARD O'REILLY designs microcomputer applications for The Times

If somebody gives an award for catchy software names, AskSam and PackRat ought to win.

Although both are information managers, they are as different as their names and I don't see them as competing with each other.

PackRat offers a tightly organized way to keep track of your entire workday. AskSam, in contrast, lets you enter data in virtually any random, chaotic fashion you choose and still make sense out of it.

Version 2.0 of PackRat, $395, from Polaris Software in Escondido, lets you create and use a group of seven special-purpose lists--for keeping phone numbers, logging time and content of phone calls, tracking tasks to be done, creating an agenda, recording expenses, indexing miscellaneous data and annotating computer files stored on your disks. Numbers in the phone book can be dialed and logged automatically by PackRat.

Most of the lists allow you to assign eight "keywords," or subjects, to categorize entries so that they can be retrieved later for various purposes. For instance, one of the keywords for a phone log entry could be the name of a project or client to which the call will be billed. Using that keyword, the program could at once pull up all of the calls associated with that project.

Entries from all seven lists can be displayed by date as well as by keyword category. That means that when you start your day, you can see items from all of your lists that need attention on that day. The way the PackRat lists work together allows for very sophisticated management and tracking of information.

PackRat works with the Microsoft Windows operating environment. A version of Windows is included with PackRat for buyers who need it.

(Windows lets computer users work on IBM and compatible machines much the way they would with an Apple Macintosh computer. Windows provides graphics displays, including menus of available computer options, that resemble those on the Macintosh.)

PackRat is very easy to use. When it pops onto your screen, it displays a calendar of the month, a selection of available lists and, at the bottom of the screen, a schedule of the day's activities. (You can customize the program so that it shows other kinds of data on start-up, such as all of your unfinished tasks.)

As with other Windows applications, PackRat is easiest to use with a mouse. You merely point at the list or function you want and click the button. But everything can be done from the keyboard if you don't have a mouse.

If you already use another Windows application for much of your work, the spread sheet Excel, for instance, PackRat is a perfect complement. In fact, you can quickly transfer your expense account data from PackRat into Excel.

Some of the more impressive tasks that can be performed with PackRat 2.0, the latest version, include: searching for a range of data such as all of a staff member's expenses incurred during a given month related to a particular project, pinpointing scheduling conflicts and printing envelopes from addresses on the phone book list. You also can instruct the program to flash a message on your screen alerting you to an upcoming appointment while you are, for example, composing a letter or updating a spread sheet.

AskSam, a $295 free-form database program for IBM and compatible PCs from AskSam Systems in Perry, Fla., was used by the Senate Iran-Contra committee to keep track of testimony so that one witness's words could be checked against another's.

Version 4.1 of AskSam, the latest release, adds new power to what was already quite a useful piece of software.

The concept of a free-form database is unusual, but not hard to grasp. It lets you enter data any way you want, much the way people tend to scribble random notes on scraps of paper. You can create a data file with traditional fields to contain information such as name, invoice number and amount, or you can simply type text--phrases, sentences or whatever--and be confident that you can easily retrieve every bit of that information.

The Iran-Contra testimony was entered into AskSam as text. For instance, the committee staff was then able to quickly search prior testimony for references to subjects being discussed at the moment.

You can ask for the data by typing a query for the information you want. For instance, asking for "client" will get you every record in which that word appears. Typing "$500" will show every record containing a dollar amount less than $500.

Just as in a traditional database, AskSam will add, subtract, multiply, divide, sum, count and average numbers. It will also print formatted reports, create a list for a mass mailing of personalized letters, dial the telephone and store complex and often-used queries so that they can be reused.

You can narrow or expand queries by using connecting words "or," "and" and "not." For example, a query could look for Senate testimony containing "Contra or CIA." With the "and" and "not" functions, you could ask for only those citations that also mention former President Ronald Reagan but not President Bush.

A new version, 4.2, due out in about a month, will provide the ability to show graphics. With it, a realtor, for instance, could ask for all the three-bedroom homes under $200,000 and display a picture of each along with details of the listing.

(A scanner would be needed to digitize the photos, along with graphics, or paint software that can display scanned images.)

It is simple to get started with AskSam. As you get familiar with its features, you will be able to handle more sophisticated tasks.

Despite its power, AskSam works well with simple computer hardware. Only 256 kilobytes of memory and two floppy disks are needed. Users of the next version who want to display graphics will need more memory, a hard disk and a graphics monitor, however.

Computer File welcomes readers' comments but regrets that the author cannot respond individually to letters. Write to Richard O'Reilly, Computer File, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053.


PackRat 2.0

A personal information manager for the Windows operating environment.


Creates and uses seven kinds of lists for basic workday applications that keep track of people, phone calls, schedules, expenses and other data. The single user version is $395 and a three-user network version is $695. Additional network users can be added for $150 each.


IBM or compatible computer with 512 kilobytes of memory, a hard disk, graphics display and DOS 3.0 or greater. A computer equipped with an 80286 or 80386 microprocessor is recommended for satisfactory performance, as with any Windows application program.


Polaris Software, 613 West Valley Parkway, Suite 323, Escondido, Calif. 92025. Phone: (619) 743-7800.

AskSam 4.1

A data management program that lets you store information in whatever form is convenient.


Stores and retrieves any type of text or numeric data. Performs math calculations and prints traditional-looking database reports. A data record is anything that can be contained on one computer screen. It can be divided into fields or not. Searches can be done for any word or phrase. Single user version costs $295 and the 10-user network version is $895. Additional groups of 10 users cost $500.


IBM or compatible computer with 256 kilobytes of memory and two floppy drives or a hard drive.


AskSam Systems, 119 S. Washington St., Perry, Fla. 32347. Phone: (800) 327-5726.

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