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-- by James E. Powell
Microsoft's Visual Basic 5.0 development environment represents a major leap forward for speedy application development. But the "We try harder" approach of number-two Borland International pays off with Delphi 3. Visual Basic remains on our WinList for ease of use and fast performance, while Delphi 3 replaces its predecessor, Delphi 2.0, on our list of recommended products. Its stunning RAD (rapid application development) environment, and superior capabilities for building ActiveX controls and Web-centric applications make it an IDE (integrated development environment) worth checking out.
Collectively known as Code Insight, the set of new features definitely makes writing code easier. For example, with the Code Completion Wizard, you type the name of an object and a period, and Delphi 3's IDE displays a pop-up list of all the elements you can use, plus each element's type (property, method or event). If you've defined a variable in a procedure, it's also in this list. Code Completion also works on the right-hand side of an assignment statement: Enter := and press Ctrl+Spacebar, and you'll see a list of what you can assign to an object. Although VB5 also offers a code-completion feature, Delphi's makes it more difficult to make syntax errors.
Another VB-beating feature of the Delphi IDE is that it allows you to use your own (or predefined) coding templates to expand keywords into skeleton code for structures such as if/then/else statements and loops. Other IDE refinements include drag-and-drop editing, ToolTip-like expression evaluation when you hover over a variable during Debug mode, and pop-up parameter lists.
The Delphi Standard version, the entry-level tool, includes new drivers for Microsoft Access and FoxPro. Serious programmers will want either the Professional or Client/Server editions-they concentrate on the Internet with tools for building ActiveX controls and Web-deployable applications. We looked at the Client/Server Suite.
Ironically, Delphi 3 has better ActiveX control-creation capabilities than VB5. With the Professional and Client/Server versions, it's now drag-and-drop simple to design a form with multiple components, then select them all and turn them into a brand new component. You can also create optional property pages if you wish. You can even debug an ActiveX control-for example, part of a Visual Basic application. When you execute the control's code, you can jump back into the Delphi debugging environment.
Delphi's ActiveForms are an impressively easy method for building Web-enabled applications. You begin with an ActiveForm; everything else is the same. In less than 5 minutes, we created a simple ActiveForm that included a button to add text from a text box to a list box, and a skeleton HTML page, then ran it under Microsoft Internet Explorer 3.01. It's simple. ActiveForms also make it possible to build a database application for the Web simply by including database components in your project, using the same syntax and IDE you use to build other applications.
Unfortunately, Delphi's forms have a serious flaw. Both regular and ActiveForms coexist within Delphi 3, but they aren't interchangeable. Big, big mistake. This means you really need to know your target platform and commit yourself to a Web-based or a Windows-based application.
The Client/Server version focuses on turning enterprise data into useful charts and reports. The gem in this edition is the Decision Cube cross-tabulation component for building multidimensional data-analysis charts and tables (like an Excel pivot table on steroids), complete with end-user drill down. For ease of use, Delphi has a graphical Visual Query Builder to select column, row and analysis fields. We added a horizontal splitter bar, then displayed the grid above the bar and what Borland calls a TeeChart (a bar chart) below it. We didn't have to write a single line of code, and live data is available in Design mode.
The downside: The Decision Cube is available only in the Client/Server Suite. It's a tool that Borland should have included in the Professional edition as well.
The Client/Server Suite includes new database drivers for Informix, DB2 and AS/400 data sources; updated SQL links drivers for Oracle, Sybase, Microsoft SQL Server and Interbase; and server-based "brokers" for data integrity and business rules.
Visual Basic 5.0 and Delphi 3 are both excellent RAD tools. We give the nod to Delphi 3 for its better IDE and easier ActiveX control-creation environment. We also recommend Visual Basic 5.0 because it lets you deploy applications on a desktop or run them from a browser, all from the same source code, without the need for Delphi's ActiveForms. You can't go wrong with either product.
The Decision Cube, available only in the Client/Server Suite, makes it easy to create sophisticated analytical applications.