Author: Matthew MacDonald
Quite why Microsoft has decided to downgrade the help to be so useless in recent versions of Office is a mystery, but there's no doubt that both users and developers are left very much to work things out for themselves. In view of this, the notion of a missing manual is perfectly valid.
Publisher: Pogue Press, 2010
Aimed at: Novice users
Pros: Some well described concepts if you've not used a database before
Cons: Doesn't go beyond what you'd expect from a basic manual
Reviewed by: Kay Ewbank
The book isn't particularly aimed at developers. The first 470 pages cover more basic use of the software, and even when you get to the section on 'Programming Access' the coverage begins with macros. Essentially, the developer elements are limited to just two chapters and 70 pages.
This missing manual is split into six parts - tables, queries, reports, forms, programming, and a coverall 'sharing Access with the rest of the world' roundup.
The section on tables begins with the absolute basics, before going on to viewing data via the datasheet, maintaining data integrity, and linking tables with relationships. The descriptions of ideas such as primary keys and normal forms are well written, though the author steers clear of using terms such as "normal form". This section would be a good read for the absolute database beginner.
The section on queries again starts with the very basics of the query wizard, then has a section on 'essential query tricks' covering calculated fields, using query functions, and summarizing data. As in the section on tables, the author seems keen to hide anything that sounds as though it might be 'hard' from the reader, but what's there is clear and gets the ideas across well. Action queries get a chapter of their own, as does the twin topics of crosstab queries and pivot tables. Frankly, anyone who needs to have the notion of nesting functions described as 'nerdspeak for putting one function inside another' will probably not cope that well with pivot tables, but never mind.
The section on reports is fairly basic, but would get a novice to the point where they could use the wizards to do what they need, and the chapter on advanced reports gets as far as report expressions and grouping. There are two chapters on forms, going as far as simple command buttons and the start of how to use subforms.
Now comes the part that's of interest to developers - the two chapters on writing code. The suggested uses of code give a fairly clear idea of what the author is aiming at. He suggests code lets you modify a whole batch of records at once, deal intelligently with errors, perform calculations, interact with other applications, and write more sophisticated validation routines. You're told what an object is, what a property and an event are, and the start of how to use them. There's a chapter on writing smarter code that talks about variables, If statements and loops before going into custom functions and putting it all together. I do have my doubts that anyone who hasn't come across a variable or an If statement will get much out of a page on custom functions, but I may be being unfair.
There are some nice basic ideas in a section on 'using VB to run a better business', but the advice seems to fall between two stools; there will be one group of people who know how to program and are trying to do some development, in which case you'll be irritated by being told things such as 'few souls are brave enough to place an order without knowing exactly how much it costs so here's how to keep a running total'. On the other hand, if you need advice like that I think you'll feel abandoned just as things get difficult.
The final section of the book covers connecting to other applications and the outside world. There's basic advice on multiple users and importing and exporting data. The section on multiple users would alert developers to the fact there's a hidden problem that can leap out and bite you, but doesn't really go far enough to get you out of trouble. Connecting to SQL Server gets 30 pages but most of those are used up on whether to switch to SQL Server, how SQL Server works, downloading and installing SQL Server Express, and creating a SQL Server database, so essentially you get very little on the actualities of viewing and using SQL data in Access. There's a chapter on connecting Access to SharePoint that again frets about what SharePoint is and what it can do rather than spending the pages on the nitty gritty of what you can do with the combination. Finally you get a chapter on building a Web database that is OK but limited.
Looked at from the non-developer view, the book seems reasonably well written in so far as it goes. However, it really does live up to its name, being the basic missing manual. To pick on one idea at random, there are two pages giving a basic description of conditional formatting for reports at the level of 'now click this to set the condition', but that's more or less as far as it goes - as far as the manual might have gone. The details of how you might use the concept are limited to 'you could use blue lettering to flag prices over $50', and there's no mention of the fact that conditional formatting can be used in tables, forms and queries.
I'm in two minds about Access 2010 the missing manual. I quite liked a lot of what was there, and thought many of the concepts were well described for novice users. On the whole, though, it did seem to stop once it had covered the basics of every aspect, and as a book for developers it's pretty useless.