When Written: Nov 2001
Verdict: Without doubt a significant upgrade on previous versions. The criticisms expressed by users have been taken on board and the result is a version that once again Actinic can be proud of.
Price: £850 exclude VAT
Supplier – Actinic Software
Internet – www.actinic.co.uk
Availability – Now
System Requirements (min) –
OS – Windows 95, 98, 2000, ME, XP or NT4
CPU – Intel Pentium, recommend 65536 colour display
Ram – minimum 64MB, 128MB preferred
Disc – 60MB free disk space
Web Server – NT or UNIX/Linux server, Perl 5 or later; MD5 Perl module;
user writeable CGI
Actinic Catalog and Business version 5 are the latest incarnations of the very popular ‘shop in a box’ software that not only enables you to set up an e-commerce shop easily without any HTML or programming skills but more importantly will also allow you to process the flood of orders that you hopefully will receive from your on-line shop.
I have been using Actinic Catalog in anger on a live site since version 3 and although version 4 offered improvements, the problems involved in upgrading an existing customised site to version 4 meant that I for one baulked at the task. The upgrade process meant that you had to go through your site and reapply all the changes that you had made to the supplied templates, an onerous task, not helped by the difficulty in finding the correct template. Actinic to their credit took these criticisms on board and have done a lot of work trying to fix these problems. If you thought that there were few worthwhile improvements between version 3 and version 4 prepare to be pleasantly surprised by version 5! There has been an enormous amount of work done by Actinic, helped by the company having a much larger programming team than before.
There are significant changes to almost all areas, except the server-side code, which they have kept almost the same, running as it does in Perl. Before we look at the new features, let’s deal with the install routine and, unfortunately, the first brickbat. During installation the program asks if you wish to upgrade an existing site. This I selected and all seemed to be fine, the program keeping the old installation intact and installing into a new folder. However, the conversion of the site is actually done the first time you run the application after installation.
When this was done there were a couple of error screens and after clicking through these, I was eventually presented with my data and all my configuration settings successfully imported into the new Actinic Business database. Feeling brave, I asked the application for a preview and was disappointed to be presented with a browser window with a chunk of broken code in it. Now, to be fair, this import routine does work with many version 3 and version 4 sites and if you are one of the lucky ones then you will only have a small amount of work to get yourself up and running. In fact after studying the files I sent them, Actinic came back with a solution which involved some code copy and pasting, which seemed to fix things and I was able to preview my old site as it should look, but under version 5.
I think that in many cases as there is so much new with this version you may well wish to use the opportunity to sort out the design and redo things. Whereas before, with version 4, you were presented with a Herculean task of re-doing all your changes, Version 5 offers several improvements to make this task a lot easier. It is fair to say that this is, and always will be a job for the developer or serious user and not for the casual user. However if you are serious about your on-line presence, (if you are not then why are you bothering?) then some degree of customisation of the wide range of supplied templates is required. Previously it was difficult to find the right template to edit, and whilst Actinic have kept the old user interface, they have added a new graphical interface where you can preview the page.
As you move over elements on the page they light up, if you then click on an element, the code for that template is opened up in notepad for you to edit and resave. Whilst you still have to know your way round HTML to customise it this far, the improvement to this process in version 5, is in my opinion, worth the upgrade alone. Having said that, this level of customisation may not be necessary for many customers as the themes supplied have both increased in number and been enhanced in quality; every theme is easily customisable, with colours and images being changed through a simple dialogue boxes. When setting up Actinic on a machine you can decide if the user can alter the catalogue items, handle orders and now whether they are able to alter the design of the site. This stops accidental changes being made by inexperienced operators.
To help beginners and other users, Actinic have revamped their ‘Navigator’. This option takes you through the different stages in setting up and running an Actinic Catalog web site. Navigator displays the different stages in setting up and running an on-line store in a form of ‘clickable’ flow diagrams. Each clickable object opens up the relevant page in the application, so you can work your way through easily. This is in contrast to the help button, which appears on most dialog boxes and application forms. This button opens a help window, but unfortunately it has no concept of the calling form and so you are not positioned in the section of help that may be of interest to you, but rather at the first page of the help file. It would be little work to fix this and I am sure that interim builds will do so.
When setting up to sell over the internet you can offer various methods of payment and Actinic makes this easy, with predefined types which also include several of the popular Internet Payment Providors such as SecPay, Netbanx and WorldPay. These companies are the ones that will interface your web site with the credit card houses and enable your site to authorise credit card transactions. You can even instruct it not to accept certain types of payment for orders from certain countries. Actinic have carried this even further by having service providers for shipping as well. So the system not only knows about the shipping rates but the buyer is emailed a reference number so that they can track the shipping of their goods via the carrier’s web site. The first carrier company that Actinic have integrated in this way is UPS but unfortunately for us in Europe, it is only available for customers in the US and Canada to date. Come on Actinic lets have some of this cool functionality for UK carrier firms.
Actinic’s product has always excelled above most of the competition because not only do they make it easy to build an on-line shop but they don’t stop there, realising as they do that you will need some mechanism for handling the orders when they come. The Order handling has been significantly improved in Version 5. There is now stock monitoring with stock and reorder levels. There is also a much wider range of reports that can be generated from the Order processing system as well as the ability for the system to generate an email to the buyer as soon as their goods have been marked as ‘shipped’. Through ‘Actinic Link’ accounting systems can now interface to the order processing system of Actinic Business, currently Sage Line 50 and Exchequer Enterprise are supported with QuickBooks Pro being available soon.
Whilst in the past Actinic’s products built the shopping side of your web site, if you wished to have other pages about your company, special offers, contact pages and the like you would have to create these with one of the HTML design tools and maintain it this way. This meant that there were two separate ways to maintain your site, hardly perfect. In version 5 all this can be done within the Actinic Business, so a user who is familiar with the application can update the web site, add special offers, etc, safe in the knowledge that they will not break the site as all the changes are made to entries in the database which then generates the HTML pages based on the predefined templates, rather that to raw HTML pages. This area of the web site is called the ‘brochure’ by Actinic.
Going back to the Stock control side of things, you can now make the price of an item dependant on the price of its components, so if say the cost of the batteries changes, the cost of another product that is shipped with batteries is also adjusted. All stock information and data can be held on an external database with Actinic linking to it. A previous complaint of Catalog was that once all this critical business information was entered into Actinic there was no easy way to extract it into another program. With linked data sources and excellent export data options this criticism can at last be laid to rest.
Often you wish to offer different prices to special customers or offer trade and retail prices. This can now be done easily, simply by going to the view | customer accounts menu. Here you can set up a customer account with details about the pricing schedule that they will be given. To each customer account you can assign buyers, each with their own password. You can even create a user-defined message for an item in each price band so that the users can be told how much they are saving if you wish.
When setting up your company details in Actinic Business there is now a ‘Returns Policy’ tab where you can enter some text defining your returns policy. The previous versions of Catalog and Business all had a search facility on the web site, but version 5 now allows you to customise this functionality to a large extent. You can allow price band searches, decide which pages the search option appears on, what properties of a product are going to be searchable and also how the search results will appear. This all adds up to a very customisable search engine, which seems to work very well.
All in all this upgrade is a major leap for Actinic, they have fixed the mess that was version 4, but rather than just take the easy option and release a bug fix disguised as an upgrade, they have gone much further and added a lot of very useful new features and functionality. By listening to customer feedback and acting on it Actinic have created a product that is much easier to set up, customise and run. Without a doubt it is a must look at, if you are considering setting up an e-commerce web site and want more than many of the competition are offering. Well done Actinic !
Ease of Use 5/6
Value for Money 4/6
Upgrading an existing Catalog site can still be a little problematical……
…….Lots of opportunity to control what gets upgraded and how……
……My first efforts were not successful…..
…but with a little help from Actinic technical support all was well
It is now easy to edit the templates
even if you use one of the supplied templates, there is plenty of scope to change things.
Even more design changes are possible here.
You can set up customer accounts and offer them differing prices
Even the search option is fully customisable now
Article by: Mark Newton
Published in: Mark Newton