Crystal Reports is the industry leader when it comes to professional looking reporting. Crystal has been around since the early 90's and has steadily evolved over the years. As Crystal uses a similar interface to Microsoft Access reporting, most people can pick up Crystal and use it with very little training.
Crystal Reports 11 comes on 2 CD's and takes approximately 10 minutes to install. The only user interaction required is to enter the 24 character serial number and also to change the CD's over. At the end of the installation a reboot may be required to ensure all files are registered successfully.
==Specifying your datasource==
Crystal Reports is very intuitive to use. Before you can produce you reports however, you need to tell the software where it is to get its data from. Crystal will allow you to use data from all of the main sources such as Microsoft Access, Excel and SQL Server, My SQL, Oracle plus a few others that you wouldn't immediately think of such as Microsoft Outlook and Exchange. If your desired data provider is not listed, you can still connect via an ODBC link providing you can find the right driver for your datasource. If this all sounds too technical, don't worry and Windows provides a nice simple wizard for setting up these connections should you need to.
Once your datasource is specified, you can now select which tables, or views will be used for displaying your data. This is a simple drag and drop operation. Once this has been accomplished, you are ready to start being creative.
==Designing the report==
It is worth having an idea in your head, or better still, drafted out on paper before you start using the Crystal designer. The options available to you are endless so it is very easy to get into a tangle if you are not exactly sure of what you are trying to achieve.
For a simple text-only report, all you need to do in essence is just drag the fields from the field list and place them onto the page where you want them to appear. You would then publish the report and that would be it. In most cases though, you will want to do far more with your report such as total individual columns, categorise your report with grouping and maybe even add a graph or two for that extra wow factor. All this is very simple to do in Crystal within a matter of minutes.
With Crystal's drag and drop interface I find it is very easy to create professional looking documents in virtually no time at all. The adage, a picture paints a thousand words is certainly highlighted with Crystal. All the charts available are the ones commonly found in products such as Microsoft Excel and are all easily configurable to represent the data that you are trying to portray. Pictorial representations of data are usually a lot easier to understand than plain text, therefore an excellently designed report could be the difference between winning or losing a sale from a salespersons perspective.
==Previewing your report==
Once you have finished creating your report, it is best to preview it, just to make sure everything looks just as you intended it to. The first time you use preview, Crystal will go away and retrieve live data so you can see exactly how things will look. If you are unhappy with the layout or content of your report, simply go back into design mode and make your changes. What I like about Crystal is that after the initial preview, you don't need to retrieve the data every time meaning that you can test out small changes very quickly without the need to wait for data to load each time. You can request that the data is refreshed should you wish to but I would only advise you do this is there was a problem with the data in the initial preview and you have since manipulated your datasource.
==Why use Crystal==
So far I have mentioned that Crystal is similar to the Access report writer and contains all the charts that Excel does, so why buy Crystal when other packages appear to achieve the same results. The main advantage Crystal has over its competition is the way it can be deployed, especially over the web. In a commercial environment, people want real time data at their fingertips. With Excel, the data is likely to be static and Access reporting does not sit very well on Wide Area Networks. Crystal, however, because it is linked into a datasource will always be looking at live data meaning that users will always be confident they are retrieving upto date data. Crystal reports are fairly straightforward to deploy over the web providing you have the correct runtimes installed on the webserver. This is the only real technical ability you will need to have. Once a user has run a crystal report online, they can export it to another format should they wish to or even save it as a PDF document without the need for a separate PDF writer.
Crystal reports offers similar reporting options to Microsoft Access and Excel plus a lot more. The flexibility in this application is almost endless. If you are required to produce extremely high quality outputs on a regular basis then there are no real alternatives. Crystal is the market leader for a reason. It is simple to use, extremely powerful and its portability makes it the only real contender for web reporting. The only real drawback to Crystal is the cost. A single user licence cost us just over £300 so this is only really viable for the business user.
Crystal Reports is currently the industry standard in report writing. It is very versatile, in that it can read a wide variety of databases and is extremely rich in features. It produces reports of highly professional quality, which is its main attraction. It is easy to learn, but extremely tedious to work with. It is also extremely slow and riddled with obvious bugs, which are often not fixed in newer versions. There is one bug in particular that I encounter at least 50 times per day. It has been in every release of Crystal since at least version 8.5. How do I know? Because there used to be an article in the Seagate knowledge base with a workaround for it in version 8.5. I have to use this workaround 50 times per day in all versions.
Crystal is especially difficult to deploy. The .NET features are notoriously unstable, and you should expect to spend many man hours troubleshooting Crystal issues on individual workstations accross your user base who will not be able to print anything. Frustration among end-users (e.g. my customers) can be very high. It is not uncommon for a PC workstation to have more than one software application that is dependent on Crystal, which will have installed conflicting versions of the product. This is a tech support nightmare. Crystal Reports is an extremely unpopular product among us computer programmers. Personally, I can't thing of a single software package anywhere that is more overrated. All versions and editions have serious problems. But you don't need to take my word for it. Here are links to two long blogs by programmers who express their frustration with this product. There are others you can easily find with Google if you include some expletives in your search criterion.