REALbasic 2.0 Standard Edition Review
By Brent Hecht
System Requirements: Mac OS 7.1 or greater (with additional extensions), Mac OS 7.5 or greater (with no additional extensions).
Retail Price: $99.95 (for downloadable standard edition), $299.95 (for downloadable professional edition)
Availability: Out Now
Many consumer and business users have never even heard of it, but Microsoft's Visual Basic is one of the most important products the company ever produced. By allowing developers to quickly and easily write programs for Microsoft Windows, Visual Basic has greatly increased the number of applications and games available for the Windows operating system. For years, a developer application with equivalent power and ease of use was not available for the Mac. Then came REALbasic 1.0. With REALbasic 1.0, Mac developers with little or no programming experience could easily create a full-fledged Mac applications in days. Now, REAL Software has taken REALbasic to the next level with version 2.0, which it claims adds professional features while still maintaining its original easy-of-use. But does the new version live up to the company's lofty assertions?
When I launched REALbasic 2.0 for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised. The software sports a toolbar-based interface akin to that of Photoshop and Dreamweaver. However, in place of graphics and web editing tools are interface elements such as scroll bars, tabs, radio buttons, and static texts. The toolbar also hosts more advanced features like sprites and sockets, but I'll get to those later. REALbasic 2 lets you simply drag interface elements from the toolbar onto a window to create the user interface of your application. The details of each element can be edited via the Properties window. This intuitive process saves hours and hours compared to the tediousness of user interface creation in CodeWarrior.
Nevertheless, user interfaces are only the front end of a program. Behind the interface is where the real magic happens. REALbasic makes creating this magic easy. Using an easy-to-learn object-oriented programming language similar to Visual Basic's, but very dissimilar to the venerable BASIC language, users can put functionality behind their buttons, scroll bars and other parts of the interface. The software packs C++-like features including modules and classes. However, these features, while necessary in creating powerful applications, are much more difficult to program then the interface elements. Users should have at least some programming experience before attempting to integrate modules and classes into their applications.
The documentation included with REALbasic is above average, but not stellar. The program sports a detailed built-in reference guide, a PDF-based tutorial, and a PDF developer's guide. Unfortunately, printed versions of this documentation will cost you an additional $40. If you are the type who likes to sit back and relax on your sofa while learning, you are out of luck.
Integration with the Mac OS is where REALbasic really shines. Beginning in version 2, users can now easily (and when I say easily, I mean it in a relative sense) incorporate into their programs Mac OS-related features such as QuickTime, AppleEvents, PPP, double-byte characters, language localization, and more. To access these features in CodeWarrior, you need to know the Mac OS toolbox like the back of your hand.
Unfortunately, REALbasic 2's genius falters in its more advanced features. Gaming features, such as sprites, are not by any means easy to master. Also, while it has potential, the sprocket control, which allows for the accessing of network protocols, is almost completely useless to all but the most advanced programmers. Had REAL Software included templates for commonly used network protocols like HTTP and FTP, I am sure many more aspiring programmers would be able to take advantage of the feature. Fortunately, REALbasic does support creation of custom classes, which will please any advanced programmer.
Another obstacle that REALbasic needs to overcome before it can become a truely fantasic development environment is bugs; REALbasic is more bug-laden than an abandoned New York apartment building and a Mississippi swamp combined. Crashes occur very frequently (I am talking more than once every hour), and many applications created with REALbasic are incompatible with the Palm Desktop extension, which resides in millions of Mac users' extensions folders. While the version of REALbasic that I tested does not include the much-hyped Windows compiler and database features, countless posts on the REALbasic mailing list contain complaints about how bug-ridden these features are. On the bright side, REAL Software has told me that REALbasic 2.1, which is currently in alpha testing, eliminates many of these bugs. But until version 2.1 is released, REALbasic 2.0 remains to be one of the most volatile applications that I have ever used.
REALbasic has just about the most potential of any application that I have ever tested. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of this potential has been converted to utility. While you can create relatively simple applications using REALbasic, any attempt to create advanced ones will end most likely end in failure. However, REALbasic's future is very bright, and because REALbasic's success could do the Mac what Visual Basic did for the PC, I look forward to finding out what REAL Software plans for its future.
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