First Looks

Active Reports for .NET 3.0: Build Reports Easily

Data Dynamics' Active Reports for .NET 3.0 features good, basic reporting capabilities, minus the bloat that affects many of today's software packages.

ActiveReports for .NET 3.0 is a complete package for designing, viewing, and manipulating database-driven reports for Windows and Web applications. The software, written in managed code, features royalty-free distribution of the run times and an ActiveX report viewer.

ActiveReports is user friendly and easy to learn. For example, a window opens on the desktop with helpful information for getting started at the end of the installation. This window includes information on using the samples and configuring the licensing. The Getting Started page walks you through the minimum steps to create a Visual Studio project, and get a database-driven report working in the IDE. Taken as a whole, this approach gives newbies the confidence they need to create simple reports without bogging down in unproductive, ramp-up hours (see Figure).

A tabbed dialog box helps you build your OLE DB and SQL data connections, but SQL query support is lacking GUI support: You must type or paste your query into a textbox. That said, once you have a working query, you can drag the field names (one at a time, but not as a group) from the Report Explorer and drop them onto the report form where they land as a label control. I puzzled over how to get the Report Explorer to show up in the Visual Studio 2005 IDE, but eventually I found it under View > Other Windows > Report Explorer.

The ActiveReports design-time toolbox includes the basic objects to help you assemble attractive reports and display data in a meaningful way. These include label, textbox, rich textbox, checkbox, picture, barcode, and chart controls. A handy Preview tab shows your report without your having to build the whole WinForms project.

The most elaborate control in the package is the chart object, which features a colorful wizard that lets you choose and preview chart styles, palettes, text elements, and data sources. The wizard looked too busy as a starting point, so I followed the documentation's step-by-step 2D bar-chart tutorial. The instructions for using the chart designer were simple, clear, and mostly accurate. I had a little trouble running the report project. First, the report viewer icon wasn't in Visual Studio's toolbox. After I put the viewer control on the Windows Form, it still didn't work because of a documentation bug: The code for launching the report used a different report ID than the steps needed to build it.

The viewer control allows end users to load and save reports (including personal annotations) and change some options. I couldn't find a runtime print preview in the viewer or its toolbar. However, the viewer exports content easily and faithfully to RTF, PDF, Excel, HTML, TIFF, and text formats.

The C# and VB samples for WinForms demonstrate the product's capabilities well, although they didn't include a report file (RDF) for testing the RdfViewer sample. Also, the WebForms samples aren't as easy to use, even though Data Dynamics' developers included helpful configuration scripts for Internet Information Services that add mappings for the ActiveReport, ArCacheItem, and RPX extensions. You need to include HTTP handler references in your web.config file, which the manual setup instructions explain. The sample Web applications were written for Visual Studio 2003, so the 2005 conversion tool kicks in when you open a solution. In my case, the VB version of the Web pages produced multiple errors. I switched to the C# version, which compiled cleanly and produced a good-looking report in the browser-hosted custom viewer. Unfortunately, the example of custom exporting of a PDF file to the Web produced a blank page.

Upgrading from an evaluation to a licensed version is easy using the supplied utilities. For Windows Forms, you need to rebuild (not just build) the project to make the watermark go away. For the Web, you generate a license key to paste into the web.config file.

Despite some fit-and-finish issues that could be addressed by sharper attention to detail, ActiveReports for .NET 3.0 offers good, basic reporting capabilities. It's a case where less is more, avoiding the bloated features that add a wasteful learning curve to so much software.

ActiveReports for .NET 3.0
Data Dynamics

Phone: 614-895-3142
Price: $1,499 (Professional)
Quick Facts: Designer and viewer package for building data-driven reports and charts for Windows and Web applications using Visual Studio.
Pros: Easy to learn and use; good sample code; task-based documentation; custom annotations; end-user design features; exports to popular formats; royalty-free distribution.
Cons: No query builder; no print preview; some documentation errors; some Web sample setup glitches.

About the Author

Ken Cox is a Canadian .NET programming writer and the author of "ASP.NET 3.5 for Dummies" (Wiley).

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