Spreadsheets might be called databases for the timid, since they're more user-friendly than databases and do a good job working with limited amounts of data. Some tools for databases can work well with spreadsheets too. Take for instance DataForm, a new OpenOffice.org Calc extension that provides a form-like interface designed to make entering and finding spreadsheet data easier.
DataForm is based on a similar feature in Microsoft Excel. In both cases, the feature exists because of the difficulty of entering information in spreadsheet cells. To enter data in any spreadsheet, you must either use the input field on the toolbar or click in the field directly; neither choice is particularly convenient. You can use the tab or arrow keys to move around once the cursor is in a cell, but the information you enter may not be immediately visible unless you have taken the effort to customize column widths. DataForm bypasses these limitations by offering a third option: A small form of the sort you can create for entering data in OpenOffice.org's Base.
Currently at version 0.6.0 but in rapid development, DataForm claims to be compatible with OpenOffice.org 2.1 or higher, but, in my testing, it worked only with OpenOffice.org 3.0. Since its listing also suggests using DataForm with StarOffice 8.0, Update 5, the extension may also work with the latest versions of OpenOffice.org 2.4.
You can install DataForm, like any extension, from Tools -> Extension Manager. Unlike a growing number of extensions, it does not require Java, but is written in OpenOffice.org's own macro language, which may explain why it is faster than many extensions I have investigated recently.
To use DataForm, you need information arranged in tables on a sheet -- that is, you must organize your data in columns with headers or labels in their top rows. Once you have the headers, you can click anywhere on the table or on a blank row directly beneath them and select Data -> Forms from the menu to open the DataForm input window.
DataForm assumes that the first row in each column is a header, and that each row in the table is one record. It opens in a dialog window with input forms for each column. The buttons beside the forms are largely self-explanatory: Use the New button to add a new record and the Delete button to remove the current one, after confirmation.
The extension has a few peculiarities you should be aware of if you are using it. In particular, note that new entries are not added to the table until you move on to another operation. When you do, each new entry is added to the first blank row in the table -- generally the one below the last entry. You must select Data -> Sort from the menu to organize entries when you're done adding them.
A record deleted via DataForm cannot be restored by Calc's Undo feature. DataForm does have a Restore button that presumably will someday undo a deletion, but it is grayed out in the current version. For now, if you accidentally delete an item, your only option to recover it is to close the file without saving it.
DataForm also has a limited search capacity. The Find Prev and Find Next buttons help you move sequentially through the table. If you need to jump about, you can do searches with the Criteria button, which includes a completion feature, so if you enter "T," for instance, you will jump to the first cell entry that starts with T. These features are convenient for moving through medium numbers of records, but, if you are searching extensively, you might consider closing DataForm and using Calc's general search tool, which is available from the Edit menu.
Limitations and usefulness
So far, DataForm lacks any way of moving to more than one record before or after the current one, the way that Excel's equivalent has. Nor does have any keyboard shortcuts. The extension might also benefit from controls to change the font size on input forms as an accessibility feature.
However, these points are minor, and may arrive by the extension's final release. For now, even in its unfinished state, DataForm is functional enough to be useful, especially for those accustomed to using forms to edit database records. For others, this extension may take some getting used to, but after 20 minutes' worth of data input, they may wonder how they got along without it. Even in its current state, DataForm deserves to become a standard part of Calc's build.
Every Monday we highlight a different extension, plugin, or add-on. Let us know if you have one to suggest.