How long have you been in the business intelligence (BI) field? Unlike the Microsoft BI stack that we all take for granted, Crystal Reports has been in the BI game since the early 1990s. Crystal Reports 2008’s Development Edition is $400 for a single-user license. The software ships in an x86 build, but it supports running in 32-bit mode on x64 systems. If you want to ship the underlying report engine with an application (e.g., in ISV scenarios), you need to purchase a Crystal Reports runtime server license for $2,500.

I couldn’t write a review of Crystal Reports without mentioning the product’s support for Visual Studio and Microsoft developers. With Visual Studio, Microsoft developers can directly (and for free) embed Crystal Reports into their applications, using a variety of report viewer mechanisms and controls. The authoring experience isn’t as rich as what you get with the full-blown Crystal Reports product—developers who want more from the product will need to upgrade (or remove the need for Visual Studio to develop reports). 

Visual Studio 2010 is the first version of Visual Studio to not ship with Crystal Reports. Instead, you must download a separate installer from SAP’s website. Crystal Reports for Visual Studio 2010 was still in beta at press time. For information about the RTM version, go to the SAP Community Network website.

To run Crystal Report 2008, your computer must meet a few requirements. Your machine’s CPU should be an Intel Pentium III or better, with a minimum of 256MB of RAM (512MB recommended). Your disk drives should have a minimum of 300MB (600MB recommended). Finally, your machine must be running Windows XP SP2 or Windows Server 2003 SP1 or later.

My evaluation of Crystal Reports was a good experience; it reminded me of the time (pre–SQL Server Reporting Services—SSRS) when I used the product routinely. Unfortunately, the product feels too similar to its previous versions and has some major usability issues. First and foremost is the lack of an equivalent to the Tablix control in SSRS. Second, you have to rely on an outdated menu system (no ribbon) and pop-up dialog boxes to edit controls. Crystal Reports’ usability would greatly improve with the addition of a Properties window in the designer.

To create a sample financial services report, I had to connect to a data repository and return data to surface in the report. In my report, I connected to a SQL Server 2008 R2 instance. The typical tables, stored procedures, and ad-hoc queries are supported for your relational database sourcing needs. You can also correlate incoming data streams by linking report data sets together. Crystal Reports 2008 has an extensive list of supported data sources.

Although Crystal Reports’ current version provides a standard set of data visualizations from bar charts to histograms, sparklines or mini-charts would be a welcome addition in the next version. I was glad to see the presence of mapping capabilities in the current version.

Crystal Reports 2008’s accompanying documentation is solid and was very helpful as I tried to build my first Crystal Report in four years. However, some aspects of the product’s Help and documentation need updating. For example, the “How Do I” and “Help Favorites” sections, as well as the entire Crystal Community, need tighter integration into the product. I’d prefer a menu option that I could click directly from the product to bring up the company’s approved bloggers, forums, etc.

Crystal Reports 2008

PROS: Innovation in cloud and mobile applications; competitive price; large number of supported data sources and export formats; low hardware and software requirements; good extensibility
CONS: Report authoring usability needs improvement; Help needs modernization
RATING: 4 out of 5
PRICE: $400 for a single-user license
RECOMMENDATION: Crystal Reports 2008 is a good buy if you need a solid all-around reporting product and don't mind using pop-ups to build your report.
CONTACT: SAP Crystal Reports • 866-776-6567 • www.crystalreports.com

SAP provides some amazing innovations for use with Crystal Reports. The free report viewer utility is a solid piece of craftsmanship in and of itself—but even more useful is the option to Explore this report’s data online – beta. Clicking this option launches an online session with CrystalReports.com, uploading and exploring the report’s data in the cloud. This user experience is called SAP BusinessObjects Explorer in the Cloud. SAP also provides an iPad viewer utility. Although the iPad isn’t a well-loved device in the SQL Server community, it does have extensive capabilities for interacting with and consuming information. For a complete list of SAP’s BusinessObjects innovations, go to www.sdn.sap.com/irj/boc/innovation-center.

Although Microsoft should pay attention to SAP’s technological innovations, SSRS still dominates Crystal Reports from a report authoring perspective. The most important aspect of a reporting product is the report authoring experience—and Crystal Reports’ authoring experience just feels too 1990-ish. SAP would be better served by backing off on innovation initiatives until the company makes some much needed updates to the Crystal Reports authoring interface.