BEST SOFTWARE'S ACT! HAS BEEN HIGH ON MY list for small to medium builders since the 1980s because it offers contact management, incidence tracking, document management, and sales/warranty automation in an inexpensive, customizable, and easy-to-learn package.

But during the past few years ACT!'s database became outdated. Instead of remodeling the old product for one more release, Best Software decided to tear it down and start from scratch. The result is ACT! 2005, built from the ground up using Microsoft's .Net, the maker's latest programming framework.

ACT! 2005 looks similar to previous versions, but there are significant differences under the hood:

True network version. There are two distinct versions: ACT! 2005 (standard) and ACT! 2005 Premium for Workgroups. Best Software says standard is fine for up to 10 users, but it's really meant for stand-alones. Even if there are only two users on the network, buy Premium.

Background sync. A new synchronization service keeps data harmonized between users. Mobile users can work offline and update their information in the background when a Web connection is available.

Slice and dice. ACT 2005 adds several new layers of contact relationship, including a company level, secondary contacts, and expanded groups.

Built-ins. ACT! 2005 rolled up some features that previously required extra-cost add-ins, including a duplicate record finder and a simple quoting system.

New field types. Users can now add photos, long notes, and yes/no check boxes right to the database, making it possible to develop simple selections worksheets or testimonial libraries inside of ACT! .

Improved scheduling. ACT! activities now have both start and end times, and the Premium version lets users schedule resources. Although it's no Microsoft Project, ACT! could possibly be used by smaller contractors to construct a simple project schedule.

Any major platform shift shakes up users, and ACT! 2005 is no different. For starters, it will take months, maybe years, for some favorite third-party products to catch up. As of this writing, popular add-ins such as BetterACT! and a link to Quick-Books accounting were not yet available for ACT! 2005. And some features that long-time ACT! users have come to depend on such as WinFax integration and PDA synchronization are crippled or missing altogether.

An upgrade to ACT! 2005 could also mean an expensive hardware upgrade. The reality is that it takes a fast Pen-tium 4 processor with 512 MB of RAM or more for acceptable performance. For mobile Pentiums double that to 1,024 MB, and for servers double it yet again to 2,048 MB. You should also plan on dedicating a server just for ACT!.

Another key point: Windows 98 users need not apply. ACT! 2005 requires Windows XP or 2000 Pro, which means for best results you will really need to have that new computer. Unfortunately, Best Software heavily marketed new features to existing users but then completely glossed over how much of an impact there will be to anyone using a heavily modified existing ACT! database, custom screen layouts, reports, or document templates and anyone depending on ACT! add-ons. Companies that rely on ACT! today should treat ACT! 2005 as a switch to an entirely different product, not as a simple upgrade.

ACT! 2005 retail pricing is $230 for the standard version and $400 for the Premium Workshop version. Upgrades are $150 for standard and $260 for Premium. Builders buying several seats will get a much better deal working with a local ACT! Certified reseller.

Joe Stoddard is a process/technology consultant to the building industry. Reach him at