Many people approach the task of project management with a clunky combination of Microsoft Excel and a calendar. But, using these tools can feel like an exercise in futility; they are, in fact, inadequate tools for the job because they don’t provide a way for you to track the use—or overuse—of your resources. FastTrack Schedule 9.0.1, from AEC Software, is a project-management tool that can likely handle your most challenging project or schedule. But, such power doesn’t come at a low price—or without a little self-training.
FastTrack Schedule is for people who are serious about planning and executing their projects. It provides newcomers with excellent starting points, with templates and examples to follow. But to harness all the power of this application, you’ll want to spend a few hours following the many tutorials and reading the extensive printed manual. The program’s complexity is a testament to its profound features and flexibility, but it’s not easy to learn.
To get started, you add your project’s tasks and their durations—weeks, months, or years. Then, define the start and end dates for the project and decide on the resources you’ll need (people or items) for each task. After that, you can fiddle with the generated charts and lists to your heart’s content. However, save often; in some situations, often when you need it most, FastTrack doesn’t offer an undo function.
You can view your schedule in three ways. Schedule view lets you see your schedule as a Gantt chart, with bars representing the duration of tasks. Resource view shows you the time and cost of each resource, which is where FastTrack comes in very handy. Finally, Calendar view displays your project in a standard calendar format.
In my experience, FastTrack works very well for one-time projects, but it’s indispensable for projects such as publishing a magazine issue, developing new versions of software, or writing lesson plans—projects with schedules that change minimally from cycle to cycle.
The program is designed to be easy to use, with drag-and-drop features and nice-looking icons and buttons, but some of these features simply don’t work well. For example, the Draw Link tool—which links two bars—is a great idea, but linking the bars can sometimes feel as difficult as trying to hit the bullseye of a tiny dartboard.
You can export schedules to iCal, publish calendars directly to .Mac, and send a schedule file as an attachment, or as a PNG picture file via your e-mail software. Most of this worked well for me except when I tried to unpublish my iCal schedule from .Mac. The dialog box that popped up was empty, leaving me with no way to proceed. AEC’s tech support suggested a useful workaround, and the company says they are working on fixing this problem.
FastTrack Schedule’s new ability to consolidate schedules is invaluable. If you’re a manager, you can ask your subordinates to submit their schedules and then you can view all the schedules in one document. This enables you to identify over- or underused resources and keep tabs on your team’s work.
It’s much easier to print a schedule in version 9 than it was in the previous version (). FastTrack Schedule now opens MPP (Microsoft Project) files directly, instead of simply providing a converter application. And while you can’t export a FastTrack Schedule file as MPP, you can export to Microsoft Project XML format, and then import it into Project.
FastTrack Schedule’s interface can be a little awkward and clunky, which may be evidence of its legacy status. For example, you may want to reorder values in the Value List box, which lets you create groups of your resources. To accomplish this, you have to Tab-click and then drag and drop the resource names. It’s not reasonable to expect users to remember how to make these kinds of changes, and the program is full of odd key combinations that accomplish relatively simple tasks.
Macworld’s buying advice
For experienced project managers who are escaping from Microsoft Project, FastTrack Schedule 9.0.1 is the program to trust. It has some interface oddities and relies on unintuitive key combinations to perform some tasks, but it’s hard to fault a pro-level program that does just about everything related to project management. If you’re a beginner looking to get out of Excel and into something designed specifically for project management, you may want to check out demo versions of other project management tools before you shell out the $349.
[ Jennifer Berger is a former Macworld editor, now an editor and writer in San Francisco, whose interests range far and wide. ]You can personalize FastTrack Schedule with custom bar and milestone styles. FastTrack Schedule’s Resource view will show you graphically when you’ve overbooked one of your resources, and which assignments they have at any given time.