Actinic is one of the best-known, and best established e-commerce packages on the market, and version 7 is about to hit the streets. The package itself doesn't actually incorporate the gear needed to host an e-commerce server; it's aimed at small and medium businesses who are more likely to rent their Web server space from an ISP. Instead, what you're purchasing is the system that allows you to handle all the non-server aspects of the e-commerce process – setting up the store, dealing with orders and taking payments.

There are three versions of the package: Catalog, Business and Developer. Catalog is the basic model, which includes everything you need to run a simple online store – defining the products and pricing model, entering "more info" screens for products, introducing volume-based promotional pricing and shipping charges, editing the look and feel of the online store, and real-time stock level monitoring.

The Business version, which is the release we looked at, is more comprehensive. You can give customers individual identities (and use these to apply individual discounts), the search functionality is more flexible, you can link to an external database, and there's the option to link to SME-based accounting packages such as Sage and QuickBooks for financial matters. The Developer version builds on the Business edition by allowing multiple different websites to be managed with a single instance of the package; it also comes with DreamWeaver integration which improves the ability to customise the look and feel.

The package is Windows-based and works entirely off-line until you hit the "Upload to Web server" button. The product set is depicted via the usual two-pane layout – a tree of product groups and individual items on the left, with the detail of the currently selected item being shown in the larger right-hand pane. There's a third "Page Preview" pane at the bottom that shows what the site will look like when uploaded.

The package includes a number of pre-defined look-and-feel themes, and it's very easy to switch from one to another. Since everything's HTML-based, there's also nothing to stop you from customising the theme with your own particular preferences, although you can make a reasonable stab at a decent-looking site by using Actinic's own features to select layouts and colours.

Three for two
Once you've chosen your theme, it's simply a case of editing the product set. Actinic can cope with most of the eventualities of product attributes – the fact that some products have additional properties such as sizes and colours, for example, or that there might be optional extras available when you purchase a particular product – and defining the optional bits is very straightforward. It's also happy to cater for various discount types, including product-specific offers and deals along the "Three for the price of two" line.

Order handling is dealt with by interactions between the desktop application and the server. The server stores orders ready for processing, and you simply hit "Retrieve orders" in the client application to pull down the new items that need to be dealt with. With most products you'll be dealing with the shipping task by hand, but if you're selling something that can be shipped electronically (a PDF-based document, for instance, or an item of software) you can buy the Digital Download option that allows electronic delivery via time-limited, customer-specific URLs.

Once you've entered all the relevant details, you can preview either a single product or the entire site in off-line mode. This doesn't upload the data to the server, but instead presents it as a set of flat-file HTML pages that you can navigate around in order to check that everything looks OK. Because it's just HTML, you can't do things like making payments, but that’s not the point – the tool is there to let you verify that everything looks OK.

Once you're happy that the site looks as it should, you simply select "Update Website" and the content will be uploaded to the server (which you'll have previously defined in the Network Setup screen). Assuming the server and authentication details are correct, it's a one-click process.

Actinic has always been a very good SME e-commerce system, and this continues to be true with the new version 7.

OUR VERDICT

Although you could buy and run the server components yourself, the usual way to go is to use an ISP that can provide Actinic server support for you. Actinic's website has a list of suitable service providers.