Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 138 / FEBRUARY/MARCH 1992 / PAGE S2

How to choose the best spreadsheet program. (includes related article on math coprocessors) (Compute's Getting Started with Spreadsheets) (Buyers Guide)
by Richard O. Mann

It used to be easy to buy a spreadsheet. You had two choices: Lotus 1-2-3 or a less expensive workalike. For years, 70 percent of the people bought 1-2-3. Times have changed. Microsoft Excel introduced graphics, and Windows injected data interchangeability and spreadsheet publishing, while Borland's Quattro Pro added a full-scale presentation package to the mix. An all-out features war has left the market so complicated that even if you decide you want Lotus 1-2-3, you still have to choose from the three current versions.

Being Choosy

To make an intelligent decision, ask yourself these questions:

* How much spreadsheet power do I need? If advanced features such as three-dimensional sheet stacking, complex financial and mathematical functions, and high-end graphics and presentation capabilities aren't necessary, look into the small spreadsheets such as Quattro Pro SE (a stripped-down version of the powerful Quattro Pro, available from Borland International, 1800 Green Hills Road, Scotts Valley, California 95067; 800-331-0877; $50).

You can get simple but effective spreadsheets in integrated software packages such as Microsoft Works, which includes simple word processing, database, and telecommunications modules. It's also available in a new Windows version (Microsoft, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052; 800-426-9400; $149, $199 for the Windows version).

Lotus Works is a similar DOS product (Lotus Development, 55 Cambridge Parkway, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02142; 617-577-8500; $149).

And for just $89, you can set yourself up with ProCalc 3D (Parsons Technology, 375 Collins Road NE, P.O. Box 3120, Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52406; 319-395-9626).

If, however, you'll be building large models, creating detailed graphics, or using the sheet extensively in business, you'll want one of the standard business spreadsheets.

* How much spreadsheet will my hardware support? If you're still working with an XT-class machine, many of the new-generation sheets are off-limits. If you have a 286 with only IBM of RAM, you still may want to avoid the hardware-hungry sheets (including the Windows 3.0 sheets).

Lotus 1-2-3 Release 2.3 ($495), Quattro Pro 3.0 (Borland, $495), and SuperCalc 5 (Computer Associates, 711 Stewart Avenue, Garden City, New York 11530; 800-CALC-149; $149) run well on the simpler hardware. Recently reduced from $495, SuperCalc 5's $149 price is a powerful incentive to give it a try.

* How important is compatibility with 1-2-3? In spite of all the confusion, Lotus 1-2-3 Release 2.x is still the standard. If you share files with others, you can count on their spreadsheets to read 1-2-3 format files. Your sheet should, too. All current spreadsheets read 1-2-3 files, but if you'll be exchanging files, be sure your sheet writes them, too. The need to remain compatible with this de facto standard probably accounts for some of 1-2-3's continued market leadership. (No one ever got fired for buying 1-2-3.)

* Do I want a Windows spreadsheet? If you're standardizing on Windows applications, you can get Microsoft Excel 3.0 ($495) or the new Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows ($595). Excel is a mature product, having originated in the Windows environment several years ago. It's a masterful, powerful Windows application. 1-2-3 for Windows is new. It has some nice touches, such as its customizable bar of SmartIcons, but it's not yet in the same class as Excel. It is, however, totally compatible with earlier versions of 1-2-3.

Fabulous Features

With those questions answered, you're ready to consider each eligible spreadsheet's feature set. Decide which features matter before you start looking at individual programs, and the whole process will move along more smoothly.

If you're reviewing the newest versions of the top-of-the-line spreadsheets, you'll find that the only differences are in the more esoteric features. The intense competition ensures that all the major players have all the major features, especially right now when everyone has a fresh new version out.

File Linking

Nevertheless, there are some basic differences in how each program provides the basic functions. For example, consider file linking. Lotus 1-2-3 Release 3.1 Plus ($595--for advanced hardware) and SuperCalc 5 are true 3-D spreadsheets. If a standard spreadsheet can be thought of as a sheet of columnar paper with rows and columns, a 3-D spreadsheet is a pad of such pages. You can refer back and forth among the pages, adding up and down the pad and combining data from anywhere in the pad. All the pages are physically in a single file, and you can also link to external files.

1-2-3 Release 2.3, on the other hand, lets you create hot links to other work sheet files. When you read in the first file, the program pulls in the linked data from the other work sheet file. Excel has similar hot links, but it can also use the Windows data-exchange functions to work with database or word processing data. It can also display many spreadsheet files simultaneously. Quattro Pro also displays multiple sheets, but it isn't a Windows program. (The Windows version will be out soon.)

Spreadsheet Publishing

All spreadsheets now offer font control, boxes, lines, shades, and similar basic graphic control over output. Lotus 1-2-3 accomplishes this with a built-in add-in program called WYSIWYG. When you're ready to add the visual touches to the sheet, you invoke WYSIWYG. (It's also possible to run the program all the time in WYSIWYG mode.)

Excel and 1-2-3 for Windows use their Windows abilities to provide fonts; the fonts that are available to any Windows program also are available to the spreadsheet. The rest of the publishing features are roughly similar to those of 1-2-3 Release 2.3.

Quattro Pro offers the normal spreadsheet publishing abilities, but it goes far beyond them with the help of a full graphics presentation package. You can create graphs and annotate them in great detail. It goes so far as to let you create a full slide show without ever leaving your spreadsheet.


Add-ins are separate programs, usually from third-party developers, that attach themselves to the spreadsheets and essentially become part of it.

Add-ins extend the capabilities of your program. There are a few add-ins for Excel, but most are for 1-2-3 Release 2.x. (The toolkit needed to develop add-ins for Release 3.1 was only recently released. Release 3 add-ins will become available soon.)

Perhaps the most familiar add-in is one of the original ones. Sideways, which allows you to print your spreadsheet sideways across several pages. Others add database functions (@Base, Silverado), provide forms publishing (Forms-to-Go), add spelling checking (Spellin!), display more information on screen (SeeMore), and so on. Some functions originally provided by add-ins have been incorporated into recent versions of 1-2-3.

If you want access to these special functions, you probably want 1-2-3 Release 2.3.

Making the Decision

There's much to consider when choosing a spreadsheet. Hardware limitations and whether you use Windows help define your options. Even if you use a 386 or 486, you may want to avoid the more complex programs if you're not planning to be a heavy user. Many companies still use 1-2-3 Release 2.3 or Release 2 as their standard.

These programs, like word processors, have their own personalities. If you can, try them out for a time on a friend's PC or in a store. Some programs will feel comfortable to you while others will seem unnatural. Since they all offer more than enough features to satisfy most users, the program that's comfortable will probably be the best.