Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 140 / MAY 1992 / PAGE 14

Test lab. (spreadsheets)(includes related articles) (Evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes, Robert Bixby, Richard O. Mann, Stephen Levy, David English

Spreadsheets are the fuel powering the computer revolution. And in this capacity, they've often legitimized a platform, its operating system, or both. Strange as this may sound, it's supported by history.

When VisiCalc hit the scene in 1979, it turned the Apple II from a toy into a powerful business machine. Apple II sales skyrocketed, and it became the personal computer for the computer revolution's first generation. People often walked into a computer store asking for VisiCalc and a machine that could run it.

Next came Lotus 1-2-3. It was a tremendous improvement on VisiCalc and the epitome of user-friendly software in 1983. To run it, however, you needed an IBM PC. This created a huge demand for the early crop of PCs. Soon there were millions of PCs in homes and offices everywhere, and a large number of them were running 1-2-3.

When Excel appeared for the Mac in 1985, it was the most powerful spreadsheet available on any platform at any price. It forced business people to take the Mac seriously as a business tool.

And when Excel 3.0 for the PC hit the software shelves last year, everyone started thinking of Windows 3.0 as more than just a pretty face. Windows soon became the operating environment for PC power users, and Excel played a major role in establishing it as such.

The VisiCalc-Lotus-Excel story doesn't end there, however. VisiCalc is out of the picture, but Lotus has fired back at Microsoft's Excel with a trio of topnotch spreadsheets: Lotus 1-2-3 2.3 and Lotus 1-2-3 3.1+ for DOS and, more recently, Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows. These products, especially 1-2-3 3.1+ and 1-2-3 for Windows, are giving Excel a run for its money in the ever-hotter spreadsheet feature wars.

Excel and 1-2-3 for Windows are far from the only choices for the Windows environment. There's also Wingz. It was a dramatic innovation when it first appeared, and it can still hold its own against most competition.

Not to be outdone, Borland champions the DOS arena. It has continually improved its flagship spreadsheet, Quattro Pro, which many say is the obvious choice for DOS. But SuperCalc aficionados stand staunchly by their spreadsheet of choice because it's faster and easier to use.

Why all this excitement about spreadsheets? Because of their versatility. You can do almost anything with a spreadsheet. It's an excellent tool for handling your checkbook and household finances. It can also be used as a general-purpose database for everything from recipes to addresses. In the business world, anything dealing with numbers, from accounts receivable to next quarter's sales projections, can be handled easily with a spreadsheet. In the educational and scientific communities, a spreadsheet is one of the primary tools for manipulating statistical data, from standard deviation to regression analysis.

Clearly, just about anyone can make use of a spreadsheet, but how do you choose the right one? First, you need to look at your platform. If you're a Windows user, you'll want a Windows spreadsheet. Windows users who are coming from a DOS version of 1-2-3 will want to give special attention to Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows. Others should take a close look at Excel.

For DOS, your choices are Quattro Pro 3.0 or SE, 1-2-3 2.3 or 3.1+, and Computer Associates' SuperCalc 5.1. SuperCalc is fast, Quattro Pro is extremely feature-rich, and Lotus is the compatibility king, boasting more add-in support than any other software product in history.

It's a tough choice, but this issue's Test Lab can help. Our reviews of all the power spreadsheets will give you a feel for each product, and the features chart will offer critical info in an at-a-glance format. Whether you know it or not, you can give your productivity a real boost with spreadsheets. They're not just for accountants anymore.


CA-SuperCalc 5.1 is a fast, efficient spreadsheet that shares many of the advantages and disadvantages of DOS-based spreadsheets. The interface takes some getting used to, particularly if you're already familiar with Windows spreadsheets.

Although it has many other positive attributes, the most obvious advantage of CA-SuperCalc 5.1 is its low price. For a little more than $100, you'd have trouble finding a better 1-2-3-compatible spreadsheet. As a DOS product, CA-SuperCalc is fast because it leaves out the layers of interfaces necessary to run Windows. It will also run on machines that Microsoft has seen fit to leave off the Windows guest list--the millions of PC, XT, and AT clones. It can operate in as little as 512K (though 640K is recommended), but it can also be run on a network and supports up to 32MB of expanded memory. There are some drawbacks, however. You can't make use of the DDE and OLE links that will be a part of all new Windows-based spreadsheets (including the Windows version of CA-SuperCalc, which should appear early next year).

The product is not shipped with the reference manual, which contains explanations of all the functions. Only the most basic set-up and quick-start information comes in the package. The reference manual is shipped as soon as Computer Associates receives the registration card. This might be a minor or a major inconvenience, depending on how soon after purchasing a piece of software you want to begin using it effectively. There is a quick reference containing brief explanations of the keypresses, macro commands, and functions.

The user's guide that's shipped with the product includes (on page 2) information on converting the interface to a more standard Lotus 1-2-3 interface, but, curiously, there are no instructions on how to return to the native interface. Here's how: Go to the CA-SuperCalc menu by selecting SC5 from the 1-2-3-style menu, selected Global, select Optimum, select 1-2-3, select All, select SC, and select Quit. Simple, right? Save your configuration, and the program will load with the native interface in place.

I suspect that Computer Associates anticipates that most users will instantly switch to the more familiar 1-2-3 interface the first time they run the program and that they'll never again need the native format. Using the 1-2-3 interface allows you to run 1-2-3 macros unconverted. It also allows you to make use of the dozens of 1-2-3 operations manuals that are available from third-party publishers. And if you're an experienced 1-2-3 user, there would be no reason to wait for the reference manual from Computer Associates before beginning to make use of the product.

Looking for a DOS-based spreadsheet that will fit your budget? Inexpensive CA-SuperCalc 5.1 will reduce your dataprocessing costs without reducing your capabilities.

LOTUS 1-2-3


You can buy spreadsheets with more power and richer features than Lotus 1-2-3 Release 2.3 for DOS, but it's still the ideal spreadsheet for many users who grew up with 1-2-3, don't have advanced hardware, or need to be compatible with the maximum number of other users. Lotus claims there are 15 million copies of 1-2-3 in use; most of them are in the Release 2.x series.

Release 2.3 is totally compatible with all prior versions of 1-2-3, runs all Lotus macros, and gives you access to hundreds of third-party add-in products that provide specialized functions inside the spreadsheet. Its WK1 file format is almost an industry standard for the interchange. Although it isn't on the leading edge of technology, it's a mature product. Its code is thoroughly debugged and optimized.

Release 2.3 has all the essential features of a two-dimensional spreadsheet (Release 3.1+ delivers three-dimensional worksheets). New in 2.3 are the built-in Viewer and Auditor add-ins.

Viewer borrows technology from Lotus Magellan to show the contents of other worksheet files in a window. You can then copy or link the data from the viewed file into your active worksheet. Browsing with the viewer can help you quickly locate information when you've forgotten a filename.

The Auditor add-in identifies dependent and precedent cells, finds formulas and circular references, and lists out the order in which formulas are evaluated--quite handy as you attempt to find errors in worksheets or in trying to understand a sheet developed by someone else.

In Release 2.3, Lotus took its spreadsheet publishing a leap ahead by replacing Allways (the Release 2.2 add-in) with WYSIWYG, a similar but more powerful add-in. WYSIWYG supports embedded graphics and table annotations, and it uses up to eight fonts at a time from a larger set of supplied Bitstream fonts. It also centers headings over columns and uses clip art. You won't have lost any Release 2.2 files, though, because WYSIWYG reads and translates Allways formatting codes.

Graphing is adequate, but it's far from the spectacular work you can do with Quattro Pro or the Windows products.

For a longtime Release 2.2 user, Release 2.3 is a breath of fresh air. The WYSIWYG add-in lets you work with graphic formatting elements onscreen as you work on the data. (With Allways, you could only change data in text mode.) Unlike some of the graphic spreadsheets, this one doesn't lose you in all the graphic elements and lose the feel of the basic spreadsheet. It's familiar enough that you can continue to get your work done without learning a whole new program.

Lotus 1-2-3 2.3 is a proven performer, respectably fast, compatible with entry-level and older hardware, and, most of all, standard. While it doesn't have the highly advanced features of more powerful sheets, its suite of available add-ins gives it access to capabilities and specialties that no other spreadsheet can begin to match. For ordinary daily use by those who aren't power users, it's hard to beat.

LOTUS 1-2-3


Since the introduction of 1-2-3 for Windows last August. Lotus's previous top-of-the-line spreadsheet, Release 3.1+, has been a product without a market niche. It's a high-powered, three-dimensional sheet that's a large step ahead of Release 2.3, but so is the Windows version. It requires the same advanced hardware that the Windows version requires, so why not get the additional advantages that come only with Windows? One reason might be that until there are some substantial improvements to 1-2-3 for Windows and until Windows 3.1 ships, Release 3.1+ for DOS is a lot more stable.

Release 3.1+ is a true three-dimensional spreadsheet: Each sheet has up to 256 pages--a page being a full two-dimensional spreadsheet that fits below the page above. You can reference between pages, build ranges across pages, and do sums and other functions across pages. It's the answer to a prayer for someone who routinely has to consolidate similar reports and analyses. I would've killed for this product four years ago.

You can display the current page only or an array of three pages. Multipage operations and group mode commands allow you to quickly set up many parallel-structured pages at once. The 3-D operations are well designed and easy to use.

Even with the multipage worksheet files, there is external file linking to other sheets, and the program holds more than one file in memory at a time. The DataLens function in Release 3.1+ gives you access to external database files in popular formats. It uses disk-based virtual memory, effectively giving you as much memory as you need--though when it goes to disk, it's necessarily slow. You're limited in what you can do with your data, primarily by your own imagination.

It has the same Viewer and Auditor add-ins as Release 2.3, and adds Solver, a nonlinear optimizer that was introduced in the OS/2 version of 1-2-3. There's also a goal-seeking function.

The graphing module of Release 3.1+ is more powerful than that of Release 2.3, but it's still no match for the graphing modules in Excel and Wingz.

As is true of all versions of 1-2-3, this one is fully backward compatible with all other Lotus products. The key sequences you used with the original Release 1A still accomplish the same thing in 3.1+. Of course, there are many more menu items here, but the macros work and the key sequences work. If you limit your worksheets to two dimensions, you can save them as WK1 files that earlier versions of 1-2-3 and many other applications can read.

All this power has it price, of course. Release 3.1+ is slower than Release 2.3 (but not as slow as the Windows version).

Lotus 1-2-3 3.1+ is a fine product--well suited for a power user who needs the 3-D capabilities but doesn't want to go to Windows.



After the long-awaited Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows hit the market last August, many of its early users found some bugs. It wasn't long before Lotus shipped Release 1.0a, fixing some of the major problems.

In spite of its problems, Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows is a major achievement. Matched feature for feature against Excel, it comes up short, but it has extremely significant advantages over Excel. First, it carries the magic name of Lotus 1-2-3. That alone will sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Second, it's totally compatible with all previous versions of 1-2-3: It runs unaltered, untranslated macros and still responds to slash-key commands that have run 1-2-3 from the beginning.

Changing from a text-based spreadsheet to a Windows-based sheet isn't easy; having the 1-2-3 classic command set available at any time is comforting.

The most obvious innovation in 1-2-3 for Windows is the SmartIcon palette. Lotus provides over 60 individual icons for commonly used processes that usually involve a series of menu choices, such as creating a sum of a column or row. From that set, you select about 20 to go into the SmartIcon palette, a toolbar you can shape and place anywhere on the screen. It might be a square in the corner or a long, thin bar down one side. You can assign your own macros to icons and include them as well.

Basically ported from 1-2-3 Release 3.1+, 1-2-3 for Windows is a true 3-D sheet, maintaining the layered three-page display option. You can, however, also have as many sheets as you wish in separate windows. Graphing capabilities are beefed up with more types of graphs and with each graph named and saved as part of the basic worksheet file. Live graphs can be embedded in the worksheet, changing onscreen as you change the data in the sheet.

Spreadsheet publishing is more powerful, including automatic drop shadows and black-and-white page review. The program reads both Allways and WYSIWYG formatting from prior versions. Adobe Type Manager and 13 scalable Postscript fonts are included, as is a set of HP-compatible soft fonts.

You get the advantages of Windows, including DDE (but not OLE), making file linking with any Windows application easy. Lotus, however, doesn't fully understand Windows conventions yet--it uses the interface in several non-standard ways.

Running on low-end hardware, the program is painfully slow. On a high-speed 386 with plenty of RAM, it's still not fast. Even with the slipstream update in place, bugs occasionally result in the dreaded UAE (Unrecoverable Application Error) message.

Lotus 1-2-3 for Windows shows a lot of promise; it will someday be an outstanding spreadsheet, though I wouldn't bet on its ever surpassing Excel. For now, it's a good windows spreadsheet--and with the Lotus name attached, that's probably good enough.



If someone told me I could have only one application program, I'd choose Microsoft Excel. Its power, features, and ease of use make it my most-used app--and my favorite one.

What's so special about Excel? First, there's the program's power. In terms of sheer number-crunching savvy, Excel boasts some impressive features. At the top of the list is outlining, which lets you expand and collapse rows, columns, or both with a click of the mouse. Once you use this feature, it soon becomes indispensable.

Next on the power list is charting. Excel packs the power of many dedicated graphing programs, producing dazzling standard and custom 3-D charts. You can easily control each chart's rotation, perspective, and color.

Other impressive power features include the ability to use styles (just like most word processors), a palette of as many as 256 unique fonts per worksheet, textboxes for comments, a full complement of drawing tools, links to other spreadsheets using names, print preview, and the ability to embed objects in a worksheet.

Excel's power is impressive, but you're more likely to be won over by the program's ease of use. I've done battle with lots of spreadsheets in my time, and Excel is by far the easiest to master.

At the top of the ease-of-use ladder is the toolbar. This is a horizontal bar just below the menu bar that contains buttons for commonly used tasks, including buttons for selecting styles, promoting and demoting outline elements, toggling outline display on and off, selecting visible cells, autosumming, applying bold and italic type styles, aligning text (left, center, and right), selecting graphics objects, drawing (including buttons for drawing lines, rectangles, ellipses, and curves), auto-charting, creating text boxes, creating your own user-defined buttons, and recording macros.

Probably the most used toolbar button is Autosum. Press this button, and Excel will sum the current column or row. How does it know whether you're adding a row or column? It takes a guess, and I've found it to be right 90 percent of the time.

Other features that make Excel easy to use include templates, best fit for column width, text wrap, and cell note markers. The toolbar and most of these features are so intuitive that using them soon becomes second nature.

Mix this power and ease of use together with full dBASE compatibility (Q+E, an excellent dBASE-compatible database, is included with the package) and tons of help for former Lotus 1-2-3 users, and you have an unbeatable product. In short, this is the spreadsheet for the others to emulate and the one for the others to beat.



SE 1.0

Are you looking for power in a DOS-based spreadsheet? Quattro Pro 3.0 offers both power and plenty of features. Quattro Pro Special Edition (SE) 1.0 includes all the basic features of its full-featured cousin without some of the advanced features. At $69.95 (suggested list price), the SE version may be the best spreadsheet value available for both inexperienced and advanced users.

Quattro Pro 3.0 includes all the power and ease of use people have come to expect in state-of-the-art spreadsheets. Experienced users will have very little trouble using Quattro Pro 3.0 immediately. Its pull-down menus and optional WYSIWYG interface are easy to master. There's easy access to most of the features, including its complete set of 114 @ functions. Each spreadsheet has 8192 rows and 256 columns. You can link as many as 63 spreadsheets and have 32 open windows at any one time (if you have enough memory).

So what sets Quattro Pro 3.0 apart from other spreadsheets in its class? Unlike other spreadsheets, Quattro Pro inclues a compelte set of drawing tools and an array of clip art. These tools give you the means to annotate graphs and charts. Reading and writing a multitude of file formats such as Lotus 1-2-3, Symphony, Paradox, Reflex, and dBASE on the fly makes sharing data with other simple.

Quattro Pro uses Borland's Virtual Runtime Object Oriented Memory Manager (VROOMM) technology, which allows it to run on most MS-DOS machines--from the old XT with 512K RAM to the latest 486. This is an important feature if you have an older machine or a limited amount of memory. Although Quattro Pro will run on a machine with 512K RAM, 640K is recommended.

Because version 3.0 may offer more power than many users need, Borland offers Quattro Pro SE 1.0, a less expensive yet very respectable alternative. According to Borland, Quattro Pro SE 1.0 is the spreadsheet for the home and small business. Borland's characterization is probably intentionally modest, since many demanding spreadsheet users will find that the SE version will meet all their needs even though it doesn't contain all the most advanced features.

Some of the advanced features of Quattro Pro 3.0 that you won't find in Quattro Pro SE 1.0 are a WYSIWYG interface option, Paradox access, full network support (SE has no network support), print-to-fit and banner-printing options, and custom and Lotus 1-2-3 menu options. In addition, the SE version comes with less clip art and documentation than its bigger cousin (although you should find that both sets of clip art and documentation are adequate to serve your needs). The grapnic features in the SE version are similar to those in Quattro Pro 1.0; version 3.0's graphic features, on the other hand, show some real enhancements over the graphic features of the previous version.

Both these latest versions of Quattro Pro deserve high marks. Quattro Pro is a carefully thoughtout, fast, feature-rich application that will satisfy all but the most demanding spreadsheet users.


When Informix introduced Wingz, it made quite a splash. The public relations campaign for this spreadsheet was the most lavish in years. (Remember the popular Wingz bags?) More importantly, Wingz offered 3-D charts and graphs that nearly took your breath away--you could even place them right in your spreadsheet. Informix had demonstrated the possibilities of spreadsheet publishing, and the company seemed more than willing to do battle with Microsoft and Lotus.

Times have changed; Wingz hasn't. While other spreadsheet programs have improved, especially Excel, Wingz has added only one major new feature--and a telling one at that--the ability to read Excel spreadsheets directly. With Excel 3.0, Microsoft added most of the whiz-bang features of Wingz, including the integration of text and graphics, multiple typefaces in a spreadsheet, and a wide variety of charts and graphs, including some in 3-D. After Microsoft released Excel 3.0 for Windows, we stopped hearing about Wingz. The press no longer wrote about it, and Informix stopped running its advertisements.

Given the recent flood of new Windows-based spreadsheet programs, should you even consider buying this program? The answer is a qualified yes. There are still three major reasons to buy Wingz.

First, you get a free OS/2 version of Wingz when you buy the Windows version. That may not sound as good as it did back in 1990 when the pairing was introduced, but it could be a real plus for an OS/2 fan.

Second, Wingz is available for an unprecedented number of platforms, including IBM-compatible PCs (Windows and OS/2) and Apple Macintosh (System 6.x and 7.x), as well as Unix-based systems from NeXT, Sun, Data General, Hewlett-Packard, Mips, and IBM RISC. All versions share the same features and menus and can even read the same program files written in the HyperScript programming language.

Third, you get the programming power of HyperScript. Much more than a macro language, HyperScript is powerful enough to create a full-blown application. Try out the Test Flight demo that comes with the package, and you'll see what I mean. The entire demo was written in HyperScript. It includes a very playable tic-tac-toe game, a fast-moving and interactive graphics-shape game, and a dialog box with sliding scale controls that lets you adjust the view of a 3-D chart in realtime. If you love to program, you'll love the high-level programming language and compiler.

For those who use OS/2, work on other platforms, or love to program, Wingz is worth a good look. But for the rest of us, Excel is the best overall choice. It's a shame that a program with so much early promise should now be so neglected. Perhaps someday Informix will release Wingz 2.0 and shake up the spreadsheet market just as it did with Wingz 1.0.