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April 1992

Selecting the best spreadsheet. (The CPA & the Computer)

by Smith, L. Murphy

    Abstract- The wide variety of sophisticated and well-designed spreadsheet programs available makes the selection of a spreadsheet that meets an accountant's needs particularly difficult. Key factors that can be used to determine which program is best suited to an accountant's future and present needs are hardware requirements, number of functions offered and ease of use. Other criteria that may be applied in selecting a spreadsheet are price, capacity, speed, graphics, macros and documentation.

With the number of spreadsheet programs available, an accountant is faced with many questions. What is the best spreadsheet? Will my computer support a particular spreadsheet or do I need a new computer? For experienced spreadsheet users, the question may be whether to switch to another spreadsheet program or merely acquire the latest release of the program currently being used.

Unfortunately, there are no quick answers to the questions. In general, the underlying factor in selecting a spreadsheet is the accountant's present and anticipated future needs. Users consider the ease of learning and using a program, the clarity and completeness of documentation, the hardware capacity required, the availability and cost of technical support, and the possibility of information-sharing between different software (e.g., spreadsheet and database applications).

Factors to Consider

This article assists accountants in deciding which spreadsheet to purchase. The following factors are all part of the decision-making process, and should be considered.

* Price. For many users, a significant consideration is price. Most list prices for spreadsheets are around $500. However, the street price that an individual actually pays may be substantially less. In addition, most software companies offer large discounts if you are a registered user of an earlier version of their spreadsheet; and some companies may offer discounts if you are using one of their non- spreadsheet products or even if you are a registered user of a competitor's spreadsheet.

* Hardware and Software Requirements. Before purchasing a particular program, you need to know if your computer system can support the spreadsheet. If not, additional costs will be incurred in order to upgrade. Newer microprocessors, more random access memory, and greater hard drive capacities are needed to run certain spreadsheets. Some spreadsheets require only an 8088 microprocessor and approximately 512K of RAM, while others demand at least an 80286 microprocessor and 1MB of RAM.

* Functions. All spreadsheet programs in the market are equipped with enough functions for the majority of users. These include, among other items, date/time, mathematical, statistical, financial, and character string functions.

* Capacity. A spreadsheet program may open only one file at a time or multiple files simultaneously up to the limits of memory. The feature of manipulating multiple spreadsheets permits convenient information sharing between files and efficient data manipulation. Some programs can handle newer, more advanced spreadsheet features, e.g., WYSIWYG, without requiring an upgrade in the computer or more RAM. For example, Borland's allows users to run a large spreadsheet on a PC/XT with 512K memory (640K is recommended).

* File Linking. Sometimes the values of the data items in one spreadsheet file depend on the data items in another. The former is referred to as the dependent document while the latter is the supporting document. An example is the relationship between the production budget and the sale budget. The units to be produced for different periods are determined by sales forecasts and inventory policies. Linking spreadsheets establishes the relationship between documents so that changes in one document will automatically update the other.

* Performance/Spreed. The speed of microcomputers has dramatically improved in the past decade. In an application involving massive computations, such as complicated matrix operations, speed may be critical. If the applications are not heavy number-crunching, this feature may not be important.

* Output. Producing high-quality output (hardcopy) is an essential feature for many users. The "What-You-See-Is-What-You-Get" (WYSIWYG) display and a print-out "preview" command are useful features. Spreadsheet programs should facilitate the interface with dot-matrix or laser printers. Convenient output features include the capability to specify the print-out size and to print sideways on continuous paper for wide tables (banner printing).

* Information Sharing. The trend in information processing is to share information between departments and software programs. Users may want to combine the information prepared by different programs to improce presentations or use the output of one software as input to another. Thus, the capability to import/export information to/from different formats is critical.

* Graphics. A chart is easier for most readers to understand and retain than a table of numbers. Graphs are always effective presentation tools. The graph features of the spreadsheet program should allow users to place a graph anywhere in the spreadsheet, to mix the graph with spreadsheet data, and to customize the graph.

* Macros. A macro is a programmed sequence of keystrokes that accomplishes a specific action--handy when repetitive routines are used in spreadsheets. However, if you use a spreadsheet only once in a while, you may be better off not to use macros. An advanced macro feature allows you to record the keystrokes while actually performing a task or command (Learn feature or Macro Record mode).

* Ease of Learning/Use. The ease with which you learn to use a spreadsheet depends, to a great extent, upon personal preference. Most people prefer pull-down menus and a mouse because they offer user- friendly interface and convenience. You should try the system before deciding on a particular product.

* Documentation. Documentation should clearly and completely describe what the program does and how to use it. Today, most spreadsheets come with good documentation that is generally easy to follow.

* Technical Support. This service varies from 24-hour toll-free support to paying for the calls and/or the support. In most cases, adequate documentation enables most users to solve their own problems.

Popular Spreadsheet Programs

Five of the most popular spreadsheet packages are described in Figure 1. A short description of each follows below.

Lotus 1-2-3 Release 2.3. Lotus 1-2-3 is still the most popular spreadsheet program. Early versions established many of the current industry standards. Release 2.3 has built-in functions including matrix operations and regression analysis. However, Release 2.3 does not support user-defined functions. Although it provides basic commands and functions to manipulate and extract data in a database, its sorting command can deal with data only by rows (as opposed to rows or columns) and only two sorting keys are allowed.

Release 2.3 can accommodate different fonts, adjust row height and column width, and mix graphs with text. Release 2.3 also provides WYSIWYG display.

Lotus 1-2-3 Release 3.1. Lotus' most impressive and powerful spreadsheet is Release 3.1, but it requires more memory (1MB) and a newer microprocessor (at least 80286). Release 3.1 is compatible with Release 2.3 in basic features and can support all files created by Releases 2.01 and 2.2. One of the major improvements in Release 3.1 is the three-dimensional feature. Additionally, multiple pages are allowed in a single spreadsheet file. A cell can hold up to 512 characters which is an improvement from 240 characters in Release 2.3. It does not support user-defined functions. The sorting command can deal with data only by rows, but up to 255 sorting keys are allowed.

Microsoft Excel Version 3.0. Excel 3.0 is a powerful, user-friendly spreadsheet package. This program requires at least 2.5MB on the hard drive and Windows 3.0 software shell. Excel 3.0 has the capacity to deal with multiple spreadsheets simultaneously. The built-in functions are versatile, including those for matrix operations that facilitate sophisticated data analysis for statistics or economics. The sorting command can sort by columns or rows and multiple sorting keys are allowed.

Borland's Quattro Pro 3.0. Quattro Pro 3.0 is a powerful spreadsheet program that requires only 512K of RAM and


can be used on older computer systems such as IBM PC/XTs and ATs (and compatibles). Although not required, this program may also be used with Windows 3.0. The full mouse support with a pull-down menu and adjustable windows make it easy to use. Quattro Pro 3.0 offers a fully integrated WYSIWYG format so that users need only one menu. Quattro is easy to use, especially for beginners. The WYSIWYG Zoom command can adjust the display from 25% to 200%. The built-in banner printing and "Print-to-Fiy" produce output that meets users' special needs.

The built-in functions facilitate matrix operations, regression analysis, and optimization. Quattro Pro 3.0 supports four kinds of three-dimensional charts--area, bar, step, and ribbon. A full-scale draw program allows users to transform spreadsheet data into superior graphics presentations with fonts, colors, clip art, and graphs.

Computer Associates' SuperCalc5. SuperCalc5 is an inexpensive spreadsheet program that not only can use files from earlier versions, but can read, write, and link to Lotus 1-2-4 files. The linking capacity is up to 255 spreadsheet files or "pages." Users can open up to three spreadsheet files simultaneously.

SuperCalc5 can use Lotus 1-2-3 macros and menus, and users can mis SuperCalc5 and Lotus 1-2-3 commands from the keyboard or in macros. SuperCalc5 does not have eaither WYSIWYG or a print preview featyre. SuperCalc5 supports three kind of three-dimensional charts--bar, line, and pie. The print menu lets users control fonts, shading, boxes and grids.

Selecting the Best

Selecting the "best" spreadsheet is an important, but sometimes perplexing decision. There is intense competition in the spreadsheet market. Today's spreadsheets are fast, sophisticated, moderately easy to use, and relatively inexpensive considering the numerous tasks that they can perform to reduce the workload of the accountant. Software manufacturers are constantly improving their packages and even developing new ones that should be of even greater future benefit to accountants. Selecting the "best" spreadsheet is an individual, personal choice taking the above factors into consideration, and weighing them against your needs. Try the various products before you purchase. Talk with colleagues that use the various programs, and educate yourself about what's out there.

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