Multiplan

Mike Liardet looks at Multiplan – Microsoft’s entry to the spreadsheet fray.

After releasing the Apple version of Visicalc about three years ago, Visicorp enjoyed at least 18 months completely unchallenged in the market for what has now become known as spreadsheet software. But in the last year and a half there has been a steady stream of Visicalc rivals arriving on the scene and, naturally, some of the established companies have been getting involved in this growth area.

Probably the best known of all the micro software companies, Microsoft’s pedigree goes right back to those prehistoric days of ‘core-store’, paper-tape and teletypes – 1975 in fact, when the first of a million microcomputer systems was equipped with a Microsoft Basic interpreter. Now Microsoft has augmented its own spreadsheet system: Multiplan. Will Multiplan further enhance Microsoft’s reputation for excellence? Will it be another Ford Edsel? (You should get this point if you have heard of a Ford Edsel and you definitely will if you haven’t!)

The first thing that strikes you when confronted with a copy of Multiplan is the packaging: Microsoft has obviously invested a lot of effort (and money as well, I am sure) in presenting its ‘new baby’ to maximum advantage. A heavy-duty transparent plastic case holds a substantial ring-bound manual, system disks, various leaflets and a few pieces of carefully positioned cardboard mouldings – simply there to mask out awkward gaps and present an uncluttered appearance through the transparent box. Readers who are concerned by such a flagrant wastage of the world’s resources on a mere piece of marketing-hype will doubtless be relieved to learn that you need not throw the box away after purchase – it readily converts into a sweet little bookstand to support your manual!

Anyway, underneath the packaging we eventually find the disks – my review copy was for the Apple II (DOS 3.3), but Multiplan is also available for The Apple III, CP/M systems and, of course, Microsoft’s MS-DOS. All versions are evidently functionally identical, with just a few pages at the start of the manual outlining any minor differences, so non-Apple owners should still bear with me! (I also had the opportunity to take a quick look at the MSDOS version on a Sirius, so have made occasional references to this, too. In particular, I have included benchmark results for the Sirius version, specifically to check out Multiplan’s performance with a new generation (8088) processor and all that extra memory capacity.)

Getting started

Getting started proved fairly easy – the ‘First Time’ instructions were not on page 1, where I like to see them, but a little bit of page-thumbing soon tracked them down. A bit of disk copying, data disk initialisation, and two or three minutes later I was faced with a reassuringly familiar display of a spreadsheet. The only hold-up in all this was to have a good chuckle at the latest piece of computer jargon, encountered in the instructions for seeking the system for optional (on the Apple) 80-column display mode: ‘Recable’ – to exchange 40-column video cable connection with 80-column!

The initial display is of the top left hand corner of the spreadsheet, showing seven spreadsheet columns and 20 rows, all completely blank. The remainder of the display is devoted to helpful prompts: the names of twenty different ‘commands’, a ‘what to do now’ message and status information, such as percentage of storage space remaining, current cursor position, etc. Both rows and columns are identified by numbers, unlike many systems which use the alphabet for column headings. The repercussions of this are fairly great, since whereas ‘Q99’ is unambiguously a reference to a specified cell, ‘1799’ clearly is not. Multiplan provides several alternatives for identifying cells, but the simplest is that they be written as ‘RyCx’ – eg, ‘R17C99’ – a little bit longer than ‘Q99’!

Moving around

Moving the cursor around the spreadsheet is very simple – single control-key hits (ie. simultaneously pressing ‘Control’ and one other key) move the cursor left, right, up and down, with the VDU screen window being ‘pulled along’ by the cursor if an attempt is made to move to a cell off the edge of the screen. Sensibly, the keys that achieve this movement are arranged in a diamond (on the Sirius the arrow keys are used) – easy to remember and easy to touch-type when you are looking at the screen. Further investigation reveals that there are also control-key hits to ‘home’ the cursor to the top left hand cell and to the bottom-right, and a ‘Go-to’ command where destination coordinates can be typed in, as well as a rapid scrolling facility where the cursor is moved several cells at one go.

Also of particular interest is a very powerful split-screen facility. The screen can be subdivided into display areas (called ‘windows’ in the manual), each displaying different parts of the spreadsheet, and the cursor can be quickly ‘jumped’ from one to the next. There are many possible uses for this: locking row and column headings for continual display, quick movement between different parts of the spreadsheet, and keeping totals or whatever continually in view when other parts of the spreadsheet are being modified. Moreover each window can be displayed with a nice surrounding border, and can also be ‘linked’ to another window so that columns or rows in both always line up correctly. If all this sounds a little confusing to the newcomer, then take heart. You can completely ignore the facility at first, but once you are ready for it, the chances are that however you want to lay-out your display then Multiplan will accommodate you.

Entering data

As with most spreadsheet systems, the ‘bread and butter’ activity centres on entering or changing numbers, titles and formulae. To achieve this, simply move the cursor to the cell to be changed and start typing whatever is required there. The only thing to watch out for is that text entry must be preceded by selecting ‘Alpha’ mode (simply press ‘A’ before typing the text) otherwise the chances are Multiplan will assume you are entering a command – occasionally disastrous. For example, a sensible abbreviation for Total-Costs-Yacht could be ‘TCY’. Enter this without pressing ‘A’ and Multiplan does a ‘Transfer-Clear-Yes’ wiping out the entire spreadsheet! Don’t believe it could happen? A PCW editor (I’ll spare his blushes) did it! Well, it probably wasn’t a yacht, but a yo-yo or a yard-of-ale or something…

The formulae themselves can be built up using a wide range of maths and other functions, including trig, standard deviation, string concatenation, logical and table look-up, etc. The notation used is the classic keyboard version of school maths notation, easily learned by anyone not already familiar with it. As we have already mentioned, formula references to cells require an RyCx’ notation – eg, the formula to add the first 2 cells on the first row could be written as ‘R1C1 + R1C2’. However, there is a little trap lurking for experienced spreadsheet users – the replication facility does no formula adjustment whatsoever. Thus, if the above formula was located at R1C3, and then copied to 99 cells below, each and every copy would be ‘R1C1 + R1C2’ and the expected Column 3 = Column 1 + Column 2 would not be achieved. It turns out that the original formula, quite correct if no replication is envisaged, should be ‘RC[-2| + RC[-1)’, meaning ‘add cell in current row two columns back, to one in current row one column back’. Now, wherever this formula is located, it will add together the two previous values on the row, and in particular, if replicated right down column 3 it will do the column sum correctly.

If typing ‘RC[-2] + RC[-1]’ seems like a bit of a fingerful (tactile equivalent of mouthful) then Multiplan to the rescue! Instead of working out ‘RC[-2]’, etc, simply use cursor moves in mid-formula entry and Multiplan will type in the formula for you. In the above example only the ‘+’ need be entered from the keyboard, the rest of the formula being built up by using the cursor to point to the cells to be referenced.

It is also possible to refer to cells by their row or column name and thus build up formulae like ‘profit = sales – costs’. Since (a) this is immediately comprehensible and (b) always replicates correctly, the extra typing involved is well worth it!

In conclusion, I must say that I did not greatly like Multiplan’s methodology for referencing cells. It should be noted that cell references occur not only in formulae, but are also required by the majority of commands (see below), so a major part of one’s time at the keyboard is spent using them. In fairness I must point out that (a) my previous spreadsheet has been with the Visicalc style of cell-reference and (b) that Multiplan has some compensations for this minor irritation with some excellent other features and facilities.

Commands

Thus far, we have looked at Multiplan’s basic essential facilities, but of course there are many other, typically more peripheral (in both senses!), functions needed to provide a comprehensive spreadsheet system. These extra functions are provided for by Multiplan commands, and invoked by selection from a command-menu.

Actually, in passing, we have already touched upon four commands provided by Multiplan – ‘Go-to’ cell, ‘Alpha’ for entering text, ‘Copy’ for replicating cells, and ‘Window’ for the split-screen facility. There are in fact 20 in all, each starting with a different letter of the alphabet, and all permanently displayed at the bottom of the screen. Bearing in mind that there were only six letters of the alphabet to spare, the implementers have done a pretty good job of choosing 20 sensible names – probably the worst one is ‘Alpha’ (it couldn’t be ‘Text’ because that clashes with ‘Transfer’ and ‘Transfer’ couldn’t be ‘File’, ‘Storage’ or ‘Disk’ because F, S and D are in use, etc).

Anyway, in the unlikely event that a command’s meaning is unknown, or in the more probable event that the precise method of usage is unclear, there is an excellent ‘Help’ facility available. Basically the list of command names has its own cursor, which can be shifted along by pushing the space bar. Commands can be selected by moving the command-cursor then pushing ‘Return’ (or by just typing the command’s first letter – much quicker). However, if ‘?’ is hit instead of ‘Return’ the spreadsheet screen is replaced with a ‘help’ screen for the currently indicated command. Moreover the information is not just a few cryptic instructions, but a fairly comprehensive run-down which in some instances extends to several pages. By the way, all the help-screen information is read from disk when needed, and does not affect the precious memory allocation for the spreadsheet itself.

To get some idea of the command facilities available, here is a quick rundown of all 20:

  • Enables text to be entered at the current cursor position.
  • Blanks out one or more cells. Contents are blanked out, but display format assigned to cell is unchanged. Not the same as Delete since, in particular, the following rows or columns are not shifted.
  • Copies cells from one place to another (ie, replication). Relative-copy is not possible (see text above) – must do absolute copy of relative formula!
  • Deletes a row or column of cells, moving all subsequent rows/columns back by one.
  • Instead of correcting a long formula by retyping from scratch, this command can be used to apply the changes quickly.
  • Numerous different display formats are possible: different column widths, centre, left, right justify, scientific, integer, financial, primitive bar graph, and more besides! As an extra convenience, a default format can be specified, assigning the format you most expect to use to all cells not explicitly reformatted to something else.
  • Go to cell specified by its name or coordinates.
  • Gives general help information, not covered by the help-screens, for each specific command.
  • Inserts a blank row or column, moving all subsequent rows/columns along by one.
  • Locks or unlocks specified cells. Can permanently lock all formulae – useful for turnkey systems.
  • Moves a row or column to between two other row/columns.
  • Enables a cell or group of cells to be given a user-supplied name. This name can be used in formulae, and also by the ‘Goto’ command. It saves confusion if the name here is the same as the visible title.
  • Used to set basic operational features, eg, switch off auto-recalculation or audible error beeps. The former is very useful when the spreadsheet is getting fairly full and every change takes several seconds – not to be registered on the screen, but for its effects to permeate through the system. The latter is absolutely priceless if you work at home and your family ‘can’t stand that incessant cheeping’ (to quote my good lady).
  • Can print to printer or disk file. Option to print the formulae as well as the calculated values. This is useful for documenting or debugging the model. It’s also possible to print selected areas.
  • Finish – back to resident operating system (eg, CP/M, MS-DOS, etc).
  • Sorts calculated or entered numbers or text by suitably shuffling rows.
  • Load, save, delete and other disk file operations. Of particular note: Multiplan can read Visicalc data files, or read/write files in a well-documented external interchange format, as well as using its own internal disk format. As it can also print to disk, it is extremely versatile in its file-handling.
  • Can optionally be used for entering formulae or numbers.
  • Split screen facility.
  • Used to read in answers calculated by one spreadsheet as raw input data for another. Can be used for ‘consolidation’.

Documentation

The documentation is comprehensive, clear and well-written. The bulk of it is in a stout ring-bound manual (minor niggle – the rings are not circular and tend to snag the pages when you are turning them quickly). It has obviously been put together with the sort of thoroughness we would expect from Microsoft, right from the Contents page at the front to the Index at the back. The basic material provided is:

  • System-specific instructions. How to create your working disks under your particular operating system.
  • Organised as seven lessons. Gives you key by key instructions, starting with simple cursor moves in lesson one through to multiple work-sheets at the end. Well illustrated.
  • In alphabetical order, everything you need to know about the command, key-strokes and formula-functions. Also includes a list of all system messages, together with advice on what to do when you encounter them.
  • Extra helpful information, including a glossary and notes for Visicalc experts – a nice touch!
  • Quick Reference Guide. A separate pocket book (16 pages), being a condensation of the reference section in the main manual.
  • Help Screens. Comprehensive instructions on-screen for every command and a few of the other facilities.
  • With this breadth of documentation, there should be something to please all levels of user. Complete beginners can try the tutorial. Experts will probably just use the quick reference guide or help-screens and everyone can make good use of the comprehensive index.

Sirius slip-up

Having given the Apple version a thorough work-over, I arranged a joyride on somebody else’s Sirius. The article was nearly complete – I just needed to pencil in the Sirius Benchmark times and then off to Mustique for yet another three weeks.

First problem: Sirius version of Multiplan manual temporarily mislaid. Well, I should know the system well enough by now. So, in preparation for Benchmark 1, I quickly set up the first 12 columns by 200 rows of the spreadsheet. (Readers familiar with the benchtests will know that this results in a display of 1.. 12 in the first row, 13. . 24 in the second, etc.)

Next I needed to set up column 13, each cell in it being the sum of the previous 12 in the row. Easy! Just use the row-sum function in column 13 of row 1, and then copy it down to all cells below it. Unfortunately I couldn’t remember the correct syntax for using it. Anyway, after experimentation I found that ‘SUM(C1:C12)’ at least did not give a formula error message, but it did seem to be displaying the wrong answer. Okay – time to copy it. Well, much disk-whirring and clanking, then watch the calculation count-down on the VDU display. 45 minutes later; I’m still waiting and the disk is still whirring and clanking and countdown’s still not finished – I’m frightened to switch off in case I corrupt the disk (it’s not mine, anyway) – can’t stop it at the keyboard, etc. Anyway it took about 50 frustrating minutes.

So, what went wrong? Well, basically a minor slip-up in my use of the SUM formula. I eventually got it right (by using a help-screen, what else?): ‘SUM(RC[-12]:RC[-1])’ and the whole test was over in under a minute. The formula I had originally used did not add the row up, but calculated the whole 12 x 200 array of numbers, and of course this formula was then copied 200 times down the column – a bit of a hefty number-crunch!

Anyway, the moral of this story is: make a good effort to learn Multiplan’s cell referencing – it could save you a long wait!

Conclusion

We have taken a fairly fast swoop right through the major facilities and features of Multiplan; so fast that some very valuable features, not generally available in mere state-of-the-art spreadsheet systems, may have gone unnoticed. Just for the record.

Multiplan gives you:

  • If you need to sort columns of figures or text then it is impossible to do this without a ‘Sort’ command.
  • Multiple worksheets. Results from one worksheet can be communicated to another, useful for consolidation.
  • Multiple split-screens. Very flexible facility to design VDU screen display of spreadsheet.
  • Flexible file handling. In particular data interchange with other software is feasible, and Visicalc data files can be read (but not written! – no doubt Microsoft doesn’t want to encourage users to migrate that way!).
  • Available on 16-bit microprocessor (8088/6). The new 16-bit processors can handle a lot more memory, and spreadsheet systems which have been properly installed on them can use this extra memory for setting up bigger spreadsheets (see Benchmarks).
  • Comprehensive help-screens. In addition to these. Multiplan also provides more mundane, but by no means universally available, facilities – such as cell references by names, formula protection, formula printout, print to disk and formula editing.

Certainly Multiplan has a lot of facilities to offer, but what is it like to use? Well some minor complaints here: the row/column numbering scheme increases the amount of typing for formulae. You have to consider replication consequences when you enter a formula, rather than when you do the replication, you have to choose the ‘Alpha’ command before you enter text (okay, it’s only one extra character, but most other spreadsheet systems don’t do it this way). To balance these minor grumbles are comprehensive error messages, and understandable prompts for all input.

So finally, my advice to spreadsheetless owners of Apples, CP/M or MS-DOS systems, or to anyone looking for an upgrade: put it near the top of your list!

Benchmarks and other measurements

These tests were run on an Apple II system with 64k of RAM (which is in fact mandatory) and an 80-column display card (which is optional). Available space for the spreadsheet itself amounted to 21k. Figures are also included for the Sirius (with 128k of RAM, and theoretically extendable to 800k+), running MS-DOS and allowing greater storage space for the spreadsheet. Where the Sirius figures are different they are appended in parentheses after the Apple figures.

Incidentally, a Sirius retails for around £2500, and the nearest equivalent Apple system (but with lower disk capacity, half the RAM, 8-bit processor) would be around £1750.

  • Spreadsheet size: 63 columns wide by 255 rows.
  • Numeric precision: 14 digits.
  • Max column width: 32 characters.

The benchmark tests are described in ‘Which Spreadsheet’, PCW Feb 1983.

Benchmark 1: (a) max rows accommodated: 95 (235); (b) recalculation time: 60 (55) seconds – ie, 1.5 (4) rows per second: (c) recalculation time: 60 (55) seconds; (d) vertical scrolling: 6 (6) rows per second; horizontal scrolling: 4 (4) columns per second.

Benchmarks 2: max rows of text accommodated: 190 (Sirius not tested).

Benchmark 3: max rows of numbers accommodated: 190 (Sirius not tested).

Price: Around £150.

Checklist

Documentation: 400+ pages, contents, tutorial, reference, index, quick reference and help-screens. Well-illustrated. Excellent.

User-friendliness: Consistent and easy to use — cell-referencing can be a little tricky!

Error-handling: 20+ error messages. Erroneous calculations (eg, zero-divides) displayed as special error values.

Facilities: Arithmetic and other functions: +, -, *, /, %, string operations, logic, descriptive statistics, trig, logs, look-up and more besides!

Configuration: version tested easily configured for different types of Apple screen.

Graphics: a let-down compared with the other facilities!

Interface to other software: specifically can read Visicalc files, and print to disk. Can also be interfaced to other software using data interchange format (requires programming skills to do this).

Spreadsheet overlays: yes – can do consolidation or merge information into existing spreadsheet.

Turnkey: Apple version is turnkey with all disk formatting, copying, etc, achievable without recourse to Apple DOS.

Insertion, deletion and replication: yes.

Display flexibility: just about everything you could possibly want. Excellent.

Protected cells: yes.

Formula printout: yes.

Formula editing: yes.

Automatic/manual recalculation: yes.

Out of memory: memory left permanently displayed. Recovers correctly when it runs out of memory.

Long jumps: can jump directly to any specified cell.

Sorts, searching and logic: yes.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, April 1983

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Data Management to the Rescue?

Kathy Lang checks out a flexible new CP/M package.

Regular readers will know that many of the packages I’ve reviewed in this series have particular areas of strength that make them well suited to certain areas of data management. This month’s offering, a British package called Rescue, which comes from Microcomputer Business Systems and runs under CP/M, is a general-purpose, menu driven data management package which has much in common with others in this field. But it has unusually flexible provision for different types of information, and its data validation is among the best I’ve seen.

Rescue comes in three parts: the first deals with configuring the system for your computer, and is not needed again unless you make major changes. The second part covers the creation and amendment of the data files, and of the screen and report formats, while the third permits record amendment and display. This separation makes it easy to set up a system in which most users have access to the information in the files, but cannot change the format of those files or interfere with any provision for protecting parts of the data for security reasons.

Data is stored in fixed-length records in Rescue, but some ingenious methods are used to keep data storage to a minimum – I’ll say more about that later. Once you’ve set up a record format, you can still add fields to the end of the records, but you can’t change the sizes of existing fields unless you’ve made provision for that in advance. (MBS is apparently about to release an option to permit more radical changes to existing files, but it isn’t available yet). You can access the records in two ways. Individual fields may be used as keys, and any one of them used to access a particular record for display and/or editing. You can also select subsets of the data by setting up a set of selection rules, which are used to extract a set of records for browsing on the screen or for printing. You can set up as many screen and report definitions as you please for any set of data; these definitions need describe only a few fields in a record if necessary, and any or all of these descriptions may be password protected.

Rescue is used through menus, but users can set up their own menus through quite simple procedures. Thus you can set up a series of operations to be activated by one menu option. You can’t at present access one file from another, so that the current version of Rescue does not have true database capabilities.

Constraints

Figure 1 shows the major constraints imposed by Rescue. The maximum record size of 1024 is the same as several others I’ve reviewed, but Rescue’s dictionary capability makes it more economical of data storage than many.

Some people will find the limitation of 60 characters in a field more serious. I haven’t included in the figure a full list of the field types allowed, as it is very lengthy. Virtually any kind of data format can be expressed with one of the field types provided. I’ll say more about them in the next section.

File creation

The process of file creation is shown in Figure 2, which is a ‘road map’ of all the menus associated with the data definition part of Rescue.

The first stage in file creation involves setting up a data description file, specifying the basic format of each record and the keys it will have. At this stage you must assign a data type to each field. There are four main groups of data alphanumeric, numeric, date, and dictionary. There are several forms of data type in each group; for instance, character data may be just that and contain any valid ASCII character, or they may be alphanumeric, in which case they may only contain letters or digits and any attempt to enter invalid data will be rejected by the system. There is quite a variety of numeric fields, too, including money (sterling). You can specify that a field is to conform to a mask, to ensure that such items as account references, which often have prescribed formats, are entered in a valid form.

Probably the most unusual type of data is the dictionary field, which permits the person entering data to include only certain values. There are two kinds of dictionary field; a short form, which permits up to 29 characters in total to be used for each field, and a long form, which allows up to 255 entries, each of up to 60 characters. The latter are shared among all the fields in the file, so supposing one has a series of questions each with the same range of answers – for example, answers ranging from Poor to Excellent in a market research survey – you only need one dictionary entry for all the fields to refer to. Each response takes up only one character in the record in the data file for either type of dictionary, so the method is really a way of combining coding with captions for codes.

Every field within the record must also fall into one of four entry categories: mandatory (ie, the field must always have a value), optional (the field may be empty), calculated or display-only. Calculated fields are derived from calculations on constants or on other fields in the same record. Display-only fields are provided so that for certain modes of access fields can be shown but not altered – account numbers might for instance be protected in this way. Any field in a record may also be linked to others in a number of ways.

Direct linkage provides for situations where some fields only have values if another field – said to be the controlling field – has a certain value. For instance, details about a property might say if the property were freehold or leasehold but only if it were leasehold would it be sensible to ask for the life of the lease and the annual charge. This approach can also be used to deal with records with lists of information; you might want to store the names of all a person’s children where some people might have as many as six, without asking six questions about childless people. Most packages expect you at least to hit one key for each question when entering data from the keyboard but with the Rescue approach entry can be more finely tuned to stop
prompting for answers if they are not needed.

During file definition you must also specify the fields which are to be used as keys. Rescue treats the key field which is physically nearest to the beginning of the record as the main key, in that you have to ask specifically for other keys when you come to access the file; so it can save a little time to think about what order to store fields in the record. Up to 10 fields may be defined as key fields. Keys may be either unique or duplicate, and Rescue checks when supposedly unique key values are entered. All the key fields are referenced from a single index, which is automatically kept up to date when data is added or amended.

The next step is to define screen and print formats for the records; you can have as many of these as you wish, and each may describe only parts of the record – for instance, to prevent confidential information being seen by everyone. Next, you tell Rescue to set up an empty data file and structure the index file, and finally you construct any custom-defined menus you will need If you do specify more than one screen or report definition, then you will have to do some customisation of the menus in order to use the alternative formats, but this is quite a straightforward process.

Input and editing

The provisions for data validation given by the dictionary facilities, by the variety of data types and by the range checking which can also be set up at file definition time, are extremely powerful – it’s always possible to get the data wrong in a logical sense, but Rescue makes it quite hard to get it wrong in any other sense. That said I did find the mechanics of correcting data a bit clumsy; if you’ve made a mistake and go back to edit a record you can say where in the record you want the editing to begin but from there you must work sequentially through – you can’t work back up the screen either when entering or editing data. Since the program requires you to have a terminal which can move the cursor left and right, it seems a bit strange not to utilise cursor movement up as well, since no terminal is likely to have horizontal movement but not vertical…

When you retrieve records for amendment, you do so by specifying a particular key value; you can specify the use of any key, but you have to get the value of the first four or five characters exactly right (except that Rescue is ‘case-blind’ in this situation, so it will for instance match Smith and smith). Even when matching exactly on a key value you may retrieve more than one record, as duplicate keys are allowed. But searching for field values within ranges is only possible when you want to look at records, not when you want to change them.

Screen display

I said that you can have several definitions for a single file, so that records can be displayed on the screen in different ways for different users or applications. These screen definitions can be created by copying existing definitions and amending them, but I couldn’t find a way to see what definitions I already had except by going out to CP/M and using the Directory command. Screen layout is specified by giving row and column coordinates for each field you want to display, which I found much more difficult to use than the ‘paint-a-screen’ approach which has become fairly common. The coordinate approach also makes it more difficult to amend the layout, though Rescue does have one provision to make this a little easier by letting you specify a re-ordering of the display without changing the absolute coordinates.

The screen layouts are set up in the ‘definition’ part of Rescue. However, they are invoked from the main part of Rescue, through executing one of the options in the menus shown in Figure 3. Display can be of records specified either by matching one key, or by selection using the selection and extraction procedure which is described later.

Reporting

Rescue uses the same mechanism for printed reports as for screen display, so both are strictly record based. The only provision for aggregated information is totalling of numeric fields. It is possible to force page-breaks when values of particular fields change, but subtotalling is not provided. There is, however, a very flexible facility to interface with Wordstar and Mail/Merge, so it is easy to use them in combination with Rescue to write circular letters and concoct sets of standard paragraphs.

Selection

Rescue provides the ability to select parts of the data file for browsing, printing or further selection. The main method of doing this is to set up a set of selection rules in a file, and then to apply these to the data file to produce another file containing the selected records. The selection rules are very flexible: you have all the usual comparison operators (less than/greater than/equal to/not equal to) and data values can be compared with constants or with the values of other fields in the same record. Rules can be combined to provide ANDing and ORing within and between fields, and these combination facilities together with the NOT operator make it possible to select virtually any combination of values you could need. However, personally I don’t like the need to set up rules in a file, as it is rather cumbersome in practice; if you are using the standard facilities menus you must go to the ‘Maintain Rules’ menu (at the third level of menus), create the rules, then go back to the first level of menus and down to the third level ‘Extract and Sort’ menu to actually extract the records you need. Finally (from the same Extract menu) you can display or print the records that have been found. This provides a sharp contrast to the command language approach, in which one command will extract your records and a second at the same level will display them. However, you could tune the menus in Rescue to avoid some of this ponderousness, so it’s better in that sense than menu systems which you can’t adapt.

While actually comparing fields, upper and lower case letters are regarded as equivalent. You can use wild codes: ? will match any one character, * will match one or more characters. For dictionary fields, the order for comparison purposes is the order in the dictionary, so if you have a set of answers with Poor as the first and Excellent as the last Poor will be regarded as ‘less than’ Excellent even though P comes after E in the alphabet. This is usually what you want and with much coded data would be a very valuable feature.

Sorting

Rescue can sort a data file on up to five fields in one operation; the process is similar to selection and you can also combine selection and sorting to give a sorted extract file. Sorting is either in ascending or descending order, as with selection dictionary fields sort in their dictionary order (Poor before Excellent) rather than in alphabetical or numeric order. In addition ordinary character fields can be given a sort value which is different from their simple alphabetical order. This could be particularly useful where you had fields such as book titles which often have prefix words such as A or The, which you want to ignore for sorting purposes but wish to include as part of the field for printing (In most packages these prefix words must occupy a separate field, which will be empty for titles without a prefix word.)

Calculations

The calculation facilities in Rescue are quite powerful in the input phase, and practically non-existent after that. When you set up a data definition file, you can specify that a field is to be calculated from constants, or from combinations of other fields (including dictionary fields) in the same record. All the usual arithmetic operators are available. After input the only calculation you can request is totalling on printed reports; this is activated by requesting totalling of a field when a description file is set up. Up to 10 fields in any one description file may be set to be totalled.

Security

Protection in Rescue is of two kinds. It is possible to take the programs used in the Define stage off the run-time disk, so that the ordinary user can use file definitions and screen and report formats, but not amend them. At a more detailed level, password protection can be provided for particular data files, for individual description files (so that a user can be given access only to part of the data in a file) or for particular menu items in custom built menus (so that some users may have access to some functions but not others, while other users have greater facilities, but all within one menu). This is a flexible and powerful scheme, and should provide for most needs.

Stability and reliability

I didn’t have any problems over reliability with my use of Rescue. As to stability, new versions of Rescue, which are ‘cost options’, are intended to be compatible with existing versions. New features in the pipeline include a version for MS-DOS and a multi-user version.

Tailoring

As usual, the first task is to tailor Rescue for your particular terminal. This appeared quite straightforward (although, as is the common bad practice, you can’t be sure the tailoring has worked until you actually run the main Rescue suite). However, I had one misunderstanding which I never managed to sort out; this resulted in repeated prompts being printed on the same line as the error messages, which were thereby overlaid so that I couldn’t read the error message. I wasn’t able to discover whether this was an error in the software, the documentation or my interpretation of them and my Sirius manual, but it hasn’t happened to me before. While tailoring for the terminal, you can tell Rescue about cursor movement left and right but not about which keys move the cursor up and down, so much potential editing flexibility is lost.

Once into Rescue, the main tailoring facility is the ability to set up sequences of activities on custom-defined menus. This gets round some of the inflexibilities associated with menu-driven systems, and I found the approach quite easy to use.

Relations with outside

Rescue can write files in standard ASCII characters, using the ‘comma delimited’ format required by many other packages including specifically Wordstar’s Mail-Merge option. Thus you can set up files of information which you want included in circular letters or standard paragraphs, and then fire them off to Wordstar or another similar package.

Within Rescue you can include on a menu the ability to run another program, so it would be possible to tailor a menu to carry out a selection/printing sequence of this kind, called by Rescue ‘record processing’, without the user having to go back to CP/M. You can’t at the moment read external files of ASCII records into Rescue, though there is a menu option to do this already shown, which I’m told will be implemented in the very near future.

User image: software

Once again, your overall reaction to Rescue will be governed by whether you like menu-driven packages or not. I found the ability to tailor menus to provide facilities oriented to particular requirements a big help in mitigating the inflexibilities of menus. However, most users are likely to follow the well-established principle of ‘satisficing (a word coined by Herbert Simon the psycho-economist to describe the tendency to accept adequate or satisfactory results rather than go for the best possible) and only set up extra menus when they absolutely have to, for instance to access alternative screen layouts. So I suspect that mostly people will use the rather cumbersome standard menu facilities. I also had a rather mixed reaction to the complete separation of description of and access to the data files. Within an organisation which has a database administrator (who might simply be the boss in a small business) this could be a useful separation for security reasons, but it would be less helpful where the same person organises the data files and puts information into them, perhaps in a small office, one person business, etc.

Within the package itself, I as usual found some goodies and some nasties. The progress through the menus was orderly and logical and was made straightforward by the provision of the two ‘road maps’ which I show as Figures 2 and 3. The process of prompting was easy to understand. It would have been even easier if, when a question has a default response, this was displayed before the question is posed – in many cases the default is not shown even after you’ve accepted it unless you go back and edit the record concerned. Allowing the use of identifiable abbreviations, both for field names and for data values, is sensible.

I didn’t like the use of row and column coordinates when formatting screen displays and printed reports, especially as there is no default format so you always have to supply one. The ‘paint-a-screen’ approach is much easier in general than coordinate specification and if this is not supplied then there should at least be a default format with records displayed one field per line starting at the left of the screen or paper. I also found the inability to move back within a record when editing a real nuisance.

Documentation

The manual is basically a reference document but written in so much detail that it could be used to teach yourself about the package if you were reasonably familiar with data management terminology. However, the amount of detail makes it rather difficult to find your way around. Two goodies help a little in this: the use of emphasis within the text to call the readers attention to the most important parts of each section, and the printing of chapter headings right-aligned on each page (a real help to browsing at a general level). But the chapter names didn’t always make it easy to guess where a particular feature would be described, and since there was neither a detailed table of contents relating to each chapter nor an index, it was very hard to get from ‘now I’ve seen something about that feature somewhere’ to the exact part of the manual in question. Part of the remedy is close at hand, since if the ‘road maps’ (which perform most of the functions of a reference card) were annotated with the numbers of the sections documenting each menu item, readers would find it very much easier to locate the particular piece of information they need fast (As this article went to press, MBS issued an index for the manual, which should help.)

The other problem I had was that while each feature is documented in detail with examples of the particular feature, there are no examples of the display or use of groups of features. For instance, all the features of data entry are described in turn, but there is no figure showing how data definitions are displayed on the screen. Nothing bolsters a user’s confidence like some complete examples shown in real screen pictures!

I can’t resist ending this section by awarding MBS second prize so far in this year’s contest for manual typo errors, with ‘Data Validification’.

Costs and overheads

Rescue costs £295, and is available from MBS. To be realistic, you would need a disk system with the regular double-sided, double-density capacity of 370 Kbytes per drive on a two-drive floppy disk system, to enable you to have all the Rescue software on one disk drive and use the other for data I found the system very slow in loading individual program modules, which seemed to happen whenever I changed from one sub-menu to another. I was told that this was specific to the Sirius-Z80 card method of disk access, but I haven’t noticed the problem with other packages I’ve used. The times for actually running the Benchtests are shown in Figure 4. (Details of the tests were given in PCW December 1982.)

Conclusions

Rescue provides data management facilities through individual files. Data description facilities are very powerful. Rescue provides a variety of data types and validation features more extensive than any I have found before. These features also help to make Rescue much more economical on data storage than is usual in programs which use fixed length records. You can select and sort the data to provide pretty well any required subset but the process is rather cumbersome. Screen and report formats can be varied according to the needs of particular users, which makes it straightforward to protect particular data items; you can also permit users access only to certain Rescue features. Screen and report formats are described in a rather rigid way, and there are no default formats for easy initial use.

On the other hand, the ability to send data to and run Wordstars Mail-Merge option from within Rescue could be very valuable in some environments. Apart from the calculation features on data entry, the only calculating power within the package is the ability to total particular fields. The system is menu-driven, which can be ponderous in use, but you can if you wish design your own menus to mitigate this disadvantage to some extent. Rescue is in the main a single-file system – you cannot reference one file through data values in another. Provided this limitation is not a problem, you would find Rescue worth investigating, particularly if the variety of data types and the extensive data validation would be beneficial in your application.

Fig.1. Constraints  
Max no. files in one menu structure 20
Max file size CP/M limit or disk size, whichever is smaller
Max no. records 32760
Max size record 1024 characters (but good data compression methods)
Max no. fields 100
Max field size 60 characters, 14 digits
Max no. keyfields 10
Field types See text – several varieties of character, numeric, date (day/month/year), monetary (sterling), dictionary

Figure_002

Fig.2. ‘Roadmap’ of menus

Figure_003

Fig.3. Menu options

Fig.4. Benchmark times
BM1 Time to add 1 new field to each of 1000 records Setup time
BM2 Time to add 50 records interactively Scrolling time
BM3 Time to add 50 records “in a batch” NA
BM4 Time to access 50 records from 1000 sequentially on 25-character field 1 min 20 secs
BM5 Time to access 50 records from 1000 by index on 25-character field NA* (1-3 secs)
BM6 Time to index 1000 records on 25-character field 12 mins
BM7 Time to sort 1000 records on 5-character field 4 mins 10 secs
BM8 Time to calculate on 1 field per record and store result in record NA
BM9 Time to total 3 fields over 1000 records NA yet
BM10 Time to import a file of 1000 records NA yet
Note: NA=Not available. NA*=Not available as tested – key must match exactly.

 First published in Personal Computer magazine, April 1983

Crash Course in Spreadsheets

TheSpreadsheet001

Pete Galliard tallies the Spectrum-based Spreadsheet package against VisiCalc and Supercalc

Microl’s spreadsheet package for the Sinclair Spectrum is cheap, especially compared to VisiCalc and Supercalc – its big brothers on the bigger micros. And since the Spectrum is so portable, it’s practical to carry it around in your briefcase to the office, home or a hotel, and just plug into a TV set.

Features

The Microl Spreadsheet lets you SAVE models you have created along with the program itself. There is a CALCULATE command, which allows recalculation of the whole model. The REPLICATE command allows calculation rules to be reproduced over different parts of the spreadsheet. There’s also the option to modify those calculation rules, if you need to do so.

You can make changes to format, such as the number of decimal places, and it is possible to alter the widths of columns. Although you can display only four columns at one time, there is a jump facility to let you move the window to any part of the spreadsheet you wish. You can enter text and numbers into the cells, and all the standard arithmetic rules can be used.

There are also quite a few features not there. You cannot:-

  • split the screen to give two independent windows on the spreadsheet;
  • overlay data from one spreadsheet to another;
  • move, insert or delete specific columns or rows;
  • search for a particular number;
  • protect particular cells from accidental changes or sabotage.

Presentation

The package comes on cassette, along with a simple 15-page manual. Microl says the manual is being updated to include extra information on how to design effective models.

Getting started

It takes about three minutes to LOAD the package from cassette. SAVEing and re-LOADing each model takes about the same time.

If you’re new to spreadsheets, expect to spend an hour or two learning how to use them. The knack is fairly easy to pick up, especially if you are used to playing with numbers. The layout itself is identical to that used in larger spreadsheets.

The commands are easy to use – they are simple, reasonably memorable, and consist of single-letter or single key commands. Most are the initial letter of the action you wish to perform, and all are set out in a single long list in the manual.

One of the most annoying problems with this package is the extremely slow response when moving beyond the limit of the window. Program crashes are also frequent and easy to cause.

There are no DELETE, INSERT and MOVE commands, and this reduces the package’s scope. Aligning numbers with decimal positions is also a problem.

I used the package to build a budget model for testing, and I found that when I entered a whole number of pounds, with zero pence, the layout ended up looking confusing. The program right-justified it so that the pounds ended up in the pence column. You would have to define a different local format to cope with those cells affected.

If you want good-looking reports on your screen, you will need to spend a good deal of time formatting it. But if you can tolerate truncated titles and headings, and just focus on the numbers, the model can be built up quickly.

When the window passes beyond the nearby range of five columns or 20 rows, there is a delay of about ten seconds. I carried out a benchmark test by building a model of 26 columns and 31 rows and filling the whole matrix to capacity with numbers seven digits long. When the matrix was recalculated I found it took six minutes to complete. I tried recalculations with decimal numbers and text information, and got similar results.

The size of the model you can create is limited. The package comes set up with a default model size of 26 columns and 31 rows. The maximum number of columns remains 26, but you can extend the number of rows to 99, if memory space allows.

This package’s reaction to virtually every misdemeanour is to crash. It crashes if you use invalid expressions or command keys, long calculation rules, and if you reach the limit of memory size. Recovery is pretty straightforward and the data is not lost as all that happens is it dives into Spectrum Basic. But program crashes resulting from typing errors are irritating.

Verdict

Overall, I found this product fair value for money. I had to fault it on reliability, and the performance really was too slow on larger models and when the window was moved, not surprisingly since the package is written in Basic. If you have a Spectrum and are prepared to live with those weaknesses, you will probably find plenty of uses for Spreadsheet.

Rating

  • Features – 3
  • Documentation – 3
  • Performance – 2
  • Usability -3
  • Reliability – 2
  • Overall value – 3

Details

  • Name – The Spreadsheet
  • Application – Spreadsheet
  • System – ZX Spectrum, 48K
  • Price – £9.95
  • Publisher – Microl
  • Format – Cassette
  • Language – Basic

Image by Kieren Phelps

First published in Personal Computer News magazine, 25th March 1983

Smartmodem 1200 and Smartcom II

Hayes001

Although modem users in the UK will be familiar with Hayes protocols, Hayes’ products are still relatively unknown here. Peter Tootill looks at the Smartmodem 1200 and Smartcom II, a terminal program package for Hayes’ or Hayes-compatible modems.

Hayes is a new name in the UK, but will be familiar to anyone who has come into contact with the US telecomputing scene. Hayes was one of the pioneers of the ‘intelligent’ modem – that is, one that has a built-in microprocessor and can respond to commands from a computer. The command system that Hayes devised to control its modem has been followed by other manufacturers, and now Hayes protocols are the standard for intelligent modems and software designed to be used with them.

The demand for Hayes-compatible modems has come with software such as Symphony with its built-in communications features which allow the user to dial numbers stored in its database files. Hayes is making a concerted effort to push into the UK modem market and is not only working through a distributor, but has set up a separate company run, initially, by US staff. The company’s three introductory products are: a modem (Smartmodem 1200); a terminal program (Smartcom II); and a database package called ‘Please’. In this review I’ll look at the first two.

Smartmodem 1200

The Smartmodem 1200 is a single-standard V22 (1200 bits/sec full duplex) type. It is a very smart-looking modem, measuring only 5.5in x 9.5in x 1.5in, and has an external power supply. The UK version of the very popular US Smartmodem 1200 has lost its 300 bits/sec capability and gained BABT approval. The front panel carries eight LED indicators for transmit and receive data, autoanswer on, terminal ready, modem ready, carrier, off hook and high speed. The last one seems to be a hangover from the US version; it indicates that the modem is working at its highest speed – which in this case is its only speed, so it is rather superfluous. The front panel is removable, giving access to a row of 10 switches which allow you to configure various modem parameters such as auto-answer, how the DTR and CD lines operate, and so on. The rear panel has a standard 25-way, RS232 connector, an on/off switch, a socket for the external power supply, and the telephone cord with a normal BT plug on the end. There is no socket to plug a telephone into, so you will need a double adaptor if you require a handset on the same line. The modem’s case is made from sturdy aluminium and plastic.

Removing a couple of screws allows the modem’s PCB to slide out. Inside, the modem is of the same high quality as the exterior.

The modem supports the basic Hayes command set – it is, of course, Hayes-compatible (not all Hayes-compatible modems are fully Hayes-compatible – just as not all IBM-compatibles are completely compatible) and should work with any Hayes software that doesn’t expect the extended command set of the Smartmodem 2400 (a V22/22bis modem soon to be launched in the UK). It doesn’t have a number store, but as most smart terminal programs have telephone directories built-in, this is not-a significant omission.

The Smartmodem 1200 supports tone and pulse dialling, detects dial tones and engaged tones, and also has a built-in speaker so that you can monitor call progress. The volume of the speaker can be changed under software control by the computer.

In use, I found that the modem worked reliably, although I experienced a small problem when calling a US system: it couldn’t pick up the carrier from the other end – I must admit it is rather faint, but my old British Telecom 4124 modem doesn’t have any difficulty.

The current recommended list price of £575 (excluding VAT) is rather on the high side. It compares reasonably well with single-sided V22 modems from other manufacturers, but when you consider that you could get more features for a similar price with a WS3000 or, for a little more, a Steebek Quattro, it does look a bit steep.

A spokesman for the company stated that the price included a two year warranty and excellent support. He also said that Hayes products in the US have a high second-hand value. However, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the price reduced before too long, as the modem market is in a state of flux at present with new manufacturers coming into it and prices dropping significantly. (The US Smartmodem 1200 is available in the States, from mail order companies, for around $400, and the Smartmodem 2400 for about $600.)

The documentation is clearly presented and is of a high standard. There is also a comprehensive index.

Smartcom II

Smartcom II is a ‘smart’ terminal package designed to be used with Hayes’ intelligent modems. The UK version of the US product, Smartcom II, has all the usual smart terminal features such as up and downloading of files, including XModem protocols. Details of up to 25 systems can be stored and these can be dialled and logged-onto automatically. DEC VT52/100 terminal emulation is also provided, but unfortunately Viewdata is not.

The program is menu-driven, which makes it very straightforward to use. However, as with any system, the menus can be a bit of a burden when you get used to the way the program works, especially as frequent disk accesses are involved.

When you run the program, the main menu is displayed at the top of the screen. One of the entries is highlighted, and underneath is a brief description of what it does. There is a comprehensive built-in ‘Help’ function available by pressing the F2 help key.

The program must be configured to suit your particular system before you are ready to go. Options include the serial port the modem is attached to, a parallel or serial printer, the number of disk drives, and various modem parameters such as tone or pulse dialling, loudspeaker volume and time to wait for a carrier to be detected. You must also edit the parameter sets to suit the systems you want to call – there are 26 in all, one of which cannot be altered; many of the other 25 are already defined when you buy the program. These definitions include a number of systems such as Telecom Gold, Telecom Gold via PSS, Dialog and Nexis. If any of these suit you, all you have to do is edit the phone number and enter your account and password (which can be hidden from prying eyes) in the auto-log-on section.

Going online is simply a matter of selecting T for ‘Begin communication’, followed by ‘O’ for Originate and the letter for the system you wish to call. The software then tells the modem to dial the number. When it is connected it will automatically log you on – marvellous if, like me, you are a bit ham-fisted, or can never remember the PSS code for the system you want to call. I have to admit that, before I started using them, I used to think that auto-dial modems were gilding the lily, but now I am converted. The cursor keys can also be used to step through the menus; the current option is highlighted, and can be selected by pressing ‘Return’.

The auto-log-on feature is just one of 26 macros that can be stored for each of the 25 definable systems. The macro features are very powerful. Up to 48 characters can be transmitted and you can choose the prompt character, the time to wait before assuming the prompt has got lost on the way, and whether or not a carriage return is required after the data. A number of lines of data can be used for each macro.

Once connected to a remote system, all the usual features are available. Prepared messages can be uploaded continuously or line by line. XModem (or Hayes’ own) error checking protocols are available for file transfer. The printer can be toggled on and off by pressing a function key, so can spooling of data to disk. The status line at the bottom tells you how much disk space is left, the state of the printer buffer, the name of the system that you are connected to, and whether the Caps & Num Lock keys are active – a nice touch if, unlike the Philips PC I was using, you don’t have LEDs on the keys.

Another very useful feature is the ability to scroll back through information which has disappeared off the top of the screen. The manual says that the amount of incoming data that can be viewed in this way depends on the amount of memory in your computer. I had 256k and on one test counted over 60 screens full, without filling the data buffer. This is a feature that should be much more widely available on all computer systems, not just on a terminal program like this. Why should data be lost just because it has scrolled off the top of the screen?

As well as macros, you can set up ‘Batch’ files. Each can store up to 500 keystrokes, and if this isn’t enough, they can be chained together. A batch can be set to run at a predetermined time, which is potentially a very powerful feature. You could set up a batch to call a system, log-on, read all your mail into a disk file and log-off again, completely unattended. Unfortunately, batches seem to be a late addition to Smartcom II, and they haven’t received the same care and attention to detail as the rest of the program. The way they are created is by actually going online and recording your keystrokes as you read your mail, for example, so any typing mistakes you make are recorded in the batch. Unlike the parameter sets for systems, batches can’t be edited or copied. Also, there is little provision for dealing with errors induced by line noise. This means that, unless you are sure of a good line, it isn’t advisable to rely on them working unattended. However, they are a very efficient way of reducing connect time when calling systems normally.

Smartcom II also supports remote access using the auto-answer facility of the modem. You can use it from a remote system (also running Smartcom) as if you were sitting at the keyboard of the host machine. A password can be set to prevent unauthorised access, which enables file transfer, viewing of disk directories, and viewing and erasing files. Smartcom II is designed to work with Hayes’, or Hayes-compatible modems. The problem here is that Hayes currently only sells a V22 (1200 bits/sec full duplex) modem in the UK. The software – in its autodial mode – only supports 600, 1200 and 2400 bits/sec. It can be used with 1200/75 systems, with a V23 modem that buffers the 75 bits/sec line to 1200 bits/sec. It needs to be Hayes-compatible, of course, and I had mixed results here. Smartcom recognised a Miracle Technology WS3000, but for some reason the modem wouldn’t respond to the auto-dial commands. A Steebeck Quattro wasn’t even recognised; I just got ‘Smartmodem not responding on COM1’. On paper, the Quattro seems to be virtually 100 per cent compatible with the Hayes Smartmodem 2400 (not yet available over here). I didn’t have time to pursue these problems in detail, and it may be that they could be overcome. However, it is obvious that you should try before you buy, if you want to make full use of a ‘compatible’ modem.

In fact, Smartcom II can be also used with non-Hayes’ and ‘dumb’ modems by choosing the ‘direct connect’ port option. This still enables you to use all the features of the program, apart from auto-dial. It is also possible to use a non-Hayes’, auto-dial modem by setting up one of the macros to issue the dial command. You could even set up a batch file to take you through the log-on process, which would avoid the need for Hayes compatibility.

Nothing is perfect, but Smartcom II has very few things missing. The most obvious omissions are Viewdata and full 300 bits/sec support. Viewdata is one area where Hayes does seem to have misjudged the UK market and it is likely to be added in a future release. 300 bits/sec support for Hayes-compatibles is another matter: I doubt that it will appear unless Hayes introduces a 300-baud modem of its own. There is also no provision for translation tables (to filter or amend the data streams) but control codes can be filtered out. The only thing that ‘niggled’ me was the fact that, although the modem detects the absence of the dial tone when trying to dial, the software doesn’t recognise this feature.

Smartcom II is a very nice package, carefully designed and implemented. The documentation is, for the most part, excellent, with a comprehensive index. Hayes maintains a help line which puts you straight through to people who know enough about the company’s products to be able to answer most questions easily; Hayes in the US has a good reputation for support. Smartcom II runs on the IBM PC and compatibles. Apparently they do have to be pretty compatible – it worked fine on the Philips P3100.

The recommended retail price is £140 (excl VAT) which is reasonably competitive (but I’ve seen it advertised in the US for $70! I don’t know how different the British version is to that one). It comes with vouchers for Telecom Gold, Nexis, Dialog and Knowledge Index.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, May 1986

Art For Art’s Sake

There are literally hundreds of Art applications available for home micros, ranging from simple doodlers to complex suites offering solid 3D animation; the choice is bewildering. So what features should you look out for when buying one for your machine? Andy Storer paints a picture of the perfect pixel package…

Image001

King Tut gets another airing – the original pic was picked up as brush, rotated in 3D, pasted down 4 times, swapped to tint mode and overlaid with two circles. Simple eh? On Deluxe Paint III maybe…

How many colours in the spectrum?

Whether you’re paying £3 or £300, most art programs provide a system of pull-down menus and icons for moving between the screen painting area and palette and painting tool control. This is absolutely essential, since you’ll want to be able to move quickly through the range of colours on hand and the painting ‘surface’ before you.

A good program will allow you to flick back to a full screen painting area after changing tools, operations or colours from an overlaid control panel. The more advanced packages will offer you the choice to scroll through a much larger area of work than can be displayed on screen at any one time or, alternatively, have a number of screens in memory that you can flick between.

Although you can buy packages for mono systems, most on offer are designed for colour. Obvious really. Painting’s all about colour isn’t it? Well, up to a point. The point being that you don’t need thousands of colours to produce effective artwork. The number of colours available to you will initially depend on the resolution your machine’s able to support and the degree to which the software allows mixing of the standard colours and combining them to form composite hues and shades.

But more sophisticated software can actually address the hardware to change the screen-scanning to display a new palette of colours on every line. Thus, for instance, Quantum Paint on the ST can offer 4,096 on-screen colours despite the ST offering only a choice of 16 from a palette of 512.

For general purposes, however, 256 colours is the most you’ll ever need – beyond that it becomes difficult to distinguish them. The best packages will offer you a full screen palette which displays all available colours, rather than a simple palette bordering it, thus allowing you to select the one you wish to use simply by clicking on it.

Image002

A 512 colour extravaganza on the ST’s Spectrum 512. But shouldn’t you only be able to see 16 colours at once?

Pixel Picassos

The beauty of electronic painting is the ability to continually modify your work without having to start all over again. Whilst a package will offer you the obvious option of a variable sized eraser, alterations are often likely to involve finer tuning than rubbing out whole areas.

So, for instance, once you’ve chosen a colour and done some drawing you will be able to change it simply by selecting a shade from the palette you wish to replace it with. Ideally, you should be able to click on any individual pixel of colour you’ve painted and be given its exact RGB code so that subtle alterations can be made.

In addition, it’s useful to have a ‘cycle draw’ option where you may select a range of adjacent colours to be painted in sequence as a brush line is drawn. In this way you can subtly blend colour to produce graded hues. In this respect it’s also useful if you can individually alter the hue and luminance of any particular pixel or area by simply clicking on a relevant icon.

The ‘front end’ control panel will allow you to choose between the range of painting tools on hand. A good package should offer you not only different pens, brushes, sprays and fills but a range of shapes, transformations, preset effects and texts. For freehand drawing, mouse control is infinitely preferable to the joystick or keyboard, assuming you don’t have a graphics tablet, and the range of pens and brushes should allow you a choice of line thickness, tip size and style.

Ideally, rather than preset sizes and shapes, you should be able to step up or down through a range. Likewise, sprays should also offer variable density and offer a choice of pattern, flow and nozzle type. The option to fill enclosed areas of artwork with a range of preset patterns is also essential, as is the ability to design your own fills.

Such design may require a fair degree of detail, so a facility allowing a graded zoom magnification of any area is also essential.

Ideally you should be able to grab any part of a screen and use it as fill for another and also merge, or ‘dither’, two adjacent fills so that a perfect gradation is apparent.

Getting into shape

Image005a

Any art package worth its salt should allow you to zoom into an area of the screen for detailed work. Even an average package will offer a zoom of 16x magnification.

Another feature worth looking out for in art packages is the ease with which it is possible to call up perfect circles and ellipses of varying size and thickness for exact positioning in the work area. Advanced packages will also allow you to smooth the curvature of a circle or ellipse to remove its jagged edges.

Of course, you’ll want to be able to construct other shapes, not all of them regular, and in this case you should look for a package that allows you to form multi-sided polygons. Creating the exact shape you desire is likely to be a process of hit and miss, so it also essential to have an ‘Undo’ function.

The most sophisticated features available to the pixel painter are block manipulations. Standard packages offer the facility to define sub-screen areas and move or copy them to other parts of the display. Middle range products will allow you stretch, skew, rotate and distort such defined blocks, whilst the more advanced will not only provide the tools to mirror, flip and invert the image-block but also make it opaque or transparent. It should also be possible to smear a specified area so that it appears to have been dragged. In addition, a more comprehensive package will allow you to outline and frame specified areas with a range of borders and define shadow depth and direction effects.

What can I get out of it though?

Unless you wish to incorporate your artwork into a program or game, then you’ll be wanting to produce hard copies of your masterpieces. The simplest way of achieving this is by photographing the screen. For this you’ll need a 35mm camera with a variable shutter speed which will allow you to shoot slow enough to avoid screen refresh lines in mid-scan. It’s best to shoot in a darkened room with the aperture wide open at a speed of 1/8 or l/4sec.

Colour printers aren’t much cop unless you’re prepared to fork out the readies, so the only other recommended way of displaying your work is by transferring it to videotape. A composite video lead between your micro and the video’s input should do the trick quite easily.

There’s always more…

This overview has concentrated on the options offered by paint packages and takes no account of related features, often incorporated, such as sprite construction, animation and 3D modelling. Express will be covering these areas in the near future.

Write then, let’s go

The inclusion of a text facility is also essential so that you may annotate diagrams or drawings. Here, you should look out for those programs which offer a range of text and font sizes and also include options to vary density and add outline, underlining and skew.

Finally, you should be able to save whole or part-screen files in a compressed form to save on disk space, and also be able to save and load palette and paint tool selections as new default values.

Graphically Superior

Rik Haynes checks out the best buys in graphics software for your machine…

Amiga

With its huge potential as a graphics workstation, and thanks to its superlative custom-designed  chips, the Amiga has perhaps the largest and most impressive selection of excellent graphics software and hardware. This includes a wide variety of paint and animation software, video digitisers, genlocks, etc. But this power unfortunately comes at a price – namely extra RAM and disk drives are not only recommended but absolutely essential in some cases.

DeluxePaint III

  • Paint and Animation Software
  • £79.99
  • Published by Electronic Arts

DeluxePaint III is the latest version of the most popular Amiga paint package around. Requiring 1Mb of RAM, DeluxePaint III includes an impressive paint-animation capability, extra-halfbrite 64-colour and overscan mode support, new wrap and tint brushes, font handling enhancements and substantial speed increases in all modes of operation. Electronic Arts is offering a upgrade service for owners of DeluxePaint (£50 + £5 carriage) and DeluxePaint II (£30 + £5 carriage).

Photon Paint 2.0

  • Paint Software
  • £85.99
  • Published by Microillusions, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Activision

Photon Paint 2.0 is a 4,096 colour HAM-compatible paint package with sophisticated brush operations, surface and contour mapping, shadowing with adjustable size and offset, and luminance with definable source location and intensity. Although Activision has yet to confirm plans to run an upgrade offer for owners of Photon Paint 1.0 in the UK, there is a service available in the US.

Sculpt 3-D

  • Animation Software
  • £85 inc VAT
  • Published by Byte by Byte, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Amiga Centre Scotland

Sculpt 3-D allows you to design and animate 3-dimensional scenes and incorporates an interactive object editor and power tools for constructing arbitrary solid shapes with symmetry, reflection, surfaces of revolution, extrusion, and cross section reconstruction. Sculpt 3-D also includes anti-aliasing, variable object colours and texture, unlimited (number, colour and placement) of light sources, arbitrary observer (placement, angle and direction) of view, phong shading, flat polygonal shading, full ray traced imaging with shadows and highlights, supports all the  Amiga’s graphics modes including overscan and 4,096 colour HAM, and is IFF-compatible.

Sculpt 4-D

  • Animation Software
  • £320 ex VAT
  • Published by Byte by Byte, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Amiga Centre Scotland

Sculpt 4-D is a state-of-the-art professional animation program which requires 1Mb of RAM and two disk drives. It includes substantial enhancements and additions to Sculpt-3D, though at this price, Sculpt 4-D is strictly for Amiga owning animation enthusiasts with loadsadosh.

Zoetrope

  • Paint and Animation Software
  • £99.95 inc VAT
  • Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by ISM on 0983 864674

Zoetrope is the Amiga version of the popular ST Cyber paint and animation series, and is split into five modes: painting, cell animation, image processing, video titling and “flip book” pencil testing. Zoetrope requires 1Mb of RAM.

Atari ST

Despite being overshadowed by the Amiga in the visual department, the ST has still managed to attract a wide variety of good quality graphics software which can produce some very impressive results.

Flare Paint

  • Paint Software
  • £34.99
  • Published by AMS/Logitech
  • Distributed in UK by Database Software

Flair Paint is the current flavour-of the-month paint package for ST artists, allowing you to draw images in low-res and high-res – but not medium-res – screen resolution modes.

Degas Elite

  • Paint Software
  • £24.99
  • Published by Electronic Arts

Degas Elite was one of the first paint packages released for the ST, and it still remains one of easiest and most versatile paint programs around for that machine, allowing you to draw images in low-res, medium-res and hi-res screen resolution modes.

Spectrum 512

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Another shot from Spectrum 512 on the ST, showing off smooth toned gradation across a range of colour.

  • Paint Software
  • £59.95 Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Electric Distribution.

Using scan-line palette changing software techniques, Spectrum 512 allows you to draw images on a low-res screen with 512 on-screen colours.

Cyber Studio

  • CAD-3D 2.0 and Cybermate Software
  • £79.95
  • Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Electric Distribution

Cyber Studio requires 1Mb of RAM and combines a 3-D design program Stereo CAD-3D 2.0 and powerful animation control language Cybermate. CAD-3D allows you to create 3D objects and includes camera view with variable zoom and perspective control, three independent user positioned light sources plus ambient lighting (all with variable intensity) and wireframe, hidden line, solid, or solid outline modes. Cybermate uses Forth-type commands to create animation sequences, incorporates delta compression techniques, special effects and lap dissolves and allows you to splice in animations from multiple sources.

Cyber Paint 2.0

  • 2D Paint and Animation Software
  • £69.95
  • Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Electric Distribution

Cyber Paint 2.0 allows to paint and animate 2-D images and can be used to add the final touches to a Cyber Studio 3-D animated sequence. It includes automatic image registration to create cel animation arrangements, real-time zoom mode, multiple static or animated overlaid images and special animation effects with automatic intermediate view generation (tweening) on any area of the screen. Cyber Paint 2.0 requires
1Mb of RAM.

Cyber Sculpt

  • 3D Sculpting Software
  • £79.95
  • Published by Antic, USA
  • Distributed in UK by Electric Distribution

Cyber Sculpt is a professional 3D off-station solid-modeler used to port 3D object files to high-end rendering systems – and includes variable magnification, spline path extrude and spin, face bevelling, and cross-sectional model creation. Cyber Sculpt requires 1Mb of RAM and Cyber Studio (CAD-3D 2.0).

PC

DeluxePaint II

  • Paint Software
  • £99.99
  • Published by Electronic Arts

DeluxePaint II is the PC version of the popular Amiga paint program, and allows you to draw images in CGA, EGA, VGA, MCGA, Hercules and Tandy graphics modes.

Spectrum

Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £12.95 (Spectrum 48K compatible)
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

Advanced Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £22.95 (Spectrum 128K Only) Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

C64

Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £12.95cs, £15.95dk
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

Advanced Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £22.95 (Disk Only)
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

CPC

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Even on the Amstrad CPC, a machine supporting only 4 colours, the range of fills is impressive – here it’s Advanced Art Studio from Rainbird.

Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £17.95dk
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

Advanced Art Studio

  • Paint Software
  • £22.95dk
  • Published by Rainbird
  • Distributed in UK by EEC

First published in New Computer Express magazine, 25th March 1989

Microsoft Excel

Microsoft Excel is a powerful, sophisticated spreadsheet which runs under Windows and has the potential to overtake Lotus 1-2-3 in the popularity stakes. But how do its features compare with those of its established Macintosh relative? Anthony Meier finds out.

Microsoft’s new spreadsheet program, Excel, looks set to leave Lotus 1-2-3 and its lookalikes well behind in the spreadsheet stakes. It promises to be the most powerful and user-friendly spreadsheet written to date. It is being introduced as the third generation spreadsheet for personal computers, and is designed primarily to run on machines based on the 80286 and 80386 microprocessors. Macintosh users will be familiar with this program already, as a version of Excel has been available for this machine for 24 months or so (see the ‘Function comparison’ box for a comparison between the two versions).

Overview

Excel is a sophisticated piece of software which offers many advanced spreadsheet facilities and programming features, an integrated onsheet database and a wide range of charting and graphing facilities. It is the first spreadsheet in the MS-DOS environment to offer interactive, dynamic linking of worksheets, a one-step automatic macro recorder and high-resolution output. It runs under Microsoft’s Windows 2.0 and takes full advantage of all its facilities, providing multiple worksheets in overlapping windows onscreen, pull-down menus and full mouse operations.

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Excel makes use of the ability of Windows 2 to have a number of spreadsheets open at once. The arrows at the top left size the windows. The most obvious difference from Excel on the Apple Macintosh is the use of colour.

A run-time version of Windows 2.0 is bundled with the program for users without the full version. A version of Excel is also planned for the OS/2 operating system. Windows 2.0 has an identical interface to that of OS/2 with Presentation Manager, so Excel users should find making the transition to that new operating system easy.

The machine I used for the review was a Dell 286 with a 20Mbyte hard disk, EGA card, colour monitor and mouse. I also had an AST card installed which increased the memory from 640K to 2.5Mbytes to give more room for testing large spreadsheets. There is only about 140K available for data on a standard 640K machine.

Installing the program on the hard disk was very simple. It involved inserting the setup disk, typing ‘setup’, and following the instructions given on the screen. These asked for the other disks supplied to be inserted one by one until all the necessary files had been copied across. I was supplied with 14 disks, eight of which contained the files for Excel, the other six were files for run-time Windows.

In use

When the program had been installed and loaded, I found Excel very simple to learn and use. Virtually all of the user-friendly features of the combinations of clicking, double-clicking and dragging.

The mouse can be used to give all the commands and instructions you need in Excel. It saves you from having to learn and type in commands at the keyboard, and makes program operation very fast. You can also keep your eyes on the screen instead of continually glancing at the keyboard. However, keyboard lovers can still use the keyboard instead of the mouse for all the commands and operations they need – even moving and sizing windows. Pressing the ‘Alt’ key makes the menu bar active, then pressing the underlined letter of the menu title you want (or using the cursor key and Return) pulls down that menu. Finally, pressing the underlined letter of the command you want (or using the cursor key and Return) invokes that command. Pressing the ‘Esc’ key cancels the menu selection.

The mouse, however, does make it quick to select a cell, or cells, for data entry – you just move the pointer to the cell you want and click to make it active. You then need to use the keyboard to type your data in. The mouse can also make operations like inserting and deleting rows and columns, and cutting, copying and pasting cells, very fast.

The mouse also comes in handy for entering cell references into formula. Instead of typing in a cell reference, you only need to point and click on the cell in question for its reference to be automatically inserted into the formula. Dragging the pointer across a range of cells inserts that range into the formula. And you can include references to cells on another spreadsheet (linking the spreadsheet) just by clicking on the cells in that other spreadsheet. This saves time setting up formulae and speeds up the creation of models.

Spreadsheet handling with Excel is very impressive. You can have several spreadsheets, charts and macro sheets onscreen at the same time, each one in its own window, like so many pieces of paper. You can shrink or expand the windows, depending on which one you are working on, and you can transfer information easily from one to the other.

Spreadsheets can easily be linked, allowing you to consolidate figures from as many different spreadsheets as desired. Because you can work on many spreadsheets at once, you can see the effects of changes in one worksheet on other linked worksheets immediately on the screen.

Each spreadsheet has a maximum of 16,384 rows by 256 columns, and it is easy to move quickly to any desired location using the mouse on the scroll bars along the sides of each window. Column widths and individual row heights can be adjusted easily with the mouse. Each window has a horizontal and a vertical split bar which you can use to divide the window into a maximum of four panes, to see different parts of a spreadsheet next to each other. You can also open up new windows for the same spreadsheet if this is more convenient. As you are expected to have many windows fighting for space on your screen, there is a window menu which lets you select the window you want to bring to the top of the others.

Functions

Excel has all the features and functions you would expect to find in a top spreadsheet package, such as cell protection, calculation options and zero suppression. It has an ‘undo’ feature that can reverse your last command if you make a mistake, and it also has a matching ‘repeat’ feature that you can use to repeat your last command.

Excel only recalculates those cells that have changed since the last calculation, thus speeding calculation. It also uses ‘background’ calculation which lets you continue working while it recalculates. And it doesn’t require you to wait until all the cells have been calculated before you can start working again, which is nice.

Excel has more functions than both Lotus 1-2-3 version 2 and Excel for the Macintosh. The box on page 140 gives a comparison, although functions alone should not be used as a guide to a program’s overall capabilities.

Many of Excel’s functions are similar to those of Lotus 1-2-3, so 1-2-3 users should be able to build spreadsheet models with Excel’s functions without too many problems. Some of the interesting new functions provided by Excel are as follows:

  • The ‘information’ function, CELL(type-of-info, reference), returns information about the formatting, location or contents of the upper left cell in ‘reference’. CELL(“width”, F13), for example, would give you the column width of cell F13. CELL(“format”, B12) would give you information on the cell formatting.
  • The text function, CODE(text), returns the numeric ASCII code of the first character in ‘text’. CODE(“Alphabet”), for instance, would equal 65. CODE(B5) would equal 70, where cell B5 contained the text “February”.
  • Excel can be used for working on arrays, which are groups of two or more values that can be used like a single value in formulae and functions. Excel also has matrix functions which can be used for working with these arrays. The matrix function, MMULT(array1,array2), returns the product of two arrays, where both arrays contain only numbers. This might be written as MMULT(A1:B2,D1:E2).

Compatibility with Lotus 1-2-3

Many of Excel’s new users are expected to be previous Lotus 1-2-3 users, and Microsoft has developed tools and functions within Excel to make learning and using the program easier for these users. The features will also help Excel integrate more easily into a Lotus 1-2-3 environment.

For beginners, two-way file compatibility enables spreadsheets to be exchanged between the two programs. Then there is a useful 1-2-3 macro translator that can automatically convert nearly all 1-2-3 macros into Excel macros. A ‘1-2-3 Help’ facility lets users type in the command sequences they would have used in 1-2-3 and automatically gives them the corresponding Excel commands.

Presentation features

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Fonts, type styles and colour can be used to enhance the appearance and logic of a spreadsheet both onscreen and when printed. Debits, for example, could appear in red

Excel’s presentation facilities are very impressive, and provide you with a wide range of screen display and printing options. You can turn the spreadsheet grid on or off, show or hide the row and column headings, switch them between R1C1 and A1 according to your personal preference, and choose between different font types and sizes. You can use up to four different fonts on one worksheet – individual row heights will automatically adjust to accommodate the font sizes you choose. There are 19 number-formatting options which are meant to be used for things like date formats, decimal places, commas and negative brackets.

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An Excel worksheet can be as plain or as detailed as you want, with grid lines and headers being optionally shown in various colours and styles.

Individual cells can be emboldened, underlined or italicised. You can add shading, create boxes or lines around cells or blocks of cells, and control screen colours to enhance the appearance of the screen display or printed document. You could have all the positive figures in a column display automatically as blue, and all negative figures red, for instance. All these facilities help you to produce printed documents that rival word processor output and can be used for final reports and presentations.

There is a page preview facility to let you see a miniature version of your page as it will look when printed out, which is very useful for checking pages before printing them. It is also useful for viewing large spreadsheet models like a map to give you a better idea of what they look like.

Printing

A wide variety of printers and plotters are supported, and your own printer and plotter drivers can be installed during the ‘SETUP’ procedure. High-resolution graphics printers are required if you want to take advantage of the graphics output of the program – a laser printer would be ideal.

Excel includes a sophisticated printer spooler that lets you queue up print jobs, control the printing operation and continue with your work while they print in the background.

Charts

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Charts are created by selecting an area of data and then choosing a chart style option. Charts are automatically updated as the data changes.

Excel has sophisticated charting and graphing facilities. A wide range of charts can be summoned instantly from selected spreadsheet cells and will change shape automatically if the cell contents are changed. You can see a chart in one window change as the data in the spreadsheet window alongside it is altered.

To create a chart from data in your spreadsheet, you first need to select the data you want to chart. This can be done by dragging the mouse across the relevant cells to highlight them, then you select the ‘File New’ command and click on the ‘Chart’ option. This creates a new chart window that automatically contains a default-type chart built up from the values in your highlighted cells.

The program has 44 pre-designed chart formats grouped into seven types of charts: area, bar, column, line, pie, scatter and combination. When any of these is created, the program provides default labels and designs. The charts are highly customisable, however, and most of the parameters can be altered to suit your own requirements. You can alter the colours, add text labels and legends, and scale the chart horizontally or vertically to get it to look just the way you want.

Excel004

Many chart styles are available. The ‘help’ system includes a cross-reference to Multi plan and 1-2-3 commands, so users who know what to do in those programs can transfer across.

Auditing & documenting

Excel has very useful auditing and documenting features. These help you check the logic and formulae in your model, track down errors and discrepancies, and document your model for your own reference and for other users. You can attach notes to any cell and view them using the ‘Show Window Info’ command. This command also shows you other information such as the cells that contain references to your active cell (dependents) and the cells that it refers to (precedents).

You can use the ‘Formula Select Special’ command to highlight all the dependents and precedents in the worksheet for easy identification. You can also automatically find all the cells with notes or those containing a particular formula.

These features are a great help when you are creating or amending a spreadsheet model and when you are checking its logic. They reduce the risk of missing important cells and making errors.

Excel has sophisticated cell-naming features, too. You can name each cell in a block of cells automatically by using a combination of the titles in your row and column headings. You can easily find cell references in a spreadsheet and replace them with names, and you can find cell names.

You can define a name which is not attached to a particular cell, but which refers to a value: ‘INFLATION’, for instance, can be defined to be ‘4%’. Then, whenever you use the name in formulae in your spreadsheet (and in other spreadsheets) it will equal 4%.

Macros

Excel005

Macros can be created line by line or recorded; this allows Excel to ‘learn’ a process that the user performs. A separate module allows for the conversion of 1-2-3 macros.

Excel has powerful macro facilities which let you pre-program the system to perform calculations and operations automatically. Excel macros have their own programming language and are created on separate macro sheets which are handled in the same way as spreadsheets. The macro commands are typed into cells in a column and, like cells on a spreadsheet, can be deleted, copied and moved around. You can have as many macro sheets as you want, and as many different macros as you can fit on each macro sheet. The macros can then be used with any spreadsheet.

You can incorporate branches and loops into your macro, and control can pass from one macro to another if certain conditions are satisfied. You can create ‘intelligent’ macros to interact with the user for example, to prompt for information at certain stages, using dialogue boxes.

There is also a group of macro commands for customising the appearance of the program itself. You can set up your own menu bar and menu options, and create your own commands and dialogue boxes. You can use these facilities to effectively create your own custom applications within Excel.

The automatic macro creation facility can be used to build macros if you want to avoid programming – this works by simply recording actions you perform. The ‘Record’ command starts the macro recording, after which you can perform the task you want to record. When you have finished, you give the ‘Stop Recorder’ command. When the macro has been recorded, it can be edited and added to just like any other macro. In fact, you can see your macro being created line by line as you perform the actions it records. You can do this if you place the macro sheet window next to your worksheet window.

Macros can also be used for creating new spreadsheet functions; these are called function macros as opposed to the command macros just described. The 131 functions already available cover most of the standard purposes I can envisage, but function macros can be created for more complex, customised requirements. A function macro called ‘PAYE’, for example, could be set up to calculate the tax due for a given set of variables such as gross pay, tax code, month, and so on. Function macros can be used in formulae in the same way as standard functions.

Database

Excel006

It is possible to create forms for the entry of information into a database section of an Excel worksheet. There is provision for creating search criteria for finding records.

Excel has on-sheet integrated database facilities with 11 database functions and a new feature, an automatic database form interface. Any rectangular area of the spreadsheet can be designated as the database area, after which its rows become database records and its columns database fields. All the database functions, like ‘EXTRACT’, ‘DSUM’ and ‘DMAX’, are then available for acting on the information, but these don’t interfere with other spreadsheet functions which can be used as normal.

The ‘Database Form’ command is used to bring up the automatically created form window, which you can use to enter, edit, delete and find records. The form resembles the standard form layout screen that many database programs provide, and makes using the database very simple.

The macro facilities can be used in conjunction with the database facilities to perform customised database operations and create customised database applications.

How Microsoft Excel compares to the Macintosh version

On running the Windows version of Excel for the first time, I was amazed at its similarity to the Macintosh version. The look of the spreadsheet with its cell grid, the cross pointer, the menu options and the way in which the mouse operated are all the same. The ways in which you create macros, databases and charts are the same, too. On closer inspection there are a few differences, all of them turning out to be improvements. The Windows version I used did not seem to be as fast, however, but the final release version should be faster as all the debugging code will have been removed.

The Windows version has all the features of the Mac version with many more besides. The first new feature difference I noticed was a status line at the bottom of the screen that gives brief explanations of each command as you move through the menu options – very helpful for the first-time user. Another feature is that you can choose between short and full menu options: short gives you the most commonly-used commands and may be more suitable for beginners; full gives you the complete range of commands.

On the Mac version you can adjust only column widths on a spreadsheet, but on the Windows version you can adjust the row height of individual rows as well. You can also use more than one font on a worksheet. Both these features give you a lot more flexibility in designing models and spreadsheet reports.

On the Windows version, there is a new ‘Arrange Windows’ command that automatically resizes and fits all your windows into neat boxes on the screen to let you see them all side by side. I found this feature very useful when my screen became cluttered with several spreadsheet windows.

The ‘Resume Excel’ feature from the Macintosh version has been enhanced in the form of the Workspace feature on the Windows version. This lets you save all open worksheets and window arrangements you are working on for any particular project as a workspace file, to which you can give a name. You can then reload that workspace file (or any other) if you wish to continue working on that project, and all your worksheets and windows will be opened up exactly as they were when you saved them.

The auditing and documentation features of the Windows version, described in the main text, are an important new addition that make the Windows version useful and practical, and there are also many new spreadsheet functions (see the ‘Function comparison’ box).

There are other differences too, but for day-to-day operations the programs are basically the same; and a Macintosh Excel user should have no problem at all getting to grips with complex spreadsheets on Excel for Windows. However, the Windows version offers more features and functionality which power users will find very useful indeed.

Data transfer

Data transfer facilities are very important, as you may often need to import data from other programs to Excel in order to perform analysis and create reports from it. Excel can read and write files in any of the following formats: text, CSV (comma separated values), SYLK, WKS and WK1 (Lotus 1-2-3), DIF, DBF2 and DBF3 (dBase II and III). This is a comprehensive range and facilitates the exchange of data with a wide variety of programs.

The Dynamic Data Exchange (DDE) protocol resident in Windows can also be used by Excel to exchange data with other programs running under Windows.

Documentation

The Excel manuals are well up to Microsoft’s usual standard, and I didn’t have to refer to them too often since the program’s menu options are fairly self-explanatory.

Conclusion

Excel is an impressive program, and there is no reason why it should not ultimately overtake Lotus 1-2-3. It has superior power and ease of use, more facilities, and it is easy for 1-2-3 users to upgrade to. I have been a regular user of Excel on the Macintosh for some time, and I am confident that Excel for Windows will serve me equally well.

Function comparison      
Function Type Lotus          1-2-3 Excel (Windows) Excel (Macintosh)
Maths/Trig 17 26 18
Logical/Special 18 34 23
Text/String 18 21 8
Date & Time 11 12 10
Financial 11 13 8
Statistical 7 14 11
Database 7 11 7
89 131 85

Anthony Meier is a chartered accountant and computer consultant.

First published in Personal Computer World magazine, December 1987

Release Your ST’s Potential

STPotential001

So you’ve got the machine that’s the envy of all other computer owners. What now? You need software. Whatever you want – entertainment, creative, serious – there is plenty to choose from. Richard Monteiro presents the ST good shopping guide.

In the mid ‘80s the head of Commodore Business Machines, Jack Tramiel, decided to quit. Wouldn’t you? Jack wanted to build a Tramiel empire and give each of his sons senior positions at CBM; Commodore decided against this. Off went Jack and sons. Tramiel’s travels took him to a sleepy company called Atari. It was run, unsuccessfully, by Warner Communications, which was only too happy to offload the withering company onto Jack.

Knowing that Commodore was hard at work trying to make something of the Amiga, Jack decided a rival product was necessary. After stealing much of Commodore’s top talent, Atari eventually gave birth to the ST. The success of the ST has made Atari what it is today – a force to be reckoned with.

So what? It’s the software you’re interested in! Since 1986, when the ST was conceived, Atari’s machine has become the most sought-after home computer by far. It is its unique multifarious talent that makes it such a hit. The 68000-based ST is good for many things: entertainment, creativity, serious use. Think of an application and then think of the ST. It’s as if the two were made for each other.

Although any machine in the ST range will cope with almost any application, specific STs will do the job even better. There’s the 520 – the baby – which is great for games and text processing on a small scale. Next in line is the 1040; ideal for graphics applications and MIDI sequencing, and for games players that just can’t get enough. The Mega ST2, third in line, is one mean machine when it comes to handling business accounts, organising data, heavy duty word processing and desktop publishing. And at the top of the mountain there’s the Mega ST4; a power user’s dream. For program development, constant office use or memory hungry applications, it’s unbeatable.

But it’s the software that maketh the machine. And what a fabulous selection there is. ST software is the envy of all other computer users. It’s sexy, it’s powerful, it’s easy to use and – most important – it does the job. Here’s the best software for virtually every conceivable application.

Words work

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Computers – or rather word processors – have removed the tedium from writing. Spelling mistakes can be removed instantly, choice words can be substituted for flat words, paragraph positions can be switched, pictures can be placed within text, text styles and document layout can be altered again and again until you’re satisfied.

If you need to churn out words regularly by the thousand and aren’t worried about style or fancy fonts, then there is only one text processor worth considering. It’s Protext (£99.95) from Amor (0733 68909). Protext is available across several formats; from Amstrad CPC to IBM PC. However, it is most powerful – and certainly most stable – in its ST form. This article was put together using ST Protext.

Amor’s text processor is fast, powerful, incorporates a spell checker and mail merge facilities, includes a powerful command line that provides MSDOS-like commands and lets you run script files. Because it’s so powerful, first time word processor users will find it hard going. If you’re looking for visual impact in your documents then forget Protext: apart from the usual bold, italics and so on, there is no provision for using different point sizes or merging graphic images with text.

First Word Plus (£79.95) from Electric Distribution (0480 496789) is the complete opposite to Protext. It’s easily grasped, uses traditional GEM menus and windows, allows text and graphics to be mixed, and has a mail merge functions. From a beginner’s point of view there’s no beating it. Old hacks, however, will soon tire of its slow screen updating and frustrating option selection procedure.

HB Marketing’s Wordup (£59.95) is one of those programs that borders between a word processor and a DTP package. You can do all the more usual things expected of a word processor such as spell checking, searching and replacing and general editing. You can also do similar things found in DTP packages: import pictures and force text to flow round the images, change the point size and style of fonts, have numerous fonts on screen. Certainly, if you want to produce fancy documents, go for HBM’s (0895 444433) offering. The only drawbacks are painfully slow screen updates and slow printed output.

Business dodges

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The ST isn’t generally seen as a business machine, although there are numerous serious applications that put to shame similar titles for the PC. STs – in particular the Mega 2 and Mega 4 – are great for number crunching; they’ve got a fast processor and lots of memory.

Undoubtedly the most popular database (or should that be suite of databases?) is Precision Software’s Superbase. There’s a Superbase to suit every pocket and every need. Superbase Personal (£59.95) is the entry-level package while Superbase Professional (£249.95) is at the top end. Along with text and numerical data sorting and storing, Superbase can store and retrieve pictures. Text and graphics can even be mixed within the same record. Naturally the Professional version has extras such as a programming language and comms support. Details from Precision on 01-330 7166.

Digita’s (0395 45059) Digicalc (£39.95) is a fast, solid and very reasonably-priced spreadsheet which will provide many people with everything they need. However, if you plan to do anything clever then something more powerful will be necessary. A heavier duty spreadsheet is VIP Professional (£149.95) from VIP Technologies (Silica, 01 300 3399). It’s an integrated suite of programs that can work partly as a database, partly as a graphing system and partly at what it is supposed to be: a Lotus 1-2-3 compatible spreadsheet. How’s about that for schizophrenia?

Personal Finance Manager is ideal if you suffer from cashflow problems and need sorting out. PFM from Microdeal (0726 68020) provides an easy way of looking after your bank account, building society account and credit cards. There’s a graphic display which visually demonstrates just how far into the red you’ve sunk. It’s a worthwhile £29.95.

See it move

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The ST’s high resolution modes and large colour palette make it ideal for graphic work. Indeed, this shows in the number of high quality art and animation packages around. There’s only one drawback to the ST’s graphics: there’s no standard screen format (at least, none that is in wide use). Over 10 file formats exist, with new ones being added all the time. For this reason it is wise to have two art packages or one package that copes with a lot of formats.

Although the ST has a palette of 512 colours, only 16 shades can be displayed on screen at once. At least, that’s the situation normally. Electric’s (0480 496789) Spectrum 512 (£59.95) graphics package boasts painting in all glorious 512 colours. The results are spectacular. Standard graphics functions are present including draw, line, circle, brush, fill and magnify. Sadly, though, there is nothing other than the 512-colour feature that is innovative. Such a package screams for ray tracing facilities, no matter how primitive.

Without a doubt, AMS’s Flair Paint (£34.99) is the most powerful art package. It’s the range of features and speed at which operations take place that are most impressive. Flair’s user interface is very slick – it’s also very novel (perhaps too radical for many first time users) and ultimately lets you flip between menus quickly. AMS’s (0925 413501) package supports Degas, Neo and IMG file formats. It can be used as a Desktop accessory which has all sorts of exciting implications when used alongside a DTP package.

Two notable graphics packages are Neochrome (£29.99 from Silica) and Degas Elite (£24.95 from EA). These two have been around almost since the ST was launched and between them account for the most widely used file formats.

The Cyber series distributed in this country by Electric (0480 496789) represent the most comprehensive drawing and animation utilities for the ST. The range of packages is phenomenal. For instance, there’s Cyber Paint 2 (£69.95) a spectacular graphics/animation tool, Cyber Studio (£79.95) which combines 3D drawing with a powerful animation scripting language, and Cyber Control (£59.95) for controlling Cyber animations.

Desktop lay

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Put an ST and Atari’s SLM804 together and you have a formidable, low-cost DTP kit. For instance, a Mega 2 and an Atari laser can be purchased for well under £2000. There’s no way you could get a comparable PC or Apple Mac setup for even twice the price. There’s a lot happening on the ST DTP scene; two packages to look out for in forthcoming months are Atari’s Calamus and Silica’s Pagestream.

Fleet Street Publisher (£125) from Mirrorsoft (01 377 4644) is nifty – and is well established. For precise control of text on the page and the final look of single documents, FSP is great. The lack of graphics functions and multi-page support are annoying, but bearable. FSP prints to dot matrix printers of all persuasions – drivers are available for HP, Postscript and Atari lasers.

Timeworks DTP (£99) from Electric (0480 496789) is another package worth considering. It can handle multiple page documents which is useful if you need to create reports or manuals. It’s easier to use than FSP, but not as comprehensive.

Play the game

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On average, there is one game released every two days for the ST. Now that’s not bad going. New games are generally released on the ST first and then converted to other formats. There are many good games, and everyone has their own opinion on what makes a five star game.

Virus, £19.95 from Firebird, for pose appeal. It’s a programmer’s game. Something to look at in awe and wonder how it was done. Difficult to play and hypnotic to watch. Something that also looks good is Palace’s Barbarian II. However, it also plays well and is extremely funny.

Leisure Suit Larry Goes Looking For Love In Several Wrong Places, £29.95 from Activision, as it’s such a nutty adventure. It will also keep you fit swapping all those disks.

For getting the adrenalin flowing there are several: Thunder Blade (£24.99 from US Gold), Andes Attack (£9.95 from Llamasoft), Flying Shark (£19.95 from Firebird), BAAL (£19.95 from Psygnosis), Jupiter Probe (£19.95 Microdeal), BDTA (£19.95 Electra).

Get down on it

Because the Atari ST has MIDI ports built in, it has an enormous library of MIDI sequencing and synthesizer specific software. Musicians were quick to realise the potential of inbuilt MIDI ports; and consequently the ST is very strong in this area with numerous professional packages on the market. There’s also the ST’s sound chip for making music. Although it’s not very sophisticated – being identical in performance to that of the Amstrad CPC – it is nonetheless capable of reasonable output. On that note (groan) here’s what’s available for utilising the internal sound chip.

Although EA’s (0753 49442) Music Construction Set (£24 95) requires some musical knowledge and has limited sound editing facilities, it is easy to use, flexible and good fun. Compositions can be played over the three ST channels and can consist of 16 instruments ranging from piano to sax. For four pence more Activision (0734 311666) can provide you with Music Studio which is mostly more of the same. However, you can plant coloured graphic blobs or true notes on staves. The idea being that both novice and professional can join in the fun.

There is really so much choice as far as MIDI software goes and much of it is first class. If it’s a sequencer you want then any of the following will do: Steinberg Pro-24 (regarded as the music industry standard), Sonus Masterpiece, Iconix, C-Lab Creator. Patch editors are too numerous to mention (most common synths are catered for). Syndromic Music on 01-444 9126 is an ST specialist. Tell it what you want to do – while mentioning the equipment you own – and it’ll be able to suggest something.

Learn the lingo

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Programming languages abound. Look hard enough and you’ll find everything from Fortran to Occam. The BASIC bundled with the ST is naff, which is why you’ll find more versions of BASIC than any other programming language for the ST. C and Assembler are the other two major contenders – and are the only languages worth using if you’re planning to write a five star game or decent application.

If you want to write programs in BASIC and then run them from the Desktop, you need a compiled BASIC. The only all-in-one package to provide this is Power BASIC (or the developers version called HiSoft BASIC). Power BASIC sells for £39.95 while HiSoft BASIC goes for £79.95. Both can be purchased from HiSoft on 0525 718181. The great bonus with HiSoft’s offerings is that they run and compile ST BASIC without need for modification. Even ST BASICS bugs have been deliberately replicated.

GFA BASIC and Compiler – two separate programs now bundled together and available from Glentop (01-441 4130) – retail for £49.95. GFA BASIC is an interpreted language which can be compiled by GFA Compiler. Makes sense. There is a new version, GFA BASIC V3, which unfortunately can’t be compiled because the appropriate package is still under development. GFA is probably the most popular simply because it was one of the first BASICS on the scene.

For complete control of the ST you need an Assembler. The best is HiSoft’s Devpac Version 2 (£59.95). Devpac scores highly over its competitors because it’s fully integrated. It is possible to edit, assemble and debug from the same core program. No messing about. It also happens to be fast and can assemble direct to memory.

As for C software, your best bet is Metacomco’s Lattice C Development System (£99.99). Phone 0272 428781 for details.

For games creation you might like to try ST OS from Mandarin (0625 878888) which, in reality, is another dressed-up version of BASIC. Unlike traditional BASICS, STOS is geared towards moving large areas of the screen, scrolling and music. It is very much a game creator’s dream. STOS offers much for £29.95. Adventure fans will pleased to know there’s something for them, STAC. Incentive’s (07356 77288) £39.95 package lets you create adventures in much the same way that STOS lets you write games. STAC requires far less programming knowledge.

Pick and choose

The ST’s work environment is pleasant enough, but could still do with a little tweaking. You’d be smart to invest in a few utilities to perk up your machine’s performance.

If you’ve got plenty of memory then HiSoft’s (0525 718181) Twist (£39.95) is worthwhile. It lets you keep several applications in memory and flip between them at a press of a key. Of course, the programs must stick to the constraints of GEM to work.

For designing printer fonts or screen fonts there’s nothing to equal the ST Club’s Fontkit Plus. Particularly at the agreeable price of £9.99. More on 0602 410241.

Utilities Plus (£29.95) from Microdeal (0726 68020) is the best value utilities package around. It’s a combination of five packages in one. There’s a sector editor that lets you alter file attributes, format individual sectors and restore deleted files; DOS shell which is an alternative method of using the GEM; disk organiser; ram disk and printer spooler; 21 smaller programs that provide everything from a key combination machine reset to automatically running an application.

Public domain libraries are an excellent source of utilities. Libraries worth checking follow: ST Club (0602 410241), Goodman PD (0782 335650), FloppyShop (0224 691824), Page 6 (0785 213928), Softville (0705 266509), Star UK (0224 593024)

Just £300 to spend

You’ve only got £300 to spend on software before being marooned on a desert island. So, what do you go for?

  • Protext, £99.95 from Arnor, for writing to your friends to tell them what a wonderful time you’re having.
  • Cyber Paint 2, £69.95 from Electric, for sketching the scenery and animating the results.
  • Flair Paint, £34.99 from AMS, for doing much the same as above, only faster.
  • Music Construction Set, £24.95 from EA, for churning out tunes of your own when you’re sick of the natives’ cacophony.
  • Andes Attack, £9.95 from Llamasoft, because there’s no chance you’ll ever complete it. And ‘cos it’s cheap.
  • Devpac V2, £59.95 from HiSoft, for hacking into Andes Attack and writing every application you couldn’t bring along.

Pay the price

Following are Atari’s official prices for the ST range of computers and a few of the latest special deals offered by select distributors and retailers. Do shop around: you’ll probably be able to pick up a machine at considerably less than the list price or, at the very least, find a very tempting software bundle.

Machine Price
520STFM* £299
1040STFM £499
Mega ST2 £899
Mega ST4 £1199

* For an extra £100 you can get the Super Pack. This comprises 21 top arcade games, organiser software and joystick. Notional value of all the freebies is £458.97.

Silica Shop (01-309 1111) sell all Atari hardware at Atari recommended prices. Do note that these prices exclude a monitor. The 520 and 1040 can be used with a television; fine for games, but not ideal for serious work. The SMI24 monochrome monitor sells for £99.99 while the colour SC1224 goes for £299.99.

Deals to watch out for: 520STFM plus Super Pack for £343.85 from Computer Express (0727 37451); 520STFM, Super Pack and 10 Air Miles vouchers for £399 from Compumart (0509 610444); 1040STFM, VIP Professional, Superbase Personal, Microsoft Write, mouse mat and Starter disks for £449 from Apolonia (01-738 8400); Mega ST4 plus SMI24 mono monitor for £899 from Bath Shack (0225 310300).

Vital statistics

Here’s a look at the ST’s technical specification for those interested in the Atari as a possible upgrade machine.

  • 512K RAM (520), 1Mbyte (1040), 2Mbytes (Mega 2), 4Mbytes (Mega 4). All machines come with operating system on 128K of ROM.
  • Three resolutions and 512-colour palette: low resolution (320 by 200 pixels in 16 colours), medium resolution (640 by 200 in four colours), high resolution (640 by 400 pixels in black and white).
  • Blitter chip present in Mega STs aids many graphics operations.
  • 68000 processor running at 8MHz.
  • Yamaha YM2149 three-channel sound chip capable of producing square sound waves.
  • 13-pin socket for interfacing to monochrome or colour monitor, parallel printer port, RS232, second drive socket, DMA interface, MIDI ports, joystick and mouse slots, cartridge port.

First published in New Computer Express, 11th March 1989