Imagine a spreadsheet program that allows you to link up with a stock exchange. As the prices of your securities rise or fall, the figures in your portfolio spreadsheet change on your computer screen.
At the same time, bright red bars in a small chart occupying one corner of your screen bounce up and down, instantly illustrating your fortunes (or misfortunes).
When the market closes, your laser printer can produce a nearly typeset-quality report of the day's results, mixing various styles and sizes of type on the page, if you wish, complete with a perfect copy of the chart.
All of this is possible. In fact, it can be done with just a few sweeps of a pointing gadget called a mouse and several taps of the mouse's button.
The software behind this is called Excel, a Microsoft program that has set a new standard for electronic spreadsheets. Excel simply does things that Lotus 1-2-3, the top-selling spreadsheet program, and other spreadsheet programs cannot do: among other things, it displays and prints typography so complex that it can reproduce the IRS 1040 tax form and share data simultaneously among several spreadsheets and with other programs.
Excel first was written for Apple's Macintosh, so it was designed to take advantage of that computer's graphics and mouse-driven, easy-to-use features from the beginning.
When Microsoft created a version for IBM personal computers and compatible machines--the version being reviewed in this column--it had Excel run with Windows software, bringing Macintosh-style computing to the PC world. But it won't run well on low-powered PC and XT-class computers. It requires at least an AT-class computer and runs even better on machines with 80386 microprocessors.
You can do three basic kinds of tasks with Excel--create spreadsheets, which commonly are used to perform complex number-crunching; create databases to keep track of information such as customer lists or inventories, and create colorful charts to illustrate relationships of data. For any of these applications, you can produce an on-screen look or printed reports rivaling the quality of professionally designed, typeset documents.
Listed at $495, the same price as Lotus 1-2-3, Excel seems like a bargain, but there are other costs to keep in mind. Windows ($99) isn't an absolute necessity since a limited version of it is included with Excel. But if you want to get the most out of the program, such as being able to link your spreadsheets to files in other programs, you'll need the full Windows program. (It is the Windows "Dynamic Data Exchange" function that allows your spreadsheet to get real-time stock quotes, assuming you have the proper communications software and stock exchange data access.)
Then there is the cost of the hardware. Microsoft recommends a high-performance IBM PC AT or compatible machine, Personal System/2 Model 50 or more powerful PS/2 machine, or a 386-chip computer with a hard disk. You also need at least 640 kilobytes of random access memory and a graphics video card.
Although not required, a mouse for moving around on the screen, an enhanced graphics adapter or higher resolution card, a color monitor and expanded computer memory provide significant advantages. You'll also want a laser printer or high-resolution color printer to get the most out of the program.
You can have multiple spreadsheets open at once and link them so that a change in one changes related data in the others. But if those spreadsheets occupy more than about 180 kilobytes of memory, you'll need to add memory to your computer, which is another expense.
Owners of lower-performance IBM PC and XT and compatible computers that run Lotus 1-2-3 just fine will find that they lack the processing speed to use Excel. (Microsoft does offer a $995 package combining Excel with its Mach 20 board to add a AT-class 80286 chip to a PC or XT plus 512K additional memory, which is a $390 savings over the cost of the separate components.)
Excel has 131 built-in functions, compared to a maximum of 84 for the current version of Lotus 1-2-3 and its accessory enhancement program, HAL. One of the more useful functions is UNDO, which lets you correct mistakes easily.
Among the others are 15 mathematical, 7 trigonometric, 13 financial and 11 database functions. There are also 21 kinds of text functions, including search and replace and the ability to extract phrases from sentences.
Any position in the spreadsheet, called a cell, can have a note attached to it, documenting its contents or explaining the logic of the spreadsheet's structure.
Excel speeds your work by recalculating only those cells affected by any change you make. It also will suspend recalculations whenever you type or move the mouse, resuming only when you pause.
Both Excel and Lotus allow you to create rows and columns of data and treat them as a database, but Excel has some nice enhancements. It automatically creates a data entry form, making it easier to type in your information.