Computers: Return to the counting beads: William Hartston adds up the figures and decides pie charts are no plus with the VAT

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The Independent Online

Quattro Pro Version 4




System: PC-compatible


Software: Dos or Windows

Publisher: Borland

Availability: Dealers, mail order


Street: from pounds 70 (inc VAT)

FOR many years, indeed ever since my compulsory indoctrination into the joys of VAT, I have kept my accounts using an old program from Psion called Abacus. One step more sophisticated than a pen and ledger, it needed a good deal of encouragement before it would do what I wanted. But once I told it that the entry in column 2 had to be 15 per cent more than the one entered in column 1, it got the idea.

And when I had to change the 15 per cent to 17.5 per cent, and the 3/23 to 7/47 it was only a moment's work. Within days of first using it, I had tamed the beast to keep a running total of my vatable earnings and how much I owed Customs and Excise.

There were a number of problems that I never really solved. For instance, every so often, the 75 per cent of my telephone bill that I claim as a business expense turns mysteriously into pounds 75. And I always have to call the Independent rather familiarly 'Indep' because its full name will not fit into the space available.

Sometimes monetary amounts lose their pound signs and when I put them back my telephone claim goes back to pounds 75 again and I am told I have a 'type' error. But it is always easily corrected, even if I do not know why it went wrong in the first place.

Now, however, I have Quattro Pro from Borland and vast new horizons have opened up for doing new and wondrous things to my spreadsheet data. First, however, there are the usual four booklets: the Quick Reference Guide (18 slim pages), Getting Started (178 pages), Functions and Macros (265 pages) and the User's Guide (794 pages). The Quick Reference Guide, like all quick reference guides, is only of any use if you already know what you are doing. Functions and Macros is a dictionary of all the available commands, which you cannot look up if you do not know what they are and you do not need to look up if you do. The User's Guide is as long as War and Peace, but with fewer jokes, which leaves us with Getting Started which, mercifully, is written in a style sympathetic to the beginner and proceeds logically with examples that tell you what to do at each stage. As a computer manual, in fact, it is remarkably useful and intelligible.

After learning how to do the things I could already do on Abacus, I discovered that Quattro Pro lets me alter the width of the columns and call the Independent 'Independent'. It will even alter the widths for me, if I ask it to. And instead of just calling my file VAT93, I can elegantly head it 'Vat accounts 1993' in typesize and font of my choosing.

It will even understand when I am putting in a date and tell me how many days after 1 January 1900 that date was, but it does insist on doing its dates backwards, in American fashion. It also needs cajoling to produce pound signs and I expect, when I try to print them out, I will get a pounds instead. But that's Americans for you.

So within a few minutes, my Quattro Pro could do everything my Abacus did, only in more appropriately sized columns and a variety of typefaces. But for Abacus, getting the spreadsheet was the end of the exercise; for Quattro Pro it is only the start.

After playing with Zoom to make my on- screen data bigger or smaller, I moved on to the 15 kinds of graph I could use to display my income. There are, among others, 3-D, bar, area, ribbon and step graphs, pie graphs, column graphs, bubble graphs and high-low graphs, and if you do not select a type, you get a stacked bar graph without even asking. Then you can label the axes and scales on the graph.

Back on the simple spreadsheet, you can open up to 32 windows at once, enabling data to be copied from one to another, or figures compared.

With a What-If command, enabling the consequences of hypothetical figures to be calculated, and good facilities for statistical analyses and future projections, Quattro Pro has a wide range of features that seem to cover everything one could want to do with a spreadsheet.

I now have the technology to make my humble finances look like a big company's annual report, fully illustrated with charts and graphs, projecting my future income and debts into the next century. But who needs it? I have never yet worked my entire way through a computer software manual and this one certainly has facilities that I shall never dream of, let alone explore.

After two weeks of playing with this lovely toy all I have to show for it is a form from the Customs and Excise telling me that my VAT returns are late. Will they be impressed by a pie-chart? I think not. Would they take pity on me if he saw my projection for 1996? I doubt it. They just want their 17.5 per cent - and now.

The entire program takes up 6 megabytes of my over-crowded hard disc. I do not like feeling that my programs are snuggling too close to one another; they need room to think. For anyone with a very large hard disc and a business of appalling diversity, Quattro Pro must be excellent value but I think I will be going back to Abacus. I like to keep things simple and get my next VAT return in on time.

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