Computers: Software with a basic instinct for figures: Spreadsheets are super at calculating figures and excel at presenting them. But Andrew Brown finds they can also complicate matters

THE MAIN reason I use a spreadsheet is that it makes indecent suggestions in the voice of the villainess from Basic Instinct, something accountants too seldom do in my experience.

Spreadsheets, the programs which computerise ledgers of figures, have been little covered on this page because is hard to think of a use for them in a normal household and in business the uses are obvious. I keep my expenses on mine; they are invaluable for this, especially when foreign travel is involved, since you enter the rate of exchange once for each currency and then the spreadsheet does all the conversions, producing wonderfuly pretty and organised looking statements.

The other reason for ignoring them is more general. You might call it Brown's first law of upgrading: It's Never Worth the Effort.

Simple greed first led me to set up a system of linked and consolidated expense claims in 1989, when Computer Associates reduced the price of its Dos spreadsheet, Supercalc 5, to pounds 90. Supercalc came with four manuals, which, took up about four inches of shelf space. A year later, I upgraded to Windows, and Microsoft Excel 3, which came, I think, with six manuals: I am not sure because I never opened two of them at all and all are now in storage.

Excel 3 did not allow me to set up 'three-dimensional' spreadsheets as Supercalc had done. In all other respects, it was infinitely easier to use and more powerful. But to consolidate a mass of expense claims and reach one total, I had to 'link' separate sheets, so that the summary refers to nine or ten separate files on disk, each of which must be loaded when I want to look at it. Each time it does this, it triggers off the 'question' sound effect, which was set up some months ago to ask in a Sharon Stone voice 'have you ever . . . on cocaine?'

In order to escape from the questioning voice - imagine the effect if you are on the telephone to someone while doing your expenses - I decided to switch to the latest version of Lotus 1-2-3, which also used three-dimensional worksheets. This came with only one manual, half an inch thick.

I thought this was real progress until I tried to make it do exactly what I wanted. The result was like trying to nail down a marquee in a hurricane.

At first, the program would not set up dates my way. I want it to say 'December 19 1994' and it insists on saying 'Dec-19-94'. This is a small thing, I admit, but frustrating. Then I discovered that nine files which in Excel had been about 4,000 bytes each in size had bloated to 1.7 megabytes - nearly 50 times as large - when consolidated into one Lotus file. This turned out to be avoidable: all I had to do was to avoid formatting columns and rows the obvious way and do it a long and complicated way.

Then I spent a couple of days working out how to sort summary sheets so that the unpaid expenses were at the top without reducing them to a heap of gibberish. In all this, the only help I got in the Lotus forum on Compuserve, the computer information and messaging network, was from Lotus employees, which I regard as a bad sign. Greatly loved products tend to generate obsessional users, who will work for hours helping out the less fortunate.

But the real problem came when I was trying to make 16 sheets in the file resemble each other exactly and the top, summary sheet, hardly at all. There is a facility to 'Group' sheets, so that the changes you make to the layout of one are reflected in all of them. But it is easy to slip up with this and change sheets you did not mean to. And there seems to be no way easily to make new sheets conform to a previously set up 'template', as I could in Excel.

The real trouble came when I decided to write a 'macro' - a sequence of instructions like a small program, initiated with one keystroke - to group and ungroup sheets. There is a wonderfully simple and clever way of drawing 'push-buttons' on to the sheet, which will, when 'pushed', carry out almost any sequence of actions. You could have a whole row of increasingly unhelpful adages available at the push of a button, depending on how disastrous your financial situation is.

But you still have to write the macros attached to the button first. It was simple enough to record one that switched Group mode on and another to switch Group mode off. But what I wanted was a single button which would switch it on if off and vice versa.

It took almost three hours, in spite of or maybe because of the best efforts of the help system. Finally I gave up in despair. All this is the more disappointing because Lotus's word processor, Ami Pro, is wonderfully easy to use.

I am now in the market for a spreadsheet with one manual about two-inches thick, which will not ask stupid questions and will not give dumb answers, either. Does such a thing exist?


1-2-3: Lotus; 0784-455445; pounds 280

Excel: Microsoft; 0734 270001; pounds 375

Quattro Pro: Borland; 0800 212727; pounds 92

(Street prices inclusive of VAT)

Availability: Dealers, superstores, selected retail outlets.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In my grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

Spanx launches range of jeans

The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
10 best over-ear headphones

Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel