In my previous article, “Choose the right word processor: WordPerfect, StarOffice Writer, or Word XP”, I compared the word processing components from Microsoft’s Office XP, Corel WordPerfect suite, and Sun’s StarOffice suite. Now let’s turn our attention to the spreadsheet components of these office suites. Here’s how Microsoft Excel XP, Corel Quattro Pro 9, and the beta version of StarOffice Calc 6 compare.

Near look-alikes
Overall, these three packages have a similar look and feel, but there are a few subtle differences. StarOffice Calc differs the most, because its toolbar is to the left of the window and it uses a large portion of the main toolbar at the top of the screen for recently saved files. All three programs use the bottom of the window for message notifications.

Figure A
Here you see a sample of the Microsoft Excel XP user interface.

Figure B
The Corel Quattro Pro user interface looks most similar to the Excel spreadsheet sample.

Figure C
The StarOffice Calc user interface’s toolbar isn’t at the top of the screen like in Excel and Quattro Pro.

Syntax, interoperability, and reverse compatibility
How do these three spreadsheet components add up in the areas of syntax, interoperability, and reverse compatibility? It would go something like this: =sum(a1:a4), which I refer to as “equals” syntax in Excel and StarOffice Calc or @sum(a1..a4), which I refer to as @ syntax in Quattro Pro (Excel can use either expression). But seriously, for formulas, the packages differ only slightly in their syntax. Quattro Pro uses the older Lotus syntax (which Excel will also support), and Sun Calc uses the same equals syntax that Excel uses by default. Cell ranges are also identified differently with Excel and StarOffice Calc favoring the use of a colon between the starting and ending cell, while Quattro Pro uses double periods (..) to signify the range.

But the differences between the programs don’t stop here. I was unable to open any version of Quattro Pro files in StarOffice Calc, and opening Quattro Pro files in Excel was far from trouble-free; while formulas generally converted, spreadsheet formatting was not well preserved. Opening up a mildly complex Excel worksheet in Quattro Pro worked fairly well, but certain formulas were unable to be preserved, and that required some rewriting.

The formulas in question were mainly table lookup formulas such as vlookup and hlookup. The one saving grace in this exercise was opening up the Excel worksheet in StarOffice Calc. Almost all of the formatting and formulas were preserved without any disruption. The only information that was modified was the format of the dates in the spreadsheet, which was only a minor annoyance and was easily fixed.

It’s obvious that interoperability between these three products would be difficult in an environment that supports more than one of them. All of the products are more than capable of importing older versions of their own files. StarOffice Calc can import an impressive array of files ranging from PFS Data to Excel XP; it runs the whole range. Excel XP is also fairly capable, while Quattro Pro suffers the most in the area of interoperability.

The first major annoyance that I found in any of the three packages was StarOffice Calc’s method of deleting the contents of a cell. When your cursor is placed on a cell and it is activated, pressing the Delete key on the keyboard does not simply delete the data. Instead, you are provided with a menu with various options on what you actually want to delete. While I can understand the potential utility of a feature such as this, I think users who are accustomed to using the Delete key might not appreciate it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find a way to turn it off. The only workaround that I found was to use the backspace key instead.

Figure D
StarOffice Calc’s Delete Contents menu was more of an annoyance than an advantage.

My only other annoyance is also with StarOffice: An initial loading of any of the StarOffice components can take quite some time. Once a module is loaded, however, the next one loads much more quickly.

Functions, functions everywhere
All three products feature an impressive array of functions ranging from a simple search function to complex financial functions and string manipulation functions. All three packages feature function wizards, which assist with the building of functions. Excel XP also uses a tag to show you the parameters of the function that you are building and boldfaces the current parameter when you’re not using the wizard. I find this feature extremely helpful, because it means I won’t need to rely on the wizard or the help system every time I want to use a new function. Neither Quattro Pro 9 nor the beta of StarOffice Calc have this feature.

As a test of the error handling features of each package, I used a very simple function in cell A1—which consisted of =sum(a1:a4) or @sum(a1:a4), depending on the package—that contained a circular reference, or a call to the cell that housed the function. In all three packages, I was notified of the error, but Excel and StarOffice Calc made the error obvious. Excel popped up a window indicating the error (see Figure E).

Figure E
Excel notifies you of a circular reference via a pop-up window.

StarOffice Calc placed an error message directly in the cell (see Figure F) and a more descriptive message in the notification area at the bottom of the window.

Figure F
StarOffice Calc places the circular reference error directly into the cell.

Quattro Pro also notified me of the error but only via a small icon on the status bar (see Figure G). What’s more, the formula actually calculated but just excluded the cell in question. In my opinion, this is a very poor way to handle a circular reference error.

Figure G
Quattro indicates a circular reference via small red arrows on the status bar.

Looking for directions?
All three products include a comprehensive help system, which I find extremely important. Unlike the StarOffice Write, Calc seems to include a decent help system, and Excel and Quattro Pro both contain excellent systems. Both Excel and Quattro Pro’s help systems are comprehensive and complete. StarOffice Calc’s is not quite as complete, but the software is still in beta and will hopefully be more complete once it is released. Thankfully, Excel has replaced “Clippy” with a more traditional and useful help system.

The bottom line
All in all, these three packages perform very well. If you’re recommending a brand new spreadsheet program for your enterprise, any of the three will work well. A single license for either Excel or Quattro Pro can cost hundreds of dollars; however, once it’s released, StarOffice Calc will be either free for download from Sun’s Web site or available on CD at a minimal cost.

Share your opinion

Which spreadsheet program is your favorite and why? Have you recently switched spreadsheets? Would you trust your spreadsheets to a relative newcomer like Sun’s StarOffice Calc? Post a comment to this article and let your voice be heard.