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Spreadsheets in the spotlight

We compared the spreadsheet capabilities of four popular office suites.

Tesco Spreadsheet (£20)

Tesco Spreadsheet looks virtually identical to Microsoft Excel, even down to the blue colour scheme. But, unlike Excel, you aren't greeted by the help panel when you fire it up for the first time.

We looked at three different areas to compare the applications: building a simple formula, sorting data and creating a chart.

For the first task, Tesco Spreadsheet is easy to use. If you select your data and click on the Sum icon it will automatically add up all the figures. However, if you want to go beyond this simple addition formula you will have to work it out for yourself.

The Sort function is similarly complex: you can sort data using various criteria, but must first select the data you want to order. Sort options are not as comprehensive as they are in Excel.

Creating a basic chart in Spreadsheet is easy enough, but you don't get the same range of chart types and designs as you do in Excel. Accessing chart formatting tools is even less intuitive.

Tesco Spreadsheet

Chart creation is relatively simple

Bottom line: although Spreadsheet is cheap and easy to use, it's hard to figure out how to use anything more than basic formulae. It has limited styles and a widely unsupported native file format.

Microsoft Excel 2003 (£296 for full suite)

Excel offers the widest range of features and functions but, despite the breadth of options on offer, it's still the easiest to use.

When you first start the software a help panel will pop up – and this assistance continues when you start to use the software. Creating formulae from scratch can be complicated, but Excel walks you through the process. It allows you to search for the formula you want, or to choose it from a drop-down list next to the Sum button.

Sorting data is a breeze with Excel. Just click your mouse in any cell in the data list and it will select all the records in that list. Click on Data, Sort and choose how you would like it displayed.

You can use Excel to create a chart based on your data and then save it as part of the spreadsheet or as a new sheet. There's a wealth of chart options and designs to choose from, so you should be able to find one to suit. A wizard walks you through this process.

Microsoft Excel 2003

Excel offers a wide range of chart types

Bottom line: Excel is easy to use, with a good help menu and walkthroughs for complex formulae and charts. It has high-end, intuitive features – although these may confuse novices. Its native file format is widely supported, but it’s very expensive.

Microsoft Works 8.0 Spreadsheet (£28)

Works Spreadsheet greets new users with a getting started help panel. This contains links to two of the three main tasks we asked our spreadsheets to tackle: creating formulae and charts.

Works uses EasyCalc to help build formulae. Choose from a list of main formulae, such as adding and subtracting, or click on Other to access more complicated formulae. Works walks you through the process of creating a formula. And this hand-holding approach makes getting to grips with spreadsheets and how they work much easier.

Building a chart from your data is equally simple. You can choose between nine chart types and there are basic customisation options. This doesn't provide such sophisticated charting options as Excel, but should be more than enough to meet the needs of home users.

Sorting data works in a similar way to Excel, but you do need to select the data to be sorted beforehand, as with Tesco Spreadsheet. Spreadsheet doesn't have any advanced features and can't expand to meet sophisticated needs, but it has everything a home user needs.

Microsoft Works 8 Spreadsheet

EasyCalc makes creating formulae easier

Bottom line: Spreadsheet is a low-cost, simple-to-use app with a good help system and menu. If only it had some advanced features.

OpenOffice.org Calc (free)

Calc is aimed at businesses rather than home users and a lot of the features might go over a novice's head. When we looked up some of them using the Help feature, we found it couldn't shed any light. And rather than popping up in the main window, the Help menu takes it over, so you can't explore the program in the meantime.

Calc was the trickiest spreadsheet to master. Creating formulae isn't straightforward and there are no wizards to help you. And finding what you need means digging around in the menu system.

But the Sort feature was far easier to use and it works in exactly the same way as Microsoft Excel. You can select a list of records by clicking in the cell at the top of the list.

Creating a chart is quite simple and Calc offers a wide selection of designs, although this is not as great as Excel. The process of designing a chart is wizard-based and, once you have inserted your chart, the relevant toolbar pops up to allow you to edit its content.

OpenOffice Calc

Calc has a good range of chart styles

Bottom line: most importantly, Calc is free. But it isn't the best solution for a novice. Features are overly complex, the help system is poorly implemented and creating formulae is tricky.

Click here to read our verdicts on the word-processing capabilities of four popular office suites.

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