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Software choices for today.

Software choices for today In purchasing software, the key is to buy the right combination and to use its parts well separately and together. Most programs contain more features than the average user needs. Unless you are looking for complex graphics-based programs or sophisticated programs to measure chromatography peak detection and integration or other biochemical parameters, you're likely to find whatever you want in existing software.

In my experience, more than 80 per cent of people use their software inefficiently because they have not read the manuals. A typical example is repeatedly typing common phrases instead of storing them and calling them up at will with a few keystrokes.

* Operating systems. The first aspect of selecting software is deciding on an operating system, the program that controls all other programs. Choices come in three major categories:

MS-DOS. The operating system MS-DOS (Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.) is the most popular. It is nearly identical to IBM-DOS. This is the system you need to run all popular software, and it may be all you need. In fact, version 3.3 of MS-DOS and IBM-DOS, from 1988, serves most purposes. The latest version, 4.0, handles larger hard disks, more memory, and bigger files, but is rarely required.

Windows. A system with a graphics interface, Windows (Microsoft Corp.) can shift quickly among several programs. The newest version, 3.0, which has received rave reviews, creates a screen similar to that of the Macintosh. You will need Windows to run specialized programs such as Excel (also from Microsoft), a graphics-based spreadsheet, or desktop publishing software such as Venture (Xerox Corp.) or PageMaker (Aldus Corp., Seattle).

Unless Windows is used on a very fast AT, however, programs run exceedingly slowly (see my hardware recommendations for Windows in last month's column). Windows is best for graphics applications and for transferring data among several programs. Example: You can draw a diagram with one program and transfer it to a text document prepared with another program.

OS/2. The new operating system for the IBM Ps2 computers and their clones, OS/2, is similar to Windows but probably more efficient and cohesive. It requires large amounts of memory (apparently more than Windows 3.0) and a fast computer. Most users needn't change to OS/2. If your application doesn't require it, you probably don't need it.

* Types of software. The high quality of most programs has simplified selection. Most users need one program for word processing, one for spreadsheets, one for drawing diagrams and charts, and several utilities.

Word processing. I recommend Microsoft Word 5.0 (Microsoft Corp.) and WordPerfect 5.1 (WordPerfect Corp., Orem, Utah). My personal preference is Word because it can use different leter fonts (styles) easily. At a list price of around $450 each, Word or WordPerfect can be purchased by mail for about $200. Both are easy to learn and offer advanced features, such as preparing tables of contents, indices, and outlines.

Microsoft Word for Windows is probably the best hybrid available. It combines the features of a graphics interface found in Apple computers with the sophistication of high-end word processors. Word for Windows is uniquely suited to desktop publishing and for preparing tables that combine text with numbers. It can be used to set up multiple columns and complex tables easily.

Word for Windows and Word 5.0 probably have all the features you want and others you never suspected were possible on a modest PC. Several people can collaborate on documents, for example, by marking the sections changed and "pasting" notes with comments on portions of the document. The drawback of Word for Windows is slowness; to work with it propery, you need an 80386 or at least a fast 80286.

Nearly all other commercial word processing programs meet practically all needs, with some programs uniquely suited for specific needs (such as writing chemical formulas, or editing comments from multiple reviewers). Modern word processing programs allow you to produce fairly professional-looking newsletters, manuals, and brochures without special publishing software. If you have a slow PC or XT or a laptop, consider PC-Write, an excellent and fast word processing program that is widely (and legally) available for under $10.

Spreadsheets. A spreadsheet can perform most of the same functions as a database. Inexpensive ones such as Quattro (Borland International, Scotts Valley, Calif.) meet the demands of most users. Lotus 1-2-3 and Symphony (both from Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge, Mas.) remain popular. An excellent alternative is Microsoft Excel, which is compatible with other programs running under Windows.

Databases. A new category of products called personal information managers combines database features with organization and text search procedures. As a general rule, if your data are well classified and consist of well-defined categories and numbers, you will obtain excellent results from a traditional database such as dBase IV (Ashton-Tate Corp., Torrance, Calif.), R-Base for DOS (Microrim Inc., Redmond, Wash.), Paradox (Borland International), DataEase (DataEase International, Trumbull, Conn.), or Q&A (Symantec, Cupertino, Calif.). These databases allow you too select information according to any combination of criteria--for example, all patients over age 60 who have blood cholesterol levels greater than 200 and are scheduled for bypass surgery.

(Note: If you are not a professional programmer, don't attempt to design or program complex systems. Resist C, BASIC, and other programming languages. Instead, explore such easy-to-use databases as Q&A and DataEase. Another tack is to create macros in a spreadsheet or word processing program.)

Choose databse software according to the level you need. Complex ones may take too much time to learn and contain features you will never use. One interesting feature of DataEase is the user's ability to point to a particular field (item to be entered) and be offered a choice of alternatives to minimize errors in data entry. Other programs also offer this feature but require more extensive programming to obtain it. Modern databases let you retrieve information and write beautiful reports with very little programming. Excellent public-domain database programs, such as PC-File (Jim Button, Bellevue, Wash.), cost under $50 through such sources as magazine advertisements for public-domain software.

If the data you enter consist primarily of text in poorly defined categories, and your predominant ambition is to store random pieces of information and retrieve them using any item as a keyword, look into the text-oriented databases, such as askSam (askSam Systems, Washington Perry, Fla.). AskSam allows more than one item per field. For example, if you define a field as a phone number, you can store several phone numbers in it without having to allocate space, as required in conventional databases. Fields are of variable length; that is, brief or extensive amounts of information can be stored without predefining the lenghth of each field.

You can also search for any item. Iy you create a comment field and store a reminder to yourself--"Remember to call J. on Monday, the guy I met at the morgue last week"--you can search for it three months later by using any of those words in any combination, such as Monday, guy, and morgue. Most other database programs do not permit this flexibility. The price you pay is less speed and reduced ease of use. To get nice reports, you have to write short programs. AskSam would be too slow for complex applications such as running an on-line inquiry system for laboratory results in a hospital. It is ideal, however, for storing ideas, contacts, things to do, abstracts of articles, file on references, and any textlike information. It can also be used to set up a simple accounting system, as for keeping track of checks or orders.

Keep in mind that a word processor may also function as a simple text database: You merely type the information and use the search function to find it. This practice works well for personal databases that do not require complex searches (a catalog of your books, articles, valued possessions, or office supplies).

Graphics. Good graphics programs open the door to new applications. You can prepare posters, exhibits, brochures, training programs, demonstrations, materials for in-service presentations, and anything else your imagination and time permit, in color or black and white, transparencies or slides. The basic types of graphics are data charts of plots, word charts or text tables, and diagrams or drawings. Some programs, such as Freelance (Lotus), do all three well.

Other specialize in illustrations: Arts & Letters (Computer Support Group, Dallas), containing thousands of clip art drawings; Corel Draw (Corel Systems Corp., Ottawa, Ont., Canada); and Designer (Micrografx, Inc., Richardson, Tex.). Modern drawing programs "draw" by selecting icons with the basic image from a dictionary of "pictures" and pasting them on the screen. The software allows you to stretch, connect, enlarge, rotate, or duplicate or to assign colors, words, or symbols. My artistic skills are almost zero; when I draw an elephant, it looks like a canoe. Yet with good software I can produce terrifically complex birthday cards that impress my friends. With Arts & Letters, Corel Draw, and Designer you can draw words along curves, shade or shadow text and figures, and create fancy pictures or technical drawings.

Because graphics programs are slow, considerable patience is required. Don't even consider buying one unless you're prepared to purchase an output device of appropriate quality on which to print your creation.

Highly detailed presentations can be created by combining a computer and projection screens. Alternatively, it is possible to use a special video card that produces a signal to be recorded on a VCR. There are software programs that help you create a sequence of images and text (which could be copied to a VCR or displayed on a large screen). These programs, referred to as presentation graphics software, facilitate the creation of do-it-yourself training programs and educational material. One such program is Power Point (Microsoft).

Utilities. These help the computer work efficiently. They do various jobs: search for or reorganize hard-disk files so that programs run faster (disk optimizers or unfragmenters); check the working status of a disk, identifying bad spots (areas that record poorly) and marking them to prevent the computer from using them again; recover data from incorrect deletions; and make automatic or manual backups. If you have many computers, you might want to buy a sophisticated hardware problem--diagnosing program for $100 to $400.

For these tasks I recommend various programs at $50 to $150: PC Tools Deluxe (Central Point Software, Portland, Ore.), Mace Utilities (Paul Mace Software, Ashland, Ore.), and Norton Utilities (Peter Norton Computing, Inc., Santa Monica, Calif.).

Searh programs. To locate a file within a large hard disk, try Gofer (Microlytics, East Rochester, N.Y.). This search program identifies files according to content. To find the memo you wrote to Susan about returning your chemistry analyzer, for example, you would search for all files containiong both the words "Susan" and "analyzer."

* Bounty to choose from. The software market includes programs for a great many purposes. You can do billing, communications (transfer data among computers), and project management for controlling laboratory equipment, automatically acquiring data, and reporting by voice or mail, including electronic mail.

Computers already talk on voice synthesizers. Voice recognition may enable us to talk instead of type when communicating by computer. In the not-distant future, this remarkable feature will help us reduce the time-consuming process of providing laboratory data over the phone.

General references:

Siguel, E.N. Which PC to buy now. MLO 22(9): 59-62, September 1990.

Siguel, E.N. How to select graphics software. MLO 20(5):59-60, May 1988.

Edward N. Sigeul, M.D., Ph.D. is a senior scientist in the nutrition department at University Hospital, Boston University Medical Center, Boston.
COPYRIGHT 1990 Nelson Publishing
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes information on how to take care of your software
Author:Siguel, Edward N.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Oct 1, 1990
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