IBM images. (evaluation of personal finance software) Will Fastie.
It's very hard to believe that I have been here for a year, but it's very true. I expect to be here for the next year too, provided I am not forced to go on strike for better working conditions or more money. I am sure such an action can be averted; my attorneys are working around the clock with Creative's management team to thrash out an agreement. I hear PC is looking for writers . . .
Last month, I ran out of space. This month, I am finishing up with personal finance packages and a few other odds and ends of general interest. First, however, I have to tell you about something very, very exciting.
I consider myself very lucky, and very privileged, to have been given a demonstration copy of a new piece of software for the IBM Personal Computer. The program is from Microsoft. It is Bruce Artwick's Flight Simulator.
Mr. Artwick is the brain trust behind the SubLogic flight simulator, a program which is available for Apple II and TRS-80 computers. The IBM version is not merely a cut above those, it is an order of magnitude beyond them. It is fantastic. It is a sight to see, and a trip to fly. You absolutely must see it, and by the time you read this, your local dealer should have a copy along with an in-store demonstrator. To run this program, you need a 64K, single disk system with the color/graphics adapter. You also need $50 to buy it. If you have ever wanted to fly, you'll never regret the price.
Next month, Creative will carry my in-depth review of the simulator. I had hoped to have it ready for this issue, but I have been using a prototype and it lacks many of the features that will be in the final version. Of course, you may infer from my tone how I feet about the program, so you might not ned the review, eh?
Oh, by the way, for those of you who do not know what I'm talking about, the flight simulator is a program that puts you in the cockpit of a light plane, with a full instrument penal and an out-of-the-window display of the world. You are the pilot, and you fly the plane. Believe me, you really do.
Personal Finance Programs
January is the month many of us begin to think about taxes and our budgets for the forthcoming year, especially if the IRS has mailed out tax return booklets with their usual promptness. I can always be found under a mountain of paper, sorting stubs, calculating interest, and wondering how I could have let my records get into such a state of disarray.
Last year was particularly bad because I procrastinated while I fooled around with the notion of writing a complete record-keeping system for my personal use, one tuned to my special needs. I gave up, not because I couldn't do it but because I was sure some responsible programs would pop up that I could buy.
That was not to be. It has been only in the last three months or so that personal financial programs have found their way to the IBM PC market, perhaps because of a perception that the consumer acceptance of the PC did not represent a significant enough market opportunity. Apparently, that perception is changing because five companies have provided home finance programs for review, and there are several others in the works.
With the five programs in front of me, I had only to decide how best to evaluate them. Just what criteria are important, and on what basis should a consume make a choice between these products? For me, there are just two criteria, and everything else is a minor detail.
The first consideration is functionality. Now I don't mean features: a program does not have to include every possible bell and whistle to be considered functionally complete. Functionality means tht the software performs as specified, and that that specification meets a fundamental requirement, as determined by you, the buyer.
Is the package going to solve your problem, and will it do so to the extent that it performs useful work for you? And if the program passes that test, do the other features provided, the ones that are beyond your basic requirements, enhance the product, or are they just eye-catching, without real value and thus unlikely to be used?
These five packages cost from $100 to $200. More important, you will spend a great deal of time with the one you choose if you use it as intended. You owe it to yourself to examine the alternatives carefully, and make a reasoned choice. Make sure the function makes the investment worthwhile.
The second point is human engineering. You wil lhear a lot about that from me, and I consider it one of the major issues in computing today. You have a right to expect a program with which you must become intimate to be well engineered.
You should not tolerate a program that does unexpected things, fails, does not explain itself, provides more than one way to accomplish the same thing, or always expects you to know exactly what to do next.
You should expect the program to deal with any error encountered, provide you with information if you need it, provide you with assistance if you need it, and let you back out of any situation gracefully, all the while telling you what it is doing.
You should always be able to tell at a glance if the program is waiting for you or working. You should always have the feeling that the situation is under control and that the program is protecting your interests (and data).
Can you easily tell that a program is well engineered? Yes, usually you can, just by spending a little time at the computer trying it out. And I don't mean running a demo version either, I mean trying the real thing. You will feel it and see it. You will know that you and the program can work together and that the program will not be at odds with you. Sound like dealing with another person? Well, not quite, but it is an interaction. Expect a program to be well behaved, just like the kind of person with whom you enjoy dealing.
Why am I spending so much time harping on this subject? (8see, I really do know what you are thinking.) Because it is important for programs in general, because it is especially important for a program with which extended interaction is required, and because I am generally disappointed with the human engineering of these five finance programs.
The five programs I tested are listed in the various tables accompanying this column. I think the tables provide most of the information from which you can develop your own opinion. Because all the programs provide an acceptable degree of functionality, an examination of the human factors provides considerably more insight. That's what I want to concentrate on.
Of the five programs, one is a clear leader, three fall in the middle, and one is a clear loser. I'll not keep you in suspense: Money Maestro is by far the easiest to use, the most forgiving, and the most carefully engineered. Home Finance Program is the loser. Financier, PC/HFP, and Home Accountant Plus are acceptable.
As a first clue as to why Money Maestro is on the top of my heap, consider that it is the only one of the five that can be invoked by typing its name, even though the use of a .BAT file under IBM DOS makes such an invocation easy to provide for any program.
Let's look at these programs in reverse order.
Home Finance Program
What I have to say about thi program is very limited, because I spent the least amount of time with it. The reason was simple. This program failed in two ways in less than 20 minutes of use, and I consider that so unacceptable that I stopped wasting my time.
The first problem popped up when I tried to enter a comma in the middle of a text string. The text being entered was the description of a check, and the entry was "J. W. Rouse & Co., Inc. "Now that seems quite reasonable to me, but the program responded with "Too many data items, ?redo from start,' the Basic message emitted when too many entries have been made to an INPUT statement. I could not find a warning about using commas in text input in the manual, in either the section pertaining to the function I was testing or other sections.
The second problem was a crash: in other words, the program stopped running. When this happened, the program returned to Basic, and a standard Basic error message was emitted. These messages give the line number of the error, but unfortunately, this program is protected, so the average user cannot look to see just what is wrong. After this crash, I retired the program.
An aside: Basic files can be unprotected. For $10, Data Base Decisions, 14 Bonnie Lane, Atlanta, GA 30328, will tell you how. It's simple. These folks were just quick to figure it out and I figure they deserve ten bucks a shot for the answer.
A couple of specific complaints. The manual was generally good. It contains clear instructions and is well formatted. However, it nowhere explained what the package included, and did not indicate what the second disk, labelled Data Disk was for. The bigger complaint is that the program does not take advantage of two diskette drives if the system has them. Instead, it requires that the user constantly switch between the program and data disk in drive A--something I consider very irritating.
Three In The Middle
Now we come to the three programs which are acceptable. In each case, they provide a set of functions which is reasonable for home financial management, and which operate tolerably well. General information about each package is in Table 1 and the functions performed by each can be found in Table 2.
PC/PFP by Best Programs is the least expensive of the lot $95. It is well-documented, with a nicely typeset manual in traditional (by now) IBM style. It is printed with two colors, so explanations and examples are clearly differentiated. The program runs smoothly, and always presents clear, easy to understand prompts.
Functionally, PC/PFP is complete. Practically, it is somewhat limited by the number of budget categories provided. It allows 45 categories, 5 of which are for income and the rest of which are for expenses and credit cards. For my personal finances, this is not enough. I had to lump things together in generic categories, making later analysis more difficult.
There is also a limitation of ten tax deduction categoris--also a problem for me. Remember that for tax purposes I have a business operation, so I need a little more flexibility. The average consumer might do fine within these limits.
This package suffers mostly from a lack of consistency. This can be found quickly. Some replies to menu prompts require the entry of a number or letter followed by a RETURN (or ENTER, if you prefer), but some take action as soon as the letter is typed.
Because DOS and Basic are buffering keystrokes, a number followed by a RETURN when the RETURN is not required lets the RETURN pass to the next prompt. This can cause the program to go somewhere you weren't expecting. There are other examples of inconsistency.
On the whole, the program is well done, and a good value. It has one strong feature called "split transaction,' which allows a single check to cover two or more expenses in different expense categories. This is very convenient for dealing with credit cards.
The Home Accountant Plus from Continental Software is next up the price line at $150. The program supports up to 100 budget categories and 5 checkbooks (a strong feature), can account for assets and liabilities, and can print a net worth statement. Although the program limits the data storage to 1000 transactions per disk, it allows multiple disks to be used.
It is also unique in that it can present graphs on either a text device (like the monochrome display) or a graphics device, and for the latter produces very nice looking graphs in full color.
The program seems to be the most fully featured of the five, and would have earned more of my attention had it not been somewhat difficult to use. At first, this seemed not to be the case. The program, for example, blinks items in a menu if they are the next required thing to do, and refuses to accept any command but that one.
The first time I ran the program it forced me to tell it about my system configuration, and how I planned to use it (e.g., which disk drives would be used for program and data disks). That looked pretty good, but the program fell down latter during data entry.
Although clear instructions are provided on every screen display, the action you need to take is not always obvious. Also, sometimes the menu is split, with part of it above the data entry portion of the screen and part of it below. The reason for that escapes me, and I found it confusing.
The document is extensive, an obvious attempt to do well, but I found it difficult to follow. I would have been helped by an index. The information is there, it is just a little tough to find sometimes.
The program can print checks, and comes with a sample and an order form from Nebs Computer Forms, a nice touch.
The Financier from Financier (the first i in both is supposed to be an up-arrow) costs $180. I consider it a little better than PC/PFP or Home Accountant Plus because it makes a stab at improved human interface. Unfortunately, it does not go all the way.
Again, we have a program with some strong features and good functionality. It also allows split transactions, except it is limited to nine expenses for a single check. A complete set of reports, both summary and detail, is provided.
Each category has a name and a code. In The Financier the code is four letters. The program can build reports based on the alphabetical nature of these codes. If all deductions for tax purposes begin with the letter D, they can be recovered by specifying a code range of D to DZZZ. But that reduces the mnemonic value of the codes by eliminating a letter.
Furthermore, it forces extremely careful advance planning to assure that codes which logically relate to each other also relate together alphabetically. That is irrational, because no such relationship exists naturally.
The strongest feature of this product is its ability to list the categories whenever it asks you to enter one. That gives you a way to refresh your memory without having to have a list of all the current categories at hand. That is very good. But is is also limited.
The listing shows only the codes, not the description. If a code is particularly cryptic, and some are bound to be, you might still not know what it means. Also, this feature works only when entering budget codes and does not work for tax codes. The listing is obtained by depressing the RETURN key instead of a code. Since tax codes are optional entries in transactions, RETURN is a legal response and does not mean "tell me the options.'
This is pretty much the stab The Financier took. It is helpful in its current form, but it could be so much better.
The four programs mentioned so far have one thing in common. They are written in Basic. They impress me as programs written by financial experts, even people who have a notion of how they would like to see a program work. However, they do not impress me as programs written by professional programmers or computer scientists. And Basic provides one other unfortunate side-effect: the programs are not very fast, a problem for any interactive program.
This program, on the other hand, does impress me as a professionally implemented system. Above all other things, this InnoSys product runs smoothly and is extraordinarily well behaved. Of the five programs, it is the only one that can be operated successfully without reading the manual.
The power of the human interface in Money Maestro is that is listens carefully to what you type and deals with those inputs in a context. Furthermore, the program can provide help at any time if a question mark is typed, and the user can gracefully withdraw from any point simply by pressing the Esc key.
The help feature is super. For example, when entering a transaction, a budget category must be entered. If you are not certain which one you want, hit? and Maestro tells you that it wants a category. It also tells you that it will list all the ones it knows about if you'd like. So you do, and you find one you like. At that point, you can use Esc to pop back to the original question, or you can just enter the code immediately. The program knows that you mean for the code to be used in the transaction. If you were just listing all the categories, which happens to look the same, the program would ignore an entered code.
But there is more. When asked for a budget category, you don't have to give the code number. You can give the name or just the first few letters of the name. If Maestro can find something that matches, it automatically assumes that is what you want (although you can use Esc to back it out if you were wrong).
If there is more than one category which matches the entered name, Maestro tells you that you name was "ambiguous.' A little stuffy, but the program immediately pacifies you with a list of all the matching categories, showing both code and description, and asks you to choose one.
Make all the mistakes you want with this program. You can always back up, and you can always yell for help. The prompts are very descriptive, and the displayed instructions are clear.
The program has two operational modes. While you are learning the system, and before you know any better, you will just answer all the questions as they are asked. However, you can use an expert mode which allows answers to be given in advance, thus avoiding prompts. This is very clever, and very easy to learn. But if you forget, you can just revert to answering all the questions. Have it your way.
There are many more examples of this attention to the human interface in Money Maestro. I particularly like the way it handles the printing of checks. However, the program is not without its problems. First, it is not as functional as its competitors and it carries a higher price tag, $200.
In particular, it does not handle split transactions and does not allow transaction data to be modified once entered. Second, the manual is poorly done, and has not been revised for the IBM version. It is still in its CP/M form, and it won't make much sense to an IBM owner. Third, neither the program nor the manual provides a mechanism to get the data files on a separate disk. To the naive user, it would seem as if the data had to be on the same disk as the program. Finally, the reports are not paginated, do not output form feeds to leave the paper lined up, and do not provide a margin for binding in a three-ring binder, the most likely binder to be found in a household. (None of the other programs provides a margin either.)
InoSys is currently revising the manual, a difficult task because the program is supported on Apple, CP/M, and IBM systems. The company expected to have the new document ready by the time you read this. A revised and extended version of the program is due out sometime early next year.
One final point. The Maestro data files are kept in an ASCII format that is very easy for Basic to read. That means you can build your own programs to provide specially formatted reports or other functions you might want that the program as delivered does not. The format of each of the files is described in detail in the manual.
Question: which program wins? Answer: none of them. After having tried all the programs, I am not convinced that my accounting work will be eased or reduced. My manual system is rather efficient; for example, I have no had a checkbook reconcilliation error in years.
Furthermore, any program I use has to be usable by my wife, who will not tolerate unnecessary work and will not spend the time to become an expert operator. So for her, Money Maestro would be best, but it is not a total solution for our needs.
Ah, well, maybe I will write my own after all.
As time goes on, the size of this section of the column will shrink. The reason is lead time and space, too much of the former and too little of the latter. Most of what I can talk about here will probably already be known to most of you, either through ads or because you have seen the things in stores. What I will carry are items 1 think have particular interest, or ones that are unique.
IBM has announced SNA 3270 Emulation and RJE support ($700, chalk up one for me) and IBM 3101 emulation ($140), as well as Version 2.0 of the Asynchronous Communications Support package ($60).
An SDLC Communications Adapter ($300) had also been announced, along with a cable ($75). These products, mentioned by IBM as "intentions' at the time the PC was announced, are important additions that allow IBM to continue their penetration in their own large accounts.
In the same vein, Persyst Inc. announced PC/HASP, a multi-user remote job entry HASP workstation emulator. The package costs $995 and requires Persyst's DPC/88 Communications processor card. This device uses an 8088 and up to 64K of on-board RAM, and can support line speeds up to 50 kilobaud. When not being used to run PC/HASP, the board can be used as an outboard processor. Price of the DCP/88 was not available at press time.
By the way, Persyst also manufactures add-in memory and multifunction cards. Their Spectrum series is particularly interesting because it is the only card I know of that provides two communication ports. Their 256K board with two ports is $985. A printer port is also available on the same card, and Persyst now offers an electronic disk simulator called Insta-Drive packagd with their boards or separately for $49.95.
Curtis Manufacturing Company, Inc. offers the P.C. Pedestal. This $79.95 item is a very attractive stand that attaches to he bottom of the IBM Monochrome display, allowing it to be tilted or rotated for the optimum viewing angle. Slots, visible in Photo 1, assure adequate cooling to the display. A display extension cable set, which allows the display to be located further away from the system unit, is also available for $49.95. I have one of these units, and it is very nice indeed. It is of very high quality. The cables are very well built. The color of the stand matches the IBM perfectly. Frankly, if you decide to move the system unit away from the keyboard and display, this item is a must because the display is too low if it is not sitting on the system unit.
Nat Hellman III, Incorpoated, has announced several accessories for the IBM PC. Their keyboard cover ($12) is made of rigid, smoked plastic and fits neatly over the keyboards of IBM and several other computers and terminals. A clever little disk cover ($8) protects the disk drive area from dust. A manual rack ($24) holds six IBM manuals. Finally, a carrying case ($120) secures the keyboard, system unit, disks and manuals for transport. Photo 2 shows the items.
Columbia microSystems, Inc. announced the CMS 1600-IBM disk subsystem for the PC. The product provides two 8 double sided, double density disks in a thin (2.5 high) cabinet for a storage capacity of 2.4 megabytes. The unit is compatible with the standard IBM single density format, according to the manufacturer. The price of the system is $1750. With controller and software, the price is $2095. The unit can be seen in Phoo 3.
Personal Data Systems, Inc. has announced the PACK-HDR-R disk drive, using the SyQuest 306 removable cartridge drive. The hard disk unit has a formatted capacity of 5 Mb with an average access time of 75 milli-seconds. The price of $1795 includes a software interface to PC DOS or CP/M-86. Disk Cartridges are expected to be in the $35 price range.
The drive mounts in the system unit where diskette drive B: would normally go. I consider this product significant because it provides a considerable degree of flexibility over a conventional non-removable hard disk, and the price is agressive.
Orchid Technology has announced two new products. The start-upfirm offers a graphics card for the IBM Monochrome display for $495. Graphic resolution is 720 horizontal by 320 vertical. The card also includes the Game Adapter, and complete software support for Basic, Pascal, Fortran, and other high-level languages.
The second product is exciting. Called PCnet, the $699 product allows the integration of a local area network. Using baseband technology, the device operates at speeds up to 1 million bits per second over a distance of up to 7000 feet. An addresses assures which allows 64,00 addresses assures virtually unlimited expansion of the network. Operating software is provided which allows resource sharing of devices such as printers or hard disks.
Forth, Inc. has broken the mold and is now offering a new version of Fourth called personalForth. The new product is Forth Inc.'s first mass market product and carries a price of $300. The list of features sounds impressive, including multi-tasking, screen editor, IBM DOS file handler, a special "turnkey' compiler, new documentation, and 8087 support (software emulation of the 8087 is not provided). The program requires as little as 48K of memory and supports either type of display, two diskette drives, and the printer.
The Bench Collection has announced Electroniture, a series of computer furniture products. Pictured in Photo 4 are four products relating to the IBM PC. All the furniture is made of solid oak and has been designed with the comfort of the user in mind. Price of the Model A Desk is $895. I have seen a color photograph of one of the products and it looks beautiful. My table (remember my table?) is oak too, but I think Sandy would prefer one of these.
Table: Personal Finance Package General Information.
Table: Personal Finance Package Features.
Photo: Photo 1. P.C. Pedestal, from Curtis Manufacturing.
Photo: Photo 2. Accessories from Nat Hellman III, Inc.: a) Keyboard Cover; b) Diskette Cover; c) Manual Rack; d) Carrying Case.
Photo: Photo 3: Columbia microSystems' CMS-1600-IBM 8 diskette subsystem
Photo: Photo 4: Bench Collection Furniture: a) Model A Desk; b) Model A Printer Stand; c) Model B. Desk with optional CPU Shelf and extra glass door; d) Model T Table with optional CPU Shelf.
Products: Data Design Home Finance Program (computer program)
Best Programs PC-HFP (computer program)
Continental Software Home Account (computer program)
Financier (computer program)