Business Software

Make Good Spreadsheets for Cheap With GS-Calc

GS-Calc 9.2 ($20, 30-day free trial) is an inexpensive spreadsheet program that isn't a simple Excel clone. It offers has a number of interesting features, including a large work area (4094 columns by 12 million rows), pivot tables, fairly robust charting, and a nice interface for dealing with multiple worksheets in a single project. It also has some imperfections that are at least partially mitigated by the low price.

GS-Calc screenshot
The folder interface in GS-Calc makes it easy to organize complex spreadsheets.
The first thing I noticed that got my positive attention was the basic interface. Rather than a row of tabs along the bottom to handle multiple sheets, which becomes problematic when a workbook grows beyond 4 or 5 pages, GS-Calc offers a hierarchical, folder-based view supporting multiple levels of folders. This makes it much easier to create a workbook consisting of many smaller, more-focused sheets, a boon to navigation and debugging.

GS-Calc also offers an interesting method of generating multiple values. A single formula can fill several cells with calculated values. These "array formulas" work with most of GS-Calc's functions. To use a trivial example, entering "=SQRT(4)+{1;2;3;4;5}" will produce the numbers 3 through 7, in five cells, beginning with the one in which the formula was entered. If the data in one of the "generated" cells is overwritten or changed, it is refreshed as soon as the worksheet recalculates itself. By using references to worksheet ranges as part of the array, a single formula in a single cell can fill many cells with data, and it's much easier to correct errors in that single formula than to do so in many cells, even with features like Excel's auto-copy to make the job easier.

However, GS-Calc has some flaws. The interface and screen redraw are somewhat sluggish, even on a reasonably high-end computer. Oddly, numeric values which are too wide for the cell overflow to the left, not the right, creating the illusion the formulas were actually in the prior column. This can be changed by setting cell alignment, however. If you start typing a formula and then click a cell, it's treated as if you were done entering the formula, rather than entering a reference to the cell in the formula. (You can ctrl-click to enter the cell reference however, which is fine, but it's not the prevailing standard.)

In terms of functions, GS-Calc has a rich set of them, but it hides the full list and all functionality description in the dialog you can use to enter a function. The description and examples contained for each function in this dialog is thorough, but this is the kind of information that should be in the Help file. Having it in the dialog is a very helpful addition to having it in the Help, but it isn't a replacement for it.

GS-Calc also features support for pivot tables, allowing for the easy creation of summary reports and breaking down data into various categories. Charting, both 2-D and 3-D, is also supported. While it doesn't contain any revolutionary breakthroughs, the charting function has a lot of options for user control and styling of the information presented, and the interface is generally clear despite there being many possible values to adjust.

GS-Calc offers a great deal of functionality for a very low price. I can see GS-Calc satisfying a much larger audience of spreadsheet users. It is especially useful for working with data best broken into multiple pieces, but it does have the capacity to handle large quantities of information as well, making it a good tool to grow with. The thirty-day trial should be sufficient to evaluate its performance on whatever tasks you might need it for.

--Ian Harac

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