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Monday, May 25, 1998

Don't Let Them Suite-Talk You

A  friend of mine recently bought a computer for his home-based business. After deciding on the hardware, the salesperson suggested that he spend $449 more for an "office suite" such as Microsoft Office Professional Edition.
     The salesperson also recommended Adobe PhotoShop ($610), a small-business accounting program such as Quickbooks ($185), a desktop publishing program such as PageMaker ($500) and several other pieces of software.
     Fortunately, my friend called me for advice before shelling out nearly $2,000 for software he didn't need.
     Although all those programs can be useful, few are necessary for someone who is just starting a business.
     The salesperson's recommendation for an office suite probably makes sense. A suite typically combines software applications, including a word processor, spreadsheet, database management, presentation and personal organizer/e-mail program.
     By far the most popular suite is Microsoft Office. But some people don't know there are three editions of Office, including a personal edition called Home Essentials that costs about $85.
     The Home Essential bundle contains the same version of Microsoft Word that the more expensive bundle has, but it doesn't contain the Excel spreadsheet, the PowerPoint presentation program or the Access database management program. It does come with Microsoft Works, which has perfectly adequate spreadsheet and database management modules.
     You also don't get the Outlook e-mail and personal information management program, but until the end of June you can get it free on Microsoft's Web site or by paying $9.95 for a CD. And Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator both come with excellent free e-mail programs. Want more choices? You can download a free copy of Eudora Light, an excellent basic e-mail program from Qualcomm (http://www.qualcomm.com).
     The Home Essentials software also comes with the Encarta 98 Encyclopedia, Microsoft Money 98, Microsoft Greetings Workshop 2.0, Microsoft Entertainment Pack--the Puzzle Collection and, of course, the ubiquitous Internet Explorer Web browser.
     Aside from the word-processing program, the most commonly used portion of a suite is the spreadsheet. The Works spreadsheet is, for my money, easier to use and faster to load than the Excel. I have both, but prefer using Works. And although you don't get a presentation program with Home Essentials, you can get Corel Presentations as a stand-alone program for about $60.
     If you tell a salesperson that you plan to create newsletters, brochures, fliers, posters or just about any other type of publication, you are likely to get a pitch for a desktop publishing program.
     There are some excellent programs that make it easy to lay out pages. But you might be surprised at how much you can do with Microsoft Word or any other word- processing program. It takes a bit of time to master, but Word is an amazingly versatile program, with the ability to create columns, tables and specialized formats. You can insert and manipulate graphics, use special headings and otherwise customize a document.
     If you want the convenience of an easy-to-use dedicated desktop publishing program, consider spending between $40 and $100 for one of the low-cost alternatives such as Corel Print House, Microsoft Publisher, Broderbund's Print Shop PressWriter, Mindscape's PrintMaster Gold Deluxe or Software Publishing Corp. ([Current Quote][Company Capsule])'s Serif PagePlus 4. All of these products can be used to create multiple-page documents in which text flows automatically from page to page.
     Industrial-strength page layout programs such as Adobe's PageMaker and Quark Express are terrific tools for people who produce books or design magazine pages, but they're overkill for the average small-business person in need of an occasional brochure. Aside from being expensive, they take up a lot of disk space--not to mention the mental bandwidth you'll need to master the software.
     The same is true of graphics programs. If you have a digital camera or just want to edit photos downloaded from the Internet, you'll need a good photo-editing program. But you don't need to spend big bucks for Adobe PhotoShop unless you plan to edit photos for a living. Any of the consumer-level photo-editing programs, which typically cost about $40, will do the trick. And most scanners or digital cameras come with a photo-editing program.
     If you want an excellent high-end program that's also easy to use, check out Paint Shop Pro 5.0 from Jasc. You can download a trial copy at http://www.jasc.com; if you like it you can pay $99 for a complete copy. I'm not sure if it has all the features of PhotoShop, but it has more than enough for me.
     Before you spend a nickel on software, check out the programs that came with your computer. A lot of PCs come loaded with a version of Microsoft Office. It may not be the professional version, but it probably has most of the functions you need. Besides, if you later have need to upgrade to Office Professional, you might be able to purchase the upgrade for less than the cost of the entire package.
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     And don't forget to search the Internet for free shareware or trial programs.
     Shareware is distributed on the honor system. You download the program and, if you like it, you pay to keep it. Freeware is, literally, free. Demo software is typically a full-function program that expires after a specified period, or a version with some functions (such as printing or saving a large number of records) removed so you can try the program before buying it.
     You can find shareware and other software to download at http://www.shareware.com, http://www.download.com and http://www,hotfiles.com.
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     Lawrence J. Magid can be reached by e-mail at magid@latimes.com. His World Wide Web page is at http://www.larrysworld.com.

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