|★ APPLICATIONS ★ DIVERS ★ THE CRACKER ★|
|The Cracker (Amstrad Action)||Applications Divers|
If I told you The Cracker was a spreadsheet, you'd probably start thinking of it as a financial tool. Well, it is a spreadsheet -but normal budget calculations don't even scratch the suface of it's capabilities. It is intended to bring spreadsheet power to maths, scientific and statistics applications.
Single letter commands are used to control and manipulate the sheet, but as you enter them Cracker displays the meaning of the commands in plain English. Thus, if you type "NF6E" the command line displays "New Format to be 6 sig figs Exponent". This translation comes up as you type the line, the idea being to let you spot mistakes even before you've hit return.
This prompting philosophy is carried right the way through The Cracker. At every stage of the command process, all possible keypresses - including the return key, where appropriate - are displayed above the command line. When you're entering formulae, errors are reported immediately they are noticed - which usually means before you've hit return.
Error messages are usually specific and helpful. If you try entering the nonsense formula "2/+ 2" Cracker will beep when you type the plus sign, and display the message "Separate these operators". There is even an error message - "outside worksheet" - to cover attempts to move the cursor off one edge of the sheet. This could be taking things a little far I feel, but it's certainly a fair indication of the program's thoroughness.
This certainly shows a novel approach, but it's in its expressions vocabulary that The Cracker really shows originality. Most spreadsheets can manage numerical operators, trig functions and perhaps a little statistics. Scratchpad Plus went a good deal further than this, even coming close to programming with its IF...THEN construction - but The Cracker can beat this without even trying.
Cracker formulae can include pi, e, logs, perms & combs, random numbers, Booleans, interpolations and just about anything else you could ask for in the mathematical line. They can alter the contents of other cells quite freely, and the DO...WHILE construct gives them true program status. Logs can be natural or base 10, while angles can be in degrees or radians.
Though there are a few functions of a financial nature, it should be clear from the above that the intended market is scientific, engineering and mathematical. The fact is, spreadsheets have always had the potential to serve as valuable tools in these fields, held back only by the lack of the necessary expressions. Another strong feature which it shares with SuperCalc 2 is the ability to sort rows and columns either numerically or alphabetically. This means the program can be adapted for use as a small database, and can be extremely powerful in applications where both calculation and sorting is required.
Quite what you do with a flexible tool like The Cracker is very much up to your imagination. The manual suggests using it to solve simultaneous equations, and similar problems, iteratively. This can be done either by forced recalculation or by the use of DO...WHILE loops - it's up to you. There isn't quite the numerical range that you'd get from a scientific calculator -you're limited to plus or minus 1E38 - but accuracy to twelve decimal places will probably make up for this.
The sheet format is so variable that normal measures of maximum size don't mean a great deal. The best yardstick is probably free memory, and that runs to just under 17K on both the PCW machines and the 6128. That may sound a bit thin, but it's probably more than adequate for its intended applications, especially as the memory is used efficiently. While a financial spreadsheet needs to mundane things to vast quantities of data, The Cracker can do very impressive things with smaller quantities - and that's exactly what you need for mathematical purposes.
Working entirely in memory, the program is fast even in auto-calculation mode. Of course, any really time-consuming number crunching can be left running in a DO...WHILE loop while you go off and make a cup of tea.
The manual is well presented and clearly written. It falls into two parts, a tutorial and a reference section. The tutorial is friendly and straightforward, with a wealth of examples and screen diagrams to help clarify things. The reference section is thorough and well set-out. This is just as well, for I suspect that the typical Cracker user will feel more at home with a reference section than a tutorial.