Various professionals review an assortment of hardware and software.
New software packages give you insight into customers, projects, and estate planning. Our CEO reviewers take their measure
AutoData Survey, from AutoData Systems, Minnetonka, MN (800-662-2192, $295); survey design and tabulation software
Pat Heffernan, copresident of Marketing Partners Inc., a 5-year-old research, marketing, and public-relations firm in Burlington, VT
486 or higher PC-compatible with Windows 3.1 or Windows 95, 8 MB RAM (16 MB recommended), at least 5 MB free hard-drive space
If you need to conduct basic customer-satisfaction surveys on a regular basis, you may be delighted with AutoData's Survey. This easy-to-use, soup-to-nuts package will help you create, design, process, and analyze surveys using standard reports. But if you require complex surveys, you may be disappointed.
To test the software, I re-created two client surveys used in our company. First, I replicated the warranty questionnaire for the Concept II Indoor Rower. The program created an attractive warranty card, provided painless processing, and produced speedy reports.
Entering questions was easy. After typing in "Did your equipment arrive in good order?" and clicking on the Done button, I received a prompt from Survey and selected a response option. The software offers common multiple-choice response formats--for example, "yes or no" and "very satisfied" to "very dissatisfied," on a scale of 1 to 5--and then automatically numbers and attractively lays out the question-and-response options.
You can create custom-response formats with up to 10 variables per question and select open-ended comment boxes. The comment-box feature is great, but it does have a glitch: when I selected a comment box, it threw off the numbering of the questions that followed. That left me with two options: leaving questions unnumbered or putting questions with comment boxes at the end of the questionnaire.
You can process completed surveys by using a scanner, fax, or keyboard entry. Survey supports popular scanners directly, but for others you have to configure the setup. The system can handle as many as 1.6 million responses to the same survey and can do up to 4,000 different surveys--compare that with other programs that handle from 500 to 2,000 surveys.
The software comes with two fixed formats for reports: histogram and trend analysis. Both calculated quickly and were clearly laid out. The histogram report displays a bar graph for each question, showing how many responses were received for each option. It also provides a numerical and percentage breakdown of the responses for each question, as well as the mean and standard deviation. My histogram reported that 6% of respondents plan to use the Indoor Rower in a rehabilitation center or hospital. The trend-analysis report tracks the change in response over time. We learned that over a six-month period, use of the Rower in rehab environments increased by 2%.
Next, I wanted to see if Survey could meet the needs of a cancer-screening program for the Vermont Department of Health. It could not. The program doesn't have a word-wrap feature, so to enter and read long, public-opinion-style questions, in which a lengthy statement is followed by a list of opinions, I had to hit the Enter key often, which was annoying. Neither can it handle comment boxes for open-ended responses and if-then branching questions, both of which the cancer-screening questionnaire included in abundance.
To make matters worse, the cross-tab reports were meaningless. When I printed out a report on women over 65 who'd had mammograms, I got an attractive table--without a title. The system did allow me to go back in and add a label, but it was too little, too late; most survey programs label reports automatically.
Despite its limitations, the package has its strong points. Its primer, "Satisfaction Surveys: A How-To Guide," written by University of Minnesota professor Ron Matross, includes tips on choosing a survey type, designing questionnaires, analyzing results, reporting options, and creating sample surveys. It will take the angst out of your survey planning.
Project Scheduler 7, from Scitor Corp., Menlo Park, CA (800-533-9876, $595); a mainstream project management software package
Michael A. Willett, senior project manager with Kelly Construction Co., a commercial/industrial construction manager in Manchester, N.H.
486 or higher PC-compatible with Windows 95 or Windows NT (4.0 or higher), 8 MB RAM (16 MB recommended), at least 15 MB free hard-drive space, 3.5-inch high-density (1.44 MB disk drive), VGA monitor (SVGA recommended), printers and plotters supported by Windows 95 or NT Network Ready
Project Scheduler 7 can help you deal with just about any sequence-dependent project--that is, a project in which one part can't be started until other parts are completed. Its useful what-if feature is only one of the reasons that I found it a great way to organize complex and interrelated tasks, track cash flow, and schedule products, vendors, and employees.
I am a Windows neophyte. But after reading the documentation, I knew I could produce a management-information tool that would help me create an overview of a complex construction project. First, I established Milestones (the genesis stage of the schedule--what you want to accomplish in the schedule). For me, they included "out of the weather," which, in my business, means workmen have the structure of the project over their heads; "out of the ground," meaning the foundation is in place; and "inspection of roughs," meaning the frame is ready to be inspected before it is covered with the trappings of finished carpentry. Instead of typing information from the tabular format of Project Scheduler 7, I exported information to Microsoft Excel to perform cash flow analysis.
After you complete the Milestones, the Scheduler lets you enter a series of Subcomponents. Even with the thousands of tasks it takes to build a large commercial project, I didn't hit the limit of the Subcomponents. To establish links among dependent tasks, I indented each Subcomponent under its Milestone.
When you enter one task, you can select to view a calendar so that you can see how it will overlap and affect other tasks. For example, I entered "excavate foundations" and specified a length of five days. The calendar blocked out five days in red (you can specify which colors you want). As you add more tasks, the calendar shows you how they overlap. Project Scheduler 7 will alert you if your resources are too scattered or overcommitted. Because the calendar can be only so big, I found this feature limiting. I had more tasks than the program's 256 colors.
I share data with a lot of teams both on and off the site. It was easy to electronically transfer via intranet Scheduler files to others running the same software. But the big strength of the program is the what-if feature. To test it, I set up a scenario that included four days of rain. By saving different scenarios under different names, I was able to play out how to make up the lost time and money.
I would recommend this program to any project manager, regardless of what kind of sequence-dependent project he or she is working on.
WillMaker, from Nolo Press, Berkeley, CA (800-728-3555, $49.95), a stand-alone program that creates wills, living wills, and final-arrangements documents
Jordan E. Ayan, president of Create-It! Inc., a business consulting firm in Naperville, IL, and author of Aha!--10 Ways to Free Your Creative Spirit and Find Your Great Ideas (1997, Crown/Random House).
386 or higher, 4 MB RAM, Windows 3.1. Hard disk required. Macintosh: 68,000 or higher, 6 MB RAM, System 7 or higher, 3 MB disk space
Working with a lawyer on a will could rank near the top of life's unpleasant tasks. Die without a will, however, and you can put your family into financial limbo or start a feud that makes the Hatfield and McCoy hostilities look like a school-yard scrap. Nolo Press's WillMaker 6.0 can make the task less daunting--and, in many cases, can completely remove the lawyer from the process.
WillMaker won't replace a lawyer for complicated estate-planning issues, but it makes easy work of developing a basic will, a living will, and a document that spells out your final wishes. The software provides detailed information that allows you to customize your will. You simply answer questions about your family structure and personal intentions by clicking on buttons or filling in the blanks. The program offers many options for family structure, including advice for gay parents. When all the questions are answered, the software assembles the will and provides instructions on executing it and detailed information for the executor. (It also includes envelopes labeled "Will," "Final Arrangements," and "Healthcare Directions.")
WillMaker is customized to accommodate probate laws that differ from state to state. I worked through several scenarios, each with varying levels of complexity, and the resulting documents accurately accounted for all the changes.
The program can also create a living will reflecting your wishes in case you are unable to make decisions related to life-prolonging medical treatment. You can select to have a caregiver make decisions for you or choose from a menu of directions that include diagnostic testing, CPR, and resuscitation. A Final Arrangements section also allows you to create a document ensuring that your wishes about your funeral and disposition of your body are followed.
The level of detail and complexity anticipated by the program makes WillMaker one of the leading legal-advice programs on the market. If you plan to have a lawyer assemble a will for you, WillMaker will help you organize your information and reduce the time you spend with the lawyer while the meter is running.
Tape Me Back
Two types of devices let you easily copy every byte on your hard drive
Hello, Joe? My hard drive is making a funny grinding noise, and this afternoon's presentation has disappeared. Find it for me while I grab a quick lunch, will you?" Great. The document is gone, the drive is shot, the computer won't reboot, and the presentation is due to the CEO in one hour. No lunch for me. But the real question is: Will I still be employed after 2 p.m.?
Think those calamities happen only to the other guy? The bad news is that although hard drives don't fail often, many computers eventually lose some or all of their data because of viruses or mysterious corruptions. The good news is that for as little as $150, you can buy a device that will make copying every byte of your hard drive a snap. Without this handy insurance policy, your only option is to entrust the drive to a data-recovery service--an expensive and time-consuming alternative--or else take an unplanned vacation.
Two types of devices will let you copy large amounts of data, a process called backing up or archiving. The first is a tape drive like the Iomega Ditto Easy ($99.95 for Ditto Easy 800; $149.95 for internal and parallel, www.iomega.com, 800-697-8833). It records the contents of the hard disk onto a tape slightly larger than an audiocassette. Installation was a snap: 5 minutes to connect the cables and power supply to the drive and 14 minutes to run the installation program. Filling the tape's 800 MB capacity takes about three hours.
If you have a problem with your hard disk, insert the backup tape in the drive and specify which files you want to recover. If you regularly back up, you will never have to fear equipment failure, theft, or destruction.
The other type of backup device is the removable hard disk. It's just like a 3.5-inch floppy disk except that it holds up to 700 times more data. Two examples are the Syquest EZFlyer 230 MB ($299, external model only, www.syquest.com, 800-245-2278) and the Iomega Jaz 1 GB drive ($499.95 for external model, $399.95 for internal model, www.iomega.com, 800-697-8833). Both types sport similar features, but the Iomega holds more than four times the data on a disk slightly larger than the Syquest. Iomega also offers a rechargeable-battery power-pack option, so you can back up your laptop while on the road.
The external version of the Syquest and the Iomega tape and disk drives come in compact plastic cases. It took a mere 10 minutes to connect the drive to my laptop, and the software installation allowed a 10-minute catnap. Installation instructions are clear, and the cabling is goof-proof. One caution: the 230 MB disk is visually identical to the 105 MB model, which had a habit of crashing abruptly after a year or two of daily use. Syquest says the new disks feature enhancements that improve reliability.
So how do removable disks and tapes compare? First, the fundamental difference: removable-disk data is executable; tape data is not. The computer addresses a removable disk just like a hard disk, assigning it a logical drive letter (usually D or E), whereas it can communicate with a tape only through the backup software. In other words, you can run programs and manipulate files on a removable disk. Removables also excel at transferring large amounts of data from one system to another; just perform a simple File Copy operation from the hard to the removable disk. Finally, if you want to secure files, the ability to pop out the disk and lock it up is great.
Tapes, on the other hand, excel at low-cost, reliable copying. Also, the fact that you need more than three 1 GB disks to equal the capacity of Iomega's 3.2 GB tape drive means that with a tape drive, you can launch the backup and head out rather than wait around to switch disks. In terms of ease of use, if you can talk and stick a floppy into the A drive at the same time, you're overqualified to use either one.
For the added versatility of removable disks, you pay quite a bit more than for a tape of equal capacity. A complete tape drive capable of holding 800 MB will cost you a maximum of $180, whereas a complete removable disk system that can hold 1 GB can often cost $600. The contrast in cost is noticeable when you need to copy huge amounts of data, in the 3 GB range: for tape, $300; for disk, $800.
Choosing the type of device is secondary to the key decision to buy something easy to use that makes regular copies of your data. Given the cost in tears, adrenaline, and time that accompanies the loss of months of work, a backup device is a cheap insurance policy that you cannot live without.
David Abrahamson is a major in the U.S. Army, stationed at the Pentagon.
All Keyed Up
The Natural Keyboard looks great and sounds better. But what if you don't touch-type?
Dear Inc. Technology:
Thank you for asking me to review the new Microsoft Natural Keyboard (800-426-9400, www.microsoft.com, $100). However, I must regrettably refuse the assignment and return the keyboard. As a science journalist, I agree that I am an ideal subject to try such a novel device. Aside from an obvious interest in new technology, I spend hours on the telephone interviewing scientists about their esoteric research while typing maniacally to get their words directly into the computer. This can be effective, provided you can type as fast as most people talk, even if their typical statement is along the lines of "the 42-residue polypeptide is one of a variety of human amyloidogenic proteins that can be converted into fibrils by partial denaturation." Needless to say, you have to type fast and keep a clear head; typos can result in grievous errors in fact. While my typing ability is downright impressive, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard seemed like a godsend.
The Natural Keyboard is beautiful, and its curvaceous shape suggests ergonomic wonders of almost salacious promise. Microsoft claims it encourages a more relaxed posture and comfortable resting place for one's hands and enables the user to type with straighter wrists. All this is thanks to a "wrist leveler under the keyboard," which I suppose will reduce my risk of heinous job-related osteopathic problems. It also comes with IntelliType Manager software, which allows me to modify the sound of a keystroke so that it mimics the ka-chunk of a manual typewriter. The keyboard also includes two new keys, which allow a Windows 95 user to open the Start options with a keystroke.
That said, on connecting the keyboard, I remembered that, fast as my fingers fly over the keyboard, I do not touch-type. Rather, I use a variant of touch-typing I call Taubsian-Gothic. It can be developed only through years of experience and requires that your fingers learn the position of the keys by endless repetition of mindless tasks, such as transcribing tapes of scientists speaking about peptide residues. While Taubsian-Gothic is fast, it is not strict. The T key, for instance, can be typed with fingers from either hand, depending on which happens to be in the neighborhood and even in the mood. The same goes for any keys lying between the 3EDC column on the left and 7UJM on the right.
True, the Natural Keyboard allows me to place my hands and wrists at angles that seem to be more like those that Mother Nature intended. But this leaves a sizable gap in the keyboard, which is now split into two chunks, the left-hand side ending with the 6TGB column, and the right-hand side starting with 7YHN. This may be fine for those well-instructed individuals whose typing is of the classic touch-type genre. For me, it creates immediate problems. If, for instance, the right hand decides to do the T job, it finds only empty space where the key used to sit. Suddenly, I find myself looking for the keys before I strike them, and my typing grinds to a halt. I suspect my fingers can learn to adjust, and that once they do, phase transitions will flow into my PC faster than ever. I also suspect that years from now, when my hands are mauled by carpal tunnel syndrome, I will regret my curmudgeonly attitude to learning a new skill. On the other hand, the adjustment to the new keyboard might take weeks, and I could be bankrupt by then.
I am returning the keyboard and going back to the archaic one that came with my machine. I do admit, however, that I was growing accustomed to the soft ka-chunk of the keys. It had a romantic quality that is otherwise lacking in my work.
Gary A. Taubes
Gary Taubes is a Knight Fellow at MIT.