Popular computer software, such as WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and dBase, can easily run $200 to $500 per program. While these programs are deservedly popular, they have far more power than most people need or can use. You can save money by buying a low-cost multifunction program instead. For about $100 you can get a package that does four standard tasks: word processing, spreadsheets, simple databases, and communications with a modem. These programs may not be the best choice if you want to produce a complex business plan or fancy newsletter, but most have plenty of power to turn out letters, reports, invoices, and budgets -- essentially all the nonspecialized computer tasks a businessperson does. A multifunction program is easier to learn than a collection of separate programs since it includes one user interface for all tasks. All programs described here include a spelling dictionary and support an optional mouse, unless otherwise noted.

The best multifunction programs can open multiple documents, so you can combine data from two files. The leader is Microsoft Works. It has the easiest-to-use interface and word processing to handle large documents, preview your document on screen before printing, and control fonts on laser printers.

A distant second choice is AlphaWorks (Alpha Software), which has comparable power except in word processing. Its interface is awkward, but it does use standard file formats -- plain text, Lotus 1-2-3, dBase -- so exchanging files with other people is easy.

Betterworking Eight-in-One (Spinnaker Software) cannot open text and spreadsheet files concurrently but will open two text files simultaneously. It lists for only $59.95 and has many features, such as screen preview for the word processor.

Other multifunction programs are less impressive, partly because they can open only one document at a time. PFS: First Choice (Software Publishing) is nevertheless well designed and easy to learn. DeskMate (Tandy Corp./Radio Shack) is by itself limited, but you can add programs to it. Several companies have programs that can be installed into DeskMate and follow its interface, including a spreadsheet from Lotus and a word processor from Symantec. If you add these programs, however, you'll end up spending several hundred dollars more.

-- Cary Lu