Do you need a complex database program for your desktop computer? Not if you need only an electronic version of your Rolodex. You may already have the tool you need: a word processor or spreadsheet program.

To use a word processor as a database, simply enter the data as text. To retrieve information, use the search or find command to locate anything you have typed. If you want the data displayed in a particular order, enter the information so that each record is a paragraph. The first word of the paragraph should be the keyword, such as a last name. The major word-processing programs can sort paragraphs alphabetically by the first word.

Although a word processor doesn't have the flexibility of a database program for reorganizing or producing varied reports, it does have some advantages. Unlike most database programs, word-processing programs let you enter as much text as you want in each record, and you can search for text anywhere.

It's easier to manipulate databases on spreadsheet programs than on word processors. All the major spreadsheet programs include a fairly comprehensive set of database functions. You can select by criteria (for example, find addresses with zip codes between 00000 and 19999) or sort on any part of the record (last name, city, and so on). But spreadsheets are less convenient than word processors are for long text notes, since a typical spreadsheet cell is limited to about 250 characters.

If you want to create your own screen format for entering and viewing data, you'll need a database program. For good features at a modest price, consider PC-File, which costs $149.95 for IBM PCs and compatibles (from ButtonWare, in Seattle, 206-454-0479). FileMaker Pro for the Mac is a good choice for $299 (from Claris, in Santa Clara, Calif., 408-727-8227).

-- Cary Lu