GraphMaster - Data in 2D or 3D
Author: Stephen J. Kayner
Date: January, 1993
Keywords: GRAPH SOFTWARE PROGRAM GRAPHING UTILITY REVIEW
Text: GraphMaster V1.33 From Visual Business Systems GraphMaster is a specialty program for creating and printing custom graphs. It is shipped on two 800K diskettes, one for the program, and one for the examples and templates. The package includes only one manual, which is a welcome change (to me) from the handful that now seem to be packaged with most major applications. This manual covers everything from installation and selecting the right kind of graph, through printing, exporting, and design considerations. GraphMaster has a good installer that decompresses the files on the first disk and creates a folder in the location chosen by the user. I installed GraphMaster to an external hard drive on another computer over a LocalTalk network with an active database process underway, and an anti-virus program watching the whole works. It worked without any problems. The examples and templates were then dragged from the floppy diskette to the new GraphMaster folder, and the installation was complete.
The program is accessed through two window types for each set of data: a Data Window and a Chart Window. The Data Window is linked to a Chart Window, and if the Chart Window is closed, the associated Data Window will also close. The two windows have buttons to navigate back and forth between the associated chart and data. Icon buttons on the Data window act as controls for moving the data to the Chart window, or updating the graph. Each of the windows can contain more than one page, and the Chart Window can also have a backdrop which allows the various pages in a chart to share the same background. The Data Window is in essence, a simple spreadsheet that has many of the features one would expect from a low-end stand alone application. It has sizable columns, number and text formatting, and allows data to be sorted and transposed (swapped from rows to columns, or the reverse). The number formatting would not cooperate when I copied a column of dates from an Excel spreadsheet, converting the dates into integers. The solution to this problem lies in importing the data, rather than copying and pasting, from other applications. Data can be imported in Excel 2.2 and 3.0, WKS, SYLK, and text formats (tab and comma delimited), and exported in SYLK, and text formats. Importing from Excel retains the number formatting, for dates and currency. GraphMaster also supports Publish and Subscribe, offers Balloon Help, and is capable of creating warm-links to Excel spreadsheets. To enter a formula in the Data Window, the user selects a cell, then uses the Formula Language commands and a set of functions ranging from trig operands, to log, square root, power, pi, min/max, floor/ceiling, absolute value, mod, random, and row index. There are 18 predefined formulas in the supplied library, and the user can define up to five temporary formulas. Unless saved to the library, temporary formulas are lost at the end of a GraphMaster session. The user can also define up to 99 temporary variables that can be used in formulas. There is a set of drawing tools for the Chart Window that has the usual lines, shapes, text, and attributes (line types, fill colors, patterns, borders, etc.) buttons. There is a ''hand'' tool for dragging around a chart, which is an alternative to scrolling. Two other helpful features are the zoom tool, and the Pop-up tool. The Pop-up tool is a small menu that follows the cursor around, changing to display menu items relevant to the object under the pointer. These ''mini-menus'' are not displayed until the mouse button is pressed, so it's not annoying like Balloon Help. GraphMaster has most of the predefined chart types one would look for in a dedicated graphing tool (over 40 in all), and allows the user to define even more. The usual set of bar, column, pie, line, area, histogram, scatter, XY, and combination charts are supplemented by contour, Hi-Lo, polar, pictogram, 3D, and custom charts. Graphs can be resized by dragging the select handles in the Chart Window, and the Preference setting defaults to using the slower Show Outlines mode. Changing this setting speeds up the action, and makes it easier to see what the results will be, before the mouse button is released. 3D charts are not resized by dragging. There is a menu item for 3D chart resizing, which calls up a dialog box with easily understood functions. There are also Perspective and Frame Width adjustments available for 3D charts. I copied a block of 32x82 cells from an Excel spreadsheet, for a 3D surface chart, then I clicked the Plot button. GraphMaster chugged away for a minute or so, then up popped a dialog warning that I was low on memory, and should close some windows. I tried to close something, but the computer was not responding, then GraphMaster crashed, and took out the data set. To its credit, it did not crash any of the other applications that were open, and I was able to close everything else down. GraphMaster wouldn't restart until I rebooted the Mac. I then increased the memory for GraphMaster from the 1200K default to 2MB, and recopied the data set into the Data Window. Holding my breath, I once again clicked the Plot button. After about 90 seconds, a chart started to appear (I should point out that although GraphMaster seemed slow at doing the redraws of this relatively large data set, it was no slower than Excel at the same task). GraphMaster didn't understand that the first column represented the X axis categories, and plotted it as a surface. I then went back to the Data Window, added a text character to the beginning of a cell in the first column, and pressed the Plot button again. This time I almost had the type of chart I wanted, but it was so cluttered with gridlines, that the plotted surface was barely visible. I then went to the menus, and eliminated the minor gridlines and changed the tickmarks to the inside of the axes. GraphMaster started to redraw, but then popped up a dialog warning that memory was running low, and I should close some windows. I pressed OK, but another dialog came up that said an internal error had occurred, and that I should call Visual Business Systems (the publisher). I pressed OK, and a third dialog came up that said in effect, that GraphMaster was about to close, but would allow me to save before it did. I was allowed to save, then GraphMaster shut down. I then increased the memory for GraphMaster to 4MB, and repeated the above procedure. This time I was allowed to change a number of things about the graph. I removed the gridlines, and changed from a combination of surface and wireframe to a wireframe only, and increased the scale to go to zero on the Y axis. The surface was still difficult to visualize, so I went to the 3D orientation controls, and rotated the graph so that more of the surface could be seen. This was too much for GraphMaster, however, and once again it flashed some warnings, and shut down. This time I was not able to save, and was again forced to reboot in order to restart GraphMaster. All this took place on a Mac IIci with 8MB of memory, running System 7.0.1. The last sequence took place with GraphMaster and TeachText as the only applications running. It seems that GraphMaster has trouble with memory allocation, and that seems to be the reason it has a tendency to shut down unexpectedly, or just flat out crash. The memory used (as conveyed by the ''About this Macintosh'' dialog box) was never the same as the amount allocated in the ''Get Info'' dialog box. I don't know the reason for this, but did find it unnerving to have to be so careful about memory use. On the positive side, there are loads of options available to change the way a chart looks. It is this flexibility that gives GraphMaster its edge over those spreadsheets that offer charting modules. I particularly admired the way the 3D view orientation can be configured. The program offers an intuitive graphical interface for this in the form of a sphere with three axes of rotation that can simply be grabbed and turned in any direction. The ghost of the chart axes are depicted on screen and the user can see the effect of the rotation as it is being done. There are also nine preset views that can be selected for even faster reorientation of 3D charts. GraphMaster has settings for the overlap and spacings of bar and column charts, and data values can be applied to any series. It is very easy to convert many types of two dimensional charts into 3D charts. The Pop-up menu tool is very handy once the basic chart type has been selected and plotted. Using this tool, changing the attributes of the chart elements to jazz up the chart is a snap. Colors, shading, fonts, and other fun stuff can be added or changed. It works fast, but there are so many things that can be changed, I found myself clicking around in this mode for extended periods, with the charts getting wilder with every click. The pictograms are also fun to play with. They consist of PICT or EPS files, and the user can create pictures using any program that will create PICT or EPS images. The GraphMaster Pictogram Editor is used to paste in new images, and to set the image to be stretched, clipped, stacked, or segmented. GraphMaster does six different types of curve fitting for line and scatter charts, and displays the selected curve formula in a dialog box where it can be copied for use in other documents. This dialog box allows the precision of the curve fitting calculation to be set between 1 and 10. The curves can be plotted as a regression line of Y on X, or the reverse. Error bars can be set to span a percent, a fixed number, a multiple of the standard deviation, a variable for each column, or none at all. They can be set for the X or Y direction, to display in only the positive or negative direction, to show for only one or more series, and to have different markers for each series, or different symbols for the high and low marker. Although GraphMaster has some slick technical graphing features, I wouldn't consider it a high-level scientific graphing package, due to slowness and memory problems with large data sets, and a lack of more sophisticated predefined functions, formulas, and chart types. Included with GraphMaster are five black and white, and six color example graphs, ranging from the simple to the spectacular. The color examples show some very good graphics capabilities, including excellent shading and gradients. GraphMaster handles 8 and 24 bit color, and is also adept at black and white chart preparation. Finished charts can be exported as PICT, EPS, Illustrator, or scrapbook files. Any chart can also be used as a template for other data sets, making it easy to set up a custom chart, and to replace the data without having to reproduce all the fancy work that goes into making it. The best of what GraphMaster offers is its great flexibility in adjusting nearly every facet of the charts it creates. The implementation of the many controls and dialogs is great, and takes full advantage of the Mac's graphical environment. There are apparently some problems with memory use, but this package could be of great help in preparing charts for presentation, especially if color printing or slide making is a possibility. For more information about GraphMaster, contact Visual Business Systems at: Visual Business Systems 380 Interstate North, Suite 190 Atlanta, GA 30339 (404)956-0325
Copyright © january, 1993 by Stephen J. Kayner