June 25, 2004

Review: PlanMaker for Linux

Author: Jem Matzan

Spreadsheet development has more or less solidified over the past year -- the majority of the features that most people need are already there in long-established proprietary programs like Excel and Lotus 123 -- and that means that the door is open for smaller companies and free software projects to grab market share with capable, inexpensive products. That's probably the best way to describe SoftMaker's $49.95 PlanMaker 2004 for Linux, which was released earlier this month: capable, inexpensive, cross-platform competition for Microsoft Excel 2003. You won't find a more Excel-compatible spreadsheet on any operating system, but Microsoft compatibility is far from PlanMaker's only worthwhile feature.

PlanMaker is both smaller in size (29MB) and faster to start than most of the other spreadsheet applications I've used. It's considerably faster than OpenOffice.org Calc and about as fast as the GNOME Foundation's Gnumeric when starting up. It's also lightning fast when it comes to opening a worksheet, even when there is a lot of data to load and formulas to calculate, or embedded charts in it. One particularly data-heavy test case with a single large chart took only 10 seconds to load, while the same worksheet took more than a minute to load in StarOffice 7 Calc.

Calculation speed is equivalent to Excel or Gnumeric -- fast enough that you'll hardly think about it. It takes a lot longer to load the data and scroll through a large worksheet to get to an empty cell than it does to perform a numeric calculation.

Like all spreadsheet programs, PlanMaker has a row limit -- specifically, 16,384 rows, which is below most of PlanMaker's competitors, such as Excel (65,536 max rows) and OpenOffice.org Calc (32,000 rows). The maximum number of columns for most spreadsheets stands at 256, and PlanMaker is no exception. If you try to import a worksheet that has more than 16,384 rows, PlanMaker will truncate it, ignoring all data after that row. According to SoftMaker, the program is capable of handling more rows, but the code is not yet optimized to get ideal performance with larger worksheets. Future versions are likely to include support for 65,536 rows.

PlanMaker's interface uses an independent toolkit, so it's not controlled by GTK, Qt, or Motif. It has a nice Excel 2003 gradient look to it when using the default settings, and you can change it to look more like older Windows, OS/2, or Pocket PC styles. The menus are not identical to Excel's or any other program's, but they are by no means difficult to navigate if you're accustomed to using a spreadsheet application.

PlanMaker's charting and graphing capabilities are quite advanced; both 2D and 3D chart types are provided, the most prominent being the surface chart. You can also set the color palette of the charts to specific schemes, including the same color palette used by Microsoft Excel. In other words if you really don't want someone to know that you're not using Excel to generate your charts, you can use Excel's default color scheme to make the output of the two programs identical.

Compatibility with other programs is where PlanMaker really shines. It can read from and write to Excel 2003 worksheets even if they employ various Excel-only features. SoftMaker has a page detailing its Excel compatibility features. While you have to take a manufacturer's propaganda with a grain of salt, my own analysis of the test cases shows them to be completely accurate and as-advertised. What they don't show, of course, is the fact that any Excel sheet with any kind of macro in it will not have full functionality because of the lack of macro support in PlanMaker for Linux. Even though it can't make use of them, embedded macros are perfectly preserved in an Excel worksheet when you edit it with PlanMaker. In writing to the Excel format from PlanMaker I was unable to find any flaws in translation when reading the same worksheets in Excel 2003.

A 3D chart in PlanMaker

There are, unfortunately, no analytical or statistical functions built into PlanMaker (for operations like covariance or forecasting) although there are certainly a large number of calculation functions. You also won't find any support for macros in the GNU/Linux or pocket/handheld PC editions. The Windows edition does have a certain amount of programmability through a bring-your-own-language method. By importing PlanMaker's type library into Visual Basic or Borland Delphi, you can program macros and scripts in an interface similar to that of Microsoft Excel. SoftMaker does have a VBA-compatible macro language called BasicMaker, but currently it is only supported in the Windows version of the SoftMaker office suite in the German language. Translation of BasicMaker into English is underway and will be available in future editions of PlanMaker for Windows; the GNU/Linux edition will also have macro support eventually.

The internationalization support is poor as of this writing; the program is available only in English, but it does have spelling dictionaries available in 17 different languages and automatic hyphenation for several more. Internationalized versions of PlanMaker are now in development for Spanish and Portuguese, and support for further languages will be available in the future, according to SoftMaker.

English documentation is nonexistent, but SoftMaker does provide an enormous, comprehensive, 400-page PDF manual in German, which is currently being translated into English.

Installation and licensing

There's no fancy installation program for PlanMaker for Linux -- you simply unpack a .tgz file and move the resulting directory to your preferred location. Your user home directory, /opt, or /usr/local are probably the best choices to store the program files.

Upon running the PlanMaker binary for the first time, you're asked for your email address and the product key, which is emailed to you when you purchase the software. While this step is required to install the program, there is no "phone home" activation scheme as in a number of other proprietary applications on the market today.

The license is of course proprietary -- this is not free software. You're allowed to install the software on multiple systems as long as PlanMaker is not concurrently used. You can also use it over a network as long as each client machine that accesses PlanMaker has its own license.


PlanMaker is a good value, considering its price and features. It's not the kind of heavily armed force that Excel is, but if you're one of the large percentage of users who uses a small percentage of the features in Excel, PlanMaker is an excellent low-cost alternative. If you need the best possible Excel compatibility in a GNU/Linux-based spreadsheet, PlanMaker is your best bet (outside of a virtual machine running Windows and Excel).

The Windows version and the GNU/Linux version are the same in most respects, the only exceptions being platform-dependent options with regard to fonts and memory usage, and the programmability through VB or Delphi. You can create a worksheet with PlanMaker for Linux and edit and use that same worksheet in the same program on a handheld or pocket PC or in Windows. There is no other spreadsheet program that works so effectively on as many platforms.

PlanMaker is limited in several ways, however. It doesn't have the internationalization support that Gnumeric has, or the macro capabilities that most other spreadsheets have, or the large worksheet support that high-end spreadsheet applications have. PlanMaker is a lot like its word processing partner TextMaker in that it provides the functionality that most people will need while providing superior compatibility with Microsoft file formats at a low price.

Purpose Spreadsheet
Manufacturer SoftMaker
Operating systems GNU/Linux, Windows, handheld PC, Pocket PC
License Proprietary
Market Cross-platform business users, GNU/Linux and Pocket/handheld PC users
Price (retail) US$49.95 or €49.95 (includes VAT), but package deals and discounts for return customers are available
Previous version N/A
Product Web site Click here

Jem Matzan is the author of three books, a freelance journalist and the editor-in-chief of The Jem Report.

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