[Here we have the final part of Howard’s review, folks. This time we’ll look at some of the interface and output enhancements in Excel 4.0 and hear about Howard’s few gripes and overall impressions. -Adam]
Custom Worksheet — Geneva. Blecch! While I imagine I would enjoy the city, I don’t like the font. Nor does my LaserWriter. So why does Excel still use Geneva as its default font? I don’t know, but finally Microsoft has provided us with a semi-appropriate work around.
In Excel 3.0, Microsoft introduced the Excel Startup Folder. Excel does something with everything you put in this folder. You put an add-in macro in, Excel loads that add-in. With worksheets or macro sheets, Excel opens them automatically. If you save a file as a template, that template will appear in the File New dialog box as an option. If you create a template and call it "Worksheet", Excel will replace the standard, stupid Geneva-font worksheet it creates by default with a copy of the template you specify. I have saved myself untold formatting hours simply by doing this.
Split & Freeze Panes — Since spreadsheet users often want to look at tons of data, Excel has always had a way to split a worksheet window into multiple "panes," and then freeze those panes into place. This way, you can still see your column labels at the top of your screen as you scroll down a long list. In the old days, you had to carefully grab the "split box" next to each scroll bar, drag the split where you want it, then choose freeze panes. Frankly, most users found the whole procedure pretty confusing and easy to screw up. Excel 4.0 comes to the rescue by changing the way the pane controls work.
The pane controls have migrated from the Options menu to the Window menu – a more intuitive place, I think. To split and freeze the panes, you scroll the window so the column and row headings you want to stay put show at the top and left of the screen, then select the cell in the upper left corner of the range you want to scroll. Choose Freeze Panes and bang, Excel does everything for you.
Views — Many of us have worksheets with more than one reporting area. If you do, you know the difficulty of jumping from place to place on the worksheet. With the Views add-in, you can name different reports and jump to them quickly. Unfortunately, this add-in works so slowly, I can’t stand to use it!
Zooming — Although the Zoom command does not come from an add-in, it works too much like they just bolted it on. How about adding the Claris-standard zoom buttons to the scroll bars? Aesthetics aside, I do find it wonderful to zoom out and see the "map" of a worksheet, or zoom in to comfortably work with columns of seven point numbers.
Printing Changes — When he showed Excel 4.0 to dBUG (Seattle’s Mac user group), Excel’s product manager admitted "Excel 3.0 had the Yugo of headers and footers." Well, Excel 4.0 has the Hyundai of headers and footers.
With the new version, you don’t have to remember the formatting codes (&p for page number, &f for file name, etc.) – you can choose them from pop-up menus in a sub-dialog within the Page Setup dialog box. When you select "Date" from the list, Excel inserts a WYSI_N_WYG code – &D! Although you can now have multi-line headers or footers, you still can’t move the header or footer from a half an inch from the top or bottom of the page, nor can you have different headers and footers for the first page of a document.
Other printing changes include an add-in macro called "Print Report" which allows you to set up different ranges to print on a worksheet (for instance your financial worksheet might have an income statement, a balance sheet, and a transaction report). With the Print Report command, you can print all or some of those reports at once.
Microsoft has also added two new features to the Page Setup dialog box. The first allows you to change the order in which the pages print – either top to bottom or left to right. The second lets you tell Excel to reduce or enlarge the worksheet to fit onto any number of pages wide and tall. For instance, you can make a large report print on one page, or tell Excel to print it three pages wide by one tall.
Microsoft has simplified specifying print titles (rows and/or columns which appear at the top and left of all pages when you print the worksheet). Rather than forcing you to select the entire rows and/or the entire columns you want for titles, the dialog now lets you simply click on the rows or columns you want for titles, which is much simpler.
Finally, the macro language will now control all page setup options, including page orientation!
Suggestions for Using Excel 4.0 — The standard toolbar has many which you may not use. Take them off and replace them with tools you need. Many tools do double duty; for instance, shift-clicking on the increase font size tool will decrease the font size. Other changes I’ve made to the standard toolbar include replacing the print tool with Print Preview, adding the zoom out tool (shift-click on it to zoom in), removing the left justification tool (Excel left-justifies by default), and adding outlining tools.
Documentation and Support — I have mixed feelings about the documentation. The Mac and Windows versions work so similarly that Microsoft has merged the two sets of documentation. This works well for those who use both platforms, so they get a side-by-side explanation of the few differences. While Microsoft has included many figures, and the explanations stick much more to practical how and why topics than in the past, you will find few screen shots in the text. Not only do they not show you the dialog boxes, but they also don’t list all of the options and what they mean. I find it comforting to see the dialog box next to the text – it allows me to orient myself better.
That said, I have to admit that the new on-line help system makes up for and explains the choices they made with the documentation. You will find almost all of the detail you expect from the manual in the online help system. If get confused about just about any feature, Excel’s help system will give you the information you need. First, almost every dialog box now has a help button. When you click it, Excel brings up help for that particular topic. If you want to know what each of the choices in the Display Options dialog do, you won’t find the detail in the manual, but the help system patiently explains all.
You can copy text from the help system onto the clipboard as well as printing it. You can add your own notes to all help topics, and set bookmarks for places you go on a regular basis.
Under System 7, Microsoft supports balloon help, but only for windows, menus, and toolbars. I’d really like to see it work in individual dialog boxes so I could easily find out what this or that checkbox means.
Wish List — Although I wholeheartedly endorse what Microsoft has done with Excel 4.0, they still need to fix some annoying, persistent problems with the program. I’d especially like to see:
- Better headers and footers. Let’s move the headers and footers, make them WYSIWYG, and turn them off selectively.
- Embedded Macros. Let’s create buttons and tools with macros embedded, so they don’t have to rely on a separate macro sheet.
- Cooler Wizards. How about a wizard which allows you to create financial reports – income statements, balance sheets, etc.?
Conclusions — In this three-part review, I still haven’t discussed all of the new features in Excel 4.0, but I think I’ve hit most of the important ones. If you own Excel, should you upgrade? If you have enough free space on your hard disk as well as at least 4 MB of RAM, I think you should. If you don’t own Excel, should you buy it? I hate to foster monopolism, but I think any Mac user who doesn’t have a significant reason to use some other spreadsheet should choose Excel.
As I said in the first part, I feel like I work significantly more efficiently with Excel 4.0 than I did with Excel 3.0. As the feature lists get longer, I find myself wondering, "what more can they possibly put into a spreadsheet?" That question reminds me of a common sentiment from a few years back: "Why on earth would anyone need more than 64K of RAM?"
Microsoft Customer Service — 800/426-9400
Howard Hansen, The Oasis Group — [email protected]