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Lives of a Cell: Excel 98

To call Microsoft Excel a spreadsheet program is rather like calling the Grand Canyon a gully. Like the Grand Canyon, Excel is huge; it seems a rugged and forbidding place, but in reality it’s full of power and beauty, much of which is concealed, and accessible only with a certain amount of labor. That’s why it’s no bad thing that most of the ways in which Excel 98 improves upon Excel 5 have to do with its interface.


Fundamental changes were not to be expected; Excel is a mature, polished, highly functional application. And besides, the great Excel revolution took place four years ago with Excel 5. Until then, cell data had to be entered in the formula bar rather than the cell itself (enough to confuse and deter many a beginner), character formatting could not be applied within cell text, workbooks were intractable and cranky, named ranges were hard to use, and the macro language was a series of illegible incantations, crammed into the cells of a worksheet and debuggable only at the cost of ten percent of one’s body weight.

My Numbers Stay Crunchy — To put Excel 98 through its paces, I had it work out my 1997 taxes. To a large extent, this involved building worksheets whose structure mirrored that of my tax forms. Then, all I plugged in my numbers (various types of income and expenditure); calculations such as sums and differences and percentages and copying numbers from one cell to another were done for me. Forms such as the new Schedule D, where you must calculate different bits of your tax at different rates, or Form 2210, where you must justify your annualized installments of estimated tax, are tedious and daunting when done by hand; thanks to Excel, they filled themselves out as if by magic, almost without human intervention.

My tax forms used Excel as a spreadsheet; but throughout the year I also had used Excel as a kind of database, recording each item of income and expenditure as it occurred. Now I sorted and filtered that database to obtain particular information, such as business phone calls. The neat part was having Excel make a "pivot table" to summarize the data into totals horizontally by category (interest, dividends, office expenses, travel expenses, and so on) and vertically by calendrical quarter, with grand totals in both directions. This gave me the numbers to plug into the tax form spreadsheets.

To try charts, I used Excel to track my stock portfolio. I used Yahoo’s customizable portfolio feature so each day I could see a Web page showing the value of my stocks. Excel can now read HTML, so it was able to import that Web page; and a Visual Basic routine instantly added the current date and the new figures to an array of numbers, which was rendered into a chart. (Subsequently I discovered that I could have automated the process still further, skipping Yahoo and my browser, and importing the stock quotes directly from the Internet with an Excel "Web query.")


Throughout these experiments, Excel 98 really did feel easier to use. If you’re accustomed to Excel 5, you can start using Excel 98 immediately; at first you’ll think it’s the same program. If you’re a new user, Excel 98 is a splendid version to learn. Occasional user or power guru, you’ll quickly encounter subtle enhancements that break down the barriers between you and the work you want to do.

Fear and Loafing — Here’s a paradoxical theory: a large, powerful program like Excel can prevent you from exploring its power. The reason, I suggest, is fear. If I feel uncertain about what will happen if I perform a certain action, the likelihood is that I’ll be reluctant to perform it. This, in turn, makes me lazy; there are features I shy away from, because the safety of not venturing into them outweighs the possible advantages of learning them.

Excel is an especially apt candidate for this scenario. For one thing, its data are important numbers; one mistake and you could be in more trouble than the Beardstown Ladies. Also, much of Excel’s action is concealed from the user. The fundamental entity visible onscreen, the worksheet, is not the "real" entity one is concerned with; the "real" entity is the hidden formulas and how they interact with cells. One creates formulas with a certain amount of perspiration; having done so, one tends to become conservative, afraid of messing things up accidentally. Shall I try to tweak this formula, or is it best to leave it alone? If I move these cells will I fry some data or break some formulas?

That’s why the interface improvements in Excel 98 are so important. To the extent that they reduce such fears, they make the user more confident, more adventurous, and ultimately more productive.

For instance, as you drag selected cells to copy or move them, a ScreenTip box appears near the cursor, telling you the range that the cells will occupy if you release the cursor at that moment. As you drag the corner of a selection to fill a range of cells automatically, a ScreenTip box shows what values Excel will insert. In both cases, if you’re still not sure what effect your action will have, press Control as you drag to see a contextual menu when you release the mouse; this feature existed in 5.0, but I find it easier to use in the new version. And if you’re still nervous, note that Excel now offers 16 levels of Undo and Redo.

To prevent yourself (and others) from entering the wrong sort of data, you can now mark a cell for validation: entering a value that fails to meet certain criteria causes an alert to appear. Plus, the "validation" rubric subsumes several other cool features (which don’t seem particularly related). Clicking in a cell can cause a custom ScreenTip to appear; that’s a good way to leave a note explaining what the cell is for. (Another is to attach an actual note to the cell; notes, now called comments, were formerly hidden features of a cell, but now they can display as text boxes with arrows pointing to the cell in question.) A cell can also display a dropdown list from which the user selects a value to enter.

Another common Excel fear is that formulas may not work properly. Ensuring that they do is now easier. If you double-click a cell, the other cells whose values are used by its formula are framed in different colors. When you need a fast check to make sure you’re combining the right numbers, this technique is easier than using Excel’s auditing tools. Plus, you can move or resize a frame to change the reference within the formula.

Constructing or troubleshooting a complex formula used to be daunting; it is now easy, and even fun. As you edit the formula, the vastly improved Function Wizard shows what actual values are being fed into each function, and what actual result that function is producing. So, you can discern instantly which particular function within your formula is giving the wrong output, and why. Further, if you make a mistake while typing a formula (such as omitting a parenthesis), Excel no longer complains and leaves you hanging; it proposes a sensible correction.

Charts and Other Smarts — Working with charts is now considerably simpler. The Chart Wizard shows at every step exactly what the finished chart, using your data, will look like. A selected chart (you no longer must double-click a chart to select it) can easily be modified using the Chart menu that now appears. ScreenTips tell you what data value or element of the chart is under the cursor, which aids analysis and editing.

At one point in the Chart Wizard, you’re presented with a dialog box containing an edit field in which a range of cells is to be entered. This is something that often happens in Excel. The easiest way to enter that range is usually to select it, and Excel has always allowed you to do so; the trouble is that the dialog box itself is in the way. Now, wherever this situation occurs (not just in the Chart Wizard, but throughout Excel), a "collapse" button reduces the dialog to the edit field alone; you make the selection, press the button again, and are returned to the dialog’s earlier state. This is a good example of how a small interface change can make a major difference.

There are many small tweaks to formatting, such as cell merging, rotated text, the ability to indent cell contents, and easy adjustment of print regions. Pivot tables are easier to format, modify, and maintain. Collaborative power is enhanced through workbook sharing (multiple users can open and change the same worksheet across a network, simultaneously) and through a revision-tracking feature akin to Word’s. Certain fundamental limits are raised: the size of a worksheet is now 64,000 rows – yes, I know folks whose spreadsheets routinely hit that limit – and a cell can contain 32,000 characters.

Office Party — Excel also inherits some features by virtue of its integration within the Office 98 suite. I mentioned these in my earlier review of Word 98 (see "A Word to the Wise – Word 98, That Is" in TidBITS-425). There’s Max, the animated Office Assistant. There’s the enlarged collection of drawing tools. There are hyperlinks, and the capability to read and write HTML. (You can’t save a file across the Internet, though, by uploading it through FTP, as you can with the Windows version.) And then there’s the fact that the Visual Basic debugging environment is no longer as good as it was in Excel 5 (the capability to set a "watch" is gone).


It’s curious that after all these years of supposed integration, Excel and Word remain so dissimilar. For instance, Word menus have always been customizable, but this is the first version of Excel where you can manually customize menus. Keyboard shortcuts are different from Word’s and can’t be customized as Word’s can. Excel’s internal functionality is not totally exposed as macro commands the way Word’s is. Word can show keyboard shortcuts for toolbar items in a ToolTip; Excel can’t. Some user-configurable options affect just Excel, others affect all Office programs, and you won’t know which is which until you experiment. Excel boasts a drawing object that Word lacks, "smart connectors" (arrows that continue to link shapes even if those shapes are repositioned). Templates are very differently implemented. It’s time that Microsoft undertook a Grand Unification.

Grand Total — My experience with Excel 98 has been mostly positive. I did run into some buggy behavior that may have been attributable to extension conflicts: at various moments, hierarchical menus didn’t work, menus sometimes stopped working entirely, there were freezes while working in Visual Basic (especially when making a new dialog), and when I first opened an Excel 5 document and tried to save it in Excel 98 format, I couldn’t. I believe I’ve mostly resolved these problems, but anecdotally I do continue to see occasional unexplained freezes. Still, Excel 98 doesn’t seem any less stable than Excel 5, which quite regularly used to drop me into MacsBug.

These few problems aside, Microsoft deserves commendation for the many ways they’ve made Excel not just easier to use, but less intimidating. That’s not to imply I think their work is done; Excel still has many areas where the interface is more arcane than it needs to be. But the effort thus far definitely makes a difference, and since the program’s functionality leaves very little to be desired, it is to be hoped that Microsoft will continue on this course of simplifying user access to Excel’s power.

Finally, the bottom line: should you upgrade? If your work doesn’t expose you to Excel 5’s interface annoyances, or if you’re so expert that you’re completely inured to them, you may not find the upgrade worth the price. On the other hand, if, like me, you tremble at the idea of changing the scale of a chart’s x-axis, or if you’ve ever spent hours trying to figure out why a formula yields a bizarre value, you’re likely to want Excel 98; and if you need the new graphic, printing, collaborative or Web-related features, upgrading becomes almost obligatory.

Upgrades cost $299 for the entire Microsoft Office 98 suite, or $149 for Excel 98 alone. New users pay $499 for Office 98 or $399 for Excel 98. Those are list prices – street prices run lower. TidBITS sponsor Cyberian Outpost sells Office 98 for $447.95, and Small Dog Electronics has a $339 bundle of Office 4.2.1 and the upgrade to Office 98 (see the sponsorship text at the top of the issue for links). For academic users, Microsoft Office 98 runs $199 and Excel 98 alone is $129. A Microsoft Office 98 Gold Edition costs about $100 more and includes FrontPage 1.0, Encarta 98 Deluxe, and Bookshelf 98. Also, Apple today started a $30 rebate promotion if you buy both Mac OS 8.1 and Microsoft Office 98 between 15-Mar-98 and 30-Jun-98; Apple’s Web site has details.

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