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Excel 2001: Expensive Excellence

It feels odd to start a review by referring to a past article, but quite simply, what I said in my review of Excel 98 still goes: Microsoft Excel, the mighty and venerable spreadsheet program, is completely mature, so it isn’t surprising that, in the Office 2001 version, Microsoft has meddled with it very little. The interface sports a few tweaks, and a couple of useful new ways of accessing previously hidden or obscure functionality, but is otherwise largely indistinguishable from that of its predecessor. At the same time, Microsoft has done little about genuinely integrating Excel into Office, nor have they granted Macintosh Excel users full compatibility with their Windows counterparts.


Do the Numbers — My favorite new Excel 2001 feature is the Calculator (it’s an odd floating dialog box accessed from the Tools menu), which complements the Formula Palette as a way of constructing a formula and inspecting its outcome. The Calculator hasn’t any of the Formula Palette’s sophistication – for example, you can’t explore the syntax and value of an individual function within a complex formula – but you can construct formulas with the assistance of the Paste Function dialog; and it has the virtue of simplicity, which will encourage beginners. Most important, it makes it much easier to enter a calculated value into a cell or a formula, or to experiment with a formula as a reality check.

The other major innovation is the List Manager. Excel has long had the capability, through commands in the Data menu, to designate an area of a spreadsheet as a list, a kind of flat-file database. Each column could be a field, with the data entered in rows; then you could sort the data, filter it, subtotal it, even modify it through a data entry form. For example, over the course of the year, I record all my tax-related expenditures, showing the date, the amount, and the category; at the end of the year, it’s then a simple matter to see just the mortgage payments (and their total) or just the electricity payments (and their total, plus showing them sorted so I can see which months cost the most).

But Microsoft’s market research found not only that this feature was too obtuse for most people, but also that making lists was in fact one of the primary uses that normal people had for Excel. The List Manager now watches when you’re entering data and offers to create a "list object" when it thinks you’re creating a list. A list object is a sort of table within a spreadsheet, containing column headers with pop-up menus that provide direct access to Excel’s sorting and filtering options. You can move list objects around the spreadsheet any way you want, breaking free of the preset row/column rigidity of the sheet. List objects can also automatically provide total rows and always provide a new row for additional data, rather than forcing the user to add new rows between the end of the data and the total row. Though a welcome addition, the List Manager is not perfect; for instance, in one spreadsheet, manually assigned borders and fills appeared initially but didn’t stick, whereas those assigned by the AutoFormat feature did. Also, some of my favorite advanced features for managing data tables, such as advanced filters, don’t work in lists run by the List Manager.

There are a couple of smaller but significant improvements in the intelligence of Excel’s behavior. I stumbled on one when I went to record a stock purchase in the worksheet where I track such transactions. I inserted a new row under the existing transactions, and started entering data; I was stunned when one cell of the new row suddenly displayed a value with no prompting from me. Excel had recognized that this new row was intended to be similar to the previous row, and had automatically extended a formula from the cells above! Previously, I had to perform this extension manually. Also, the AutoComplete feature now uses an interface more like Internet Explorer’s: as you start to enter a value, you’re shown a list of all possible matches from the column above, instead of a single match filling the cell, which you can only accept or reject.

Excel can now display chart labels in large numerical units (for example, 1 and 2 to signify 1000 and 2000), or in hierarchical groups (for example, all dates from 1998 bracketed under "1998", then all dates from 1999 bracketed under "1999"). Text imports are a bit easier, and importing from FileMaker Pro is much easier. You can now draw borders with a pencil tool, analogous to drawing tables in Word, rather than having to select cells and muddle through a dialog. Those are the highlights; you can view the rest of the short new feature list online.

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Integration and Differentiation — I’ve already covered much of what’s new in Excel 2001 in my discussion of Word 2001. Microsoft redesigned Excel’s windows and toolbars in the same way, with the status bar removed and docked toolbars no longer wasting space. The new Formatting Palette is present, as is the Office Clipboard. The first item in the File menu is Project Gallery, not New.


The Help window works equally poorly in both applications, and Excel also suffers from the same lack of a printed manual. This lack is perhaps even more acute with Excel than with Word. The primary entity driving an Excel worksheet is the formula, comprising one or more worksheet functions; therefore nothing is so common as a desire to look up a worksheet function in some sort of reference. But you can’t look it up in a printed reference because there is none. And you can look it up in the online help only clumsily, by summoning the help, typing the function’s name, and doing a search. One would expect that if the cursor was in the name of a function, some keyboard shortcut or contextual menu would allow you to jump instantly to the help on that function – but it doesn’t. Indeed, when you’re in the Formula Palette or the Paste Function dialog, looking right at a function you’d like to know more about, there’s a tantalizing Help button in the palette – but it does nothing at all! This complete lack of contextual help, in a program whose explicit mission statement is to "simplify difficult tasks," is all but unforgivable.

It’s disappointing also to see that genuine integration of Excel and Word into a true Office suite remains elusive. Some shared functionality does exist: for instance, changes to the AutoCorrect list in one appear in the other. But mostly, Excel has been made to look like Word without in fact working the same way. Excel has no inline spell checking or access to suggested spelling corrections through the contextual menu, as Word does. Excel can access the new Office-wide definition dictionary, but not through the contextual menu: you must summon the dictionary window and type the word you want defined! The Find dialog interfaces are utterly different in the two applications; they have slightly different sets of drawing tools; and so on. In short, it is clear that Word and Excel remain almost completely separate, their assembly into a common suite being merely a matter of connection via scissors and glue. The best example is how in this version of Excel, Microsoft has changed the menu keyboard shortcuts to be more similar to Word’s; that’s good for new users, but after all these years dealing with the differences, I find the new shortcuts confusing and inconvenient, an aggravation of the real problem, which is that you still can’t customize Excel’s keyboard shortcuts!

Finally, compatibility remains an issue. Adam had difficulty opening a worksheet from a Windows Excel user; if it had not opened properly in Excel 98, I would have suspected that it was because the Mac version lacks ActiveX controls. Mapping, the Web Form wizard, and the Access Links add-in are among the other Windows features missing in the Mac version.

Calculating the Total — Excel is a wonderful and indispensable program, and if you are in the market for a spreadsheet, you can do no better than Excel, especially as part of the full Office suite. But let’s face it, most people who need a spreadsheet probably already own the program, given that it has dominated the Macintosh spreadsheet market basically forever (with AppleWorks being the major alternative left standing). The real questions surround upgrades, because Excel 2001, though it introduces no apparent negatives over Excel 98, just isn’t sufficiently different to warrant the cost of upgrade on its own.

In our recent poll asking what you most commonly do with your Mac, 30 percent of respondents said that spreadsheet or database work was one of the most common tasks they performed with their Macs. If you’re in this group because of spreadsheet work, you’re likely a die-hard Excel user, which probably makes the upgrade worthwhile, particularly if you also use Word or PowerPoint. For a serious user, just staying up to date is important, and in fact, when we asked why readers were upgrading to Office 2001, that was the leading reason with 25 percent of the votes.



Spreadsheet neophytes with little experience creating spreadsheets or those who occasionally sum a few columns of numbers should also find the upgrade worthwhile for Excel 2001’s improved ease of use and the List Manager. Again, it’s difficult to justify the cost of upgrading for Excel alone, but once you include Word, PowerPoint, and Entourage, the decision should become more clear.

If, like many folks, you use a small number of spreadsheets whose underlying structure never changes in significant ways, save your money unless the rest of the Office suite is compelling for other reasons.

In closing, it seems that the kind of interface refinement and attention to surface detail is all you’re likely to see in future versions of Excel as well. Quite simply, short of carbonization for Mac OS X and pure experimentation that would anger long-time Excel users, there isn’t much of anywhere for Microsoft to go with Excel. It has all the power the vast majority of users need, the spreadsheet interface paradigm is unlikely to change any time soon, and that leaves little but the window trimmings.

Microsoft Excel 2001 requires a PowerPC-based machine with a 120 MHz or faster processor, running Mac OS 8.1 or later. If you have virtual memory on, Microsoft recommends at least 32 MB of RAM (48 MB under Mac OS 9). Microsoft Office 2001 costs $500 or $300 to upgrade from an earlier version (discounts are available from TidBITS sponsors); there’s also a $100 rebate if you buy the complete version within 60 days of purchasing a new iMac or iBook. Excel alone costs $400, with upgrades to just Excel at $150.

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