If you do significant spreadsheet work, chances are you’re using Microsoft Excel. This week, Matt Neuburg looks at Excel 2001 with an eye toward how it has changed and if it’s worth upgrading. Also, we unveil the TidBITS Handheld Edition for AvantGo and other handheld users who want Mac news on the go, Adam updates the TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary, and we note the releases of Keep It Up 2.4, PowerMail 3.0.6, SoundJam 2.5.2, Mailsmith 1.1.6, and BBEdit 6.0.1.
Bare Bones Releases Mailsmith 1.1.6 — Bare Bones Software has updated its email client Mailsmith to version 1.1.6, adding SMTP authentication and a handful of performance, interface, and bug fixes. The update includes a Re-Send command, the capability to check an arbitrary set of accounts from one dialog box, and a summary line in the mailbox list that displays the number of mailboxes and messages, among other changes. Mailsmith 1.1.6 is a 3.6 MB download and is free for existing owners; the full program costs $79, with a special price of $59 for owners of Emailer, Eudora, BBEdit, or BBEdit Lite. [JLC]
BBEdit 6.0.1 Update Released — Bare Bones Software has released BBEdit 6.0.1, updating the company’s widely used text editor and HTML authoring program (see "BBEdit 6.0 Improves Powerful Text Editing" in TidBITS-547). FTP server passwords can now be stored in the Mac OS 9 Keychain or in BBEdit’s bookmarks file, and the link checker better handles large documents with many links. Additional improvements include more detailed text coloring options, a preference for viewing QuickTime movies either as source data or in a playback window, and numerous other fixes. The upgrade to BBEdit 6.0.1 is free to owners of BBEdit 6.0; owners of BBEdit 2.5 and later can upgrade for $39. The full version costs $119, with competitive upgrades priced at $79. The BBEdit 6.0.1 update is a 1.2 MB download. [JLC]
Keep It Up 2.4 Adds Email Notification — Karl Pottie has updated his server monitoring utility Keep It Up to version 2.4 (see "Keep It Up 2.0.1 Adds Remote Management" in TidBITS-451). Keep It Up now features alarms that trigger when free disk space (it’s easy for remote servers to generate large Web logs without anyone noticing until the disk is full) or free memory falls below a specified percentage; at that point Keep It Up alerts the administrator via email. Other email notifications can be triggered when Keep It Up relaunches an application that has crashed, when Keep It Up restarts the Mac, or when someone tries to use an invalid userid or password to access the Keep It Up Web server. Keep It Up 2.4 also now launches items in the KIU StartUp Items folder in alphabetical order, lets you view only portions of logs aliased into the KIU WebLogs folder, and creates new log files using BBEdit’s creator code rather than SimpleText’s. Keep It Up 2.4 costs $22 shareware; upgrades are free to registered users. It’s a 310K download.
If you’re upgrading from Keep It Up 2.3, you’ll have to reset your preferences and enter your registration code again. Resetting preferences becomes an issue only if you have Keep It Up set to keep an application frontmost at all times (which is done by appending ".1" to the filename in the KIU StartUp Items folder). In that case, since Keep It Up defaults to 0 minutes of delay before activating, it constantly brings your frontmost application back to the front as soon as you click anywhere else, which in turn makes it hard to configure Keep It Up or do anything else. Just remove the ".1" temporarily until you can set Keep It Up to have an activation delay. [ACE]
PowerMail 3.0.6 Released, Mac OS X Version in Public Beta — CTM Development has released PowerMail 3.0.6, adding some minor features and fixing a few bugs in the WorldScript- and Sherlock-savvy email program (see "Migrating to New Climes with PowerMail " in TidBITS-530 for a full review). Improvements in PowerMail 3.0.6 include faster moving of messages to the Trash or to other container windows, support for importing from Musashi, import and export of settings for backup and replication, and support for the forthcoming Mac OS 9.1, along with a variety of bug fixes. In addition, CTM Development released a version of PowerMail 3.0.6 for Mac OS X. Some features are unavailable as yet, but the basic functionality should be there for those testing the Mac OS X Public Beta. PowerMail 3.0.6 is free for registered users of PowerMail 3.0, and is a 2.6 MB download. [ACE]
SoundJam 2.5.2 Fixes Bugs, Goes Carbon — Casady & Greene has released SoundJam MP Plus and SoundJam MP Free 2.5.2, which reportedly fix "some minor issues in previous versions" that apparently weren’t significant enough to list. (See "SoundJam Keeps On Jammin’" in TidBITS-535 for more on SoundJam.) Also released at the same time was the unsupported SoundJam for Mac OS X; it requires a SoundJam serial number and will expire 15-May-01. The updates to SoundJam MP Plus 2.5.2 and SoundJam MP Free 2.5.2 are free for registered users and weigh in at 2.9 MB and 3.9 MB respectively; the download for SoundJam for Mac OS X is only 1.1 MB. [ACE]
Poll Results: Bandwidth Is Good — The results of last week’s poll, which asked about the speed of Internet connections you regularly use at home or work, showed major spikes for the 33.6 to 56 Kbps (35 percent of respondents) and 1.5 to 5 Mbps (34 percent) answers. Those answers probably correspond most closely to home modem connections and to work T1 connections, but DSL connections are also popular, with roughly 25 percent of respondents weighing in at a variety of speeds. It’s likely that cable modem connections also fared well, though it’s harder to distinguish those numbers due to the overlap with T1 connections and the often significant difference between theoretical and actual throughputs. [ACE]
Quiz Preview: A Clean Dismount — One of the great things about Macintosh networking over the years is just how seamless it can be, particularly when you make judicious use of aliases. However, troubleshooting certain types of networking problems can prove difficult because of this seamlessness. For this week’s quiz, then, imagine that you’ve set an AppleShare server to mount at startup and now something’s changed. How, in Mac OS 9, do you go about preventing the Mac OS from trying to mount the server every time you boot your Macintosh? Test your knowledge (and maybe learn how you can use AppleShare servers more conveniently) on our home page! [ACE]
Since I released the TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary for Eudora (see “An ATypoKill Eudora Hack” in TidBITS-546), several people submitted corrections that prompted me to do additional cleanup. So, if you download a new version of the dictionary from the same location as mentioned before, you’ll get a slightly cleaner file with some capitalization corrections, a few spelling corrections, several more terms, and some problematic two-letter entries removed. I recommend you get the updated version unless you downloaded it after 01-Oct-00.
A few readers had trouble getting the auto-correction feature to work at all; although we haven’t yet tracked down a definite response, it’s likely that this is related to not having the “Automatically as you type” setting in Eudora’s Spell Checking settings panel selected. Or just double-click this URL (you’ll need to paste it into a Eudora message if it’s not there already):
Barry Wainwright made the trenchant comment that you must not use Eudora’s own text-editing capabilities to edit the TidBITS AutoCorrect Dictionary or else all of the incorrect words will immediately be corrected. Just use any other text editor like BBEdit or a word processor that can save a file as text.
Several people moaned – albeit softly – about wanting the same functionality in the Windows version of Eudora. You’re in luck: the spelling checker code is cross-platform, the auto-correct functionality is present, and Curtis Wilcox passed along the necessary instructions for Windows users on TidBITS Talk.
Finally, just a reminder that you can use this file in any way you want, so, for instance, I’ve imported it (via a custom macro) into the just-released Nisus Writer 6.0, which now sports an auto-correct feature but lacks a large auto-correct dictionary.
Back in TidBITS-523 we noted that David Charlesworth was maintaining specially constructed Web pages to facilitate reading TidBITS on Palm OS-based handhelds and other mobile devices via AvantGo’s offline Web browser.
David has earned our eternal gratitude for his volunteer service over these months, and we’re now pleased to announce that we’ve created – with his assistance – the TidBITS Handheld Edition, a much-improved edition of TidBITS for reading on Palm OS handhelds and other small-screen mobile devices. Our design goal was to present the meat of TidBITS – our professionally written and edited content – in a clean and easily navigable format. Along with the text of our weekly issue, we now include in the AvantGo channel our breaking news items (though not TidBITS Talk threads, which would be difficult to reformat for arbitrarily sized small screens).
AvantGo has actually become one of my most heavily used Palm applications, since I’ve found a few channels that I enjoy reading whenever I have a few minutes in a doctor’s office or waiting in line at the post office. If you have a Palm, haven’t tried AvantGo, and find yourself with similarly small amounts of dead time, I’d encourage you to give it a try with TidBITS. AvantGo accounts are free, and you can add TidBITS to your list of channels to synchronize by clicking this link, logging into AvantGo, and clicking the Save Channel button there.
Nitty Gritty — If you’re interested in what the variables embedded in that URL do, they provide the details necessary to connect to our database server, set the maximum channel size to 100K, set AvantGo to dive only one link deep into pages, tell AvantGo to include images (since we have only one tiny image), prevent AvantGo from following off-site links, and update the channel every day at 12:30 AM.
These are intentionally conservative settings; if you normally like to follow the carefully chosen links we sprinkle throughout TidBITS (which isn’t possible in AvantGo using our default settings above), you can increase the scope of what AvantGo downloads for you by editing your settings for the TidBITS channel. You’ll need to turn on the off-site link option, and I recommend setting the link depth to 2, increasing the maximum channel size to 400K, and turning off images since other sites won’t be optimized for small displays. Remember that sites that haven’t explicitly designed for small screens (including standard articles linked from our database) generally appear poorly formatted, and be prepared for much longer synchronization times.
AutoSync 1.5 — If you find yourself using AvantGo seriously, the longer synchronization times start to be a problem, at least if you’re like me and consistently forget to synchronize until right before you have to leave to go somewhere. Plus, since I can easily go a week without using my Palm, leaving the house without having synchronized means that its calendar and contact data often isn’t as up to date as I’d like.
The solution to this problem is the $10 shareware utility AutoSync 1.5 from RGPS. Just install AutoSync on your Palm (with AutoSyncHelper and HackMaster if your Palm device doesn’t have a powered dock like the Palm V) by dropping the AutoSync.prc file in your Files to Install folder, synchronize to load it, and then tap the AutoSync icon in the Palm’s applications screen to set a schedule on which your Palm synchronizes automatically. I’ve seen some failed synchronizations that might be related to the SETI@home screensaver taking over the Mac, but I haven’t yet tracked them down carefully. Nonetheless, I highly recommend checking out AutoSync.
Other Approaches — You can also access the TidBITS Handheld Edition using the link on the main navigation bar of our Web site, though note that you won’t find us among the AvantGo Content Providers because of the unreasonable administrative burden their revenue sharing requirements would place on us.
Finally, if you want to access these minimalist Web pages with something other than AvantGo, such as a simple text-only browser that doesn’t support tables or a cell phone’s built-in Web browser, feel free to do so at:
We hope you enjoy reading TidBITS on the small screen, and if you have any comments about the TidBITS Handheld Edition, feel free to send them along to TidBITS Talk at <[email protected]>.
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.
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.