Excel 2007, the second application in our ongoing series reviewing the major components in Microsoft's new Office 2007 suite, is in some ways, a radical re-making of the office productivity application used by millions around the world.
As with Word 2007, which we reviewed last month, Excel features the new "Ribbon" Office user interface, which replaces menu and tool bars and vertical text menus with a "ribbon" and tabbed panels that stretch across the screen and graphically depict groups of functions. Also like Word, the new Excel saves data in a new space-saving XML-based file format ? which, however, earlier versions of the program cannot open. And like Word, Excel 2007 isn't quite as customizable as past versions.
Because the new Office user interface is more graphical, making more features and functions visible and accessible at a glance, it may very well be, as Microsoft claims, easier to use for people who are new to the application or who use it only occasionally. But it is different enough from all past versions that devotees will need time to learn new ways of doing things, and many will be frustrated by the seemingly gratuitous changes.
Worse, advanced Excel customers will find that any customizations they've made, especially to toolbars and menus in earlier versions, have disappeared and, in many cases, cannot be recovered. The same goes for macros, the little shortcut programs you write to perform repetitive or complex actions within an application. Any Excel macros involving aspects of the user interface that have changed will have to be rewritten or abandoned.
The new program is also generally not as customizable as past versions. You can no longer change context-sensitive (right-click) menus, for example, or add new (or remove existing) top-line ribbon items, as you could to top-line menu items in past versions. One Microsoft engineer told us that some customization features may be reinstated in future releases, but there has been no official word on this.
Reasons to Make the Upgrade
However, Excel 2007 does offer more reasons to switch than Word 2007. Note, however, that some of the best of the new capabilities are not available to people who buy the low-end Office Small Business 2007 package. You also need Microsoft SharePoint 2007 with Excel Services for some of the advanced features to work.
Here are some of the areas where Microsoft has made improvements:
Bigger and Prettier
The increase in the size of spreadsheets you can build in Excel 2007 ? up to one million rows by 16,000 columns ? is likely not one that will excite a lot of small businesses. What small company needs spreadsheets that large?
The claimed improvements in charting mainly have to do with the way the new user interface presents options, but there are also some new options, mainly color schemes. In Excel 2003, you first select the data in the spreadsheet that you want to turn into a chart and then click an icon on the main tool bar to launch a sometimes confusing and overly-detailed multi-step wizard. At each of the small tabbed panels in the wizard, you select options from pull-down lists or click check boxes or radio buttons.
With Excel 2007, you select the data in the spreadsheet and click the Insert tab on the ribbon. One section of the Insert panel shows the types of charts available, illustrated with large colorful icons ? column, line, bar, pie, area, scatter. Clicking an icon ? for bar charts, say ? drops down a panel with icons illustrating visual design options: 2D, 3D, cones, pyramids and so on. Click the one you like and Excel creates the chart. A new Design tab now appears on the ribbon showing color options. Select one and you're done.
All of this means fewer steps, less complexity, and more design options ? that said, the more detailed options from the old chart wizard are still accessible.
You can also make the work sheets attractive in ways you couldn't with Excel 2003. Click the Formatting tab and choose a theme, which is visually displayed. It determines shading of columns and headings and the font and text color used. As you mouse over icons for different themes, you'll see in real time how they would look in the work sheet.
In keeping with the increased emphasis on sharing and publishing Excel data, Microsoft has also added a Page Layout view (selectable in the View panel) that shows you how the sheet will look when printed. It also lets you add headers and footers and make layout changes that you can see in real time. Switching page orientation, for example, or increasing or decreasing margins to fit data on a page are immediately reflected in the main display.