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Microsoft Office 2004

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Excel 2004: Venerable Spreadsheet Program Evolves Nicely

by Rob Griffiths

For those whose data analysis needs are anything but simple, Microsoft Excel is a mainstay. Though AppleWorks and ComGrafix's RagTime both have spreadsheet modules, Excel has the rich feature set and Windows compatibility that number-crunchers have come to rely on.

If you're familiar with prior versions of Excel, you'll feel right at home in Excel 2004; Microsoft has kept the best of prior releases while adding productivity-enhancing new features, including a Page Layout view, Smart Buttons that help with common tasks such as formula debugging, and nice-looking chart-formatting options.

What's New?

Substantial improvements lie hidden beneath Excel's familiar surface. Like its siblings in Office 2004, Excel 2004 has a Toolbox icon that gives you access to the Office-wide Project Center, checks compatibility with other versions of Office, and opens the Scrapbook to store often-used text and graphics (see "Office's Common Ground").

The first thing you'll notice in Excel is the default Page Layout view -- it looks nothing like the views in prior versions of Excel. The active page is white, while the others are grayed out until clicked on. If you're an advanced Excel user, you may find this view takes some getting used to -- your 36-column-wide report, for instance, will now have visible page-break gaps. Luckily, the old Normal view is available in the View menu. If you can get accustomed to it, though, the Page Layout view shows you exactly how your spreadsheet will print out.

The Formatting Palette is much improved in Excel 2004. You may actually first notice it when you're not using it -- it fades to semitransparent when it's inactive, and becomes opaque again when you mouse over it. Although transparency helps reduce the palette's visual intrusiveness, you can't select cells behind it. But through the Customize Formatting Palette option, you can instead have the palette minimize when it's not in use, which gets it completely out of the way.

Like Word and PowerPoint 2004, Excel 2004 puts Add Objects in the Formatting Palette, making it easy to insert charts, symbols, shapes, lines, and text shapes. Choose one of the objects, and Excel places it on the worksheet. Finally, the Page Setup section of the palette includes a new Orientation area with buttons that you can use to easily toggle between Portrait and Landscape mode. The Print Scaling options in this section give you full control over your spreadsheet's print layout. These changes reduce the time that you used to spend activating menus, viewing print previews, and memorizing shortcut keys for various symbols.

The downside to this revised palette is its size. With a graphic selected, for instance, the fully expanded Formatting Palette is taller than the 1,280-pixel height of my 23-inch Apple Cinema Display. When I'm working on a PowerBook, I have to click a lot on the Formatting Palette's disclosure triangles to reveal and hide the various sections within the available screen space.

Charts Turn Professional

If you use only the Formatting Palette's Add Objects section to insert charts in Excel 2004, you'll miss out on some cool new looks for your charts. In the Custom Types area of the Chart dialog box (Insert: Chart), you'll find an assortment of new, very professional-looking templates. So instead of a boring Pie from the Standard Types area, you can go for the 3D Anodized Pie to really bring your data to life.

Get Smart Buttons

Microsoft calls them Smart Buttons. You'll probably just call them amazing. What are they? They are new buttons -- Auto Fill Options, Insert Options, Paste Options, and Error Checking Options -- that pop up when Excel senses a need for them. For instance, when a formula contains an error, you'll see the Error Checking Options button.

If you've ever copied and pasted a formula from a cell when you actually meant to paste just the cell's formatting, you'll appreciate the Paste Options button. Instead of having to undo what you did and repaste using the Paste Special: Formats option, you can click on the Paste Options button (which suddenly pops into existence when you paste) and select Formatting Only from the pop-up menu. The contents of your destination cells will instantly revert, but they will retain the formatting from the copied range. You can also use the pop-up menu to choose other options, such as pasting values or applying the source's column width when pasting.

The Error Checking Options button can help you find subtle errors in spreadsheets -- the kind that you may not notice during development, but that your boss will somehow zero in on when it's time to review your work. When Excel detects a potential error in a formula, such as references to blank cells or inconsistency with neighboring formulas, it flags the formula and displays a yellow caution sign whenever the cell is active. Click on the caution sign, and Excel pops up a menu to help you resolve the problem (see "The Formula Detective"). If all is fine with the formula, select Ignore Error from the pop-up menu, and Excel will remove the flag. In practice, Excel flags more cells than necessary, but it's easy enough to clear the false positives.

Refresh Your Memory

Excel has hundreds of formulas, many of which have a complex, hard-to-memorize syntax. The new Function ScreenTips feature makes entering even the most obscure formula simple. Start typing a formula and the Function ScreenTip appears below the cell, showing the basic syntax for each portion of the formula. Click on the hyperlinked formula name in the ScreenTip, and you'll see Excel's formula-specific help page (see "Memory Aids"). ScreenTips take up very little screen real estate (Excel X's bulky Formula Palette is still available if you wish to use it), and they usually provide just the amount of detail you need to complete a formula without even opening the help files.

Speed and Performance

Testing a complex spreadsheet on both a 1.25GHz PowerBook G4 with 768MB of RAM and a dual-2GHz Power Mac G5 with 2.5GB of RAM, I found that application launch times, recalculation speed, and scrolling speed were equal to or quicker than those of Excel X on the same machines. And in many hours of testing,

I didn't experience a single crash, which speaks well for Excel 2004's stability.

Although I experienced no major problems with the program, I did see an occasional graphical glitch, such as a distorted Smart Button and text that wasn't antialiased after I switched between Excel and other running applications (scrolling the document fixed these problems). The lack of support for Mac OS X's Services menu is disappointing -- Carbon applications (BBEdit, for instance) are quite capable of supporting services. So for example, it's harder than it should be to create a note in Stickies from an Excel cell entry (you'd use a simple 1-shift-Y to do this if services were available).

Macworld's Buying Advice

Although Excel 2004 lacks a single groundbreaking "gotta have it!" new feature, the benefit of the other enhancements adds up to a winning package -- Excel 2004 is a strong successor to Excel X. Microsoft wisely kept the majority of Excel's interface identical to its predecessors', making the learning curve easy for this new edition. And the new features are so useful, you'll soon wonder how you managed without them. If you make your living working with numbers in spreadsheets, you'll find this latest version of Excel a valuable partner.

The Formula Detective The Error Checking Options Smart Button helps you find mistakes in formulas. Here it's pointing out that the formula in this cell isn't consistent with those in neighboring cells. Memory Aids Function Screen Tips appear whenever you're entering a formula, and help you remember the proper order for a given formula's operators. If that's not enough, full help is just a second away--click on the hyperlinked formula name.
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