Excel 2016 for Mac review: Spreadsheet app can do the job—as long as you don’t rely on macros

Microsoft's spreadsheet app is more friendly to general Mac users, but less friendly to power users.

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At a Glance
  • Microsoft Excel 2016 for Mac

One of the advantages of doing the last Office 2016 product review is that I can leverage work others have done to save you, the reader, some redundant explanation. So if you haven’t yet, check out the reviews of Outlook, PowerPoint, and Word.

Much of what you’ll read about in those apps applies to Excel 2016 for Mac, too: Mac-specific features like multi-touch gestures, full screen support, Retina graphics, a cleaned-up and easily-hidden ribbon, a fixed task pane that replaces floating palettes for formatting, integrated support for OneDrive, and excellent cross-platform file compatibility. You can read more about these features in the above-mentioned reviews; they work just the same way in the new Excel. (As with the other apps, you can only presently get Excel 2016 if you’re an Office 365 subscriber.)

What else is new

When you launch Excel 2016, you’ll be greeted by Excel’s clean new appearance. You can choose from a colored header (new in 2016) or the usual gray header from previous releases. Workbooks with multiple tabs get a much cleaner tab bar, losing the fake 3D appearance. Colored tabs are now colored with a thin bar, instead of a gradated fill on the entire tab, making it easier to read tab names. Overall, I found the new interface pleasant and easier to use than in older versions of Excel.

Excel includes the Smart Lookup feature found in other Office apps. Smart Lookup uses Bing to show contextual information for a highlighted word—while this is undoubtedly useful in Word, I didn’t really find myself using it much while working on spreadsheets. But if you suddenly need to look up everything there is to know about the word “amortization,” Smart Lookup is ready for you.

So what’s new and unique to Excel 2016? Quite a few things, starting with the removal of the Standard and Formatting toolbars. While you could hide these in Excel 2011, they’re completely gone—replaced by the task pane—in Excel 2016. I don’t miss them at all, as they were redundant and took up screen space.

Also new is greatly improved sharing. Save your file to OneDrive, and you can then use a sharing button to invite people via their email address, copy a link you can then email to others, or send the workbook as either a PDF or native workbook attachment. Recipients can (assuming you grant permission) edit your file, even if they don’t own Excel, through Microsoft’s web-hosted Excel app.

Fans of pivot tables will find a new slicer tool that greatly increases the usability of pivot tables. A slicer is a way to limit the data you see in a pivot table. In a pivot table showing years of sales by salesperson, for example, you can use slicers to restrict the table to one or more years, or to one or more salespeople.

slice pivot2

Slicers let you limit what you see in a pivot table; you can add one or more to really refine what you see. Here, only data from 2012, 2013, and 2015 is visible.

Another “new” feature is the inclusion of the Analysis Toolpak add-on. I say new in quotes because while new to Excel 2016, long-time Excel vets will remember the Analysis Toolpak from the pre-OS X days. If you need to do complex statistical and/or engineering analysis—think Anova, Fourier Analysis, Regression, etc.—you’ll find the Analysis Toolpak invaluable. Also included are a number of formulas that were previously found only in Excel 2013 for Windows, improving cross-platform compatibility. Again in the interest of cross-platform compatibility, many Excel for Windows shortcuts now work on the Mac, which is quite useful if you regularly work on both platforms.

Excel also makes charting easier by analyzing your data and letting you select a recommended chart from a convenient drop-down menu. Select the data you want graphed, click the Recommended Charts button, then browse the mini chart previews to find the one that best matches what you’re trying to say.

Excel 2016 for Mac recommended charts

Excel 2016 helps you pick the right chart by analyzing your data and presenting a list of charts you can use to visualize that data.

What’s gone

If you’re a serious user of Excel’s macro facilities, you are in for a big letdown: Excel’s 2016 support for macros is basically missing. While you can create and record macros, the macro editor is crippled: there’s no way to insert procedures, modules, etc. About all you can do is hand-edit a recorded macro. Further, you can’t create custom menu commands, as you could in prior versions of Excel. (Microsoft details is Visual Basic support in a FAQ). In short, if you need macros, stick to Excel 2011. After the great progress made with macros in the 2011 release, this is a real letdown.

Assuming the macro issue doesn’t affect you, the only other real problem I have with Excel 2016 is the loss of customizability of keyboard shortcuts and menus. In older Excel versions, you could easily customize which commands show on which menus, and even create entirely new menus containing just the commands you specify.

Excel 2016 for Mac customize menus

This dialog in Excel 2011 allowed you to easily customize Excel’s menus and commands—even adding a new menu to the menu bar, if you desired.

You could also assign one or more keyboard shortcuts to any Excel command, including commands that you can’t program via OS X’s keyboard shortcut interface. The dialog that handles all of this customization is missing from Excel 2016; if you don’t like what Microsoft gave you for menus and certain shortcuts, you’re stuck with them.

A related issue is that some familiar—and useful—shortcuts are now changed or gone. Control-I and Control-K used to insert and delete rows or columns; now you must use three fingers (Shift-Command-Equals) to add a row, and Command-Minus to remove a row. You also used to be able to Option-click a row or column to quickly add a new blank row or column; this no longer works. If you use the keyboard a lot, you’ll want to open Excel’s help and search “keyboard shortcuts,” where you’ll find a huge list of shortcuts.

Bottom line

If you’re an Excel user who doesn’t rely on macros, and doesn’t need to customize your menus and commands, Excel 2016 has a lot going for it. The new interface is pleasant, the cross-platform features are a welcome addition, the performance is very good, and the Mac-specific features make Excel feel as native as any other Mac app.

But if you do need macros and customizability, then you’re going to have to stick to Excel 2011…and that’s too bad, because Excel 2016 is a solid release in every other regard.

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At a Glance
  • If you're an Excel user who doesn't rely on macros, and doesn't need to customize your menus and commands, Excel 2016 has a lot going for it.


    • Modernized user interface
    • Mac-specific features
    • Easier charting
    • Pivot table slicing


    • Macro support is basically missing
    • No menu or command shortcut customizations
    • A number of shortcuts have been removed or changed
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