Microsoft Office 2007: A Worthy Upgrade

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Excel 2007: Spreadsheets Get Easier to Use

Charts undergo a facelift; spreadsheets get bigger.

Though the new Office ribbon is the most obvious innovation in the new Office suite, Excel 2007 has some major changes under the hood as well. For a decade, Excel users have been stuck with the same limits on spreadsheet size: 65,536 rows and 256 columns. Excel 2007 blows past these limits to offer a mind-boggling 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns--enough to permit users to crunch data from a gigantic relational database that an SQL Server might use.

The new limits aren't the only tune-ups. Excel now accommodates lengthier text values in cells, allows formulas with more layers, and divides calculations among multiple processors in dual-core CPUs (if you have them) to perform complex calculations even faster. All of these improvements will keep demanding number crunchers happy, though they probably won't make much difference to a typical home user.

Better-Looking Charts

Previous versions of Excel had considerable charting muscle, but you'd never have known it by looking at the dated graphics. As part of Microsoft's work to give Office a new drawing engine, charts take a dramatic jump into the future. If you're not graphically inclined, pick from preset styles to get harmonious color combinations and effects such as shadows, beveled edges, and three-dimensional shapes.

The only disappointment is that Excel 2007 doesn't add new chart types. For years Excel users have been requesting inclusion of box charts, bullet charts, dot plots, trellis displays, and other popular chart varieties, to no avail; presented with another opportunity to broaden the range of options, Excel 2007 merely embellishes the existing chart types.

Conditional Formatting

Easily the most improved Excel feature is conditional formatting, which lets you add formatting to values that meet certain criteria. When you create a conditional formatting rule (such as "display all the prices over $100 with a red background"), Excel will automatically apply it to all the cells you specify. Conditional formatting has been in Excel for many years, but using it was too much of a hassle for most people.

Excel 2007 lets you attach small icons to conditionally formatted cells to help you look through your data.
Excel 2007 lets you attach small icons to conditionally formatted cells to help you look through your data.
In Excel 2007, the feature is easier to use; in many instances you can choose a preset option right out of the ribbon. It's more powerful, too, enabling you to mix and match as many formatting rules as you want (previously there was a limit). But the real excitement in conditional formatting comes from two new features: data bars and icon sets. Data bars permit you to add a shaded bar behind every cell you identify--the bigger the bar, the bigger the number. Icon sets add different icons (tiny pictures) next to various numbers. For example, if you're creating a grading spreadsheet, you can tell Excel to give failing marks a red X and passing marks a green check mark, so you can distinguish them at a glance. You're limited to the icon sets included with Excel, but they're quite good.

The enhanced Formula AutoComplete enables you to find formulas more quickly.
The enhanced Formula AutoComplete enables you to find formulas more quickly.
Excel also packs in a slew of minor refinements, including better Formula AutoComplete, which works with functions. (Functions are number-processing tools in Excel. They examine some data you supply, and then they perform a calculation and provide the result.) Formula AutoComplete has always been able to inform you of the data you need to supply for a function, but now it can also suggest possible function names and named ranges on your worksheet as you type in a few letters. This small improvement will save people who use Excel day-in and day-out a lot of time.

Formula Autocomplete

Excel 2007 seems sure to remain king of the spreadsheet world, and it's not cheap at the top. Excel costs $299 as a stand-alone application ($110 as an upgrade). But if you create spreadsheets regularly of if you're a current Excel user, this is an improved version you'll want to consider.

--Matthew MacDonald

Microsoft Excel 2007


This redesigned spreadsheet program incorporates beefed-up graphics and harnesses the processing power of dual-core CPUs
$229 ($110 upgrade)
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