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Summary:

Microsoft has released Office 2011 for the Mac, and we’ve already looked at the new versions of PowerPoint and Word in the suite. Now it’s Excel’s turn. How does the updated spreadsheet program compare to the dismal reputation of its predecessor?

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Microsoft has released Office 2011 for the Mac, and we’ve already looked at the new versions of PowerPoint and Word in the suite. Now it’s Excel’s turn. How does the updated spreadsheet program compare to the dismal reputation of its predecessor?

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m not what you’d call an Excel power user. I use it for general invoicing, some light data analysis and general spreadsheet stuff. I recently had to perform an extensive document review, and Excel was the easiest way to track what the current state of each document was, and sort it based on criteria. I’ve never dealt much with pivot tables, and only occasionally missed VB macros. Disclaimer aside, here’s what I thought of the new version:

Look and Feel

Excel 2011 brings in the ribbon interface. As I mentioned in my look at Word 2011, I actually like it. The Windows version of the ribbon I found to be much more panic-inducing because it pretty much gets rid of all the menu bars. Not so on OS X; you get to have your cake and eat it, too.

The ribbon actually takes up less overall room than its equivalent in Excel 2008. The screenshot below shows the Excel 2008 on the left, and Excel 2011 on the right. You can also minimize the ribbon by single-clicking on a tab header. If you don’t like it, you never even have to see the thing. It’s definitely nice to have the option, either way.

Show Me The Money: Getting Your Work Done

Overall, Excel 2011 feels much more responsive than 2008. For starters, I can now launch the app without being able to microwave popcorn before it fully loads. I did notice some sluggishness when it loaded the template chooser, but you can easily skip that screen. Speaking of templates, while I found the supplied Word templates weren’t that special, I was impressed with those supplied in Excel. There are a few (invoices and general finance) I can actually use, a first for Office.

One interesting new feature is Sparklines. Basically, Sparklines is a handy way to trend data. In the screenshot below, we’re tracking quarterly sales by region. The in-cell chart is a Sparkline showing the trending data. We can tell at a glance that the Boston region is doing quite well, while the manager of the Los Angeles region might want to shop his resume. You can set a Sparkline to be a line, bar, or win-loss chart. I can see using it to trend my freelance business.

Conditional formatting is much improved in 2011. Put simply, conditional formatting allows you to set rules to highlight cells that meet a given criteria. Keeping with the sales data, I can set up a condition to highlight any cell with a number less than 100.

There’s a couple of weird gotchas, though. When I opened the document review spreadsheet I mentioned earlier, I wanted it to show me documents that had been modified during a specific date range. While you can choose “dates occurring” from a pull-down, it’s a fairly narrow range. Instead, I had to set the cell data range in a separate pulldown. It’d be nice if there was an option to set that range right in the “dates occurring” section. Still, the older version of Excel was much more limited, so these improvements are welcome.

One cause for complaint in the new version of Excel is the lack of support for Snow Leopard services. In my Word article, I mentioned how happy I was that Word handled these well, but sadly, the same can’t be said for Excel 201. Highlighting a section of text and choosing Services just gives you a grayed-out “No services apply.” I believe this is due to the Carbon underpinnings of Excel, as it seems Services require the app to be programmed in Cocoa. Whatever the reason, it’s a shame it’s not in there.

Back to the Macro

Thankfully, Visual Basic macros are back. As I said, I’ve never been a big VB user, but the lack of them really messed up Windows compatibility.  While I never created them, I’d get enough spreadsheets containing them to shake my fist in Redmond’s direction whenever I tried to open sheets in Excel 2008. It’s nice to see things are back to normal.

Closing the Books

I’m pretty happy with Excel 2011. The interface is cleaner, and I didn’t notice some of the slowdowns other reviewers have mentioned, but the largest sheet I opened was about 1000 lines. Sparklines, corny name aside, seems like a good, albeit situational feature. I’m happier with the improvements to conditional formatting. The big reason to upgrade, though, is the return of Visual Basic macros. It’s hard to praise that return too much, though, since it really feels like we’re paying a premium just to get an old feature back.

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  1. Jesus, what the hell’s with your hatred of Office 08? It got GREAT reviews. People love it. Most people have never had a problem with it.

    Time to call you guys out on this…if you have facts to back your claims up…present them (and looking through 08 reviews…you don’t).

    This blog is becoming total crap…

    1. There’s a significant difference between your impressions during a review and how the product stands up over time. I never reviewed Office 2008, so I don’t have any words for Claim Chowder.

      I also don’t recall being overly hard on Excel 2008 in this article, other than noticing “it loaded pretty damn slow.” Which seems to be the norm from most comments I’ve read. However, especially in Excel, loosing the VB macros is a pretty big deal for 08. Maybe you can tell me where in this piece I hated Excel 2008.

      In terms of my Word 2008 hate it stems from this:
      – It was painful to load. Word 2008 was horribly slow on my 09 Macbook with 4g of ram.
      – It crashed on exit constantly. About 75% of the time, when I quit the app, it’d crash giving me the crash dialogue box.
      – It beach balled often, and not on overly complex documents.

  2. > “No services apply.” I believe this is due to the Carbon underpinnings
    > of Excel, as it seems Services require the app to be programmed
    > in Cocoa.

    Can you please double check this? Is Carbon still around even in Snow Leopard? See Ars Techina excerpt:

    http://arstechnica.com/apple/reviews/2009/08/mac-os-x-10-6.ars/18

    > I’m sure the Carbon vs. Cocoa warriors would have had a field day with
    > that statement, were Carbon not put out to pasture in Leopard. But it
    > was, and to the victor go the spoils.

    Thanks!

    1. I had a twitter conversation with Erik Schwiebert and he confirmed Carbon is still in Office 2011. They still haven’t done the soup-to-nuts rewrite in Cocoa. Outlook, being an entirely new app, is the only fully-Cocoa app in 2011.

      My experiences seem to show that for services to properly work — like detecting selected text is actually an actionable text item — it requires the app (or the relevant portions of it) to be in Cocoa.

  3. Office 08 is awful. The palette approach they implemented was terrible and very inefficient. And don’t even get me started with Entourage.

    Office 11 is indeed much better. I am pleased that the mac unit at Microsoft really took the mac GUI and experience into the new version. And of course returning VB.

    Actually I prefer the much lower priced and better iWork suite. I only use the other as it used within my company.

  4. Our organization are still using Office 2004. I’m thrilled we waited as 2004 still does all we want. Still it will be nice to use a version that is fully compatible with Office 2009 (PC) users. No need for the translator for .docx and .xlsx. I cant use Numbers as there is no cell reference when you scroll the selected cell offscreen.

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