Excel 2004, by Microsoft
Posted: 15-Nov-2004

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Microsoft Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Mel Krewall Class: PRODUCTIVITY

Overview
What do you say about an application as venerable as Microsoft Excel? The first GUI spreadsheet, the first spreadsheet program on the Mac, far superior to its PC contemporary at the time (does anyone remember MS Multiplan?). Over the years it has only gotten more capable and more complex. Still the leader and standard in most offices, Excel is the spreadsheet by which all others are judged.

Microsoft Excel 2004 from the ubiquitous Microsoft Office suite is all that and more. If you mainly use Excel for lists and tables, there is not a great deal in Excel 2004 that would cause you to want to upgrade from an earlier version. However, if you use formulas or make charts, this upgrade may be for you.

Requirements

  • Mac OS X-compatible processor that is a model G3 or higher.
  • Mac OS X version 10.2.8 or later.
  • 256 MB of RAM.
  • Monitor that can display 1024 x 768 or higher resolution displaying thousands of colors

Basics
Like any spreadsheet program, Excel offers the row/column format that allows a user to enter formulas to operate on the grid of figures. It has numerous charting and graphing features, including 3D features that take advantage of OS X's Quartz layer, as well as drawing features, clip art and word art inherited from the other software in the Microsoft Office suite. You can merge columns for headings, and format cells, rows and columns with an almost infinite variety of borders, fill colors and patterns. If you can dream it up, Excel 2004 can make it look good.

New Features
As usual, Microsoft introduces a host of small improvements and also some significant new features.

Formatting Palette
One nicety I noticed right away was more orderly behavior from the Formatting Palette. I like to have my Dock on the right side of my screen, similar to my habit with the Program Switcher under OS 9. The Formatting Palette now recognizes that the Dock is present and arranges itself to the edge of the Dock, and will automatically adjust its position when Hiding is turned on or off. With Excel v.X, if I turned the Dock hiding on to get a little more room for the Palette, the Palette would not return to its previous location when I turned the Dock hiding off. Details like this make using the program easier, and demonstrate that the programmers at Microsoft working in the Mac Business Unit use Macs every day.

The Formatting Palette is now customizable as well, similar to the toolbars that have been a Microsoft mainstay for years. One of the options is that the Formatting Palette makes nice use of Mac OS X's translucence. When working in the main spreadsheet window after a short delay, the Palette will fade to a translucent state. Immediately upon moving your cursor over it, the Palette will return to the normal state. The length of time required for this behavior to occur can be changed, as well as changing the fade to a minimize (genie) effect. The panels that make up the Palette can be changed, as well as the content of the panels, including a favorite of mine, Page Setup.

While these changes are nice, they probably won't strongly influence your decision to spend the fairly hefty upgrade fee, especially if you are already using Office v.X. A couple of the other new features might change that, however.

Add Objects Panel
The Add Objects panel is new to the Formatting Palette and puts many commonly used features in one place. You can insert charts, drawing objects, symbols, lines or text boxes from one simple tabbed panel. For instance, highlight a row or column of data, select the type of chart you want from the panel and click. Your chart will appear in your spreadsheet without dragging you through the Chart Wizard every time. That by itself is almost worth the price of admission. In addition, almost all of the chart options, including data, labels, lines and colors, can be changed from the Palette. This for me is a major improvement in terms of convenience.

Page Layout View
If you use Excel to make charts and print them, or have struggled in the past to format your sheets to print properly (I know I have), the new Page Layout View will help. Taking a cue from Microsoft Word, Excel 2004 now has a row of buttons along the bottom of the screen with three different view options: Normal, Page Layout, and Page Break. Like working in Word Page Layout view, you can immediately see what effects your actions have on your page. I'm somewhat surprised that it took so long for Excel to get this very useful feature.

New Help Features
Remember the days when software shipped with useful manuals? You could sit at your computer with the book in your lap or beside your keyboard and refer to it if you needed help. MS Excel's were among the best. A whole section was devoted to functions and formulas and made it easy to find syntax for the formula you were using. Well, those days are long gone. Very few companies go to the expense of printing manuals, and many of them don't even write very useful Help Viewer files. Microsoft has not included manuals for Office for several versions, although I could generally find what I needed from Office Help. I found this lack of a manual the biggest inconvenience in Excel. When I need to use a function that I have not used recently, it's not unusual for me to have forgotten the syntax or order of operators. This means I have to search through the Help to find it. Microsoft has come to my rescue in Excel 2004. Just type the function in the cell followed by the left parenthesis and a small yellow-shaded box will drop down with a hyperlink to the Help entry. Click on it and you instantly can see the syntax for your function. Take that Office Assistant!

Smart Buttons
For those of you who may use Office XP or 2003 for Windows, the Smart Buttons feature will be familiar. When you paste an item, have a formula with an error, or need to AutoFill a row or column of data, a Smart Button will pop up on your spreadsheet. Click the little arrow that appears when you mouse over it, and you will be presented options for dealing with your data. This is especially nice with pasting, as a number of the features of the Paste Special menu option are contained in the Smart Button, which allow you to skip a trip through the dialog box that results when using Paste Special. The Error Checking Smart Button will present diagnostic options for formulas when you have problems. It can trace cells that the formula uses and will open the correct help window with one click. It also allows you to set options as to what rules should be presented or ignored in the Smart Button. Finally, there is the AutoFill Smart Button. When using Excel's AutoFill feature, this button will give formatting and copying options that avoid going through a menu item or dialog box to add.


Summary
Microsoft has a long history of providing software for the Macintosh. Excel was revolutionary when it came out a few moths after the original Mac. Excel 2004 is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. It is a solid, reliable, feature-filled spreadsheet application. While MS has not always produced products that Mac users were enthusiastic about (Word 6, anyone?), that can not be said of Excel 2004. If you are still using a Classic version of MS Office (e.g. Office 98 or 2001), this may be the release that finally convinces you to part with that cash and drag your machine into the 21st century. It has inherited numerous great features (some Mac-only, like the Project Gallery) from Office v.X and added a few from the Windows world, like Smart Buttons. It is thoroughly Mac-savvy and I find myself right at home using it. All that said, Office 2004 is not an inexpensive suite of programs. If you already have Office v.X, you may find it difficult to justify spending that much money for the very nice, but not essential, new features. With a lower more digestable price, this would be a 5 mice title.

Pros

  • Powerful, flexible, loaded with features
  • The de facto standard in spreadsheets
  • Great new formatting and help features
  • Smart Buttons will speed your work

Cons

  • Office is an expensive program
  • Not all users will need or want the new features


Overall Rating:

4 out of 5 Mice