Excel 2008, by Microsoft
Posted: 9-Aug-2008

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Microsoft Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Mel Krewall Class: PRODUCTIVITY

Overview
Once again the essential business tool Microsoft Excel has been updated. The spreadsheet, which revolutionized personal computing when VisiCalc was introduced for the Apple II, and was re-imagined when Microsoft introduced Excel for the original Macintosh, has taken a place on many users' list of can't-do-without-it applications. While Excel 2008 might not bring many features to attract power users to upgrade, new or casual users will find a lot to like. The latest version also brings native speed for Intel Macs in the form of Universal Binary compatibility.

Requirements

  • Processor: A Mac computer with an Intel, PowerPC G5, or PowerPC G4 (500 MHz or faster) processor
  • Operating System: Mac OS X version 10.4.9 or later
  • Memory: 512 MB of RAM or more
  • 1.5 GB of available hard disk space
  • Drives: DVD drive or connection to a local area network (if installing over a network)
  • Display: 1024 x 768 or higher-resolution monitor


Setup
As noted in the
Word 2008 review, Office 2008 uses a standard Mac installer to install all components of Microsoft Office (see screenshot below). Unlike with Office 2004, there is no longer a drag and drop installation, which will please corporate IT staffs that use scripted remote installers. The installer requires the product key number to be entered before the install begins. The installation process is simple and straightforward.


Installed Office 2008

Universal Binary
Microsoft has finally converted Office into a Universal Binary, which will run natively on both PowerPC and Intel-based Macs. This is a primary feature many users have been waiting for in Office 2008. On my freshly rebooted test machine, an iMac Intel Core 2 Duo 2.4 GHz with 4 GB of RAM installed, Excel 2008 launched in about 28 seconds. Excel 2004 running via Rosetta emulation on the other hand, launched in about 19 seconds. This is a similar result to that which I observed with Word 2008 and 2004. The second start in Excel 2008 was about 17 seconds, with third and subsequent starts taking around 4 seconds. For Excel 2004, all subsequent launches after the first took about 7 seconds. It's a mystery why the new, Intel native programs on one of Apple's faster machines with plenty of RAM takes so long to launch the first time. I can't be the only one to be disappointed by that performance. However, the program overall is more responsive in general than the PowerPC Office 2004.

In Use
Like any spreadsheet program, Excel offers the row/column format that allows a user to enter formulas to operate on the grid of figures. By using the Elements Gallery starting point I was easily able to create attractive documents like lists and invoices rapidly. A new Sheets page in the Elements Gallery allows persons who might not be power users to create attractive pages or graphs easily. For instance, a Thank You Note list for my son's graduation presents was just a click away (names and addresses omitted to protect the generous).


Excel 2008 Spreadsheet


User Interface
As with the rest of the Office 2008 suite, Excel has adopted Apple's Unified title and toolbar window scheme with positive effect. Check the Word 2008 review for some more general observations of the user interface.

In Excel 2008 the main toolbar now follows the window around, so if you have more than one workbook open, it is convenient to the window. Curiously, the Formatting toolbar will also be opened below the main toolbar and follow the window, but the rest all stack up under the menu bar, as before. (The Formatting toolbar can be undocked if you wish). The tool icons in the main toolbar will remind you of Apple's iWork, but the icons in the additional toolbars (e.g. Charts, Drawing, etc.) you remember from years past are the same as always. If Microsoft chose to update them for Office 2008, it is not apparent, and makes for an inconsistent look. The Page Break view mode is now gone, supplanted by default page breaks shown in the Normal view. Page Layout view remains the same. A new + sign tab has been added to insert a new sheet in the workbook with a single click.

Preferences
The preferences dialog has been reorganized into a very Mac OS X-like arrangement. Most of the options remain the same, but the look and feel is much improved.


Preferences


Elements Gallery
Like the rest of Office 2008, Excel has a new Elements Gallery. The SmartArt Graphics are shared with the rest of the suite and make it easy to convey your thoughts attached to nice-looking, pre-rendered graphics. This feature will get more of a workout in PowerPoint. The Sheets and Charts, however, are significant upgrades that will be quite useful to the non-power user.


Elements Gallery

Ledger Sheets
The Sheets gallery has prefabricated spreadsheets (called Ledger Sheets) for Accounts, Budgets, Invoices, and more. An example is a check register to track your spending, which comes pre-built with Date, Check Number, Payee, Category, Memo, Debit, Credit, and Balance. The Category column is populated with a pull-down list of income and expense categories to help your tracking. It's like a mini-Quicken that you don't have to build yourself. The Budgets list likewise has Bill Tracker, Expenses, Home Budget, and more. For more casual users that need a little help getting started on tasks, these sheets will be time-savers.

Charts
The charts gallery has all the chart types you remember from the old Chart Wizard, but easier to use. Click on the style you want and your chart is inserted on the page with your data. Drag the outlines on your data to customize what is presented on the chart. To get more advanced control, just double-click on the chart and choose from many options. Additional options are available from a right-click context menu, allowing you to change the chart type and other choices.

Power users who are accustomed to working with Microsoft's old Wizards might be a bit disconcerted with these changes, as the interface has changed, but the fundamentals are still the same. You can still select the data by dragging your cursor, label the axes, and other familiar tasks by right clicking on the chart or with the Chart toolbar. The old dialog driven wizard, however, is no more. Whether you consider that a good thing or not will be determined by your level of comfort with the old interface.


Excel Ledger


Formula Builder
Another feature to help the non-power user is the Formula Builder. It allows you to view a list of functions and their syntax and fill in what you need to accomplish your task. It is similar to Excel 2004's version, but adds live evaluation and function descriptions to the dialog.


Formula Builder


Issues and Incompatibilities
As was mentioned in the Word 2008 review, the greatest problem many Excel users will face is the fact that Microsoft has abandoned Virtual Basic for Applications (VBA) macros in favor of AppleScript. Many power users will have many hours invested in VBA macros that are useless in Excel 2008. This will keep a significant number of people from moving fully to Office 2008. While Microsoft has admitted the decision was an error and will bring VBA back to the next version of Office (2010? 2011?), it does not ease the pain right now. Another quirk of the interface is the cell entry field. It no longer has the check mark to accept changes, and the red X to abandon changes has moved from the left of the field to the right. That can be a lot of screen space to mouse over to find that X, but fortunately it remembers position and size when you move and resize it to a more convenient format. It is still an unfortunate design decision that just makes the interface harder to use and less familiar for no discernible reason.

Another issue is the new XML document format called XLSX, which is enabled by default. These files are incompatible with older version of both Windows and Mac Office. However, Microsoft has produced a converter for previous Windows Office versions, but has yet to do so for the Mac after several slips. This can be a significant problem if you need to exchange files with users of older Mac Office versions. My advice would be to do your friends and co-workers a favor and set your file formats to the old XLS and ignore the XML format, in favor of backward compatibility.

Summary
With only one significant miss-step over the years (anyone remember Word 6?), Microsoft's Office for Macintosh has arguably always been superior to the Windows incarnation. An ever-more Mac-like interface, Excel 2008 uses OS X conventions like the preference panes and integrated title/toolbar to improve on the 2004 version. New features like Elements Gallery, Ledger Sheets, Chart gallery, and Formula Builder makes it easier for the novice to create professional-looking work. However, like previous new versions of a program that many of us use daily, the interface changes and new features can be jarring, even if some of them are welcome. Excel 2008 brings new power and features, along with shortcuts for less experienced users. Your view of this latest version will likely be shaped by your need for VBA macros and your familiarity with the old Chart Wizards. This is especially true given the usually high cost of an upgrade. As a spreadsheet program, I rate Excel 2008 very high, but for existing Excel users with a lot of work that uses VBA macros, the rating drops significantly.

Pros

  • Essential in many businesses
  • Elements Gallery speeds adds useful shortcut Ledger Sheets
  • AppleScript implementation for macros
  • Excellent Mac OS X look and feel

Cons

  • Macro system abandons VBA for AppleScript
  • Many users will not need new features
  • Speed advantage of Universal Binary not immediately apparent


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice