What makes Excel so scary? (evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes
That clicking sound you hear isn't a mouse butto. No, it's chattering teeth, and it's coming from the makers of Quattro Pro, Lotus 1-2-3, and Wingz. Why are these guys so scared? Microsoft Excel 3.0 (Microsoft, One Microsoft Way, Redmond, Washington 98052-6399; 206-882-8080; $495).
Excel 3.0 is Microsoft's latest entry in the spreadsheet wars that seem to get hotter each year. For this new release, Excel has been entirely revamped, and while it certainly has new power, the topper is that it's now much easier to use. In fact, it's the easiest-to-use spreadsheet on the planet.
When you fire up Excel for the first time, you'll see one of its neatest new features--the toolbar, an idea borrowed from Word for Windows. The toolbar is a horizontal bar that rests under the menus and contains several groups of push buttons. The push buttons are primarily shortcuts for commonly used commands.
Let's dtake a quick look at the took-bar to get an idea of what it offers and to get a feel for some of 3.0's new features. Going from left to right, the tool-bar has buttons for styles, promoting and demoting outline elements, autosumming (which automatically sums rows or columns), bold and italics, alignment, selecting graphics objects, drawing (including line, rectangle, ellipse, and curve shapes), autocharting, creating text boxes, creating user-defined buttons, and recording macros.
One of these buttons, autosum, is especially useful. Because adding figures in rows or columns is the most common spreadsheet task, Microsoft created a special function to make this easier. To use autosum, place your cursor at the end of a column or row (where you want the total to go) and click on the autosum button. The program will place the SUM formula in the current cell and select the range for you. Autosum almost always chooses the right range for the sum, but when it doesn't, you can simply compress or extend the selection.
There are two other excellent new timeservers that bear quick mention. The first is Excel's automatic best0fit features for column width. To use this, you place the pointer between two cells and double-click. The program adjusts the width of the column on the left and makes a best fit for the data therein. Another timesaver lets you double-click on any cell that contains a note (these are identified by a small red dot in the upper right corner) to display the note's text.
The new Excel is hip to fonts. Unlike version 2.0, which was limited to four fonts per work sheet, 3.0 allows you unlimited access to your system's typefaces. And to make it easier to work with fonts, the program now offers style control. You can access styles with the style combo box on the toolbar. To define a style, select an area of your work sheet and format it with the font (you can specify bold, italics, underline, or strikeout) and point size. Click on the style box and type in the name for your new style. From then on, the style will appear on your style combo box menu.
There's no question that this vesion of Excel is dramatically easier to use, but there are several important new power features, too. The most welcome is outlining. Outling lets you structure your spreadsheet in a hirarchy, and more importantly, you can display selected parts of the spreadsheet based on that hierarchy. After using outlining, it seems like such a natural feature that I'm amazed it's taken this long for spreadsheet outlining to make it into a product.
To get a feel for how outlining works, let's say you're working on a balance sheet with several subtotals, each based on 25 to 50 items. By the time you've finished with the work sheet, it could easily contain 300-400 rows of figures, much too long to see the major divisions of your expenditures. The solution is simple with outlining. Select the range of figures that comprise each subtotal and demote them with the right-pointing arrow on the toolbar. You'll see a small "-" button and a line indicating the outline range of the button. Click on the button (which will change to a "+"), and your range will be hidden. Click on the "+" buttom to display the range again.
"It's better to look good than to feel good," says Billy Crystal, playing the host of "Fernando's Hideaway" on "Saturday Night Live," but it's best to look good and to feel good. While Excel certainly feels good, version 3.0 looks good, too. And one place it looks good is charts. It addition to the standard chart fare, the program now boasts eye-popping 3-D area, column line, and pie charts. And you have complete control over your chart's rotation, perspective, and color. The only problem with these gorgeous graphs is that you can't export them to a standard vector format that service bureaus will accept.
The only major module of Excel not to undergo a full revamping was the database. To bolster this area, Microsoft has bundled Q+E, a database front end, with Excel 3.0. With Q+E, you can import Excel, dBase, and text files; edit them; and perform SQL queries. Q+E is an impressive database program in its own right, and combined with Excel, it's powerhouse.