Excel 2011 Pushes the Envelope

Microsoft's updated spreadsheet software for Mac offers better compatibility and an eye-catching interface.

Excel 2011 is, like its Office for Mac siblings, all about the sharing. The sharing may involve a SharePoint server or Microsoft's SkyDrive service; it may rely on rights management features to control how a file is used, or it may rely on Web-based sharing to work with people on the next floor or on the other side of the globe.

Of course, there's more to the new Excel for Mac than that; this release includes a number of features designed to help users create more attractive and engaging spreadsheets, while undoing a couple of the mistakes that Microsoft made in prior releases.

First among the do-overs comes in the area of automation, and in returning VBA (Visual Basic for Applications) to Excel and the other Office for Mac components, Microsoft acknowledges the critical role that VBA plays in automating the way people consume and interact with data. I strongly suspect that VBA plays a major part in keeping customers from considering alternatives to the Microsoft Office suite, no matter how tempting their feature sets or ideologically pure their file formats may be, or how inexpensive they may be.

The second of the big rethinks affects a rather crucial part of the Excel user interface, the Formula Bar. This element-which allows one to edit the contents of a spreadsheet cell-has wandered around the screen from one release to the next and in the process, frustrated veteran users. Finally, the point seems to have been made that the Formula Bar is an integral part of the spreadsheet process, and now it's anchored to every open file.

There's nothing more frustrating than finding out that an important workbook was somehow corrupted or damaged and then having to recreate it from a printout, or worse, having to do so from scratch. Excel 2011 includes the ability to repair data files if it encounters problems when opening them.

If I had to pick the most eye-catching feature of Excel 2011, it would be its attention to appearance, which is best exhibited in the new Sparklines option; these are miniature charts that fit within a cell and provide a visual summary of data that breaks up the monotony of figure upon figure. Other visual cues, such as the new ability to color workbook tabs, will go a long way to making spreadsheet workbooks more engaging than ever before.

Another neat feature is the Paste as Picture option, which allows users to paste content copied from another spreadsheet as an image, whether for ensuring that information that has to be preserved isn't changed, or simply for use as a reference.

Spreadsheets are a valuable tool for planning purposes, but all too often, important information is buried in the figures. Excel 2011 makes it more simple to find cells containing specific data or to build out a set of figures; users can now search on a sheet or across an entire workbook without leaving the main Excel window, or easily generate a list of unique values in a table or cell range.

A number of features from earlier Excel versions have been improved in this release; the Media Browser makes it easier to make use of visual art, sound and video files, and data validation now works with cells from other worksheets. The accuracy in more than 45 financial, mathematical and statistical functions has been improved, providing more accurate results and behavior that hews to the way these functions act in Excel 2010 for Windows.

In another compatibility improvement, Excel makes it easy to reconcile the basis date for calculations; Excel 2011 for Mac defaults to the 1900 basis used in Excel for Windows, but recognizes dates copied from older Excel for Mac files that use 1904 as their basis. Excel 2011 alerts the user that these dates ought to be converted to a 1900 basis, and handles the conversion automatically, except for dates copied as part of a chart, which must be adjusted manually.

Overall, Excel 2011 for Mac provides users with rich functionality that takes advantage of many of the Mac's inherent features, while doing a good job of reconciling some long-standing differences between the behavior and feature set of the Mac and Windows version of Excel. It was impossible for me to agree that Excel 2008 was a better version of Microsoft's spreadsheet tool than Excel 2004 was, but there's no question in my mind that Excel 2011 surpasses them both.