Excel 2007: New Features Outweigh Upgrade Hassles

Although most users still struggle with the new ribbon interface, many say Excel 2007's new features make it a worthwhile upgrade.

Like the rest of the Office 2007 suite, Excel 2007 sports the new ribbon interface that readers love to hate. Most readers, especially expert users, have found adjusting to the new interface is an unwelcome challenge.

Once that initial shock subsides, though, most say they're relatively pleased with Excel's new interface and feature set.

"It took me 30 or 45 days to finally get over the shock of realizing how everything works in Excel," says Tom Tegl, a developer and analyst for Suntron Corp., a Phoenix-based contract manufacturer. Tegl says the ribbon is probably the biggest change Microsoft has made to Excel since the Windows 3.1 days.

The reason seasoned users might have more trouble than first-time users is that they have to relearn where everything is located.

"Once you get used to it, you realize everything is up there in front of you and you don't have to go through the menus as much," Tegl says. "At that point it becomes a time-saver, but it takes a while to get there."

Some readers, like Ben Wilcox, senior information engineer at Visory Group, a technology consulting firm in Syracuse, N.Y., say they got up to speed with the new Excel interface in as little as seven days. Others are still struggling months after first trying it out.

"They say there's no learning curve, but it's actually a large learning curve because everything's been moved around so much," says Tom Johnston, an instructor at the University of Delaware in Newark, Del. Johnston teaches the Excel course at the school. "I didn't pick it up soon enough to get ready for my class this fall, so it's been embarrassing at times as far as trying to find things. [The placement of] things in certain ribbons isn't very logical."

Worth the Hassle?
Once they make it past the initial interface hurdle, however, most users say Excel 2007's new feature set makes it far more straightforward than previous versions. Some of the most notable new features include improved pivot tables, conditional formatting, increased row and column support, and its new graphics and charting capabilities.

"Excel has made my life and my clients' lives easier," says Wilcox, noting that the new pivot table enhancements make it easier for his clients to manipulate data within the spreadsheet.

"The pivot tables have a new wizard in there, so it's far easier to work with. That gives me a little more time as well, since I don't have to get on the phone and walk my clients through things. They can do it all themselves."

The pivot table wizard automatically picks the best fields or the most appropriate columns or rows to use for the pivot tables.

"By default, it will place [them where it] believes they belong," Wilcox says. "You can always change that, but I think it's a great feature because most of the time it comes out fine. Before, you had to drag and drop all the fields yourself. For a new user or someone who isn't a data person, that was a difficult concept to grab.

Excel 2007's Math Struggles

In early October, a bug within Excel 2007 came to light that has made making the move to the new spreadsheet program a bit dicey for some. In a blog post, Microsoft employee David Gainer said that when users tried to get Excel 2007 to multiply some pairs of numbers and the result was 65,535, Excel would incorrectly display 100,000 as the answer.

Gainer said Excel was making mistakes multiplying 77.1 by 850, 10.2 by 6,425 and 20.4 by 3,212.5, but it appeared to be able to handle 16,383.75 times 4. Although Excel performed the calculations correctly, when it came time to show the answer on the screen, it was incorrect.

On Oct. 9, Microsoft issued a hotfix to patch the problem. Although the bug is fixed, readers understand why some users may be hesitant to move to Excel 2007 now. "That's a problem," says Visory Group's senior information engineer Ben Wilcox. He hasn't experienced it himself, he says, but "I'd be pissed if my Excel spreadsheet was multiplying wrong."

Tom Johnston, an instructor at the University of Delaware, agrees. Math problems like that "would make me very afraid, especially for someone who has to work with financials," he says. "They could be held liable if it's wrong. People can get sued big time for stuff like that."

Others say the problem has been blown out of proportion. New software usually means new bugs, they say. "Every time Microsoft releases something new, something like that happens," says Tom Tegl, a developer and analyst for Suntron Corp. "They patch it pretty quick and it's already in the past now. It's not a show-stopper." -J.C.

Color Your World
For others, the new conditional formatting makes Excel 2007 worth the price of admission.

"We use Oracle ERP here, so we pull a lot of data for people who have ad hoc requests," Suntron's Tegl says. "That's where the new Excel's conditional formatting has helped out quite a bit."

Prior to 2007, users were limited to three conditional formats. Now, they are virtually limitless, bounded only by your system memory. In Excel 2007, you can use formats to illustrate important trends and highlight exceptions in the data via heat-map-like colored gradients, data bars and icons.

"You can do dollar ranges, where you can shade it from green to red for high to low and so forth," Tegl says. "It will automatically set those to the color scales."

The result, Tegl says, is that now you can quickly analyze data to see real trends.

"It also lets you add a variety of icons, like signal-strength bars, or little red, green and yellow traffic signs," he says.

"Those things really make a quick impact so you can just glance at a column and see what you need to pay attention to. Plus, it happens automatically. Nobody needs to go out and manually highlight all the information. It's a huge improvement," Tegl adds.

Excel 2007 also has new charting effects, such as 3-D, soft shadowing and anti-aliasing. These help create more compelling graphical summaries. Some readers say the new features, plus the new capability to output everything to PDF, are enough to obviate the need to buy add-on software packages.

"We were considering buying some of those dashboard-type applications, but they're extremely pricey," Tegl says. "Now, in Excel 2007, there's enough functionality so we don't have to. We can just make a macro in Excel and push a PDF file out to everybody who needs it."

Tegl says the PDF feature also saves money, since the capability is available as a free download for all Office 2007 users.

"It's just a PDF plug-in and it lets all the Office tools print to PDF," he says. "You don't have to buy anything extra, so that's a savings too."

More Real Estate
Perhaps the biggest change old-time Excel users will notice is that Excel 2007 now supports far more rows and columns. Worksheets can expand to 1 million rows by 16,000 columns.

"We have a lot of people doing historical analysis, but if you had a large data set in the old version of Excel, you usually ran out of columns or rows," Tegl says. "So here, we had a lot of people jumping into Access who really only needed to use Excel because of that row limitation. Now they don't have to."

Still, for some applications, it doesn't work as well. For example, Visory's Wilcox has had trouble getting SQL Server to realize Excel 2007 can now handle larger data sets.

"My beef is that there are a lot of times when I'm pulling this information off SQL Server and the SQL Server Integration Services doesn't work with the new Excel format," Wilcox says. "I can still only pull 65,000 rows out of SQL Server."

He says he can use Excel to pull the information out, but the SQL Server limitation gnaws at him.

"It's easier to connect to a SQL database and so forth, but when I'm designing something that on the back-end is pulling from multiple systems and I'm using the Integration Services pack to manipulate the data, I want it to end up in a readable format for the end user."

Others say they don't see the attraction of the enlarged support.

"That's a nice thing, and maybe big industry needs that, but for us teaching students, we're teaching maybe 100 columns by 300 rows at the max," Johnston says. "That's certainly not a big deal for us."

Manage Those Resources
Not everything about Excel 2007 is rosy, however. Readers say it can be a resource drain and it has limitations in terms of the file types to which you can save.

"It's a resource drag," Johnston says. "If I have an Excel file open and I open another Excel file, it drags the system down. It's almost like an old DOS system."

Johnston uses Office 2007 on XP, and will do so for at least another year until the school changes over to Vista. "I actually added memory to my computer to see if it would help, but it doesn't seem to. It just hangs up at times," he says.

Others haven't seen a performance hit with Excel 2007.

"Right now, I have Excel, Outlook and a few other things open, and I'm at about 76 percent [memory usage]," Tegl says. He also runs on XP. "I've had Excel, Outlook, Access and probably three or four different query tools open in Visual Studio without crashing. It's been fine."

Nevertheless, most readers recommend adding memory in order to get the most performance from Excel 2007.

Another downside, as with all Office 2007 programs, is that users need to be careful how they save their files if they intend to share them with others who are on previous versions of Office and Excel.

"It's a pain doing a save-as," Wilcox says. "It's one of the limitations with deploying Office to some of our customers. No. 1: People have a hard time learning new things. Also, they don't want to upgrade, because they don't want to have to do save-as the old style so they can send it to their customer because the customer doesn't want to download the 18MB compatibility kit. It's a problem."

The new format, which saves files in XML, can be a productivity enhancer. "XML is what powers the data-to-Web feature," Tegl says. "If you have a table that's out on the Web, it lets you go out and select that table, and it brings it back. Then every time you open Excel, it synchs that up. It's a great feature."

Still, readers need to be aware that some options for doing a save-as have disappeared in 2007. "They removed some of the old formats from the save-as," Wilcox says. "I was trying to manipulate the address book for one of my customers who uses Lotus Notes, and the option for saving as a Lotus Notes Workgroup file wasn't there. I ended up having to go to a different computer and manipulate the data that way."

Microsoft Excel 2007

Perhaps the biggest downside to Excel 2007 so far has been bad publicity surrounding a bug that made the program display the wrong answer to certain math problems (see sidebar, "Excel 2007's Math Struggles"). "I'd wait to upgrade to Excel 2007, at least until a service pack comes out -- especially because of things like that multiplication problem," Johnston says.

Most feel the new features outweigh any downsides. "Absolutely, 100 percent, you should do the upgrade," Wilcox says. "There's not one single reason not to, especially with the new feature set. Once they start adding things on that make it easier for me and the end users I support, I'm all for it."


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