Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 131 / JULY 1991 / PAGE 118

Microsoft Excel. (electronic spreadsheet ) (evaluation)
by Clifton Karnes

If there's one immutable law in personal computing, it's this: For any hardware platform or operating system to succeed for a killer spreadsheet. This may sound strange, but if you look at history, you'll see that it's true.

When VisiCalc hi the scene in 1979, it turned the Apple II from a toy into a powerful business tool. Aplle II sales skyrocketed, and the machine became the personal computer for computing's first generation. Lotus 1-2-3 was the next standard. It was a great improvement on VisiCacl and the epitome of user-friendly software in 1983. Lotus 1-2-3 made businessmen and -women really want to buy MS-DOS-based, 8088-powered PCs. And they did ... by the millions.

Since 1-2-3's success, there have been many spreadsheet contenders, but none have really captured the computing public's imagination and driven users to a new hardware or operating-system platform.

Lotus tried recapturing the magic and setting a new standard with 1-2-3 3.0, but without much success--most users who upgraded went with the lower-end 2.2 version of 1-2-3. And Microsoft has tried before with Excel 1.0 and 2.0, but previous versions of Excel simply didn't have the wiles to lure people away from the comfort of DOS, 1-2-3, and their 8088s.

Now we have Excel 3.0. Is it just another also-ran, or is it the spreadsheet to set a new standard and fuel the blastoff of Windows 3.0 and the 386 hardware it demands?

Keep reading. In the next five minutes, you'll find out.

First, don't let anything you've heard about previous versions of Excel influence you. Version 3.0 has been completely redesigned from the ground up. Not only does Excel 3.0 have amazing new features and power, but Microsoft has made dramatic strides in making the program easier to use.

Right off the bat, you'll notice that the new Excel looks different. When you run it for the first time, you'll see one of its most impressive new features, the toolbar. The toolbar is a horizontal bar that rests under the menus and contains groups of push buttons. These push buttons are shortcuts for commonly used commands, the mouse equivalent of accelerator keys, and they make using Excel both easier and faster.

The toolbar isn't a new idea. It's borrowed from Microsoft Word for Windows, which places often-used word-processing commands on a bar called the ribbon. But the toolbar concept seems even more of a natural for a spreadsheet than a word processor.

You can easily get a feel for what's new with Excel by looking at what's on the toolbar. Going from left to right, you'll see buttons for selecting styles, promoting anf demoting outline elements, toggling outline display on and off, selecting visible cells, autosumming (which automatically sums rows or columns), bold and italic, alignment (left, center, and right), selecting graphics objects, drawing (including buttons for drawing lines, rectangles, ellipsesm and curves), autocharting, creating text boxes, creating your own user-defined buttons, and recording macros.

One of these buttons, autosum, is especially useful. Microsoft did some impressive research to determine just what users wanted and needed in a spreadsheet. One of the things the research showed was hat summing rows and columns was the most repeated task for almost all spreadsheet users.

To make summing as easy as possible, Microsoft created autosum. To use it, you place the cursor at the end of any row or column at the point where you want your total to go. Next click on the autosum button. The program places the SUM formula in the current cell and selects a range based on the configuration of your data. If autosum finds cells filled in to the right or left of your sum cell, it chooses that part of the row. If it finds cells above the formula (the more common situation), it selects the column above. I've found that autosum almost always chooses the right range for the sum, but when it doesn't, it's easy to compress or extend the selection or to move it somewhere else on the work sheet.

Autosum may be Excel's most frequently used new feature, but it's just one example of the care that went into the design of 3.0. Another thoughtful extra is Excel's new automatic best fit for column width. To use this, place the pointer between any two cells and double-click. The program adjusts the width of the column on the left and makes best fit for the data therein. Resizing your spreadsheet's columns for optimum width is now easy--and it's almost fun.

When you need to take a quick look at a note attached to a cell, you don't want to have to navigate through menus. With 3.0, all you have to do is double-click on any cell that contains a note (cells with notes are identified by a small red dot in the upper right corner of the cell) to display the note's text.

When it's time to print your spreadsheet, you'll be pleased to find that his new version of Excel knows all about fonts. Version 2.0 was limited to four fonts per work sheet, but 3.0 gives you unlimited access to your system's entire font arsenal. It's also worth noting that Excel works flawlessly with both Bitstream's Facelift and Adobe Type Manager font packages.

To top off new output enhancements, 3.0 now offers style control. You can access styles with the style combo box on the toolbar, just like the style box on the Woed for Windows ribbon. To define a style, select an area of your work sheet and format it with the font you want (you can specify bold, italic, underline, or strikeout) and its point size. Click on the style box and type in the name for your new style. Now the style appears on your style combo box menu. Fonts and style control are a double-edged sword, however. If you want to keep your spreadsheets from looking like ransom notes, stick to Helvetica for numbers and perhaps one serifed font--like Times or Bookman--for headlines.

All the features mentioned so far make Excel faster and easier to use, but this version also has several new tricks to make power users' mouths water. At the top of the list is outlining. With it, you can structure your spreadsheet in an interrelated hierarchy, and even more important, you can display selected parts of the spreadsheet based on that hierarchy.

Here's a quick look at how outlining works. Let's say, for example, that you're working on a balance sheet containing several subtotals, and each is the sum of 50 to 100 numbers. The work sheet to contain all these numbers could easily be 400-500 rows long. With a length like that, it would be nearly impossible to see the important data. The trees would block the forest.

With outlining, the solution is simple. First, select the range of the rows that comprise each subtotal and demote them with the right-pointing arrow on the toolbar. You'll see a small button with a minus sign on it and line indicating the range of the button. Click on the button (which will cahnge to a +), and the range will be hidden. If you click on the + button again, your range will appear. If you change your mind and want to promote the cells you demoted earlier, just select the range again and click on the left-pointing arrow on the toolbar. The small outline button with the minus sign in it will disappear.

If you have several outline levels in your spreadsheet, you'll appreciate the program's outline display button, also on the toolbar. Press this, and the outline buttons disappear. When you're ready to work with outlining again, press the outline display button, and you'll see your outline levels and their associated buttons.

The toolbar, autosumming, and outlining are all great, but Excel has a little something extra for the kid in all of us--dazzling, eye-popping graphics. You'll find all the standard (and often boring) graphs supplied, but you'll also find gorgeous 3-D area, column, line, and pie charts. With all graph types, you have complete control over the chart's rotation, perspective, and color. You can also incorporate graphs right in your spreadsheet. It's easy, and as you might expect, you do it with the toolbar.

To create a graph, select a range of cells, click on the graph button on the toolbar, and draw a box on your work sheet (by clicking and dragging the mouse) just where you want the graph to go.

If you have the soul of an artist, you can even use Excel's on-board drawing tools to jazz up your chart and make your point in style.

Last, there's Excel's database. This is the only module in the program not completely redesigned and upgraded for release 3.0, and it does show its age a little. Microsoft, however, has solved the database problem by bundling Pioneer software's Q+E database with Excel.

Q+E has been billed as a database editor, but it's much more than that. With it, you can import files (Excel, dBase, and text), edit them, and perform from SQL queries. You can also create databases in Q+E. The whole affair is wrapped in a MDI (Multiple Document Interface), like Excel's own, that features multiple overlapping windows. Q+E is an impressive and useful database program in its own right. Match it up with Excel and DDE, Windows' Dynamic Data Exchange, and it's a real winner.

So, is Excel the one? The new spreadsheet standard that's going to propel us into the next generation of hardware and operating systems? It is indeed. It's the spreadsheet we've been waiting for.