Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 146 / NOVEMBER 1992 / PAGE 78

Microsoft Excel 4.0. (spreadsheet software) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Jan Altman

Routine tasks are automated and intuitive in this user-driven, innovative upgrade.

If you thought Microsoft Excel 3.0 just couldn't be any better, hold on to your hat. It is. Better mouse implementation, more shortcuts, and improved presentation features are just a few reasons you'll want to look into this upgrade.

Developers focused on user feedback when they upgraded Excel. Some 80 percent of the requests Microsoft received over its WISH phone line since the release of version 3.0 are fulfilled in Excel 4.0. Many of these improvements center on making user-intensive tasks easier and at times automatic. This is accomplished in part by the mouse.

Not since Word for DOS 5.0 has Microsoft taken such great advantage of the right mouse button, but it was worth the wait. Because of the numerous mouse shortcuts, I pull down menus at least 40 percent less often than before.

Following the lead of WinWord 2.0, Excel now incorporates Drag and Drop. This means you can drag the mouse to move or copy cells. Drag and Drop lets you select any range and drag its border to move it; an outline shows you exactly where to drop it. I can't imagine going through the Clipboard anymore--the chore of cutting and pasting is gone.

Autofill is a shortcut that cuts down on using Edit Fill and Data Series. Every selection now has a fill handle (a small square) in the lower right corner. Drag the fill handle to the right or down to perform an Edit Fill--a rather quick and elegant way to fill a range with formulas.

Use the fill handles to extend a series, too: Drag a cell that says January and create a series of months; drag Monday to create a series of days. If your initial selection is two or more cells with numbers, Excel, will calculate the trend and extend the series as you drag. (The fill handle has an ingenious twist: Drag it to the top of a selection to perform an Edit Clear.)

Excel's most common editing and formatting operations have been condensed into new shortcut menus. Point to any cell and click the right mouse button. A small menu pops up with your favorite choices; for example, Cut, Copy, Paste, Clear, Delete, and Insert pop up from the Edit menu. You no longer have to move the mouse off the worksheet to drop down a menu. The right mouse button works on other parts of the screen, also. Row Height and Column Width are added to the above choices when you click on a row or column heading.

Toolbars can be customized and are task oriented.

Excel 4.0 comes with seven built-in toolbars (including one that mimics Excel 3.0's). The standard toolbar is chock-full of goodies, but if your idea of goodies differs from the default, you can easily change them with a couple of clicks and drags. Drag buttons around to change their order. Add another button by picking it from a box and dragging it onto a toolbar. If you add a button into empty space, a new toolbar is created.

A mere click of the right mouse button allows you to show or hide specific toolbars or display the box to customize them. Once you've shown a toolbar, it can be positioned onscreen wherever you drag it or be docked along the screen's edge.

The program includes an intricate set of add-in functions and macros. If you install the whole package, you'll need a scant 11MB of free space. (The minimum required for installation is about 5MB.) These add-ins range from the highly technical (specialized engineering, financial, and statistical functions) to the simple but useful (Autosave, a custom color palette, a Word-like glossary, and so on). To use an add-in for the first time, pull down Options Add-Ins (the Add-In Manager is launched), select the add-in you want, and wait a few seconds. In most cases, a new command is added to a menu. (I experience a small delay when installing an add-in on my 20-MHz 386SX, but your experience may be different.)

Many of Excel's glossy new features are complex add-in macros. The Crosstab ReportWizard is a handy database-reporting device that gives you a summary or comparison of specific data. Scenario Manager lets you create different what-if scenarios and views of your data in a single file and then print them. You can also create slide-show presentations that include worksheets, charts, and even graphics from other applications. And Worksheet Auditor will report on errors in your worksheet.

Lotus 1-2-3 users will find that Microsoft has gone all out to win them over. Macro Interpreter allows Lotus 1-2-3 users to continue running their old macros unmodified. They can also call Excel macros from within Lotus macros to take advantage of Excel's powerful macro language.

File format compatibility is also worth noting. Excel reads and writes Lotus 1-2-3 WKS, WK1, and WK3 file formats as well as Impress files, FMT, and FM3.

To further help Lotus users make the transition, there's interactive online help that demonstrates how to execute Lotus commands in Excel. And an onscreen tutorial provides hands-on practice for important Excel features.

Excel has become much more intuitive; the aforementioned Autofill, shortcut menus, and customizable toolbars attest to this. But there are many other ways in which it keeps a step ahead of you. When you're typing in a function and forget the closing parenthesis, Excel enters it for you. When you create a formula that refers to formated cells, Excel automatically applies the same number format to the formula. You no longer have to split panes before you freeze them; if you go to Window Freeze Panes, Excel first splits them at the location of the cursor.

Chart creation also requires less thinking, and ChartWizard is great for those unfamiliar with the process. When you're working with a chart, the chart toolbar appears on the screen automatically. Three-dimensional charts can be rotated with a drag of the mouse. And, yes, even charts have shortcut menus.

You'll also see ways in which Excel and Word are becoming more alike. Excel now includes a spelling checker, a glossary, a document comparison function, a zoom factor (you can even fit the selected area onto the page automatically), and the ability to open several files at once. And you have much more control over printing, page layout, and graphic objects.

In spite of it all, I still have a wish list. I wish I could still operate Window Arrange All from the menu (it now requires going into a dialog box). I wish Formula Goto would place a cell in the middle of the screen where I could see it in context (it winds up in the lower right corner). And I wish Microsoft would standardize its shortcuts: This program would be even better if you could double-click on the status bar to get the Goto box (Word does that) or if a little window would pop up and direct you when you drag a scroll box on the scroll bar (Project does that). But these details are so minor that their absence does not in any way detract from the beauty of the program.

Excel is truly a program that lives up to its name. It's simple and elegant, and it puts power into your hands. The more I use it, the more I feel that I'm seeing the software of the future.