Microsoft's Excel 2002 face-lift may leave a lot of spreadsheet jockeys disappointed. The typical user probably won't even notice most of the improvements. Advanced users, on the other hand, might wonder why Microsoft continues to ignore many common complaints about the product.
Repair of corrupt files could eliminate lots of headaches.
Background formula-auditing identifies potential errors.
You can now choose which elements will be protected when you protect a worksheet.
A header or footer can display the workbook's full path, and can even include a graphic image.
Retrieval of stock market data is poorly executed.
Screen-hogging Task Pane offers little new functionality.
Geographic mapping feature has been removed.
Many common complaints and feature requests have not been addressed.
The most significant improvement to Excel 2002 gives you the opportunity to bounce back from disaster. If the application crashes, Disaster Recovery will (often) save your spreadsheet before the program locks up completely. And the recovery process addresses another problem endemic to Excel: Every spreadsheet veteran has undoubtedly encountered a corrupt Excel file, one that worked fine one day and then wouldn't open the next. Excel 2002 can sometimes resurrect those files.
Though the program doesn't offer much in the way of new worksheet functions, a new formula-auditing feature can help prevent formula errors (questionable formulas are tagged so that you can take a closer look). The new Formula Evaluator can help debug complex formulas by letting you step through a formula's parts. The AutoSum button is more versatile and can create formulas using functions other than SUM. The new Watch Window feature lets you specify cells that you want to monitor, even if those cells have scrolled off the screen. And the Insert Function dialog box now supports keyword searches, making it easier to locate a function you need.
Easier to find, sort, and check cells
In the past, protecting a worksheet was essentially an all-or-nothing affair. With Excel 2002 you can prevent other users from changing the values in cells but allow them to use functions such as AutoFilter and Sort, which help in interpreting spreadsheet data.
The Find and Replace feature simplifies searching across multiple sheets, and you can now search for specific cell formatting--handy if you want to replace Comma formatting with Currency formatting, or change all yellow cell backgrounds to blue. Other new features include a Borders toolbar that lets you draw cell borders manually; support for colour-coded sheet tabs; and the ability to sever all file links. The new Insert, Diagram command lets you create organisational charts, Venn diagrams, and other graphic enhancements.
For proofreading, you can call on the new text-to-speech feature, which reads back the contents of selected cells. The feature works well, but it has very few customisation options. If you find that the speech playback is too fast or slow, you need to adjust it in a Windows control panel and then restart Excel for the change to take effect.
Excel provides numerous Smart Tags that simplify common operations--and a few not-so-common ones. Entering a possibly erroneous formula will generate a Smart Tag with options that let you fix it or ignore it. When you copy a range of cells and paste them to another location, you'll also get a Smart Tag with the options normally provided in the Paste Special dialog box, such as formatting options. When you insert a new row in a range that has mixed formatting, a Smart Tag gives you the choice of copying the formatting from the row above or from the row below.
New features you shouldn't rush to try
Some Smart Tags aren't so helpful. Type a stock symbol into a cell, and a Smart Tag appears that will let you perform a Web query and place the stock's current price data on your worksheet. Unfortunately, you don't get just the price--you get an unwieldy table, 16 columns by 14 rows, filled with hyperlinks. And any existing data in that 224-cell range is wiped out for good, since Undo won't restore it. There's also an annoying side effect: Enter the Boolean value TRUE into a cell, and it is interpreted as a stock symbol. You can hide its Smart Tag, but if you change the cell to FALSE and then back to TRUE, the Smart Tag rears its ugly head again.
Though Task Panes may be useful in other applications, most Excel users will probably turn them off. They occupy valuable screen space and do very little that you couldn't do before just as easily.
Excel 2002 now has the ability to display a workbook's full path in the page header or footer. And, as in Word, you can now include a graphic image in your header or footer.
The only new charting feature in Excel 2002 is a minor enhancement to chart data labels: You can now combine several properties into a single data label (for example, a data label can show the series name along with the data value). However, the designers clearly missed the boat. What users really want is the ability to assign an arbitrary range of cells to be used for data labels in a chart. This is still not possible.
If you sometimes augment your data with a map (to answer vital questions like "How many Magic Eight Balls did we sell in Arkansas?"), you'll be disappointed to learn that Microsoft has removed the tool that made geographic mapping possible. You can still view maps created with earlier versions, but you can't create new maps or change previously created maps.
Excel 2002 has a long list of new features, but the features hard-core Excel users have wished for aren't on the list. For years Excel users have asked for changes such as adding more rows and columns to the maximum spreadsheet size and improving support for three-dimensional charts. Few of those complaints have been addressed in the new version, and if you use Excel for data analysis, you'll find little to get excited about.
Curious about the rest of the suite? Head over to our first look at PowerPoint.