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Microsoft Excel 12 (beta 1)

This overhaul to Excel provides new charts to visually analyze complex data, and its tools respond to your behavior.

Microsoft Excel 12 (beta 1)

• See the Excel 12 (beta 1) slide show

Overview: Microsoft's update to Excel intends to improve the way this spreadsheet app analyzes the numbers it crunches. Like the rest of the Office 12 system, Excel 12 places a host of functions available at a glance within a ribbon of functions atop each page; say farewell to the familiar toolbars and drop-down menus. These command tabs intend to surface features as you need them so that, for example, chart color and labeling options will become prominent when you click an embedded pie chart. You can make Excel 12's charts look more three-dimensional, with transparencies and shadows that mirror the visual style within Windows Vista's new graphics engine. To see the new style and features, check out our slide show of Excel 12 (beta 1).

Upside: Excel 12's spreadsheets can be bigger than ever, with as many as 1 million rows and 16,000 columns. With the increased capacity come fine-tuned tools to visually map data in a snap. You'll be able to quickly create a chart and grab a preferred style from the template galleries or save your favorite styles for later use. Heightened interactivity within pivot tables aims to help you recognize trends faster. For example, in a few clicks, Excel 12 can select and highlight the best- and worst-selling products within a sales report. This won't change the ability to manually apply changes by hand either. Word 12 and PowerPoint 12 share the same charts and diagrams, so you can more easily integrate your custom look and feel across the files in the Office 12 system. And as with the files within the other apps in the Office 12 system, Excel 12 will adopt XML-based files with better compression and smaller file sizes by default.

Downside: The very features that set Excel 12 far apart from its predecessor could also be its weakness. Radical interface changes could bewilder users who have spent the last two years memorizing the locations of commonly used functions. And while Excel 12's interface and graphics will look dramatically different, we don't see improvements in other areas, such as better surfacing of ways to make common calculations. We also wonder whether technophobes using Excel for ultrabasic tasks will appreciate the dynamic response of the command tabs on the interface ribbon, or if they'll instead find the constant shifting a distracting nuisance.

Outlook: This early beta version of Excel 12 attempts to help users better manage, visualize, and share data. We look forward to testing Excel 12 (beta 1) further to find out how well it handles our own spreadsheet tasks. For images of the new style and features, check out our slide show of Excel 12 (beta 1). Read our First Take of Office 12 (beta 1) for an overview of the changes coming to the rest of the Microsoft Office system.

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