After following Microsoft's various alpha and beta developments of the Office 2007 system, we're now testing RTM code that will come preinstalled on many computers sold by vendors with Microsoft software partnerships. See our first takes of the RTM builds of Word 2007 and Office 2007 for more.
Installing Office 2007 RTM took us a quick, painless 10 minutes on Windows XP. Upon opening Excel 2007, a colorful, thick new toolbar greets you. This Ribbon of features sits atop each screen and replaces the gray drop-down menus of the past. Most familiar commands are in new places, with functions organized into tabs: Home, Insert, Page Layout, Formulas, Data, Review, and View.
Because so many options are now front and center rather than buried within pre-2007 menus and dialog boxes, Microsoft doesn't show certain features until you appear to need them. For example, Chart Tools tabs (Design, Layout, Format) don't show up until you click on a chart. Similarly, you must select an image for the Picture Tools' Format tab to appear. The dynamic tabs perplexed us at first; with our cursor on some text instead of an image, we couldn't figure out where the image-editing commands had disappeared. It took about a week to train ourselves to click objects first, then look for their associated features. It may drive you batty at first that you visit the Home tab to add a row, not the Insert tab--we kept forgetting this, even after writing about it for a year.
Once you highlight desired rows and columns, you can pick from among many Table Styles galleries to add instant color. The dynamic galleries within Office 2007 applications let you preview changes before applying them to font and objects. These galleries can be helpful, but they don't fully satisfy our imagination. Sure, you can see 48 designs from the Chart Styles menu, but most are variations on a color scheme that we weren't crazy about. At least you can create your own table style and save it to use in future files.
And while most of the graphical galleries within Office 2007 are designed to let you mouse over a style for a preview, Excel's Chart Type and Chart Styles didn't work that way. Instead, we had to click on a type or style, then apply the change to see it reflected in a chart. It wasn't simple to figure out how to select one slice of a pie chart and change its color, either. However, you can create and save your own designs for later use.
Many changes within Excel are surface-level, as the new interface is intended to bring to the forefront dozens--perhaps hundreds--of functions that you perhaps never noticed in older iterations of Excel. We're grateful for the shortcuts, especially the drop-down lists of functions (such as Sum and Average) and abbreviations of formulas (financial, logical, math, and more) within the Formulas tab. In the past, you may have printed or handwritten a cheat sheet to jog your memory. Also among the advanced functions under the Data tab, you can ask Excel to flag potentially duplicated data.
Excel also delivers new ways of analyzing data. Its Conditional Formatting options let you select a column of numbers and instantly highlight the top or bottom 10 values, or those that are above average, and so on. Within several seconds, you can select spreadsheet cells and apply arrows, flags, and smiley-face icons to analyze the numerical ups and downs.
We suspect that Excel's smaller, XML-based files will be useful in conserving hard drive space if you tend to accumulate giant spreadsheets. However, you'd be wise to save your work in Excel 2007 as an older XLS document if you plan to send it to people running Word 2003 or earlier. A user of Excel 2003 and Excel 2000 can open the new, XLSX files--but only after jumping through some hoops that include visiting a Microsoft Web site and installing a Compatibility Pack.
Judging by our early tests of the RTM code, Excel 2007 may be a worthy upgrade for people whose bread-and-butter work involves spreadsheets--especially those that require quick visual analyses of data, such as for sales charts. This may not be the case, however, if you've already memorized old Excel formulas and don't need the visual pizzazz, or if you use spreadsheets only casually. Excel 2007's interface is a big departure from the traditional layouts of the older editions of Excel as well as its rivals, such as Corel Quattro Pro. Excel 2007 also stands apart from the crowd of bare-bones online services, such as Google Docs and Spreadsheets beta, which can't even make charts at this time.
Microsoft offers lots of Web-based support for users of Excel 2007, including Flash-based tutorials for finding where specific features have moved from Office 2003. Without relying heavily on such support, we were able to adjust to many features within several weeks but remained stumped about others, even after months of tests with the new design. Our adjustment period was shorter than it was for Word, possibly because Excel places so many more features within easy reach. We'll continue to test-drive the new Office software and will provide rated reviews when the consumer edition is available. In the meantime, you can find the beta edition of Excel 2007 for free at office.microsoft.com.