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Getting started with Xcelsius is simple; once you've launched the setup file and entered your registration key, you're ready to go. However, you will need to activate the program over the Net within the first five uses, so don't plan on using it on multiple machines without the appropriate site licenses.
We liked Xcelsius's clean, spare interface, which makes ample use of tool palettes that you can shrink or hide entirely. The most useful tools include the Components palette, a smorgasbord of charts, sliders, maps, lines, and other graphic and interactive components that you can drag and drop onto your work space, and the Properties palette, which lets you tweak the behavior and the appearance of the various charting elements. We also like the Object Browser, which lets you hide or reveal project elements by ticking a simple check box.
Xcelsius is a snap to use. You just import your Excel file, drag a chart from the Components palette, and associate axes, labels, and legends with the corresponding Excel data. There's a slight learning curve, but within half an hour or so, we were creating interactive charts, sliders, and dials on our own.
The sheer number of available components is impressive. Charts run the gamut from line, pie, column, and bar to bubble, area, XY, and radar, with plenty of variations and combinations in between. You can import your own images or choose from a variety of backgrounds and art elements, such as rectangles and vertical and horizontal lines. You can format the charts to some extent, including changing the chart colors, the label and legend fonts, and the point sizes, but we wish you could do more. For instance, we'd love to change the orientation of the data labels and create 3D charts and graphs, both of which you can do in Excel. That said, Xcelsius provides various templates to get you started, and global styles let you make presentation-wide changes with a single click.
With a potpourri of sliders, dials, gauges, check boxes, and radio buttons, Xcelsius lets you incorporate a host of interactivity options into your charts and presentations. Want to create a variety of scenarios for your company's fourth-quarter net income? Just drag and drop a slider onto the canvas, associate it with the Q4 projections in your Excel chart, and click and drag the slider to watch the columns in your chart rise and fall.
Xcelsius also outputs your interactive charts to Macromedia Flash, then automatically embeds the SWF files into your PowerPoint files (or PDF files with the Professional version). During your presentation, you can save the scenarios you create to your local drive for later reference. With the Professional version, those remotely viewing the presentation can create their own scenarios and share them with the rest of the group in real time.
But Xcelsius also has its fair share of shortcomings. The current version won't work with Excel files that draw data from secondary Excel files, and it can't work with Excel macros. In addition, the only way to print out an Xcelsius-powered chart is by taking a screenshot--not the most elegant solution.
Infommersion offers a wide range of online tips and tutorials (in QuickTime, Flash, and PDF formats) for Xcelsius, as well as a lengthy but straightforward, downloadable manual.
Infommersion also provides unlimited free e-mail and phone support (toll calls only, Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. PT)--much better than the 30 days or less that we see from other software vendors. There's also an added support option ($39 for the standard edition of Xcelsius and $99 for the Professional version) that includes free upgrades and a year of premium phone and e-mail support, which, we've been told, means you're guaranteed to have your support phone calls answered pronto. However, without paying extra, we had a helpful and courteous support rep on the line within a minute or so.