Excel shares many new features with the rest of Office 2011. The Workbook Gallery, for example, looks a lot like the equivalent in Word, and again has a direct link to Microsoft’s online store of templates, saving you the chore of a manual download. Several of these are multi-page documents, and you can either click through the pages using the arrow buttons below the thumbnail preview or roll your mouse across each icon.
Get beyond this and you’ll find the new Ribbon toolbar, which moves a number of important tools to more prominent positions. Conditional Formatting appears on the Home Ribbon, and clicking its button opens up a fully illustrated sectionalized list of options for highlighting data that meets particular conditions.
More than this, though, it greatly simplifies the task of making your data more easily understood by introducing intelligence to the formatting. Enter a range of values in a column – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, for example and it will represent each as a bar, so you can immediately see how they compare with each other. Alternatively, show them as a color scale running from red through to green. As you enter new values within the range, the bars or colors dynamically rework themselves so that the overview remains correct at all times.
The sorting dialog box has had a serious reworking, and is all the more powerful for it. It’s split into columns and uses more understandable language such as ‘smallest to largest’ rather than the ‘ascending’ that appeared in Excel 2008. Indeed, stepping back to 2008’s sort function, you see just how primitive it was and wonder how you ever found anything. Its replacement is smart enough to tailor itself to the contents of the cells being sorted, so that it will even sort cell colors, allowing you to specify which color should be shunted to the top of the list.
The SmartArt tab is perhaps the most intelligent of any part of the Ribbon. It’s a direct transplant from Excel 2008, but warrants mention nonetheless for its new features. In short, SmartArt inserts predefined graphical elements, such as organisation charts, that you can edit directly or through a floating palette. Where they differ in 2011 over Excel 2008 is the post-editing tweaks that can be applied to the colors, orientation and perspective of the SmartArt. The results look like something you could have spent an hour putting together in Illustrator and will do much to illuminate a PowerPoint presentation.
Excel has long been accomplished in creating charts, and now the familiar selection from previous editions has been joined by Sparklines. These are graphs that appear within a single cell to give a snapshot view of a range of attached data. They’re particularly useful when shown at the end of a row of data, as they let you see changes over time without having to trawl the numbers themselves. The name Sparklines is slightly misleading because, while they certainly can be line charts, they can just as easily be drawn as bars or win-lose elements.
The move from Excel 2008 to 2011 is a more radical shift than the equivalent evolution in Word. Excel 2011 is a supremely accomplished tool whatever your needs, whether they be simple list building or serious financial planning.
By: Francis David