Section: Mac Software, Business / Office Suites, Reviews
Provides: Spreadsheet creation/editing for Mac OS X
Minimum System Requirements: Mac OS X v10.5.8 or higher, 1GB of RAM Recommended, 2.5GB hard drive space, 1280×800 or higher resolution monitor
Processor Compatibility: Intel Only
Price: $150 (home and student edition) or $280 (home and business edition) as part of the MS Office Suite
Version Reviewed: 14.0.2
Excel has remained the most popular and feature-rich spreadsheet application since Microsoft Office reached critical mass in the business world. Excel, first appeared in 1985 as a Mac application and has been bundled as a part of Microsoft Office since the early ‘90s. While it may also make switching to a Mac easier, Office:Mac has made it easier for those working in mixed environments to continue using a Mac without losing any cross-platform compatibility. Who hasn’t encouraged a Windows user with the promise that they could continue to use their beloved MS Office applications after they have switched? The trouble is that sometimes the Mac versions of Office feel like the unappreciated stepchild and lacked true compatibility. Office:Mac 2011 has made great strides to close this gap and this can be seen in the outstanding version of Excel.
Online “Cloud” Integration
Another major MS Office enhancement includes Microsoft’s cloud computing initiative. With a free Windows Live ID, users can now save and load files from their online SkyDrive storage space. SkyDrive offers a generous 25GB of free space on Microsoft’s servers. This can be used to store any type of file, but when uploading Office documents to a SkyDrive account you will get additional functionality. You can save files directly to your SkyDrive from within Office 2011 by choosing “Share” from the File menu and logging into your account. To open a file from SkyDrive, you will need to log in from a web browser ,and then you have the option to edit the file online (with a limited set of tools), download and open the file in MS Office or save it as a zipped file.
live.com file options
You can also create new files online or share SkyDrive folders by changing permissions from private to public or shared (with a limited group of your contacts). By using SkyDrive for co-authoring, groups no longer have to keep track of multiple versions that have been passed around in emails. In other hosting situations, only one user might be able to “check out” and open the file at a time. But with SkyDrive, not only can multiple users view but simultaneous editing is possible (areas inside the document are locked while being edited). Individuals can choose to receive email notifications of changes, and with the click of a button you can initiate a video chat, instant messaging or email to stay in touch with those who are working on the same document. This online co-authoring service is built into Office and provided at no additional cost. Currently, you cannot track changes with online sharing. This can also be enabled if you have your own SharePoint server rather than using Microsoft’s SkyDrive services.
live.com sharing settings
I found this feature to be reasonably useful, except that in my testing I did encounter an error trying to reopen a file I had uploaded to my SkyDrive. After saving the file, the next day I could not open the same file from within Excel or even choosing to open it “in Excel” from the live.com webpage. I kept getting an error message “Excel cannot open this file” suggesting that the file may be corrupt (even though I could open it online and edit the file using the live.com Excel editor). The only solution was to download and save the file and then I could open it. So, I guess while this may be a great feature, it still does not have all the wrinkles worked out.
Error message when trying to open online Excel file
The Macintosh Business Unit at Microsoft has gone out of their way to make the 2011 version not only cross-platform compatible functionally, but visually as well. When MS Office 2007 was released, a controversial new interface design called the Ribbon (or “tabbed” toolbar) was introduced to make the applications easier to use. Much to Mac users’ delight, the 2008 Mac version that followed did not adopt this new Ribbon interface that had many Windows users frustrated. In 2010, the Windows version included a few design changes, such as replacing the Office button with the more universally accepted File menu and allowing users to customize the Ribbon. While Mac users may still not see the Ribbon as a step in the right direction (why take away vertical document space when screen sizes are becoming wider?) it is necessary to integrate this to make both the Windows and Mac version more similar. Eventually, the same training issues that Windows users faced moving from 2003 to 2007 is going to impact users trying to move between Windows and Mac versions of MS Office. Whether or not you love or loathe the Ribbon interface, it has become standard for Microsoft Office applications.
The Ribbon replaces the floating Formatting Palette and toolbars that have been prominent in Excel for more than a decade. A complaint with the older Floating Palette is that sometimes it would get moved just far enough off the edge of the screen that it was hard to drag back, something that will never happen with the Ribbon. Just like you could close the Floating Palette, you can also turn off the Ribbon in the application’s preferences and your toolbar will look similar to Excel 2004/2008. The standard and formatting toolbars can be independently shown/hidden using the View menu, but they are integrated into the window (no longer floating toolbars that could be dragged or moved). Should you decide to keep the Ribbon turned on, you can always hide all but the tabs to conserve space. Then you can expand the Ribbon by clicking on any tab, click the expand/hide button at the right of the tabs or toggle the Ribbon in the View menu. It would have been nice if Microsoft had kept the floating Formatting Palette and toolbars as an option for those who dislike the Ribbon.
A picture is worth a thousand words, and graphs have always been one of Excel’s strengths. While it is possible to stack data sources together into one graph, this can become quite confusing to visually decipher. Creating multiple graphs would solve the problem, but it would be awkward since each one consumes quite a bit of visual space. A feature called Sparklines allow you to easily display mini-graphs (sometimes called micro-charts) that can show dozens of data sets that appear in the same row as the data. Sparklines were added to the Windows version of Excel 2010 (although they were available in third-party extensions for years). Just highlight a row (or rows) of data and pull the Insert menu to Sparklines. Options include adding color, markers and a choice of line or bar graphs. This is a very cool addition to Excel that increases compatibility and adds functionality to the application.
Beginning with Excel 2011, more than three rules can be added for conditional formatting, and the display options that first appeared in Windows Excel 2007 have been incorporated into the Mac version. For instance, now you can use gradients or solid bars inside the cell (known as “databars”) to visually make the information stand out. To make the gradients, Excel 2011 now allows selecting colors from the full 32-bit color palette instead of just 40 colors. Icon sets and two or three color scales can also be used to emphasize the value of the amount displayed. While the “classic” conditional formatting dialog window from previous versions has been retained, there are now more options that can be accessed through the button on the Ribbon or in a drop down menu on the traditional dialog window.
Conditional formatting options
Conditional Formatting “classic” view
In previous Mac versions, you could pull the Insert menu to add a “list” that was basically a formatted table. A “wizard” interface would guide you through the steps with a limited set of styles that could be applied. Excel 2011 adds a tab inside the Ribbon with options and a gallery of new table styles, making it much easier to find, select or change the design. Again, the Ribbon puts all the tools within consistent and easy reach while the older interface used a floating toolbar that sometimes would get lost on the screen.
Table tab on Ribbon and gallery of table styles
Filtering is certainly easier with a dynamic “filter” button on the “standard” toolbar or under the Data tab on the Ribbon. Once you select a range or row/column on the toolbar, clicking the filter icon will allow you to select drop downs at the top of each row. What has changed is the ability to not only sort on the values, but also cell color, font color, cell icons and even conditional formatting options.
Kurt Schmucker, Senior Evangelist for Microsoft, shared in January’s Macworld Expo that the Macintosh Business Unit made compatibility between the Mac and Windows versions a high priority for Office:Mac 2011. He demonstrated this by opening a worksheet on both 2010 and 2011 side by side so we could visually compare how it was rendered on each platform. He shared that the Word team did the same thing with literally hundreds of documents. They would make hundreds of printouts from both Mac and Windows and then overlapped the two and hold them up to a light. Even the slightest differences were reported as a bug. He referred to this as a detailed level of “visual fidelity” that was sought to ensure that users would have confidence that their work would be accurately represented regardless of which platform was used to open the MS Office document.
The team went to the Windows Excel team and requested a “Frankenstein” document that contained every possible compatibility issue. He demonstrated opening this file up in Excel 2008 which showed a long list of errors. Not only did the file open in Excel 2011 with no errors, but the visual representation was identical to that of Excel 2010. For comparison, he opened the same document in Apple’s Numbers which generated a few warnings. Numbers also failed to open the currently selected sheet, which could be confusing for some users. The formatting, of course, was not the same with Numbers, and it really becomes clear that if you want to have the exact look and feel, you are going to want to stick with Microsoft Excel.
Excel 2008 took away Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) but added Applescript support. With Excel 2011 we get both VBA and Applescript support. Ken pointed out that having VBA in both Mac and Windows versions allows the functionality of Office to be extended by programmers. For example, he showed how Sparklines could be animated using VBA to show changes over time. Excel 2008 lost the Equation Editor. In 2011, the Equation Editor has been ported over and is the exact same version as the Windows version. Get out the stopwatch and time the difference between opening a spreadsheet in 2008 and 2011 and you will see a dramatic difference in the optimization that has gone into this new version.
You can purchase Excel 2011 as a part of the MS Office:Mac suite. There is no upgrade path for users of older versions, but Microsoft has lowered the suite costs from previous versions. Two versions are available, a Home and Student or the Home and Business (the difference is that the Business version includes Outlook). Just like Apple’s family pack, there are both single or multiple/family install versions, as well as university and volume licensing. You can purchase a downloadable copy, purchase the box in an Apple Store or download a fully-functional 30 day trial and later purchase the license code online. At this time, Microsoft is not offering Office through Apple’s Mac App Store since it does not fit their licensing model.
There are many alternatives to Excel, including some that are free. If you only need a simple spreadsheet, then you could use the free OpenOffice/NeoOffice or a free online version such as Google Apps or Microsoft’s own online version of Excel. Apple has its own spreadsheet—Numbers—that comes bundled with the iWork office suite. While most of these will be able to open and save Excel-formatted files, there is still no substitute for compatibility other than using Excel itself. This will become important if worksheets are being shared amongst several users, especially if you use more complicated formatting or features such as tracking changes or embedded VBA scripts. To get the best compatibility would require that both users have the latest versions (2010 for Window and 2011 for Mac). If you were to include Sparklines, these would not be visible if opened in an older version.
Excel is still the granddaddy of spreadsheets and retains that status with this 2011 version. The obvious dedication that the Macintosh Business Unit has put into this version to bring it up to parity with the Windows version makes it a real winner. It adds credibility to those of us who rely on using our Macs in the business marketplace, and allows us to share files with confidence.
Buy Office 2011 for Mac
See our full Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac review.
Full Story » | Written by Alan Cook for Appletell. | Comment on this Article »