It’s been more than three years since the last update to Excel, the leading Mac spreadsheet. Despite the long wait for a new version, when you launch Excel 2008, you’ll see what appears to be a slightly re-skinned version of Excel 2004–or even of Excel v.X. The menus and menu items are nearly identical, and the worksheet itself is the same as it’s always been.

Appearances can be deceiving, however–Excel 2008 is a major rewrite, designed to run natively on Intel-powered Macs as well as PowerPC-based machines. This release of Excel also offers some new features, though it drops at least one major area of functionality. As a result, Excel 2008 may leave you feeling somewhat underwhelmed.

New features

Most users will first notice the Elements Gallery, which is represented by a row of four buttons–Sheets, Charts, SmartArt Graphics, and WordArt–and appears below the toolbar. Each button is a shortcut to commonly-used features. Click Sheets and choose from one of a number of preformatted sheets in seven categories; Excel will open that sheet as a starting point–though experienced users may find these sheets too simple for their needs. The Charts tool lets you quickly insert a nicely formatted chart. SmartArt Graphics offers a large number of graphic elements, and WordArt lets you customize the appearance of text blocks.

Whether or not you find the Gallery useful will depend on how you use Excel. Personally, I have no use for the Sheets or WordArt buttons, but both Charts and SmartArt Graphics make it simple to add professional-looking images to your spreadsheets. As an example, I downloaded Apple’s stock price history–daily high, low, close, and volume–and was able to turn it into a nice-looking stock chart with a couple of mouse clicks. Unfortunately, there’s no way to disable any of these Elements Gallery buttons, so even if you never use them, they’ll take up some vertical space on every sheet you open.

Another new feature–the Formula Builder–makes building formulas simpler. After you enter a formula name, the Formula Builder displays input boxes and brief descriptions for each element in that formula. As you enter values, the boxes become color-coded to match the relevant cells on the worksheet that are used in the formula–so it’s easy to see exactly what goes where. This feature can be a big timesaver, especially for those formulas that you don’t use often enough to memorize their syntax.

Formula AutoComplete further speeds the entry of formulas. As you start typing a formula name, Formula AutoComplete displays a pop-up menu with matching formulas. Select one of the displayed formulas, and Excel 2008 will complete the formula’s name, then display a floating tooltip showing each required element in that formula.

In Excel 2004, I used two floating palettes regularly–the Toolbox, which held a scrapbook, compatibility tester, and project interface; and the Formatting Palette, which offered formatting options for text, images, and graphics. In Excel 2008, the Formatting Palette has merged with the Toolbox, which is now tabbed, and looks more like an Inspector panel in one of Apple’s iWork applications. A new Reference Tools tab in the Toolbox gives fast access to a thesaurus and dictionary (though these aren’t the ones built into OS X), an encyclopedia, and even a Web search box. Like its predecessor, the Toolbox can quickly grow taller than your screen, especially on a laptop–if that happens, you’ll have to close some sections in order to see others.

The new toolbar icons are easier to read than Excel 2004’s, and the section headers in the Toolbox are colored, making them easier to spot at a glance. A Document Theme feature in the Formatting Palette picks a set of compatible colors for your worksheet–but the choice only affects SmartArt graphics, charts, shapes, and pictures. Finally, support for graphics and images is better all around in Excel 2008, with improved transparency and shadow effects.

As mentioned above, this is the first version of Excel to run natively on both PowerPC- and Intel-based Macs. When comparing the performance of the two versions of Excel on an Intel machine, Excel 2008 launches notably faster–both on initial and subsequent launches. However, my tests found almost no measurable performance differences when recalculating a complex worksheet, or moving around and selecting cells within a large worksheet. The similar performance isn’t all that surprising–Excel 2004 never felt like much of a laggard when running in the Rosetta emulation mode on an Intel Mac. The shift to a Universal format will benefit those working on truly massive spreadsheets the most; typical users may not see much difference.

Regarding Macros and AppleScript

As the review of Word 2008 noted, Excel 2008 doesn’t support Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), which is the language used to create and record macros in prior versions of Excel. If you try to open a macro-enabled worksheet, you’ll have two choices: open and remove the macros, or open and leave the macros in place, though they won’t run. (You can also cancel the open request.)

This is the major failing in Excel 2008, and the primary reason many users–myself included–won’t be upgrading. Anyone with a collection of macro-enabled spreadsheets will be forced to replace those macros with AppleScript (where possible), or learn to do without. Users in companies with Windows machines will be affected as well, as Office 2007 still includes VBA, so they may receive worksheets that don’t function as they do on Windows machines.

As a replacement, Microsoft suggests using AppleScript and Automator–and Excel 2008 does include a large AppleScript dictionary. However, this version lacks any ability to record AppleScripts, as Excel 2004 could do with macros, so you’ll have to write everything from scratch.

To ease this macro-to-AppleScript transition, Microsoft includes a handful of Automator workflows that you can activate from a new Scripts menu within Excel. These workflows do things such as use Entourage to mail the current worksheet as a PDF or HTML document; send selected text to Word or PowerPoint; and save the current file in an older Excel file format. If you’re using OS X 10.4, you can run these workflows directly from the Scripts menu. If you’re running OS X 10.5, however, a known issue with Excel means you cannot use that menu to run the workflows.

Instead, you must launch Automator and run the workflows from there–and even then, things may not work. I received warnings about some of the workflows using older versions of certain actions; when I tried to run those workflows, they failed with various error messages. Some workflows, however, worked as expected, though having to switch to Automator to run them is a major inconvenience.

You can’t, however, attach an Automator workflow or AppleScript to a button in Excel 2008, as one can do with macros in Excel 2004. The only alternative is to assign it a keyboard shortcut, for use from the Script menu.

Missing features and other foibles

Excel 2004 lacked support for Services, a standard OS X feature that lets you select snippets of text and send them to other applications. Despite three-plus years of development, Excel 2008 still doesn’t support Services, so more work is required to use text from Excel in other programs.

Excel 2008 also wastes a lot of vertical screen real estate. As already noted, you’ll have to give up a row for the Elements Gallery, and the Standard toolbar also takes up vertical space as well. The Standard toolbar isn’t free-floating as it is in Excel 2004, but anchored within the spreadsheet window–and it cannot be undocked. So the Standard toolbar appears in every worksheet, instead of appearing just once. (You can disable the toolbar entirely, though that will force you to use menus and keyboard shortcuts instead.) If you’re on a laptop, I recommend either hiding the main toolbar or setting it to Icon Only view to save screen real estate.

Finally, some bugs that existed in Excel 2004 remain in the new version. For instance, if you have a file located on a lengthy path (more than 200 characters), you cannot open it in Excel 2008, just as you couldn’t open it in Excel 2004. (It must be moved to a location with a shorter path first.)

Macworld’s buying advice

There really aren’t any truly innovative features in Excel 2008 that help push the spreadsheet paradigm forward–not a single new feature struck me as a “must have” reason to upgrade. That doesn’t make it a bad program–Excel is still the best spreadsheet app on the Mac, by far. But does that mean it’s worth upgrading from Excel 2004?

Excel 2008 is basically a very nice Intel-native port of Excel 2004, with a few features added on and support for Macros removed. While Microsoft faced a huge amount of work to rewrite Excel as a Universal application for Intel and PowerPC Macs, the end result is somewhat disappointing for this end user. Basically, if you’ve used Excel 2004, you’ve used Excel 2008.

If you absolutely require Intel-native code on your Mac, or you find Excel 2004 runs too slowly on your Intel-powered Mac, then obviously you should upgrade. Additionally, if you receive files in the new .xlsx format, you’ll have to upgrade as well–there are no file format converters for Excel 2004, as there are for Word and PowerPoint. (Panergy’s US$20 docXConverter can translate such files.) If you’re happy with the features and performance of Excel 2004, though, there’s no need to jump up to Excel 2008 right away. And if you rely on macros, you really can’t upgrade unless you’re also an AppleScript wizard and willing to recode all of your macros.

Excel 2008’s major draw is its Intel- and PowerPC-native code; beyond that, though, there just aren’t that many new features, and, of the features that are new, none truly stand out.

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