Confessions of an Excel Junkie

My confession is that I’ve only recently installed Office 2007. I’ve had access to it for a while now, but never had the time to install or use it. I downloaded beta2 a few days after it was made public, but it just sat on my hard drive until this weekend. I still don’t have any free time, but I have a couple of projects that require the latest version, so I will be getting up to speed on it very quickly.

Installing it was no walk in the park. I wasn’t going to install a beta on my production machine because of all the bad things that can happen. That leaves me with a couple of options. I could use another machine or use Microsoft Virtual PC on my production machine. I chose the latter because the spare computers I have laying around are pretty old and slow, and they’re not nearly as convenient as my Latitude D810.

I lamented going through this installation for a couple of weeks before I actually did it. First I had to find my VPC disks. Finding disks around my house is usually quite a chore. I get so many disks from my MSDN subscription and many of them contain programs that I’ve never heard of and would know what to do with anyway. So I don’t really organize those disks, I just throw them in a box. Then, a couple of times every year, I get to dig through the box. I found the disk and installed VPC without issue.

Next I had to dig through the box to find a Windows XP disk that I could install. I found one but it was pre-SP2. “Who need SP2?”, I said. Well, apparently I do. The beta wouldn’t install without it. Seven hours later, my version of XP was up-to-date and ready for an Office installation.

Now the easy part. I downloaded the beta bits from a link on j-walkblog.com. I had this big executable on my hard drive, but it wasn’t on the virtual hard drive inside the virtual PC and the virtual machine wasn’t connected to the network. No prob’, I’ll just burn it to a CD. Errr, prob’. I can’t copy it from the CD to the virtual machine hard drive without getting an I/O error.

Okay, I’ve got an executable that I can’t get to the virtual machine and I’ve got a virtual machine that I can’t figure out how to connect to the Internet. Fortunately, MSDN just sent me a disk that looks like Office 2007 Beta 2, although it has some other stuff on there that makes me suspicious. I pop in the DVD and get something to the tune of “Your windows version isn’t new enough”. At this point I start the afformentioned seven hour journey of patching and rebooting. Once patched, the DVD will still not install. I didn’t get an error messages or anything, it just froze up on the install.

The next day, I decide to give it another go. I browse around the DVD to make sure I’m trying to install the correct thing (I suspect I wasn’t). I clicked on some web page and Internet Explorer opened. I clicked on a hyperlink and was taken to a page on Microsoft’s site telling me that I’m not a beta participant. But wait! This page isn’t local, which can only mean I’m on the Internet. How exactly I got connected to the Internet, I don’t know. But I wasn’t about to look a gift horse in the mouth. I proceeded to MS’s beta area, logged in, and started downloading. I was already registered by virtue of being an MVP, so that was a nice benefit. Finally, I installed Office without issue and started playing around.

Before I installed Office, but after I patched XP, I backed up everything that has anything to do with Virtual PC. My understanding is that if Office totally hoses my virtual machine, I can get back to that state by restoring the files. I hope I’m right about that. Really, I hope I never have to find out.

Now I’d like to share my first impressions with Excel 2007. I haven’t looked at any of the other Office components and probably won’t. As of right now, I have no intention of upgrading from 2003, but I am certainly open to the possibility that my opinion may change. I don’t hold that opinion because I have some problem with O07, only because I’ve traditionally been a late adopter. I used O2000 until last January and switched to O2003 only because I use it at work. Maybe O07 will be so nifty that I just can’t resist. We’ll see.

I’ll start on a positive note. I love the little keyboard helpers that appear above the menus. When I press Alt, a little ‘F’ appears above the file menu, a little ‘H’ appears above the Home tab, etc. For a keyboard guy, such that I am, it seems like a great improvement over past versions.

One thing that I don’t like is that I can’t find anything. It’s not just so-called power users that will have trouble adjusting, it’s anyone who’s used Excel for more than about 15 minutes. I will adjust, I simply don’t yet know if it’s worth it. The purpose of the Ribbon is to make features more discoverable. It certainly does not do that, as far as I can see. There’s nothing about that Ribbon that’s going to make someone try Data Validation that’s never heard of it before. I like the idea that everything is in one place, I just don’t know if it’s as valuable as it seems in theory. I purposefully didn’t use any aides to help me find where the buttons were because I wanted to see how intuitive it was. My success rate was about 50%, success being defined as finding the button before I said “WTF?”.

I really don’t like the fact that they’ve called the first tab “Home”. Home gives me no information about what’s on that tab. I’m guessing it’s such a hodge podge of functions that they couldn’t decide on a name. The other tabs seem to be somewhat functionally related, so I’m not sure why they couldn’t extend that theme. Is it because they wanted the most used buttons on the first tab regardless of function? Maybe, although that certainly contradicts the discoverability objective.

If there’s one stupid thing that’s so great it will convince me to upgrade, it’s the keyboard access to the Ribbon. Pre-O07, if I want to change the font face without my mouse, I had to Cntl+1, Cntl+Tab zero or more times, Tab to the font face box, and arrow down. Roughly speaking. Now I can Alt+h+ff and Alt+down and I’m set. If there was a way to get into the font dropdown on the toolbar pre-O07, I sure never heard of it. I can see myself never opening the Format dialog box again.

I’m having trouble with the File menu, if that is its real name. Why would they make that an office logo icon instead of something that normal people might think is a menu? Why have a menu at all? Why didn’t they make a File tab on the Ribbon with all those functions? Nothing about the File menu make sense to me, but the recently used file list r00lz, as the kids say.

Excel Options is an abomination unto the Excel god. Okay, that may be a little harsh. It is a little easier to read and I found everything I wanted in fairly short order. However, all they did is turn Tools > Options on it’s side. Tabs on the left isn’t groundbreaking, people. It’s just like tabs across the top when you’re lying on the couch. There’s nothing lost here, but there was a lot of opportunity for improvement that, at first glance, appears to have been passed over. My idea, although I don’t know if I ever verbalized it, was for tabs across the top and down the side. The options you’d see would be those that were at the intersection of the top and side tabs. The top tabs would be functionally oriented and the side tabs would be scope oriented. Both top and side would include an “All” tab, well, maybe just side. If you wanted to see options that had to do with calculation and only affected the current workbook, you’d select the “Calc” tab on the top and the “Workbook” tab on the side. Oh well, it’s not a fully formed idea.

One of the first things I did was to check out the real-time formatting, or whatever they call it. I inserted a shape onto the worksheet and started applying 3-D, shadows, perspective, and a host of other stuff. I hover over the button and the shape shows me what it will look like if I select it. I don’t know who came up with this at Microsoft, but they deserve a foosball table in their office. This isn’t just eye-candy. It will drastically reduce the time I spend formatting shapes. Or maybe formatting shapes will be such a joy that I’ll do it more. Either way, it’s a good feature.

I’m pretty excited to have my first 67,000 line text file that I want to import, but it hasn’t happened yet. The first thing I need to do with all these cells is to shrink them down to pixel size and create some artwork. Talk about tedious, but someone will do it.

There’s my first impressions. Feel free to comment on them or on anything else O07. If you have an opinion on Trusted Zones, I’d be interested to hear it. It seems pretty cool to me, but I’ve only barely touched on it. Also, the file format choices seem a little over the top, but I want to reserve judgment on that. If you have an opinion on it, please share it.

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17 thoughts on “Confessions of an Excel Junkie

  1. Nice review, Dick.

    My production machine is already hosed, so I had no qualms about installing Excel 2007 on it. The only problem that I’ve noticed is that it (somehow) removes 2003’s ability to export a chart as a graphic. Other than that, the two seem to co-exist just fine. They do have the same taskbar icon, so when I have both of them running, there’s a 50% chance that I’ll click the icon that I want.

    I think the best way to familiarize yourself with Excel 2007 is to take a book — oh, something like “Excel 2003 Bible” — and then rewrite the entire book so it applies to Excel 2007. It’s even better if you can find someone who will pay you to do it. You will spend a lot of time searching for those old commands, and you’ll discover that you’ll even have to take a trip to the “command well” to find some of them. But it will eventual become familiar and you’ll feel comfortable.

    I agree that the new Excel Options is better than the old Options dialog box, but it’s still a royal pain. That Advanced tab needs a search button to help locate the option that you’re looking for. Or maybe just split it up into multiple tabs: Advanced, Real Advanced, Super Advanced, and So Damn Advanced That You Have No Business Looking Here.

    It’s nice that the very much underutilized Custom Views command is prominently displayed and easy to discover. But then you find out that this command doesn’t work if your workbook contains even one Table (a Table is like an Excel 2003 List, but is actually useful). The sad part is that using Custom Views with filtered tables would be a great combination, kind of like chocolate and peanut butter. The inability to use Custom Views when a Table is present is s probably one of those things that they just didn’t have time for. Yet they had plenty of time to implement such important features as infinitely customizable shadows, glows, reflections, soft edges, bevels, etc.

    The new Page Layout View is very nice, and it almost eliminates the need for File-Preview. The View Side by Side command still stacks the windows vertically rather than side-by-side. I never could figure that out.

    I’ll reserve judgement on charts, because they aren’t working very well in Beta 2. At least I *hope* they’re not working very well. I was disappointed that the new charting stuff is all cosmetic. The good news is that Jon Peltier’s business will continue to thrive. All of his clever charting work-arounds are still required, and many of them will probably need a work-around for the work-around.

    My biggest gripe is they way it handles UI customizations from previous versions. All of your carefully-crafted toolbar and menu modifications are just dumped into an Add-Ins tab along with everyone else’s crappy toolbars and menu mods. Toolbars no longer float, so you may need to do some serious horizontal scrolling just to find a particular toolbar button. Currently, there is no way to get rid of a toolbar that you don’t want.

    Excel 2007 certainly does look a lot more modern, thanks in large part to the new fonts. Excel 2003, by comparison, looks like something resurrected from the late 20th century. Some parts, however, just aren’t right. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised when I see the next beta, but I doubt it. True to form, they’ll probably get most of it right by Office 14.

    All in all, Excel 2007 is pretty OK once you get used to it. But I certainly don’t expect to see swarms of people camping out at CompUSA to be first in line to buy an upgrade. And that’s also true for corporate buyers. Regardless of what Microsoft says, Office 2007 will require training, even for experienced users. I think most corporations will pass on this one, and then take a semi-serious look at Office 14. By Office 15 or 16, they’ll start to think seriously about upgrading.

  2. Very good review. Haven’t tried Office 2007 yet, and given our upgrade record (we are on Office 2000) it’ll take another couple years, probably.
    Re. your comment about accessing the font dropdown on the toolbar, try Ctrl-Shift-F. You can tab from there to the font size.
    I rarely use it, but it might work for you until you switch versions.

  3. Re rewriting books: I used to love summer courses in college. They’d cram a whole semester into six weeks. They cut out all the crap and only taught the good stuff. I didn’t have time to forget the lectures before the test came around. By the time I’m done with my current projects, I expect I’ll look back fondly on learning O07 at an accelerated pace.

    I forgot all about the fonts. I thought the default was going to be Tahoma, but now it’s something I never heard of. I really like it.

    I’m hopeful that someone is going to develop an add-in that takes all the pain out of customizing the ribbon, both from a migration standpoint and a future customization standpoint. It’s just xml right? How hard can it be? Hopefully Stephen will let us know when he’s done. :)

    I think there are a lot of companies that are on autopilot when it comes to upgrading. I was surprised that everyone in my ~20 person company used 2003. I’ll bet no one here could name one difference between XP and 2003, including me. I also think that the marketing behind the ribbon, the rows and columns, and the file formats will drive upgrades higher than you think. Note that I didn’t say the value of the features would do it.

  4. “It’s just xml right? How hard can it be?”

    Speaking from the hack’s perspective – really hard. Also, no fun. I don’t like the feel of XML, and I don’t like the fact that you have to have three different components – XML, VBA and the utility that let’s them talk to each other or whatever – to do what you could do before with just VBA. And not as well. Like you say, hopefully Stephen or KeepItCool, or one of the other really smart people will come up with something soon.

    I guess the “Home” thing is supposed to make people more comfortable, because they’ll think they’re surfing the web, so how complicated can that be?

    I had noticed that I can’t remove my toolbars from the Addin tab. I wrote a simple one-button menu, and now it just sits there…

    Didn’t 2003 add the intellisense for formulas? I like that. Also the buttons are more [insert MS adjective].

  5. Nice review Dick
    pretty much sums up my first (and last) hour of pure frustration with Beta 1. In the end I turned it off and havent looked at it since.
    I’m working with my first client who is on 2003 now so I reckon I won’t need to look at 2007 until 2010, and someone is sure to have fixed the interface by then. I started looking into it myself but paying work got in the way.
    Its a shame as there are quite a few great new features, but I was unable to ‘discover’ them.

    Re fonts in 2003, I have the formatting toolbar showing, its alt, ctrl+tab, ctrl+tab, down arrow to choose font (its the left most drop down on my bar). You could cut that down by moving it to top left.

    John I like the idea of the so Damn Advanced… tab, it seemed to me when trying to do anything useful with 2007, all the stuff I wanted was stuck behind the blob in the ‘nobody in their right mind will need this’ bucket.

    The biggest change I see in 2003 over the others (apart from the toolbar fade) is file stability, I rarely get crashes and can’t remember the last corrupt file I got, and I work with some horrors.

    Cheers
    Simon

  6. Good review Dick

    I have Excel 2007 running on a PC right next to Excel 2003, with No Problems and swap between them without problem. Exporting from 2007 to previous versions has an excellent warning system telling you what new features you will loose in the save.

    Be careful that once you install Outlook 2007 previous outlook versions don’t run, there’s a different DLL somewhere, and requires a full uninstall and re-install of both versions to fix.

    Excel 2007, I miss the old Color scheme, I know most people didn’t like it, but there were a few standard colors that aren’t as quickly available in 2007 like Blue.
    I don’t know it’s all too Fisher Price’ish and Pastelly for my liking (I’m sounding old)

    John, I Haven’t worked out how to use PUP v6 in Excel 2007 yet ?
    I’ve added it in but can’t find it anywhere.

    Hui…

  7. Hui, the PUP menu *should* be in the Add-Ins tab. If it’s not, then there might be a problem with your *.xlb file. I remember I had some similar problems early on. I deleted the XLB file, and then things started working correctly.

    Some of the PUP utilities don’t work. One of my favorites is the Cell Infobox, which is actually a toolbar. That one is REALLY messed up. I’ll be releasing a special version of PUP for Excel 2007 that uses the Ribbon UI. I’m hoping that I don’t have to remove anything, but I probably will.

  8. I uninstalled the office12 beta yesterday….from my PC…

    I clicked on the Excel XP icon from the Programs menu…..It asked me for a CD……I was petrified…..What if the 007 has “s****d” up XP I thought…. What if all my fav addins and toolbars stopped working….fortunately I located the CD in the junk box…. and things are back to normal…

    John is right about about 007 being a non free beta for 2010….

    But to all MVP’s….. I see a great business opportunity…in 007

    .. A addin which disables the Ribbon X and gets back the menu/toolbar system will outsell anything you sold before….my guess is it will outsell the “official” copies of 007 as well..

    John…Stephen (they said it couldnt be done…)…Ivan (Can do….)….BillG.(Is free lancing is he? )…It cant be very difficult…

    …..do mention me in the credits…. a free copy would be gladly accepted…

    Regards
    Sam

  9. “I’m hopeful that someone is going to develop an add-in that takes all the pain out of customizing the ribbon, both from a migration standpoint and a future customization standpoint. It’s just xml right? How hard can it be? Hopefully Stephen will let us know when he’s done.”

    I spent a lot of time looking at it and come to the conclusion that MS has provided about 80% of the functionality that such a full-fidelity production-quality addin would require. In other words, they haven’t exposed enough of the internals for us to manipulate them. I think the best we’ll get is Patrick Schmidt’s addins (http://www.pschmidt.net), which allow us to move the groups around the toolbars – but even that contains so much hard-coded config stuff, it only works with an English UI and will be broken as soon as MS modify their tabs.

    I think a more likely solution will be for “someone” to create a custom task pane to replicate the old-style toolbars (i.e. a set of buttons that can run some VBA), which can be docked and floated on the screen. I’ve written a COM Addin which allows us to show normal VBA userforms as task panes, so creating a userform with buttons to run things shouldn’t be too hard…

  10. Dick –

    Good review. The only thing you’ve got wrong, and which the Office UI guys have been saying wrong all along, is about the idea that “everything is in one place”, because it’s not really in one place, at least not in 2D space-time as we understand it. The various tabs of the ribbon may only appear in one place (whether this is an advantage over Excel 97-2003 is debatable), but not at the same time, so you still have to hunt for what you know is there, and even if you know which tab it’s on, you still need to click on it, because in my llimited experience, the one you want is not active.

    John –

    Yes, it appears that many of my tricks will still work, but I’m way behind in testing them, and some don’t look quite right because labels don’t really line up the way we’ve learned. And I think it’s a race between releasing on time vs. releasing with the charting working properly.

    – Jon

  11. I just installed my vb6 back on my machine to start writing some com add-ins but I’m not going to waste my time for 007. I don’t think this well take off for quite awhile.

  12. Regarding font, it was mentioned above that you can press Ctrl-Shift-F to get directly into the Font box.

    Everybody should be aware that in both Word and Excel you can press Ctrl-Shift-P to be taken directly into the Font Size box, and just type your font size.

    Cheers,
    JC

  13. To change the font in Excel directly from the keyboard, make sure that the Formatting bar is viewable, then type Ctrl+Shift+F.

  14. I now use Altiris SVS for testing stuff like this. It is much less of a hastle than a virtual environment and I can use the app as normal. The only thing it won’t let me do is run two overlapping applications together (e.g. IE6 and IE7). 2007b2 works fine under SVS.

    Regards, Jules.

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