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Excelling at Excel?

The Plain & Simple guide to the new Excel highlights just how far dull old spreadsheet programs have evolved, into a dazzling multimedia experience ‚ if you know what you’re doing in the first place. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK finds his way through both the program and its guide‚Ķ

Microsoft Office Excel 2007 Plain & Simple by Curtis D Frye Publisher: Microsoft Press (2007) Paperback: 288 pages Supplied by Intersoft

I remember the revelation, 15 years ago or so, when I first used Lotus 1-2-3, the granddaddy of Windows-based spreadsheets, to add up a column of numbers. You clicked on a function and, voila, it did the work for you. I highlighted a list of names, clicked a few buttons and, voila, it all went alphabetical. I foolishly imagined that I would never have to toil through lists and numbers again: 1-2-3 would do it all for me.

Of course, a painful awakening followed. Whether I was using 1-2-3 or WordPerfect’s Quattro Pro, or Microsoft’s Excel, I found myself always sticking to the very basics, ever the amateur, and calling on the kindness of spreadsheet whiz kids whenever I needed something more advanced. Eventually I braved the world of charts and graphs, but was never quite happy with the outcome. It all looked so, well, amateur.

Then came Excel 2007, which did pretty much what all its predecessors did. But with such style! Suddenly my graphs were things of beauty, and charts looked as if a graphic artist had taken me by the hand. Amateur no more, I delved deeper, expecting the mysteries of Excel to emerge before my eyes. Alas, it was not to be.

And then a book crossed my desk that looked every bit as good as the new Excel. Microsoft Office Excel 2007 Plain & Simple is exactly what its name implies: an easy to understand guide to the basics of Excel, and a promise of the magic potion that turns it into one of the most powerful software tools ever devised for the ordinary computer user.

However, despite the title of the book, the good stuff doesn’t come easy. The first five chapters, covering 78 pages, deal with the cosmetics of Excel. In other words, how to look good, before you do good. That’s the part that you tend to pick up as you go along, but some of the short cuts are both handy and scenic.

Then comes the serious stuff: formulas and functions. This is where you expect to be allowed into the engine room of Excel, where they mix the magic potions and reveal the incantations that produce astonishing results from little effort. And suddenly, it is just like working with the new Excel itself. It gives you a good handle on the stuff that you tend to pick up along the way, as well as the odd magic formula that would have escaped you had you been relying on intuition until now. But, just as you think it is getting to the heart of the matter, the book moves onto Formatting. In other words, back to making it all look good. Then it’s Printing, and then it’s Customising. Then it’s Sorting, and then it’s Filtering. This may be Plain & Simple, but it sure is Basic as well. The book even contains a major heading error, with every page of the Sorting and Filtering chapter headed Summarizing Data Visually Using Charts ‚ which is in fact the title and topic of the following chapter.

Talking of which, the next chapter, together with the one that follows, on using graphics in worksheets, finally delivers the magic, and will be the highlight of the book for spreadsheet first-timers. Even the reasonably experienced amateur will appreciate the simple process that leads to more effective and attractive spreadsheets. However, don’t expect to become an expert on the basis of this book alone.

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