Microsoft Excel 2013 review: first look

17 Jul 2012

Excel might have been been pushed to the back in the main demonstration at Microsoft's Office 2013 launch event in San Francsico, but that doesn't mean it should be ignored. In fact the two feature improvements highlighted during the demo --  Flash Fill and Quick Analysis -- show some real imagination has gone into the new version of Excel.

Flash Fill aims to make splitting apart text that appears in single fields much easier. If you've pasted a list of content in from another source -- say a table from a web page or Word document -- it's often the case that you want to split fields apart to deal with data independently -- apply a calculation, or a sort, for instance.

Simply type your intended target text in the next field, hit the Flash Fill button on the Data Ribbon, and Excel will complete the job for you, splitting out the text all down the appropriate column. Genius.

Quick Analysis, meanwhile, makes makes it easier to turn rows and columns of figures in to charts, pivot tables and so on. Simply select a range of data, hit the Quick Analysis icon that appears below and to the right of it, and up pops a box giving access to all manner of formatting options. In this way it's quick to add anything from conditional formatting and Sparklines, to charts, common calculations such as totals and averages, and even create pivot tables.

And, as with Word, you're greeted with a new splashscreen whenever you fire up the application, which presents a searchable, online repository of templates to get you started.

The key question, however, is what the new Excel is like to operate by touch and -- as with Word -- it's a somewhat mixed story. On the positive side, the Quick Analysis tool is brilliant at allowing users to perform complicated tasks with a few quick taps. Once you get used to the way cells and ranges of cells are selected, that too works well.

A range is selected by tapping in one corner, then dragging on one of the handles that appears in the cell's corners. The new expanding Ribbon works as well here as it does on the other Office 2013 applications, the panning and zooming touch controls will be a boon for users navigating large spreadsheets, and the new "inking" support should make the process of reviewing lists of figures on the train home from work easier.

On the negative side, many controls remain fiddly and small: selecting columns and rows when zoomed out is a pain as the column and row headings resize as you zoom, while selecting from the autocomplete list of formulae that pops up as you type in the formula field requires pinpoint precision. And, the touch navigation of large spreadsheets wasn't entirely glitch free. Some of these foibles are perhaps unavoidable given the nature of the application, but we do feel that more could be done here.

Still, there's plenty to like in the new Excel, particularly the Quick Analysis tool, which we can see ourselves using in preference to the Ribbon, even with a mouse and keyboard attached. We can't wait to start putting it through its paces on a day-to-day basis.

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