A couple of quick Excel 2010 discoveries

At the moment I’m revisiting pretty much all my course materials for my Microsoft Office training courses, partly to restructure them into different chunks, and partly to start work editing where necessary to include coverage of Office 2010 so that I will be ahead of the game when that gets released next year.

Along the way I’ve been finding out loads of cool things about major new features such as sparklines and slicers (more on that in a future post, as promised), and the ability to customise the Ribbon easily without writing code. There are also lots of tiny changes as well, which are easy to miss and may get drowned out in the sea of other news about the next version, so I thought I would mention a couple of them here – the status bar summaries and filters in Tables.

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Windows 7 64 bit experiences, my current software stack and that pesky CSC folder

Recently, like many others, I have been through the process of installing various releases of Windows 7, from the Beta, through RC1 and finally the release-to-manufacturing (RTM) version. I decided to take the plunge and install 64 bit on my Dell D620 and everything went really well, no driver issues or any other hiccups. Had to do a manual download of a driver for my old(ish) Epson scanner, but it still installed straight off first time. RC1 needed a bit of manual intervention to get the NVidia drivers working for some reason (Beta and RTM both just worked, strangely), and it was a bit temperamental with docking and undocking while running, but RTM seems to have cleared this up, and is now way more stable than Vista ever was at doing this (I used to get a full system lock about 1 time in 10).

I did as advised by Microsoft and did this as a clean install every time, rather than doing a hack to allow me to run an in-place upgrade. Thanks to James O’Neill’s blog article I did this from a bootable USB drive, and this was lightning fast since I also recently upgraded my hard drive to a 120GB OCZ Vertex SSD.

Applications, applications, applications

A bit of a pain re-installing applications again each time round, but it does mean I have a nice shortlist of the apps and utilities that I actually need and use regularly enough to merit an install. Without being an exhaustive list, the apps that made the grade every time, in approximately the order they got installed are:

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Excel 2010 new features – Sparklines

As discussed previously, we have some marketing information about what we will be seeing in the next release of the Office system, but not really a great deal of technical information. The Excel team are starting to blog a bit more now that the Technical Preview is underway; their 10,000 foot view is a good starting point to find out what’s coming, or you can read the press release. On the official Office 2010 site there is a video by Albert Chew, Product Manager for Office, which shows off some of the new features of Excel 2010 (sorry, no direct link to the video available, it’s linked in the menu on the left of that page). On the Microsoft PressPass videos page there is an Excel 2010 demo video which you can also download (16MB wmv file). This covers two new features – sparklines (from the start) and slicers (from about 1min 55 into the video)

As more information emerges, I’ll write in more detail about some of the new features. Today let’s have a look at probably the most eagerly awaited extension to Excel’s data visualisation capabilities – sparklines.

Sparklines in Excel 2010

Sparklines are very dense microcharts used to display simple information, usually showing historical values to give context to the current data. The term was coined by information visualisation guru Edward Tufte and discussed in a whole chapter in his book Beautiful Evidence, which describes sparklines as “intense, simple, word-sized graphics”.

Examples might include past share values, commodity prices, exchange rates, or internal business key performance indicators. Lines may have key points highlighted (high value, low value, last value), show a trendline or normal band, but otherwise will be deliberately uncluttered to aid easy interpretation.

Typical sparkline sales versus targetThe example to the right shows the previous 12 months sales and target, with the highest and lowest sales figures highlighted. Some people might prefer to show the figures to the right of the sparkline as they relates to the final data point and therefore the right hand end of the plotted line, but this is a matter of personal preference. Although this example is show here in quite a large screenshot, the trend is very clear at much smaller sizes too.

While lines are by far the most common choice for sparklines, especially to show changes over time, other formats may be found – columns to show breakdown of a total by category for comparison, for example. Another popular use is to track success and failure, such as wins and losses for a sports team, a technique described well by this article on sparklines at Bissantz, the creators of SparkMaker, an add-in for Excel.

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Office 2010 first thoughts

Well, there’s some information finally coming out about Office 2010 and some of the features we will hopefully be seeing in the final release version next year. As the Technical Preview gets released to an invited audience only at this stage, there aren’t loads of sources of details, but a few places are showing off some interesting ideas and if you watch the videos carefully and look closely at the screenshots there are nuggets to be found.

If you want to be considered for the technical preview yourself, you can still sign up via the “Get a pass” link on the main “launch” site at Office 2010 – the movie. This site started out just hosting a teaser movie but now has a look and feel similar to the new “Backstage” interface which has been added to the Fluent UI to replace the current Office button menu to help you work with different aspects of your document in one place. There are a few videos posted on there right now, no doubt more to come soon.

Where can I find out more?

There are some useful overview documents on the Microsoft PressPass site, including an Office 2010 FAQ which covers a number of things, notably an outline of which products will be included in which versions of the suites available through retail or volume licensing. The oddest thing is that the various press releases available here are all Word .doc documents. Not a universal format like PDF. Not even Microsoft’s own portable format XPS. Not Word 2007 DOCX (probably a good idea not to assume people would already be on board with that, even with the compatibility pack for older versions). Other documents linked from that page give more detail for each of the products individually, but only at a brief marketing level, nothing too technical.

What are the biggest changes?

The most obvious change across the Office system as whole is that all the applications will now have the fluent UI and ribbon, which has also had slight facelift – they have removed many of the borders round buttons, reducing the visual clutter and “flattening” the overall effect (almost exactly what they did in the evolution of the toolbar from Office 97 to 2000). Selected or active options still appear to have borders to make them clearer. When you have additional context-sensitive tabs appearing in the Ribbon, the coloured highlight above them seems to be bolder because it extends from a solid colour at the top of the title bar fading out as it goes down into the Ribbon tabs area, rather than at the moment where this is only visible in the title bar area and fades quickly upwards. This may make the additional tools more obvious to new users when they need them, and help distinguish between similar items by getting used to the colours used.

The other big news items are the introduction of browser-based document viewing and editing (discussed below), and the availability of a 64-bit version of all the products (as well as 32 bit for legacy compatibility). This may provide some speed and productivity benefits to those who have appropriate hardware and OS to take advantage of this, use more memory and so on. Larger Access models might make more sense, but Excel spreadsheets of over 2GB? Hopefully not too often. I do know some people who could probably build PowerPoint shows that big though…

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