Price as rated: £349.95 as part of Microsoft Office 2008 (also includes Microsoft Word 2008, Microsoft Excel 2008, Microsoft PowerPoint 2008), upgrade £219.95; Home and Student version, £99.95; Special Media Edition (includes Expression Media), £449.95, upgrade £299.99.

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.

The new Elements Gallery gives you access to a number of ready-to-use templates. 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 colour-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.