Microsoft Excel for Mac 2011 represents the largest step forward for serious Mac spreadsheet jockeys in many years, more so than either Excel 2004 or Excel 2008. There are literally hundreds of improvements, some very noticeable, others not quite as much so. The big news for power users is the return of macro support (more on that later), but there’s good stuff to be found for Excel users of all levels.

Some uneven performance issues and a lack of Mac-standard features, however, prevent this version from Excel from attaining perfection.

The interface

Excel 2011 looks much different than its 2004 and 2008 predecessors. Gone are the numerous floating toolbars and the floating formatting palette.

Excel 2011 replaces all of those floating bits with two toolbars (standard and formatting) and the Ribbon, a collection of small tabs that provide easy access to often-used commands. You can customise the Ribbon, or even disable it if you wish. It's context sensitive, so it changes to match the task at hand. For example, if you double click an image, the Ribbon will open to a greatly improved set of image editing commands.

The Ribbon and toolbars are now integrated in each Excel window, so there’s nothing floating around outside your workspace. A couple of optional floating windows remain, but they’re not required in most typical spreadsheet work.

The Ribbon’s tabs are compact, and the Ribbon itself can collapse to a single row of tabs when not in use. As a result, the new Excel’s work area doesn’t feel smaller than that of the older versions. With the interface now contained in a single window, working with multiple workbooks at once is simpler. For example, you previously couldn’t compare formulas between workbooks, because the formula bar existed only once for every open workbook. Now each workbook has its own formula bar.

UI overhaul: Excel’s new all-in-one-window interface with the Chart ribbon open.

Other minor touches abound. There’s a full 32-bit colour palette instead of 40 colours. Drag-resizing a window now updates it in real time, instead of merely dragging an outline. SmartArt has over 150 pre-made templates (up from 80ish), all of which you can customise. A media browser provides fast access to photos, audio, movies, clip art, symbols and shapes. For the most part these new features work quite well.

There is some lag when you live-resize windows, even on current hardware, but the delay is bearable.

Working with spreadsheets

Beyond the visual overhaul, Excel 2011 provides many new or improved ways of working with spreadsheets and the data they hold. Right up front, you’ll notice a new Workbook Gallery (similar to the Template Choose feature in Numbers ‘09) that appears when you launch the application. Although it doesn't contain a ton of stock templates, you can browse a huge online template collection directly from the gallery window.

One of Excel 2011’s innovative new features is sparklines, which are simple graphs of data values that appear within a single cell. Instead of building a full chart to look for a trend in your data, you can often use a sparkline to show what you need to see in a simpler and quicker manner. Creating sparklines is as easy as selecting some data, choosing a menu item and clicking a destination cell.

Conditional formatting, long one of my favorite ways of spotting key values in a large data stream, is greatly improved in Excel 2011. No longer are you restricted to three conditional formatting rules per cell, the limit now depends only on your available RAM. The archaic editor in prior versions of Excel has been replaced with a larger and more intuitive interface. You can now pick from four predefined conditional formats (including data bars, colour scales and special icons), or set the format based on a formula (as before). You can also easily rearrange existing rules, a most welcome improvement. You can even include formulas based on data on other worksheets.