Sharing and protecting spreadsheets

If you share your Excel projects with others, Excel 2011 has more to offer than previous versions. In the past, you could protect a worksheet’s cells, contents, and scenarios, and lock or unlock a given cell for editing. In Excel 2011, however, you can protect a cell’s contents while allowing changes to formatting. You can also allow or prevent insertion and deletion of rows and columns, use of filters and sorting and more. These features match the protection options available in Windows versions of Excel, making for better cross-platform compatibility.

Better protection: Excel 2011 offers greater flexibility in sheet protection.

Beyond enhanced worksheet protection, Excel 2011 offers full information rights management, which allows users in a corporate environment to specify users and groups of users with rights to a workbook, including restricting who can read, print, forward, edit or copy its contents.

If your sharing needs are simpler, you can save directly to Windows Live SkyDrive (free 25GB of storage) from within Excel 2011. Once you've saved your documents to SkyDrive, you can access and edit them online, from any browser, using the Excel Web App. With the web application, you can edit your worksheet, and open the modified copy in Excel on your Mac. Multiple people can even edit the spreadsheet at the same time, similar to the way you can collaboratively edit a Google Docs spreadsheet. In my test of this feature, it worked well enough. The web version's features are nowhere near as extensive as the desktop version's, but most of the basics are there. In addition, the sparklines in my test file updated when I changed their base values in the web application, though you can’t actually create sparklines in the web application.

Some room for improvement

While this release makes great progress with the user interface and feature set, there are still things that don’t work quite as you’d expect. Excel uses its own dictionary and thesaurus instead of the OS X-provided tools, Command-A won't select all the text in the formula bar and, very annoyingly, OS X's Services are still not available. The fact that these features don't work in Excel will be disappointing for those hoping for a fully "Mac like" application.

In addition to the lack of Mac-expected interface features, Excel 2011’s performance is a bit uneven. When you're scrolling large spreadsheets (either by clicking and holding on a thumb scroller or by drag-scrolling), the sheet feels like it's moving quite slowly, even on current hardware. In back-to-back comparisons between Excel 2004, 2008, and 2011, the 2011 release was easily the slowest of the three, it took over six times as long to scroll through my test document as did Excel 2004. (Microsoft has told us they slowed the scrolling down due to user complaints about it being too fast. While it may have been too fast in Excel 2004, it's currently twice as slow as Excel 2008, which seems like an excessive slowdown to me.) When you add in the lag-on-window-resize, the Excel 2011 interface can feel slow at times.

When put to a number crunching test, however, Excel 2011 showed great results. Using a 15,000-row by 22-column worksheet containing a mix of slow-to-calculate formulas, Office 2004 and 2008 each took more than five seconds to recalculate. Excel 2011, on the other hand, didn’t even blink, recalculating the same test worksheet in well under a second. So while Excel 2011’s on-the-surface performance suffers compared to its predecessors, it’s clearly working much more efficiently under the hood. To me, this is the stronger measure of performance, as it's the one that will most affect the ability to get things done with Excel. Not waiting on calculations in large worksheets will be a huge timesaver.

I saw similar results with all the workbooks I tested, they scrolled better in prior versions of Excel, but Excel 2011 easily trounced its predecessors in speed of calculation.

OUR VERDICT

Should you upgrade to Excel 2011 if you’re using an older version? I definitely think so. The new interface and improved functionality make short work of even large projects, while the protection and sharing features make it easier to work with others, both on the Mac and on that “other” platform. There are only a few negatives with Excel 2011. I feel scrolling has been overly slowed down, the live window resizing is jumpy, and the lack of support for Services is troubling, as that's an OS X feature that I rely on daily. However, these things are not big enough issues to really affect Excel's performance and features, the program just works and has many new features and improvements that spreadsheet users have been asking for. Excel 2011 is a solid program for anyone whose work involves a heavy dose of spreadsheet duty.