Microsoft Office 2011 for Mac - Excel 2011 review

VBA scripting finally returns to Mac spreadsheets with Excel 2011, but is that all there is to the latest version of Microsoft's venerable number cruncher? Adam Banks takes a closer look.

IT Pro Verdict

The return of Visual Basic, the Ribbon interface and new collaboration features will make many users look again at Excel on the Mac. Some idiosyncrasies and omissions remain to be addressed, but it’ll do for now.

The biggest news in Excel 2011 is that macros are back. For many Mac-based Excel users, Office 2008's lack of support for Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) scripting was a deal-breaker. Dependent on existing macro code for business processes, they had no choice but to stick with Excel 2004.

Not that the 2008 edition was completely unscriptable: the old XLM macro language was still supported, as was AppleScript. Neither, however, had the power of VBA to bend Excel fully to the user's will, and porting macros between the three was a major task. With the Visual Basic Editor back under the Tools > Macros menu, Excel for Mac matches the Window version's macro handling again. Microsoft warns, however, that some VBA-dependent add-ons may still not work; and we did find macros ran slightly slower than in Excel 2004.

A more immediately obvious change is to the user interface. Excel for Mac previously felt rather bitty, with a stack of toolbars and a slew of floating palettes required to reach all its features. The Ribbon does away with almost all of this; the Home tab, for example, shows most of the options previously found in the Formatting palette, without the hassle of finding somewhere on screen to keep it. Although it will take some getting used to, it's clearly more efficient. The Ribbon's similarity to the Windows version is only skin deep though: it resembles Excel 2007 more than 2010, and many commands are still in different places and work in different ways.

Excel for Mac previously had limited facilities for handling data tables. These have been much improved, with new filter and PivotTable options helping to make sense of your figures. To create a PivotTable, you select PivotTable from the Data menu, much the same as in Excel 2008. Excel 2010's more intuitive interface of having a PivotTable command under the Insert tab isn't supported, since Office 2011's Ribbon has no Insert tab and the equivalent commands aren't in the Insert menu. In place of the PivotTable toolbar, a new Ribbon tab now appears only when you create a PivotTable.