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Book Review - Excel Hacks

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PostPosted: Sun Mar 12, 2006 5:43 pm    Post subject: Book Review - Excel Hacks Reply with quote

Excel Hacks 100 Industrial-strength Tips and Tools

Author(s): David & Raina Hawley
Publisher: O'Reilly
Date Published: March 2004
Book Specifications: Softcover, 284 pages
Publisher's Suggested User Level: Not Rated
Reviewer's Recommended User Level: Intermediate
Suggested Publisher Price: $24.95 US / $36.95 CDN / 17.50 UK
ISBN: 0-596-00625-X
Amazon.com: Excel Hacks
Amazon.co.uk: Excel Hacks UK

Blurb from back cover:

Excel has fundamentally changed the way we've related to numbers for over a decade, but much of its power remains hidden, often buried in interactions between features. Diving beneath the surface of Excel requires looking at features in unusual ways, but offers great rewards.

Excel Hacks helps you leapfrog most of the preparatory work of understanding how it all works and what lives where, taking you straight to a set of immediately practical tools and techniques for analyzing, processing and presenting data.

Chapter 1. Reducing Workbook and Worksheet Frustration
Chapter 2. Hacking Excel's Built-in Features
Chapter 3. Naming Hacks
Chapter 4. Hacking PivotTables
Chapter 5. Charting Hacks
Chapter 6. Hacking Formulas and Functions
Chapter 7. Macro Hacks
Chapter 8. Connecting Excel to the World

Why read "Excel Hacks"? The word "hack" in the title here is meant only in the old-fashioned sense of getting a program or system to do what you really want or need, rather than what the programmer thought you would want. The authors have many years of experience, including with older versions of Excel which had a lot of power hidden away from the average user. They have provided consulting and training services and give away lots of information for users of all levels through their website.

My own experience with Excel has varied widely over the last 12 years of teaching and using it. I have found it useful for a whole range of tasks from simple lists and charts to detailed analysis and reporting of sales figures. I wish this book had been available to me when doing some of this work, as I would have saved substantial time and effort and created much more robust results.

Review Comments
This book is not designed as an Excel primer for beginners, it is firmly aimed at people who are already familiar with many of the concepts and the interface of the program. Speaking of the interface it is worth noting that the authors have taken great care to provide as much help as possible for different platforms - all shortcuts have Mac and Windows alternatives, and where a particular hack is version-dependent this is made clear.

That said, "Excel Hacks" is not exclusively for really advanced users - if you have never done the simplest formula it may not be for you, but if you have done a few basic arithmetic functions, SUMs, and IFs you should be able to get some value out of many of the hacks included in the book.

Similarly this book will not teach you to write VB code (although you could simply use some of the code examples verbatim without fully understanding them), but it will help you manage macros more powerfully and use some simple methods for improving performance.

The thing I found most useful was the number of functions which I already knew and used in their most basic ways, but now they were properly explained, I can stretch them to their limits. Many users quickly get frustrated with formulae which seem to depend on making direct cell references, whereas the methods shown here enable you to use much more flexible ways to cross-reference information which may not always be found in a static location.

This concept leads directly on to the overall approach taken by the authors of working to "best practice". They show how planning your spreadsheet solution and taking time to set things up (such as defining named ranges) will make you more productive in the long term and spend less time re-writing and updating your work every time the underlying data changes (for example as you add another month's sales figures).

The chapters of the book collect together related hacks so you can easily focus on the sort of topics you want to find, although there is such good cross-referencing between hacks that you can easily dip in at any point and get your hands dirty with using the ideas straight away.

The style of writing is fairly relaxed and clearly comes from a practical standpoint. No time or space is wasted on explaining the most basic functionality - if you can already find it in the Excel help files you probably won't find it here. Plenty of screenshots and examples help the reader to absorb the techniques without having to be sat in front of the application at the time.

For me there is a little too much room given to some of the charting techniques. The rather esoteric speedometer pie chart hack takes nearly seven pages which does not seem justified for the few people that might use it. It seems to be included to show how clever it is (which it certainly is) rather than for it's usefulness.

I found this book to be very useful as a quick way to learn some techniques to take Excel to the next level. The real-world attitude of the authors comes across in the style of the book and in the choice of hacks included - most of them seem to answer questions users will have had asked themselves before.
The clear explanations of the advanced ways to use seemingly simple functions will help anyone to become more effective in the spreadsheet solutions they are able to produce.

This book receives an honored SFDC Rating of 8/10.

Keywords: Excel spreadsheet function chart macro

This review is copyright 2006 by Adam Vero and Security-Forums Dot Com, and may not be reproduced in any form in any media without the express permission of the author, or Security-Forums Dot Com.
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