Monday, January 31, 2005

CustomGuide: Excel 2003 Personal Trainer—A Self-Guided Course


I once had to learn to use a program by reading the manual. I couldn't get access to the machine it ran on, and I didn't have a copy of the software at home. So I feel for the person trying to learn to use Excel 2003 effectively by limping through an older Excel version—it's not an easy task.

Rescue comes in the form of the Excel 2003 Personal Trainer by CustomGuide from O'Reilly. This book is set up as a bona-fide textbook, complete with summaries, quizzes and homework. Better yet, it includes a guide CD with an "interactive simulation in bite-size lessons" that lets you work in the Excel 2003 environment even if you're not running Windows XP or 2000 with Excel 2003 installed.

This book assumes nothing. Users are instructed in even the most basic details, such as how to move from one worksheet to another within a workbook, how to select multiple cells, rows or columns, and so on. For that reason, I see this as a valuable guide for the user who seeks to re-enter the workforce with fresh skills, has been away from spreadsheets for a while, or is looking for a promotion to a more demanding position with lots of Excel involvement.

The guide is organized from first-hands-on basics through more and more complicated tasks, so that whatever level of approach you need, the guide will let you enter at that point and then advance from there. The most advanced topic covered is at median-user level, so if you're already a super-whiz with an older version of Excel, this guide will not help you that much. (A better choice for the advanced user would be Curtis Frye's excellent Excel Annoyances, also from O'Reilly.)

For example, the chapter that covers how Excel 2003 works with other programs describes how to import an Excel table or chart into a Word document and modify the data there. It also covers importing a graphic into an Excel worksheet. Access is not mentioned, nor are any other programs. The chapter on macros is exclusively focused on VBA. XML is mentioned in the features list on page 5, then not mentioned again anywhere in the guide.

At the median level, the guide does cover pivot tables (or "pivottables") and Excel's Scenario Manager with its Solver feature. There is also a complete, easy-to-read chapter on publishing an interactive Web page spreadsheet, including how to control refresh and how to update online data.

Finally, the guide is well-illustrated, with figures that truly illuminate the text, making instructions easy to follow. Liberally scattered throughout the book are "superhero" points that clarify and encapsulate what the user should be learning from each lesson.

Just as a personal trainer keeps you on track in the gym, this guide will help you increase your Excel fitness, step by step, with lots of reps—and no strained brain muscles.


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