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Microsoft Excel 2003 versus 2007

There are many differences between Excel 2003 and Excel 2007.  Some of the changes in Excel 2007 are improvements.  Some are strongly disliked by users of past releases of Excel.  The following are some of our major findings when we compared Excel 2003 to Excel 2007.

site update note:  We have added a page that discusses Excel 2007 versus 2010

We do recommend that if you have Excel 2003, that you do a custom install of Excel 2007 and tell it to keep all prior versions.  This will allow you to use your prior version if you need it.  The default installation of Excel 2007 automatically removes all prior versions.  We think having the prior versions around is a good thing.

Why should you upgrade to 2007?  There are a number of good reasons:

  • You need more than 65,000 rows on a worksheet.  Excel 2007 allows over a million rows.
  • You need more than 256 columns.  Excel 2007 allows over 16000 columns.
  • You do a lot of graphics work and need the new graphics tools and options.
  • You do a lot of pivot table work and need the new pivot table features in 2007
  • You are receiving workbooks that are Excel 2007 workbooks
  • Office XML Formats allow for better data integration between documents and back-end systems. Also, with Excel XML Formats, you can reduce file sizes, improve data recovery, and increase the interoperability of your spreadsheets with other data sources such as line-of-business systems.
  • Business dashboards can be easily created from spreadsheets to track key performance indicator.
  • You can import external data into a spreadsheet by using pre-configured external sources of business information
  • Developers can use the Office Excel 2007 calculation engine in other applications, such as a Web-based mortgage calculator or an options pricing model.

Why should you stay with Excel 2003 (or an earlier version)

  • The Excel 2007 interface is harder to use.  Yes, more features of Excel are exposed to a user.  But compare it to going to a good hardware store versus a mega store like Lowe's or Home Depot.  It is easy to find what you want in a hardware store.  Finding anything in a mega store can take longer. 
  • You are used to using Excel 2003.  You will find that using Excel 2007 takes longer to do many of the tasks you used to do.   This is part experience and part design.  The first can be overcome, but it will take time.  If you have used Excel 2003 for years, it will take a very long time to catch back up. 
  • Macro recording of chart macros works very poorly in Excel 2007

What options do you have to overcome the above three problems?

  • A number of companies sell products that add back the classic Excel menus to Excel 2007.  In all cases, you do not get all the menu items as some have disappeared.  And new features are not found on the new menus.
  • If you do chart macros, you can always use Excel 2003 to record a macro and then copy it to Excel 2007.  Some modifications may be necessary however to get the code to work correctly.
  • Add in a productivity add-in such as the Spreadsheet Assistant.  It will help you save time in Excel with its over 200+ time saving features and it adds back the classic menus.
  • Download and use the Interactive Ribbon Guide - HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!
  • Download and use the Excel ribbon mapping workbook

The following table lists a number of key comparison points between Excel 2003 and Excel 2007.  It comes from our experiences with Excel and from user postings on news groups.  If we mention a problem a problem with Excel 2007, we only mention it if we have experienced it, if there have been many posts of a problem or if a frequent news group poster has verified a problem. 

  Excel 2003 Excel 2007 with SP1 Comments
Number of rows Limited to 65,536 Over 1,000,000 Very few users need large numbers of rows. Excel 2003 workbooks must be converted (saved) in the new Excel format to access the higher number of rows.
Number of Columns 256 16,384 Very few users need large number of columns.  See conversion note above.
Calculate speed FAST FAST Worksheet calculations are slightly faster in Excel 2007.  However, the speed difference is in almost all cases insignificant.  If you have large workbooks and have to set calculation to manual in 2003, then 2007 may be a big benefit to you.
Macro Speed FAST Varies Some macros run as much as 20X slower in Excel 2007, even after the SP1 release.  Charting macros are typically far slower.  Macros that do a lot of data manipulation and cell changes are far slower.  Small simple macros run as fast.
Lists/Tables List support was introduced with Excel 2003. Lists were renamed to Tables and additional features added in 2007 to make them easier to use. Support for working with tables of data helps you create and format a table with a rich table styles gallery. Column headings remain in view as you scroll, and auto-fill populates and expands any table automatically
Formula Writing Same formula bar since Excel 97. Parentheses are colored to assist in formula writing.  Some suggestions provided when there is a formula error. Resizable formula bar and context-based Formula AutoComplete to help you write the proper formula syntax the first time. Both highlight the cells referenced in a formula when one edits the formula.  Excel still needs a true algebraic wysiwyg formula approach.  Hopefully it will be provided with a future version.
Chart Refresh Extremely fast, almost instantly Can be extremely slow.  There have been numerous user group postings of Excel 2007 being very slow when one changes chart data.  For example, graphs taking several minutes to refresh when selected.  SP1 fixed some problems, but users keep posting problems, so it is still there.
Opening and closing files Fast Not as fast For small workbooks, the time difference is insignificant.  For large workbooks, the time difference is very noticeable.
Conditional Formatting Limited to 3 tests Many tests are allowed

The improvement is very useful if you need conditional formatting that changes dynamically.  However, posts on user forums indicate that using this feature greatly slows down Excel 2007.  The alternative is static formatting (I.E., format when you need to) using the Conditional Format Assistant.

A bug has been reported in 2007 that results in multiple conditional formats being created when one copies and pastes.  Such can then slow down Excel 2007.  Look for a patch on this someday. SP1 did not fix.

Customizing toolbars Very customizable Limited
With Excel 2003 you can remove commands you don't want from the toolbars and add commands you want.  And you can create your own buttons for your custom macros.  With Excel 2007 you can not modify the ribbons.  You can add buttons to the quick access toolbar.
Color Palette Limited colors Essentially unlimited colors Excel 2003 is easier to use and selection of significant different colors is easy. Excel 2007 gives more choices.  We call it a toss up as to the benefit.
Patterns in formatting charts and cells Many choices Patterns are no longer available for selection

Microsoft removed a feature that was very useful for those of us who fax or want to print copies from a laser (non color) printer.

There are now some free utilities that add back the patterns to Excel 2007.  So, once you get such a utility, you have the same functionality.

Interface Menus and buttons Ribbons with buttons and text drop downs

Some will love the 2007 interface, some will hate it.  Figure one to four weeks to relearn Excel basics.  If you have been using Excel 2003 for years, then expect that it will take a very long time to be as productive.

If you want the 2003 interface back, we have added the worksheet menu (File, Edit, ...) back with the Spreadsheet Assistant. (Not all menu items could be added back.)

Macro recording Fair Very poor on
charting macros
Macro recording is very poor for chart actions such as relocating, resizing, etc.  If you retain Excel 2003, you can use it to record chart macros. Then you can copy to 2007 and modify. It does mean learning how to write macros versus relying on the recorder.  For books on macros, checkout our downloadable macro books.
Macros and workbook protection No problems Major problems

In Excel 2007, if you password protect your workbooks and they contain macros, there is no way to enable macros.

An option is to put the macros in your personal.xls file or into an add-in. An add-in allows you to distribute the code separate from the workbook, and updates are to the add-in, not to a modified workbook.  For help on creating add-ins, please take a look at our downloadable macro books.

Charting - adjusting point values Easy to do by Impossible Microsoft removed the feature that allows one to change the value of data points by dragging the point on a chart.
Customizing Macro buttons Standard feature Feature removed It is possible to customize macro buttons in 2007, but it must be done via a macro and the code is very tricky.
Stability Very few reports of crashes, or a failure to save There have been a number of user group reports of files not opening or of not being able to save files

Excel 2003 is the end result of many years of development, enhancement and bug fixes.  Excel 2007 is a major re-write and is suffering birthing pains.  The next version of Excel (2009?) most likely will be better.

The best approach with any version of Excel is to back up your files.  Frequently modified files should be backed up daily.  The Backup Assistant provides a way automatically back up a file each time it is opened, or just the first time it is opened each day.

File opening time No problems Many reports of problems of files not opening or very slow to open Files will not appear in Excel 2007 when double clicked and Excel is closed.  Primary workaround is to not close Excel or to first open Excel and then open the file.
Export/save as DBF file Standard feature Not available Microsoft removed the export/save as DBF option from Excel 2007.

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