Microsoft's Excel spreadsheet program has changed the least of all the components within the new Office 2000.

Microsoft provides reviewer guides to the suite's changes, and the Excel section has the fewest pages. But Excel did not need a lot of fixing. Like the earlier versions, it works well as both a table organizer and a calculator.

An accountant friend who uses Excel as well as Lotus 1-2-3 dislikes Excel's insistence on inputting an equal sign at the beginning of each formula. Lotus 1-2-3 and other spreadsheets assume that if a user types 12 + 5, the 12 should be added to the 5 and the cell should show 17 inside. But Excel does not make that assumption. The cell keeps showing 12 + 5 unless the user enters = 12 + 5.

For an everyday user like me, however, Excel is still the easiest spreadsheet with access to the complex calculation features needed by accountants.

Improvements focus on how the spreadsheet relates to the Web and its Hypertext Markup Language. Excel work sheets can be saved in HTML directly to the Web with ease and some dynamic functionality. Certain spreadsheet functions stay embedded in the Web page, so users who have Office 2000 can edit and make changes directly to the posted data. But if Office 2000 is not present, the user cannot see the page--not even a static view. That is unfortunate.

Excel data posted on a Web page even keeps the power of the PivotTable analysis tool. If you've never tried PivotTable before, it shuffles around cells to show the results in several ways.

Say you keep an Excel spreadsheet to track purchases of office supplies. After gathering data for a while, you might wonder who buys the most floppy disks. Using PivotTable, you not only can see who's buying the most, you can tell when disk consumption goes up.

By dragging and dropping different row and column heads, you can group the same information into several formats. It's revealing and quite easy.

Excel's charting remains powerful, although it would be nice if the new version had allowed greater control. For example, Excel creates charts in its own palette of muted colors that do not take advantage of modern color printer capabilities. The chart applet should let the user specify a palette and font choice upfront.

Amid all the brouhaha about year 2000, it's interesting that the spreadsheet's short-date default formats, for example, 10/16/99, do not include an option for four-digit years, say, 10/16/1999. You have to enter MM/DD/YYYY under the Custom selection.

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EXCEL 2000

Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.

Telephone: 425-882-8080

Web address: www.microsoft.com/office/excel

Cost: $309 for Office 2000 Premium Edition

Grade: A -

PROS:

+ Excellent organizational and analysis tools

CONS:

- Pesky equal sign required for formulas

Real-life requirements: Windows 95 or higher; 200 megahertz or faster Pentium processor, 32 megabytes RAM, 252 megabytes free storage.