Friday, March 31, 2006

Excel 2003 For Dummies by Greg Harvey

Since computers are such a big part of everyday life, it can be easy to assume that everyone knows how to use them -- and knows how to use the programs that come pre-packaged with them. When you buy a new computer at the store, chances are that it comes with several Microsoft Office programs already installed: Word, Access, PowerPoint, and Excel, with Word and Excel being the two most popular programs for home-based users.

Although most people can work their way through the basic word processing functions of Word, trying to create spreadsheets in Excel is a much more daunting task for someone who has never used that kind of program before. In addition, there's only so much you can learn from "playing around" with the Excel toolbar buttons. If a new user really wants to get the most out of Excel, a book or study guide is probably in order. That's where Excel 2003 For Dummies by Greg Harvey comes in.

As you probably know, the For Dummies series of books breaks subjects down into their most basic parts to help people learn something new. In this particular book, Harvey sets out to help readers tackle Excel 2003. Like all of the For Dummies books, the author assumes that the reader has no prior knowledge of the subject whatsoever, and starts from the very beginning.

Thus, Excel 2003 For Dummies starts out with a chapter that takes the reader on a quick tour of a blank worksheet, showing what cells and cell addresses are for. He also shows the reader how to start Excel from the Start Menu or from Explorer in the Windows OS (I told you this book was for beginners!). Once Excel is open, Harvey takes the reader on a much more detailed tour of Excel, explaining what all the buttons on the Standard Toolbar are for, describing the significance of the different pointer shapes, and telling about all the other features that the user will see on the screen when running the program.

Next, Harvey shows the reader how to create a worksheet, which simply means entering and saving data. Here he takes some additional time to give the reader a few tips about how to save time when performing data entry by using features such as AutoFill, how to correct mistakes, and how to create a few simple functions.

Other topics that Harvey spends a lot of time on include how to edit worksheets to make them look more professional, how to create tables and charts, how to create and utilize hyperlinks, and how to create simple macros.

When I first picked up this book, I knew a bit about Excel 2003, but not enough to do much with the program. As a result, I found that I could basically just skip the first few chapters about the layout of a typical worksheet and dive right into some of the later chapters. Prior to buying Excel 2003 For Dummies, I was particularly interested in learning how to create different functions to help me crunch some numbers for a specific task that I have to do pretty often. Before getting the book, I had to enter all the data and perform the mathematical functions by hand. My goal was to be able to enter just the raw numbers and have Excel spit out the end result thanks to some prerecorded functions that I wanted to enter in specific cells. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to learn how to do that from Harvey's book.

I am a bit torn on what kind of recommendation to give Excel 2003 For Dummies. On the one hand, it is supposed to be an introduction for beginners -- which is what it clearly is. But on the other hand, the book doesn't go very far into the subject. Don't get me wrong; the book is very thick and contains lots of information. It's just that the information won't allow you to be able to do anything substantial with Excel once you're finished with it. I realize that a book for beginners isn't going to be able to go as in-depth as an advanced volume would, but I felt that Excel 2003 For Dummies fell far short of being what I would call a "complete" beginner's guide.

This book certainly could have benefited from a few tutorials thrown in here and there. As things stand, there are no sample exercises in this book that would allow you to check your progress or understanding of the concepts. Sure, it's possible to follow along with what Harvey is saying by executing the commands that he describes in the book, but anyone can do that. It's obviously much harder to do things when you start from scratch and have a series of data to enter.

On the plus side, I will admit that the book was easy to follow along and understand. Harvey did a good job of explaining the basics of Excel without lapsing into techno-babble and without using too much jargon. I do feel much more comfortable working with Excel 2003 now that I've read this book; I'm just not able to do as much as I thought I would be able to after reading this guide.

Overall, Excel 2003 For Dummies will get you up to speed on what a spreadsheet is and what all the buttons are for. But it won't take you beyond that. If you need something more, I suggest getting a book of tutorials instead.

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