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Excel is a program that just about every computer user will have experienced at some point in their life, but few home users actually use it's full power. Not that I do either, in fact I use only a small handful of the features that Excel offers, but I recently discovered that Excel is more useful than I once thought.
For anyone who doesn't know, Excel is a spreadsheet. What a spreadsheet is, exactly, is quite hard to describe, but put simply Excel give you a blank table full of empty boxes. What you do with these boxes is up to you, you can simply enter data, then use excel to draw a bar graph for you - quite useful for kids homework. You may be doing a science experiment and need to work out some values from the results you got, using Excel you can quickly do calculations because once you've worked out the correct formula, you can simply copy and paste it to give you the other values. Excel really does help a lot with number crunching, and can save a considerable amount of time.
Until recently this was about all I had done with Excel, until I came to University that was. Doing Physics I have my fair share of experiments to do, which naturally require lots of calculations and graphs to be drawn. From using Excel to draw simple graphs, I now use it to plot much more complex things. It'll do error bars for you (don't worry, I don't know what they are either), trend lines with regressions of almost any type you want, including linear, logarithmic and exponential, and just to be extra nice it will give you the equation of this line too, as well as the R-squared value. It would be a lot better if I understood what half of the things I did meant, but I do know one thing - being able to use Excel saves me time!
In addition to graphs, Excel features a comprehensive selection of mathematical, financial and statistical functions, making it perfect for mathematical calculations, accounts and statistics (awards for stating the obvious go to me!). It's much quicker to work out things like standard deviation on a lot of values using Excel than it is by hand, with the added bonus that Excel never makes any mistakes in it's calculations (and if it does it's because you've typed it in wrong!).
If you know what you're doing then Excel can be taken a long way. It's fully programmable, I think using Microsoft VB 6 as well as Web Scripting. I messed around with Macros once, and it's amazing what you can achieve, especially if you know what you're doing. It's also fully compatible with all the other MS Office applications, so if you paste an Excel table in to Word then Word converts it in to a normal Word style table.
Included as standard (as in all Office applications) is the annoying Office Assistant, who can take the form of a Paperclip, cat, Professor or one of a number of equally pointless forms. The only useful setting (in my humble opinion) is disabled - but you'd be surprised at how many people actually like to have these animated helpful characters, who pops up time you want to do something. To be honest, if you need help you'd be better off trawling through the traditional help file, which thankfully is rather comprehensive.
Installation is painless (although these days most things are), spec wise you need at least a Pentium 75 with 150Mb of HDD space, and 32Mb RAM. Although I currently use Excel 2000 (which comes as part of Office 2000), it's one of those programs that doesn't change a great deal. Sure, each new edition brings a few new features, but these are often as much cosmetic as they are useful, so don't panic if you're still using Excel 97. By far the best way to get Excel is when buying a new PC as part of the Office 2000 pack, the OEM version should add £100 (although I may be wrong) on to the price of your PC, whereas you may pay that just for a single copy of Excel normally (although again I don't have exact figures). One point worth considering is that if you aren't going to use a lot of the advanced features that Excel offers, is that you may be better off with Microsoft Works, which comes with a Spreadsheet section that is basically a less powerful version of Excel. Buying Works over Office will save you a fairly sizeable proportion of the price of the package, so think long and hard before you decide which one you want!