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Excel 2013: Where the productivity gains are

16th Nov 2012
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Simon Hurst continues his exploration of the new version of Excel to uncover features and functions that might justify the upgrade.

Although the introduction of the new ribbon interface in Excel 2007 had certain advantages, increased productivity wasn’t one of them for most experienced users. We’re now up to Excel 2013 and we’re still stuck with the ribbon, albeit one that is now customisable since Office 2010.  So, does Excel 2013 deliver any productivity gains alongside its many new features?

Dual monitors, one window

Perhaps the most significant hardware aid to productivity is to add at least one extra monitor. The extra screen space can be particularly useful in Excel where you often need to see lots of your spreadsheet at one time and to work with multiple spreadsheets.

Before Excel 2013, displaying Excel windows on separate monitors required either opening multiple instances of Excel (with consequent problems in operations such as copying and pasting or linking between the workbooks in each window), or spreading a single Excel window across two screens and then trying to arrange each workbook within that one window. Excel 2013 now behaves in a similar way to Word, with each Excel workbook having its own window that can be positioned on whichever of your five monitors you like.

Quick Analysis

In the first part of our tour through Excel 2013 we looked at the new Quick Analysis feature that presents a series of options when you select a block of data. In terms of productivity, not only does this provide a quick way of accessing a variety of analysis options, but it also the combination of live preview with a targeted set of options should help achieve an appropriate result more quickly.


As well as the PivotTables suggested by the Quick Analysis options, you can also create PivotTables quickly using the new Recommended PivotTables command. You just need to click somewhere in your table of data and choose Recommended PivotTables from the Tables group of the Insert ribbon tab. You will be presented with a set of possible PivotTables:

Recommended PivotTables options in Excel 2013

You can see a preview of each recommendation as well as deciding to choose a Blank PivotTable if none of the recommended alternatives come close to what you want.

Slicers arrived in Excel 2010 and made it quick and easy to add interactivity to dashboard based on a series of PivotTables. A new type of Slicer now makes it just as easy to add a Timeline Slicer to one or more PivotTables. The Filter group of the PivotTable Tools ribbon tab includes a new Insert Timeline command. This inserts a special type of Slicer designed to work with date and time fields specifically. As such, the list of fields available to base a Timeline on is restricted to date and time fields:

Excel 2013 Timelines slicer

For each field chosen a Timeline-style Slicer will be added:

Excel 2013 Slicer - orders by month

Here we are using the OrderDate field and have set the period to Months. You can choose between Days, Months, Quarters and Years:

Excel 2013 Slicer - orders by day

Here we have chosen to use Days rather than months.

You can click an individual time period or drag to select several contiguous periods.

Another Slicer development that could make it easier to work with tables of data is the extension of Slicers to work with Excel tables as well as PivotTables. This allows you to quickly create a set of visual, interrelated slicers to use to examine a set of data:

Excel 2013 Slicer applied to Table


Some of the productivity improvements for PivotTables apply equally to charts. There is a recommended charts command and charts also feature in the Quick Analysis options. In addition, there are two chart option buttons that appear when you select a chart giving quick access to chart elements and styles:

Excel 2013 QuickAnalysis chart option buttons


It might be slightly unfair to single out the templates in Excel 2013 as sets of templates have been included with all recent Excel versions. However, since the inclusion of online resources the number of templates available has increased dramatically. Excel 2013 allows you to search through thousands of online templates. For example, here is a search for ‘invoice’ showing the numbers available in a range of different categories:

Excel 2013 Template categories

Obviously, you will often need to adapt templates to your requirements and always check that they work as intended and expected, but starting with a lot of the work done for you is likely to save a great deal of time compared to starting with a blank workbook.


The productivity advantages of having someone else do most of the work for you also apply to Apps. Excel 2013’s Insert ribbon tab now includes an ‘Apps for Office’ command that allows you to install a wide range of Apps – admittedly limited mainly to US-centric apps at the moment. These could help productivity in a range of ways, from offering targeting training to providing ready-built solutions.


The majority of the effort and time devoted to all but the simplest spreadsheets is spent on checking and review (or failing checking and review, troubleshooting and damage limitation). Accordingly, the Inquire add-in with its extensive range of review tools could be the most significant of the Excel 2013 productivity tools. More about this in a future part of the series.


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