Excel 2010 Might Be Slower Than Excel 2003 For Power Users

As you contemplate the move from Excel 2003 to Excel 2010, you need to have your Excel gurus give their processes a spin. Slowdowns & problems are most likely to occur in the fringe; places where influential business analysts tread.

The pricing for Excel 2010 is about the same as the pricing for Excel 2003. It makes you feel like you are trading one piece of real estate for a similar piece of real estate. If you think that you are simply upgrading to a slightly bigger house, one with amenities such as Sparklines and Icon Sets and Pivot Table Slicers, you are missing the huge complicating factor.

Excel 2003 comprised a footprint of just under half an acre. [literally...arrange all of the 16 million cells in Excel 2003 and they will cover a typical suburban lawn]. The larger grid introduced in Excel 2007 would cover a 400 acre ranch. If your spouse tried to get you to move to a new house, same price, nicer features, but the yard to be mowed was 400 acres instead of half an acre, would you do it?

The overhead associated with maintaining 17 billion cells in Excel 2010 is astounding. Sure, you can get a 64 bit machine and load it up with 8, 12, 16 gigabytes of RAM. But the underlying spreadsheet is not just double or quadruple the size of Excel 2003, it is over 1000 times larger.

First, kudos to the Excel team at Microsoft for making the huge grid feel snappy for most users. The fact that you can sort and filter and pivot a million records is amazing. That process had to be a monumental effort. However, in the process of accommodating calculations and other popular commands with a million records, there was less time to worry about the niche features.

Some Problems Surfaced in Excel 2007

Assuming most companies upgrade every other version, somewhere around 35% of the world moved from Excel 2002 to Excel 2007 and discovered some strange bugs.

For example, Bob Flanagan of Macro Systems posted that his Monte Carlo Simulations were slowing Excel 2007 down by a factor of 20.

Excel MVP Ron De Bruin documented a slowdown with shapes on a worksheet, particularly shapes that fell outside of the A1:IV65536 range of the original Excel.

Excel 2010 Is Faster than Excel 2007Shapes, Charting, and Printing and Calculations.

Microsoft was able to address these problems in Excel 2010. Two posts on the Excel Team Blog detail the efforts with

However...What About Excel 2010 vs Excel 2003???"We decided to not compare against Excel 2003 because of the significant differences between the two.... Excel 2010 generally beats 2003 when it comes to calculation performance.... The results are more mixed when it comes to ... the VBA solutions category." (excerpted from comment #4 at this page).

Both of the Microsoft posts feature pie charts showing how the improvements caused various features to be "10-30% faster than Excel 2007" or "More than twice as fast as 2007". If you are still running Excel 2003, this is a false comparison. Many things got a lot slower in Excel 2007. Saying that Excel 2010 is faster than Excel 2007 is not saying that it is faster than Excel 2003. Many comments to these articles asked for comparisons of Excel 2010 to Excel 2003. Chad from Microsoft finally posted a longer comment, which boils down to:

More Problems Will Surface in Excel 2010

I've been involved with two clients who decided to move from Excel 2003 to Excel 2010. Both of these transitions met with problems, one we could workaround and one we could not.

* In one case, a top-down budgeting application was using VBA to generate new workbooks that could be used to spread the division budget out to the regions. That VBA code would update the text on various command buttons on the newly created worksheets to use labels that were meaningful to the regional managers. To our surprise, Microsoft began renaming command buttons starting in Excel 2007. The code that had been running flawlessly for 7 years pointing to "Button 5" now had to start trying to figure out the name of the command button that was located around cell C4. Admittedly, this requirement is bizarre and probably only used by a handful of companies around the world. But if you are one of those companies, and your company-wide budgeting application suddenly breaks in the middle of the month-long budget process, chaos results.

* In another case, VBA macros were mashing up Excel and Access data using a data access method called DAO. The Excel 2003 code was making use of the Jet Database Engine, reading both Access tables and Excel data using DAO. During the transition to 64-bit Excel 2010, the code was rewritten to use the ACE database engine since Microsoft wouldn't be supporting Jet in 64-bit environments. The initial tests showed that DAO in Excel 2010 on a brand new machine was slightly faster than the old Excel 2003 application. Slightly better wasn't good enough, as the client assumed that new machines with quad-core processors and solid state hard drives should run much faster. We ended up writing off two months of development work when the client discovered that the old code running in Excel 2003, running on the new machine, was four times faster than the new code in Excel 2010. While working with Microsoft to diagnose the problem, we discovered that DAO became slower in Excel 2007, and even slower still in Excel 2010. Are we the only ones to be using DAO in Excel? Probably not, but we must be the first ones to complain about it.

To reiterate, both of these problems are going to affect an incredibly small segment of the Excel population. However, every sizable company has a power user or two who stretches Excel to the limits. These people have probably used a little VBA to automate their processes. This is where the bizarre and unusual slowdowns are going to occur.

Ironically, it is probably these same power users who are begging I.T. for the increased row limits in Excel 2010. For everyone's benefit, you need to have those power users run their VBA macros and models with a test machine running Excel 2010. Compare the applications side-by-side on a similar machine running Excel 2003. If there are slow-downs, have the analysts review the Excel VBA Best Practice ideas to see if they can improve the speed of their macros.

In the DAO case above, that one business process was used by 120 sales reps, in front of the customer. The decision was that producing the customized competitive intelligence report in 45 seconds instead of in 3 minutes was important enough to forego the glitz and glitter of Excel 2010 and stick with Excel 2003.

Doing a head-to-head test between Excel 2003 and Excel 2010 is the only way to determine if your business analysts have happened to use something at the fringe, something that has slowed Excel down.

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