Huddle up, my bean-counting brothers and sisters: Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Report has brought a flaming new riff on our beloved Excel to market: Microsoft Office Excel 2007.

I've been testing the program for the past few months. My verdict? I'll keep it short: Considering the alternatives, you are a complete dope if you do not run out and get this program, right now. This minute. Today.

This Excel is the real deal.

Spreadsheets for All

For those youngsters who came into the office after the dawn of the desktop era, say the mid-1990s, you missed out on the revelation that was the modern spreadsheet.

Back in the day, we used to feel our way to (that is, totally guess about) the value of things. Portable calculators like the Hewlett-Packard 12c -- which I still have and use, thank you very much -- were the preferred way to find the value of money though time and look for rates of change.

But that all ended when the computer came to the desktop. Suddenly everyone could run a powerful spreadsheet and do their own accurate valuations, advanced statistics and charting, not to mention internal cost analysis and killer shopping lists.

For all the hype surrounding hypertext documents, digital content and the Web, they pale next to the spreadsheet, since this ultimately democratizing valuation tool underpins the modern financial market.

Today it is no longer a top-down, few-telling-us-what's-what world. Now it's a bottom-up market. The many -- the spreadsheet-enabled "us" -- tell the few what the world really is.

There were some early imposters in the spreadsheet game; Lotus 123 and others got the pole position. But Bill Gates knew early what a spreadsheet should be -- he was a numbers guy, after all.

And when Office 97 came to market, that was pretty much that: Excel became the dominant player, growing to well over 450 million active seats today, so says the company.

Now, a decade later, Microsoft has given Office Excel 2007 its biggest makeover yet, one that brings the code to a new position inside the business environment.

"We really tried to make it as easy to use as we could," says Mor Hezi, senior product manager for the Office Marketing team at Microsoft. "We want everybody to use every single feature."

To simplify this Excel, Microsoft has jettisoned its traditional menu architecture and replaced it with the ribbon, a graphical tab that runs across the top of the screen.

The ribbon has been very controversial. In programs such as Word and Outlook it can drive some people, including me, nuts. But here in Excel, the ribbon really works.

Unlike those in the new Word, the chapter headings here -- "Home," "Insert," "Page Layout," "Formulas," "Data," "Review," and "View" -- make sense. And with a bit of patience you can poke your way around and find most of the new features without much fuss.

But if you are a stick-in-the-mud and refuse to change, fear not -- many of the traditional functions you already know can be found with a right click or with some customizable buttons that run across the top of the screen.

However, if you give the ribbon a chance, as you should, you will find that most of the once-tricky Excel features are now ludicrously simple. Fonts can be adjusted on the fly with simple-to-see and -use buttons, as can the classic Excel hand-tendon busters: "Wrap Text," "Merge Cells" and "Center."

In fact, "Merge & Center" has its own set of buttons. Don't even try to tell me your tired old fingers aren't yearning for that!

And right away you will notice a significant performance gain.

Besides upping the upper limit of cells on a sheet to a million rows by 16,000 columns -- which really, truly catapults Excel into heavy-iron database territory -- new dual-threaded personal computers have a real application here in the new Excel.

My test machine, a later-model H-P with a dual-threaded 1.99-gigahertz processor, ran as fast as I could push it: Preview functions, charting and imagery all were blazingly fast, as well as fancy calculations such as Monte Carlo simulations and correlation studies.

Number Crunching

But all of this would be meaningless if Excel couldn't mash up the data. Apart from some usual Microsoft issues with compatibility, Excel 2007 can rock the numeric house.

Right off the bat, you should get to know the new "Data" tab. It allows you to access information from almost any source: Microsoft Access files, text files, databases, the works.

I clicked on the "Web" button, surfed over to EDGAR to get some 10-Qs -- in this case, the recent income statements, statement of cash flows, and balance sheets for Microsoft. And I imported them into three Excel sheets in just a few clicks.

One word of caution: This all sounds fab. And it is. But you are still at the mercy of your inputs.

The same lame data sources such as FreeEDGAR still refuse to cooperate. (There should be a law against EDGAR's policy of placing the closing parenthesis of negative value in a separate column so you can't import an active statement easily.) So you will probably still end up paying for an aggregator such as EDGARPro or 10k Wizard.

And you can expect Microsoft to attempt to muscle you into its data sources. Almost every option leads to a Microsoft Money site or similar feature, which is a complete pain, since who uses those?

But once you have the data in a sheet where you can use it, and you get a bit of practice, get ready to set this baby on rock 'n' roll.

There is an excellent "Format as Table" function that not only takes the drudgery out of jazzing up format, it also brings fancy display functions once only found in Access or other reporting packages straight to Excel. The numbers may not be right, but they will

look

right.

In this case, I turned Mister Softee's balance sheet and income statement into a nice two-tone, light-green table in just a few clicks, no PowerPoint necessary. And I made some neat charts that broke out by-unit performance on the fly.

Mac Mode

Mac users -- in yet another display of the goofy needling that goes on between Microsoft and

Apple

(AAPL) - Get Report

-- will have to wait for the new Excel 2007. Microsoft loves to delay the release of the Apple riffs; the company says it will serve up the updated version of Excel, along with the entire Office package, in the second half of this year.

Apple users wanting a taste of the new Excel today can load the Windows operating system on their machines, assuming they are running a modern Mac with an Intel chip. But only use this solution as a demo, or if it costs you nothing to implement. Don't pay for it. Dual-boot solutions for Apple machines -- Boot Camp and the rest -- can eat up valuable processing resources, which can slow Excel down.

On a positive note for Apple users, I expect Excel 2007 for the Mac to be simply fabulous. Much of its new interface is based on design principles defined by Apple: Window's new ribbon is a direct lift from the Mac.

And honestly, the integrated design environment of Macs may turn out to be the perfect way for the nonnumeric, interface-intolerant number cruncher to take full advantage of Excel's new display and collaboration features.

We could be looking at the ultimate cosmic irony: The best way to run Excel will be on an Apple machine.

It's very fashionable right now to beat up on Microsoft. Vista and Word 2007 have gotten a lot of bad press. But don't let the fact that most journalists don't know a spreadsheet from a bedsheet blind you as to what this program is.

Excel 2007 is a significant step forward.

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Jonathan Blum is an independent technology writer and analyst living in Westchester, N.Y. He has written for The Associated Press and Popular Science and appeared on FoxNews and The WB.