Parts & Functions of Microsoft Excel

By Ken Burnside

Microsoft Excel is a flexible data analysis tool, wth functionality ranging from flat file database features to statistical analysis and charting. Excel's user interface has been refined over the years, but most of its methods and procedures date back to the 1990s. The single largest group of changes came with the 2007 edition of the program, which added the Ribbon interface that's common to all Office products. The Ribbon interface has been carried forward in all versions since, including Excel 2010 and Excel 2013.

Data Entry Cells

The majority of Excel's screen real-estate is spent on data entry cells. Each cell has a cell reference, expressed as a column and a row number; the top-left cell is cell A1. This cell reference can be used as a data input into a formula. Cells can be resized in height and width by holding your mouse cursor over the dividers between the gray cells to the top and to the right, clicking and dragging. Cell contents can be formatted with background colors and text colors. The text can have different fonts in different sizes. No matter how you format the contents of a cell, it won't change the result of a calculation.

The Formula Bar

Above the cell reference area for Excel is a white space preceded with the "fx" icon. This area is the formula entry area. All Excel formulas start with the "=" sign. To enter a formula, simply click on the cell you'd like to place it in and start typing. What you type will be mirrored in the formula entry area. If you want what you enter to always be evaluated as text, make the first character a single quote – "'" and then continue typing. When you press "Enter," the formula entered will be run. Excel's formula entry area offers auto-completion of Excel functions, and color-codes parts of your formula to aid troubleshooting. To the left of the formula area is a white space used for naming selected cell ranges, or entering a cell reference and being taken directly to that cell.

Navigation Area

By default, Excel opens a new workbook with three worksheets; these are shown at the bottom of the screen with tabs, named Sheet1, Sheet2 and Sheet3. To the left of the tabs are arrows for scrolling through tabs if you have more than can be displayed at once. By double-clicking a tab, you can rename it; by right-clicking it, you can change its color. To the right of the tabs are the horizontal slider and the zoom slider. You can also navigate through cells within a given worksheet with your arrow keys.

The Ribbon

Excel uses the Ribbon interface to show available tools. The Ribbon replaces the older top-level menu toolbar from Excel 2003 and earlier. When a tab is selected, all of the icons showing available functions will change. The File area opens to a panel for saving and closing files, while the Home tab gives you the most common formatting options. Insert lets you create data tables, pivot tables and charts. Page Layout lets you control how your spreadsheet will appear on a printed page, while the Formulas tab gives you a categorized library of Excel functions to use, as well as the Name Manager for naming ranges of cells for easier referencing.

Charts and Analytics

Excel can create charts from data in a given range of cells. The charting tools are in the Insert tab, and allow you to create bar plots, scatter graphs, stacked bar charts and pie charts, among many more options. Smaller charts that fit within a cell or group of merged cells are also available; these are called sparklines. In the Data tab, you can create live links between your spreadsheet and external data sources, like stock exchange feeds. The Data tab also lets you do "what-if" analysis and linear regressions, as well as use the Solver tool for finding the relationships between multiple variables.