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I'm a book person. I literally devour good books, gobbling them up in the middle of the night when the house is quiet and my work is done for the day. In fact, before I took this job, books were also my day job. I distinctly remember one of those days, sitting around the conference table, discussing some glaring problems in a particular manuscript. One of my colleagues somewhat snidely interrupted our discussion and disdainfully said, “What does it matter if the plot drags or the timing is off? If the book has a great cover [which it did], it will sell—and that's all that matters.”

I was appalled. Hadn't she heard the adage, “You can't judge a book by its cover”? The book might sell, but I wasn't sold. For me, a book needs a catching cover and a good story. I feel the same way about most things in life. So, as I began my initial exploration of OpenOffice.org's new charting features I was skeptical. Sure, I could now create several pretty charts with a spiffy wizard, but would they be the robust, dynamic charts that really make a difference in an important presentation?

To find out, I took a look at some of the new charting features in OpenOffice.org 2.3.

> The Wizard
The wizard is the most touted new charting feature available, and I liked it right away. The wizard replaces the AutoFormat Chart Dialog and really is an improvement on the latter. I like that I no longer have to scroll down or switch between pages to collect data and see how my chart is coming along; and I really like that I can see the chart in my document as I work.

To test the wizard, I pretended I was still in the book business and set out to compare monthly book sales by store and genre. I opened my spreadsheet, which lists sales by type and store for each month of the year. I'm interested in fiction sales right now, and want to provide a few visual aids to show what stores lead the company in fiction sales. Once my spreadsheet opened, I click Insert > Chart, and was quickly able to move through the Wizard to get what I wanted.

Here’s how you do it: first, pick a chart type. A simple column chart would do for me.

Then click Next and you’ll be prompted to pick a data range. Here, you have options for selecting the data range as well as formatting how the data will be displayed and what labels are used. I like that I have the option to use the first row/column in my spreadsheet as labels in my chart. I kept those boxes checked. The Select Data Range button allows you to manually select the data from your spreadsheet. Select your data range, click the button again, and you’ll quickly be returned to the wizard, where you can see a preview of your new chart. (You can also manually enter a data range.) I decided to select the option to display Data series in columns to emphasize the difference in fiction and young adult fiction sales at each store. (See Figure 1.)

If you’re satisfied with the results you see, click Next to be presented with another new charting feature: flexible source ranges.

Flexible Source Ranges
When I selected my data range in the previous step, I chose two adjacent cell areas for the range. But what if I want to add a third range now? Or, what if I want to change that range, perhaps presenting data for my five top-selling stores? Could Calc be flexible enough to change my pretty chart into one that shows only what I told it to? I put it to the test and found that I could basically make my chart display any range and data series I want.

I decided to add a column for children's books to my chart, so I clicked the Add button, which created a new, unnamed data series. I entered the range for the name of my series (this is the cell that contains the name—children's—of my new series: $'Sheet Name'.$D$1), then defined the categories and y-values. A new column for children's books appeared on my preview chart.

This made me think. What if I want to display data for only five stores, and not all of them? Could I tell Calc which cells to use and which not to use? The answer is yes, you can. To do so, I selected a data series, clicked Name in the Data ranges area, then entered a new range in the Categories field. I separated non-contiguous ranges with a semicolon. I then clicked Y-Values in the Data ranges area and changed the data in the Range for Y-Values field. I did this for each data series. I also noticed that the Add and Remove buttons allow users to add or remove other data series; the arrow buttons allow users to move a series up or down in a chart. Using the buttons had no effect on my source material, only on the chart itself. (See Figure 2.)

Other Charting Features

In addition to the elements outlined in this article, experienced spreadsheet users—and chart creators—will discover other helpful upgrades in OpenOffice.org 2.3, including:

  • enhanced logarithmic scales
  • 12 new default colors
  • the ability to create regression curves in 2-D line, bar, column and area charts
  • additional subchart types, including 2-D lines subtype and 2-D net subtype charts
  • an enhanced data editor for charts that display data that does not come from a spreadsheet
  • enhanced automatic scaling of chart axes
  • easier mouse selection

So far, so good. The last step in the chart wizard allowed me to title the chart, label the X and Y axes, and position the legend. I did so and clicked Finish. My chart was, indeed, finished. And I deemed the wizard a much-needed, helpful addition to the OpenOffice.org family. The addition of flexible source ranges is definitely the meat I was looking for.

> Regression Curve Improvement
Now that I knew how the wizard works, I wondered if I'd be able to easily edit the chart and possibly even view statistics, such as the formula behind a regression curve. It turns out that there are also some definite improvements here. To edit an existing chart, simply select the chart by double-clicking it. Use the Insert menu (on the Menu bar at the top of the screen) to add a title, labels, primary and secondary axes, and grids to your chart. You can also use this menu to reposition or hide the legend and to show details, such as actual numbers or percentages on the chart. Finally—and most significantly—by selecting Statistics from the menu, you can define mean values, error indicators and regression curves. When you later select a regression curve, its formula is displayed in the status bar, something that was impossible in earlier versions. The Insert menu isn't accessible by right-clicking the chart, but once I discovered where it was, editing the chart was like smooth sailing.


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