A.1. Asking Questions
Excel's help is search-driven. That means, instead of looking at the help like a comprehensive manual, its designers clearly want you to think of it as a giant database of knowledge that you can search in order to extract individual nuggets. While it's possible to view a topic-by-topic listing (see Section A.2 for more on this option), the quickest way to conduct a help search is by using the Ask a Question text box. As shown in Figure A-1, this text box appears in the top-right corner of the Excel window.
To get help on a particular topic, you can type a question into this text box (like "How do I delete a row?" or "How do I resize a picture?") and then press Enter. But to be honest, wording your query in the form of a question isn't nearly as important in Excel as it is on Jeopardy!. Most people find it's much easer just to type in two or three keywords (like delete row or picture resize).
Figure A-1. Top: The Ask a Question box appears on the right side of Excel's menu bar. (If you shrink the Excel window enough, the box disappears. To display it again, click the Maximize button in the upper right-hand corner of the window.)
Bottom: If you click the drop-down arrow, you see a list of everything you've searched for since you last launched Excel.
When you type in a search word and press Enter, Excel starts its search. What happens next depends on which version of Excel you're using (see Figure A-2). In Excel 2003, the Task Pane appears with the Search Results task showing. (You also see the message Searching Microsoft Office Online and a colored progress indicator flashing periodically.) In Excel 2002, a list of possible matches appears in a drop-down window.
How the search tool operates behind the scenes also differs, depending on which version of the program you have. Excel 2003 always tries to pull results off of Microsoft's Office Online Web site. That's why it takes a couple of seconds before you see a list of matching topics. If Excel 2003 can't connect (if you're not online when you search, for example), the search results will actually appear faster, but the list won't include any online topics. You'll also see a note at the top of the list informing you that Excel couldn't contact Office Online.
Excel 2002, on other hand, doesn't actually grab anything off the Web when you search. However, its help index still includes a few links to content on Office Online. These topics show up in the list with the word WEB in front of them (for example, WEB: Features and limitations of XML spreadsheet format) to inform you that you won't be able to access the topic unless you have an Internet connection.
Figure A-2. Left: In Excel 2003, the question mark icon next to each link indicates that the answer is a part of the main Office help documentation. Other icons represent articles and other resources, like downloadable Excel examples, templates, and pictures.
Right: Excel 2002 results.
If you want to read any of the matches, just click the link in the results list. A help window appears, as shown in Figure A-3. Depending on Excel's current settings (and the version of Excel that you're using), this help window can appear as a standalone window, or it may tuck itself into the right side of the Excel window.
Figure A-3. This example shows the help window you'd see if you clicked the first link in Figure A-2 ("About resizing or cropping a picture"). The overview about resizing and cropping a picture is good, but it doesn't actually tell you what commands you need to use to get the job done. For that information, you need to click one of the other links in the results list. Happy hunting.
Tip: If you find some information you want to print out, just click the Print icon at the top of the help window. A Print dialog box appears. Once you've chosen the printer you want to use, click OK to print your information.
You can close the help window at any time. (If the help window's docked, the Excel window automatically switches back to its previous size when you close the help window.) If you click another topic in the results list without closing the help window, this new topic appears in the existing help window. You can then use the forward and backward arrow buttons at the top of the help window to step back and forth between the different topics you've chosen.
Tip: If you want to change the positioning of the help window, just click the Tile/Untile button in the top-left corner of the help window. Clicking Tile/Untile lets you switch back and forth between the docked and undocked help window arrangement.
A.1.1. Searching Without the Web in Excel 2003
If you don't have an Internet connection (or if you just want to perform a faster search), you can tell Excel to look exclusively at the help information that's installed on your computer. This way, Excel won't even try to access the Office Online Web site. To choose the Offline Help option, you need to show the Getting Started task pane. Here's how it works:
Choose View Task Pane.
Click the title of the Task Pane window and choose Search Results.
Choose Offline Help from the search list, instead of Office Online (which is the standard selection).
Enter your search keyword in the text box on the bottom, and click the green arrow to start searching.
When you take these steps, the search completes much more quickly, although you can't see late-breaking information and other resources from the Office Online Web site. You also get a smaller list of search results.
A.1.2. Browsing the Help System
Occasionally, you may want to browse through Help using the table of contents instead of the search feature. Browsing the table of contents lets you see related topics and learn about new features you may not think of searching for.
In Excel 2002, browsing is easy. Just show the Help window (by selecting Help Microsoft Excel Help), and then click the Contents tab. In Excel 2003, you need to go through a few more steps:
Choose View Task Pane
Click the title of the Task Pane window and choose Help.
Just under the "Search for" text box, click the "Table of Contents" link.
Excel shows a browsable outline of topics that you can click through to your heart's content (see Figure A-4).
Each entry with a book icon or question mark, as shown in Figure A-4, is a separate topic. Occasionally, you see a different icon that looks like a small question mark inside a white page. If you click this link, Excel launches Internet Explorer to show an external Web page.
However, unless you've set Excel to work offline (as described in the previous section), Excel checks the Office Online Web site for new topics each time you expand a subheading. That leads to a slight (but annoying) delay whenever you expand a subheading. When you find a topic that interests you, you can click the link to open it in the familiar help window.