Sparklines For Excel vs. Excel 2010 Sparklines

Jon Peltier (no need to introduce Jon, I suppose) and Alex Kerin from Data Driven Consulting posted a quick comparison between SfE and Microsoft Excel 2010 "native" Sparklines.

Although my point of view as author os SfE would be completely biased, I posted a quick reply. 
If I find some time, I will try to make a quick survey about SfE's pros & cons, in the meantime, feel free to share your experiences and whishes by commenting here, I will take them into account for the next release of SfE.

Alex benchmark :
Sparklines for Excel
Excel 2010
Types of cell charts14 and growing: Line, Pie, Pareto, Bullet, XY, Scatter, Bar, Column, Stripe…
Three: Line, Column, Win/Loss
Overall look (sparklines)
Some blocking, not noticeable at normal zoom levels

Features on individual chart typesExcellent, whole range of markers like hi/low lines, max/min points
Limited to some basic additional data indicators, but they work well
Ease of deploymentHave to distribute macros with file, some VBA crashes, mostly during creation. Win today, as no built-in optionNo extra package, but Excel 2010 needed. Win in 2-3 years when 2010 is ‘standard’.
Ease of useMore complex, for  example looking up meaning of formula variable, color chartEasier, native to the product, so formatting is quick
Code Customization and StabilityVBA macro based (non-locked) so customization possible (and legal)Not VBA based – more stable, but no customization
GroupingCan set max and min so that multiple charts 
scale the same
Adjacent charts are grouped automatically making for easy changes of formatting/scales
Ease of editingCharts are shapes created on the basis of formula in the cellEffectively separate charts, edited with own section on ribbon
Future additionsConstant addition of new chart types/upgrades to existing
Maybe some fixes, but will likely have to wait until Excel 20XX for new chart types
CostFree, but you need Excel of course
Free, at least after you’ve paid any upgrade costs

While there are equal numbers of ticks in both columns, there are clear winners depending on your required functionality and how you intend to share the information. For creating dashboards that benefit from different types of in-cell charts and line markers, SFE is still a clear winner – the range of chart types, the continued development, along with the fact that the sparklines are formula based makes for a powerful tool. Distribution is complicated by the need to load the add-in file, but for dashboards that shouldn’t be a barrier.
On the other hand, for a quick summary of data that is emailed around, the native version in Excel 2010 is clearly simpler. In the near term (until 2012 I would guess), SFE is still really the only option anyway as sparklines created in Excel 2010 simply won’t show on earlier versions.
It’s great that Microsoft has offered sparklines – hopefully end-users will appreciate their value more now they are a native part of the program, and become used to sparklines’ inclusion in their data lives.

My answer :

"Thanks so much for this constructive comparison. Little frenchy VBA amateur vs. almighty MSFT coder team … I am thrilled.
Lets review quickly your comparison table.
Number of charts : XL2010 also offers VariChart() in the conditional formatting menu… in the other hand, the win/loss is nothing but a column chart with 1 ; 0 or -1. This limited number of charts does not reflect MSFT’s Business Intelligence ambitions… at least when it comes to Excel. Let’s assume it’s a start.
Overall look : irrelevant from my point of view. Even w/ Zoom of 400% blocking is not noticeable, and specially not on printed reports.
Features : Even with tiny charts, we need some reference: a line to materialize a threshold or a target. XL2010 sparklines do not provide any reference and more important, do not offer the possibility to add a visual scale, a context … it looks good but you do not know what you are looking at. Clearly not enough to design usable dashboards.
Ease of use : SfE formulas are used like any other Excel formula… I agree however that the “formula wizard” offers limited features when UDFs are a bit complex. I could spend some time on SfE user interface to make the parameters more understandable…
Customization : The code is yours, it’s open-source… be fair, share your ideas and improvements on SfE’s blog, quid pro quo.
Stability : This is from my perspective SfE’s weak point, especially with XL2003. VBA events and many shapes to refresh are a cause of crash. SfE can also be painfully slow, inefficient coding and numerous shapes being the reason. I have been thinking of using .Net instead of VBA… but is it worth the effort with XL2010 at the corner ?
Grouping : True that XL2010 will make it “easier” (just quicker actually), but as a user, I prefer to see the formula and identify clearly the scale I am using. Using named ranges makes this so easy with SfE… your choice.
Ease of editing : Well, this is where I do not fully agree. SfE makes the formula easy to edit, plus you can use any nested formula inside SfE formula. I reckon however that only “advanced” excel users will fully appreciate this. Basic users (the ones that use Sum(a1:a2) and nothing else == > a vast majority) will prefer to tick a few boxes et voila.
Future additions : Except maybe a formula for creating quick Gantt chart, I would say that the toolbox is pretty complete. Improved “User Experience” would be the next priority (userforms, tick boxes, color picker, embedded help…). (well… less crash and more speed also !)
Price/cost : SfE is a great hobby.. priceless to me. Now, if Steve Balmer wants to include SfE features in XL2013… just let me know, we’ll talk $
As a bottom line, I would say that MSFT XL2010 is offering “Sparklines for the masses”, a simple solution that works for most users, but is definitely not enough for users who want to build more elaborated and comprehensive dashboards. But that’s maybe MSFT “SQL Server Reporting Services” job ?
SFE in the other hand, is a tool made by an “end user” with limited programming skills + great help from more advanced programmers, but with a much better understanding of what is required in a “decision making” process and dashboard construction (show a reference or target ; limited use of colors ; simple formulas if only mandatory parameters are used).
I am just frustrated that MSFT did not even consider looking at what SfE (and Bonavista and Bissantz) was offering before implementing their simplistic solution… serioulsy, the guys at MSFT France said “We don’t care about SfE, we have THE SAME in Office 2010″ … “THE SAME”… LOL"

Alex is founder of Data Driven Consulting, an independent consulting company that focuses on obtaining high quality data to facilitate effective business decisions. Data Driven Consulting specializes in a number of areas, including market research, dashboard and data presentation, and authoring of white papers and e-content.


Badger said...

I for one will stick with using sfe to the bitter end.
I am pretty underwhelmed by what XL2010 is including, and not really surprised by it either. It seems to be the microsoft way sometimes, include a very basic (watered down if you will) copy of something, make it look similar at a glance, and claim you've got it as a native feature. This will work in fooling the general masses, but as you say, those of us in dashboard design know it needs a context, relevance, not just a line for the sake of having a line.

i am currently using sfe to design a couple of dashboards in my workplace, and though i started out doing some very simple stuff with them to get the hang of it, i now have nested formulae several levels deep, auto-changing scales and target lines, data filtering to relevant selections, and plotting it all against a defined target. Lets see a simple little squiggle do all that!
This functionality within sfe has allowed me to put what used to be approx 14 screen of graphs, tables, text etc (on a rolling display screen) onto just one page, and include a historical and forward target context also.

I am currently working on a second page to capture all sorts of data we never even used to display as it was too complex to view at a glance, and make it understandable to managers and production workers at the same time.

A big thanks for your effort on this fantastic tool, those of us who know the difference can truly appreciate a great tool when we see it :)

Fabrice Rimlinger said...

Badger : thanks for you enthusiasm ! I am curious to see your dashboard. I agree there is a learning curve w/ SfE but if you already master nested formulas, the perspectives are huge.
SfE are like Lego bricks... basic. The art is in putting the brick together and build something efficient.


Anonymous said...

Enjoy using SFE.. quality work!. Made some mods to greatly increase stability and performance for our particular application. SFE Traps calculation events as did our application. Once we modified to use the calculation event handler in our application all of our crashes went away and performance increased because our handler was more efficient for triggering spark updates.

Suggestion: If possible remove trapping of calculate events and hook conditional format rules.

John said...


I hope you are still a little into this project! It is a wonderful tool. I am getting used to it and am working on a little how-to document to make jumping in a little easier.

With regards to the original list of comparison to "the native" Excel, I would observe that anyone who complains that you can't blow a sparkline up to four times scale has not read Tufte and has no clue how to use a sparkline.


Wilson Kiw said...

after all these years I feel sparklines for Excel deserves our loyalty - I don't mind the 2010 sparklines - but I'll be sticking with SfE.