Spreadsheet jockeys are geeking out over this new Microsoft Excel feature

Key Points
  • The new XLOOKUP feature gives Excel users an easier, more flexible way to display information in their spreadsheets.
  • The function is only available to Office 365 testers, and Microsoft will be make it more broadly available over time.
Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, is pictured at Microsoft's annual shareholder meeting in Bellevue, Washington on November 30, 2016.
Jason Redmond | AFP | Getty Images

No matter what changes Microsoft makes to its software or how much fresh competition it faces across its suite of products, one thing remains true: spreadsheet junkies use Excel.

Shipped for the first time 34 years ago, Excel is the default product used for entering data and performing calculations, and it's continued to be a key piece of Microsoft Office, which is still a huge revenue driver at the company.

So when Microsoft announces one of its biggest Excel updates in years, no matter how wonky, power users start chattering. On Wednesday, Microsoft introduced a feature called XLOOKUP, which was designed to address some of the shortcomings of one of Excel's most popular features, VLOOKUP.

Since releasing version 1.0 of Excel for Macintosh in 1985, the software included VLOOKUP to help users carry over information from one part of a spreadsheet to another. According to a Microsoft blog post on Wednesday, it was the third most-used function, after SUM and AVERAGE. The V stands for vertical, a reference to the function's ability to retrieve information in vertical columns. A similar function called HLOOKUP works with data that's in horizontal rows.

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VLOOKUP had some notable limitations. Results defaulted to an approximate match of what the user was looking for, instead of the exact match. XLOOKUP fixes that.

Also, VLOOKUP could only spit out data that's to the right, and not to the left, of the reference column, so users would often have to rearrange their data to use the function. With XLOOKUP, users can draw on data that's to the left or right, and it combines VLOOKUP and HLOOKUP into a single function.

Joe McDaid, Excel's senior program manager, told CNBC by email that to get around VLOOKUP's constraints, advanced users would turn to a combination of other functions, INDEX/MATCH, but they can be complex for most people to use.

XLOOKUP is "more powerful than INDEX/MATCH and more approachable than VLOOKUP," McDaid wrote.

The change received some praise on Twitter.




And on a Reddit discussion board dedicated to accounting, people posted memes about the addition.

Rhett Weller, a senior finance manager at Cisco, uses Excel to help predict revenue. He's looking forward to using XLOOKUP. It's currently only in beta with limited access for some people in the Microsoft Office 365 Insider program. Microsoft will release it more widely in the next few weeks.

"It's just a simple formula with a simple array lookup that anybody can use," Weller said in an interview after the update was announced. "It's pretty exciting."

Correction: A previous version of this story had a typo in the date of Excel's initial release. It was 1985.

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