Thanks for the great links, Mike!
I thought perhaps I should chime in. I do a fair amount of work in Excel. I find pivot tables, charting, and data-driven displays to be useful and pretty intuitive. I often go from Excel to Powerpoint for final editing, as I find PPT to be more flexible with layout.
But being a geographer, I use mostly ArcGIS and QGIS. These are both very powerful programs, in that they perform complex database operations as well as giving a very wide variety of display options. ArcGIS online, though more restrictive in its capabilities, is a bit more accessible to beginners, but as it requires your data be posted in the cloud, is not appropriate for much of the work that I do here at MEASURE Evaluation, UNC. All 3 programs have wonderful base map options that can make your maps interesting and provide context and a sense of scale for the overlying data being displayed, but they all require an internet connection to stream that base map data.
I’d say the biggest disadvantage to the big GIS packages is that not only do they have a fairly steep learning curve, they require that the user understand a great deal about not only underlying data structures, but also about appropriate ways to portray spatial data. While the data display is probably the most fun for me (maps always get people excited), most of my time is normally spent formatting and exploring the underlying data, in order to best prepare it for display.