I won't say I despise SQL Server Management Studio's (SSMS) display for execution plans, but it's about at that level. With respect to simple queries, it's not so bad. But last year I got on on a project where the query plans were abominable in that display. It was actually easier to pull the XML and read it in a text editor than it was to use the GUI that's provided. The whole point of the GUI is to make things easier and SSMS certainly did not.
Last week I was invited to give SQL Sentry's Plan Explorer a go right before public beta. I was in the process of tuning views for a new data warehouse we had just deployed, so it was perfect timing. I was immediately impressed because the tool does a good job of condensing the execution plan and making it readable. In addition, in the graphical view, it highlights operators with high cost. So without clicking a tab I know that a set of key lookups were killing us with respect to the performance of two queries. Clicking on the Top Operators tab, what I saw in the GUI view was confirmed. Problem identified.
The key lookups will happen in almost every view for this warehouse because we're using row-level security, so I built covering indexes to handle the lookup and checked the results: significant performance increase. I really liked what I saw. But to give SSMS a fair shake, I went back and tried to identify the problem areas using it. Even though I knew exactly what to look for, it still took longer. That did it: I was sold.
So if you haven't grabbed the SQL Sentry Plan Explorer and you have anything to do with writing and/or tuning queries, go get it now! It's free. The folks who have put it through its paces haven't encountered any significant bugs. It's small and quick to download and just as quick to install. It's a great tool and the folks at SQL Sentry are looking for qualty feedback - like from you.