Review: Microsoft Office

The new version offers some really cool bells and whistles (May 25th, 2004)

MacNN Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Microsoft

Price: $399—Standard; $239—Upgrade; $149—Education

The Good

  • Superb integration, excellent file-sharing with Windows users, easier access to various tools throughout

The Bad

  • Excellent Office v.X may not require upgrading for some Mac users, some incompatibility with Wintel version in PowerPoint symbols, added upgrade cost.

First things first: If you do any work with people using Windows-based computers, you need to be able to make sure that your documents are compatible with Microsoft Office. Sorry, True Believers, but that's the reality of the world. There's nothing worse than receiving or sending a document, a spreadsheet, a presentation or whatever, only to be told that the other person can not open, format or read it properly. Applications like AppleWorks, MarinerWrite and ThinkFree Office can do part of the job, but the vast majority of business users need what everyone else is using.

And that's Microsoft Office.

So, with Microsoft releasing Office 2004 for Mac this week, the questions become: Is it a tangible improvement over Office v.X, and is it worth plunking down the money to be the first on the block to get a copy? The answers are "yes," and "it depends."

The new version offers some really cool bells and whistles that the prior version did not, across all four applications that make up the Office suite. There is slightly better compatibility with the Wintel versions of Word that will make it possible for you to more completely share your work with our less-fortunate brethren of that other platform. However, many of you already using Office v.X may decide that what you have is already good enough... good enough that you don't need the upgrade. In that respect, Microsoft's chief competitor may be itself.

Beginning with the installation the CD offers you two alternatives to install the software; either drag-and-drop or using Microsoft's Wizard. Drag-and-drop didn't work for me. I found myself trashing the folder, and starting all over, with the wizard. Save yourself the time; the wizard works well, and you can be up and running in a few minutes with it.

Microsoft Word

The folks at the Macintosh Business Unit have incorporated several new tools that give the Mac version of Word much the same look and feel as with the Windows version; a PC user should have no trouble running the Mac software. But the Mac version has one big advantage, at least for the time being.

It's voice. Office 2004 gives you the ability to open up a document that looks like a notepad. You can title it, prioritize notes you've taken, create tasks to your Entourage calendar directly from the document...you can even record audio of a person speaking. I found my iMac's built-in microphone Click to enlargeworks well with the application. I recorded a conversation I had over my speakerphone; the quality of the playback on the computer was superb, allowing me to start, stop and review the audio at my leisure.

Yes, I know; there are other applications that allow me to record a voice and play it back later, but this is one of the things that stood out, because everything is integrated. You can call it "bloatware" if you wish, and it may be a factor in your decision not to upgrade. I call it a good step by Microsoft that does not force itself on you if you don't want to use it.

Word also offers an upgraded view of tracked changes to a document that is more in line with the color-coded, off-to-the-side view that Windows users have had since Office 2000. I wasn't swayed one way or the other; if anything, all the tracking note windows got a little too busy for me. I've grown accustomed to moving my mouse over the particular edit, and right-clicking to either accept or reject a change. The new way of tracking changes in Word, however, makes it one step easier to do so. And if you misspell a word, a moving blue line under the word alerts you, giving you the option to automatically change it, or leave it the way you've typed it. For me, automatic spellchecker is the "killer app" feature within any word processing application; Microsoft has improved this functionality, and I appreciate it. I think you may as well.

Microsoft PowerPoint

The biggest changes here center on your ability to control the flow of information if you are using PowerPoint to present to a group. A new set of presenter tools make it possible for you to view a timer on your screen, and let you know which slides are coming next before you show them to others. It's meant to offer you a more fluid presentation, without having to necessarily rely on your memory or a printed copy of your presentation to know what's coming next.

The Formatting Palette has been expanded, giving you the option to add a new slide, change the background, or change transitions with an absolute minimum of effort, through far fewer mouse clicks. I also particularly appreciate the "Add Objects" palette that lets me click on symbols such as a trademark or copyright. Yes, I know how to use Option-G or Option-2 to create these symbols, however this lets me do it without having to memorize keyboard shortcuts. I may be a power user, but I can learn to live with point-and-click simplicity as well.

I also noticed that in previous editions of PowerPoint, some of the graphics I grabbed off browsers didn't always translate for my Windows-based customers. PowerPoint 2004 works far better in ensuring that one side can read the other's presentations (although I still run into problems with bullet points; one man's arrow too often turns into another's weird logo. Microsoft, take note.)

Microsoft Excel

A disclaimer off the top; I use Excel almost exclusively as a database or for extremely simple spreadsheet functionality. I'm not a power user, and make no apologies for it. Still, I found the new version of Excel to be slightly more user-friendly.

For instance, I keep a running spreadsheet of my finances; Excel 2004 notifies me when potential errors pop up. "Should it keep the empty cells, or should I fill them in?" Excels gives me the choice.

And, as with the applications above, the Formatting Palette has been expanded, giving users the opportunity to add graphics and other files far more easily. A toolbox has been added as well; on Excel, it primarily allows you to check compatibility with other versions of the application, both Mac and Windows. (One note: On PowerPoint, this compatibility check through the toolbox revealed a number of potential incompatibilities with graphics, fonts and shadows, but didn't offer me a quick and easy way to fix them. If I overlooked the fix, it's because it was not apparent enough; Microsoft may want to consider upgrading this functionality in its first service pack.)

Microsoft Entourage

This, perhaps more than the other parts of MS Office 2004, will be used less by fewer people. And that's a shame. There are plenty of Mac users who swear by Mail.app, iCal, and Address Book. That's great, because they do what those users need. I am, however, a confirmed Entourage user, and the new version makes it even easier to use.

Microsoft has made several beneficial upgrades to Entourage. For openers, you can now view the preview pane on the right side of the window, allowing you to see more of your incoming email, especially if it's HTML-formatted. The company has thoughtfully, as part of its stated commitment to greater security, formatted things so that pictures that are part of an HTML email are not automatically downloaded unless you want them to be. Keep in mind, however, that an increasing number of Windows viruses are automatically activated by viewing emails in the preview mode even if you don't double-click on the attachment. Security experts recommend that the preview pane not be used. So, it's good to know that as with the Windows version, Entourage 2004 lets you turn off the preview pane if you wish.

Microsoft claims it has upgraded its junk mail protection in Entourage, giving you more protection. This may be, but it is imperfect. I still strongly recommend you use configurable anti-spam software in conjunction with Entourage. My favorite is Spamfire from Matterform Software. Working together, Spamfire and Entourage keep virtually all junk from hitting my inbox.

Finally, Microsoft has introduced the Project Center in Entourage; it is integrated with the other applications in the Office suite. It's designed to let you hook together various contacts, upcoming appointments, due dates and documents into an easily viewed dashboard of where any given project stands, complete with deadlines, etc. This is a Good Ideatm, Click to enlargebut I found it's an idea more honored in the theory than in the practice. You may incorporate it into your daily routine and find it indispensable. I found that my existing practice of logging everything in my Entourage calendar and keeping separate files for each project continues to work just fine.

Project Center, however, does not handle Gantt charts, nor does it allow you to communicate with Windows users running MS Project. Microsoft PR says you'll need Virtual PC for that, along with the Project software.

Bottom Line

Microsoft Office is the industry standard. The Mac Business Unit has obviously thought this one through, and produced a solid suite of applications that are designed to work together, and succeed in doing so. If you work with people who use the Windows version of Office, you should strongly consider the Mac version.

However, if you already have Office v.X, I'm not sure I see the need to do an immediate upgrade; the old version still has a lot of life in it, and the increased functionality of Office 2004, good as it is, may not be something for which you really need to fork over the extra money. Alternately, you may want to rush out today and buy a copy of Office v.X, and get the free upgrade.

One final point: Virtual PC is not included with the version of Office 2004 that I received. Microsoft says that it is coming soon. Depending on your need to run Windows applications, the inclusion of VPC in Office 2004 may be a reason, all by itself, to buy the suite.

by Steve Friedberg


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