Review: Office for Mac 2011

Microsoft updates Office for Mac with features from Windows variant (October 28th, 2010)

After a long wait, Microsoft has finally released an update to its Office productivity suite for Mac OS. Version 2011 brings a variety of new features, with a focus on compatibility and UI familiarity across both Mac and Windows variants. In our full review, we determine if Microsoft has moved in the right direction to compete with Apple's own iWork suite.

MacNN Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Microsoft

Price: $149 - $279

The Good

  • Faster
  • Ribbon similar to Windows UI
  • Live co-authoring and communication
  • New media tools
  • Outlook
  • Improved cross-platform compatibility

The Bad

  • Relies exclusively on Microsoft cloud services, Windows Live
  • iCal sync not supported

User interface

A quick glance at the updated UI confirms that Microsoft has diverged somewhat from the distinctive Mac-like elements that defined v2008. For Mac users, the new ribbon layout still provides an intuitive organization for various features. The interface should make for quick familiarization when moving from the Windows version, while also streamlining the experience in cross-platform homes and businesses.

Users can now switch between contextual tabs to access groups of features essential for specific tasks. This improvement helps to reduce the need for pull-down menus, where many tools had been buried in the previous versions. Despite the new tabs and ribbon, the revamped UI still retains the standard toolbar and menu bar without cluttering the UI.

To maximize workspace, v2011 adds a fullscreen mode that expands the current page onto a solid background. The formatting toolbar is quickly accessible by moving the mouse cursor to the top of the screen, while users can also choose between a create/edit mode and a reading layout. We like the fullscreen option, which is very close to that of Pages.

Spotlight integration is a welcome feature that was missing from earlier versions. Search functionality has been greatly improved, as a search box has been placed directly on the top toolbar. Navigation buttons can also be used to quickly flip through results throughout the document.

Formatting is much easier in v2011 thanks to Microsoft's visual styles feature. Checking a box in the styles pane brings up color-coded, numbered style guides that indicate various paragraph styles throughout a document. Users can also switch to a view highlighting text that does not adhere to the current active style.



Multimedia

Microsoft has vastly improved the multimedia features across the entire range of utilities in the Office lineup, which now provides many of the same capabilities as iWork. Word offers several enhancements to its publishing mode, allowing users to quickly focus on tools for editing visual elements within documents. The software also includes a decent set of templates, with a full range of customization options.

Word, PowerPoint and Excel each integrate a set of image editing tools that can be used to modify pictures without switching to separate software. From within the Office interface, users can remove backgrounds, crop to a shape, select aspect ratios, pan and zoom, or adjust color tone and saturation. Options are also provided for applying artistic filters, or adding frames to the edges of pictures.

Aside from the advanced editing tools, the software also provides an improved interface for reordering objects in overlapping layers. Objects can be instantly spread into a Cover Flow-style lineup and rearranged as needed.

For users who wanted to fill presentations or documents with rich media content, Office for Mac 2008 still lagged behind the equivalent version of iWork. Microsoft appears to have been paying attention to the competition with the latest version, however. We were impressed with all of the UI tweaks and media features of v2011. Each of the new tools has been integrated in a way that improves overall functionality without complicating the UI or bringing any other detriment to usability.



Collaboration

Office for Mac 2011 seems to be built with the expectation that many users will be collaborating with others on Macs, PCs or web browsers. Individuals can now simultaneously collaborate on the same projects, as the software takes advantage of Microsoft's SkyDrive and SharePoint services. Users can easily lock the particular section of a document they are working on, or view which areas are being edited by other authors.

While working, users can initiate communication with co-authors via instant messages, voice, or video conversation. We welcome the new collaboration and co-authoring services, although users are forced to use Microsoft's own services. The home and student editions require a Windows Live ID and SharePoint account, while the business variants must use Microsoft Communicator and SharePoint Foundation.

Automation

Microsoft had dropped Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) support from its Office for Mac lineup, but the feature has returned with v2011. To help save time or avoid unnecessary repetition, users can write or edit macros for common tasks in Word, PowerPoint and Excel. The Developer tab can be used to record macros in Word or Excel, while the Visual Basic Editor provides full writing and editing functionality in each of the programs.

Many users may applaud the return of VBA support, although its presence is not as strong in the Mac ecosystem. Users can still take advantage of existing automation options developed specifically for Mac software, such as Automator and AppleScript.

Excel

The ribbon has been added to all of the Office titles in v2011, including the Excel spreadsheet utility. Users can also access a new workbook gallery, which provides a wealth of templates, or take advantage of improvements to the pivot tables.

To view a visual comparison between select pieces of data, a new "sparklines" option provides an attractive alternative to full-fledged charts. The smaller sparklines charts fit in a single worksheet cell, directly beside the data. We liked the new feature, as it improves data visibility while adding a professional edge to bland charts.

Conditional formatting has also been enhanced with new options that help associate data with visual elements. The software includes over 40 formats, which can be used to highlight key points, percentages, growth/decline, performance compared to averages, or other possibilities. Users can also create their own formats or manage the rules to further customize the presentation.

Although Excel has not departed from the grid-focused layout of its predecessor and Windows counterpart, the software does bring many additional capabilities and a higher level of flexibility. All of the changes seem to be in the right direction, however Excel is still very much different from Numbers in iWork.





PowerPoint

PowerPoint in Office for Mac 2008 was a fairly close match to its Windows counterpart, but it lagged behind the features available in Keynote. The latest release adds a wide range of impressive transitions and effects, along with new tools for further customization. Users can also take advantage of the same picture editing tools and object reordering interface that is built into Word and Excel.

We were impressed by the video integration and new Cover Flow-style slide layout, which enabled quick navigation through presentations. Keyboard shortcuts for zoom and a size adjustment tool also helped streamline the editing process. Web sharing options are a welcome addition, although such content is automatically converted with simpler transitions and no videos.



Outlook

One of the biggest changes in Office for Mac 2011 involves e-mail instead of documents. Entourage has been scrapped in favor of Outlook, yet another feature that now bears a close resemblance to Office for Windows.

The e-mail database system has been vastly improved, as individual items are now saved as separate files. This may not seem like a big deal, but it is essential for quick backups and efficient use of storage space. With previous versions, receiving one e-mail would change the entire database file and require an enormous data transfer to back up. The frustrating issue has been resolved, while the entire database should only reach hundreds of megabytes instead of gigabytes for most users.

Aside from the under-the-hood changes, the UI will be familiar to users of Outlook for Windows. E-mails can be viewed as conversations, and multiple accounts can be combined into a unified inbox for easier sorting.

Some users might miss Entourage, but we think Microsoft made the right call by moving to Outlook. The company also worked to ease the transition, as Entourage data can be painlessly imported to the new client. Overall usability is much better, especially with the conversation views, calendar integration, and Spotlight search. Our only complaint is the lack of sync capabilities with iCal, but this could be worked out in future updates.



Final thoughts

Office for Mac 2011 brings a slew of new features that make it an extremely competitive option compared to iWork. Apple's productivity suite is still the best answer for creating media-heavy slideshows, but Microsoft's word processor and spreadsheet utilities are second to none. The latest release further improves Mac integration, while also working toward a common experience wether the user is creating on a Mac or Windows computer. Although Office carries a higher price tag than iWork, it offers a more robust set of tools with a wider range of capabilities.

by Justin King


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