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Microsoft Office 2007 (Standard Edition)
- Most compelling upgrade in recent Office history, Design innovations
- Outlook not a comprehensive improvement
The 2007 Office System is easily the most compelling Office upgrade seen in recent years, even if the 2007 applications do impose a more-demanding learning curve than their predecessors did.
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Anyone who has followed Microsoft Office through its succession of lacklustre upgrades in recent years would be excused for yawning at the prospect of the 2007 version. Well, wake up: The 2007 Office System is easily the most compelling Office upgrade seen in recent years, even if the 2007 applications do impose a more-demanding learning curve than their predecessors did.
A Whole New Look
The sweeping design innovations in Office 2007 can be a bit unsettling. Instead of depending on myriad cascading text menus and skinny taskbars, the new Office arranges for most of the action to take place in a fat band or "ribbon." Appearing where the taskbars used to be, it graphically displays features that change as the menu-bar tabs are clicked. Users may have to scramble to find the new locations of familiar options but the ribbon will also reveal tools and commands that most never knew existed. In addition it supports a useful new feature called live preview; select all or a portion of a document and hover the mouse over a formatting option (a new font, for example), and it changes the actual document's appearance. Then simply click to apply the change. This feature makes experimenting with style changes easy and fun; and it's useful for making documents look their best.
The Quick Launch toolbar gives a place to pin commands from any of the application's ribbons. The design isn't perfect: users will miss being able to add boiler plate text with a single mouse click on one of the AutoText toolbar buttons. But by default, the Quick Launch toolbar includes some highly useful commands, including Undo and Save buttons. XML Marks the Spot the apps have new XML-based default file formats for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Collectively called Open XML, they carry different file extensions (.docx, .xlsx, and .pptx) from their predecessors' (.doc, .xls, and .ppt).
The Open XML formats sort the various components of a document - content, formatting, comments etc. into different files that the software then zips into a single Open XML file. Using compression makes files smaller; separating content from other attributes enables users to alter those attributes without modifying the content. For example, a corporate user might decide to change the look of a series of documents by swapping out the formatting files. Rival productivity applications should eventually be able to duplicate and work with Office documents, which are based on an open specification.
The Open XML formats will irritate people who don't have the 2007 versions of these applications and receive documents from people who do. Microsoft has tried to minimise the pain by quietly shipping Office 2007 awareness patches to Office XP and 2003 users who keep their suite current by using Windows Update, for example. The patches are intended to alert people to the 2007 Office Compatibility Pack, a free, 27MB download that Office XP and 2003 users can install in order to open, edit, and save files to the new Open XML format. For older versions of Office and other productivity suites, the compatibility pack allows conversion of Open XML files to Office 97 to 2003 formats.
In the end, users may decide that current productivity apps are all that is needed. But to get the most out of Office applications, this upgrade helps. But ultimately, Word 2007's well-executed Help structure, along with its legion of worthwhile formatting, collaboration, and integrated online tools, make the application a welcome upgrade.
In Word 2007, the ribbon toolbar does enhance productivity once users figure out where its predecessor's various commands have been relocated. For example, Drop Cap resided intuitively within the Format menu in Word 2003, but it appears on the Insert toolbar in 2007. To aid Word veterans in finding itinerant commands, Microsoft has posted the indispensable Interactive Word 2003 to Word 2007 Command Reference Guide and similar guides exist for PowerPoint and Excel. Without the guide, hunting for Drop Cap would be a lot like engaging in an impromptu game of Where's Wally. The programs extensive interactive online help is heavily laden with screen shots and video, so a broadband connection is required to use it.
The ribbon's Mailings tab improves on the formerly arcane mail-merge process by walking through the process of choosing a project, selecting message recipients (whose address data can be imported from Outlook), and writing and inserting mail-merge fields. Office 2007's other design improvements work nicely in this program. Word themes, which set colors, fonts (including options for headings and body text), and effects (such as lines and fills) employ the suite's live preview feature to full advantage. Highlighting text in a document brings up a shadow toolbar that is composed of formatting functions. Unfortunately, selecting a formatting option here won't reveal an on-the-fly preview. Microsoft unmistakably designed Office 2007 with the Internet in mind, so users will need to go online to take advantage of some of the suite's features.
Selecting New Blank Document from the Office button menu brings up a panel that offers a copious array of templates (invoices, business cards, flyers, and so on), most of them located at Microsoft Office Online. Highlighting a word in a document while pressing the Alt key, Word will search the Web to find references, definitions, and more. Using one of six major blog services (such as Blogger), users can create, publish, and update blog entries directly from Word by typing in an account name and password. Clicking Publish from the Office button menu will send the document to a blog, Web site, or document server.
Microsoft has packed Word 2007 with a bounty of old and new features, commands, and tools and thanks to the new interface; most might actually find and use them. The improved formatting and page layout functions, along with the tight integration of Web functions, are reason enough to upgrade to Office 2007. Of course, Word 2007's price and its migration issues with previous versions might give some upgraders pause. But the software's productivity-enhancing improvements are enough to overcome these drawbacks.
Excel 2007 includes major changes under the hood. For a decade, Excel users have been stuck with the same limits on spreadsheet size: 65,536 rows and 256 columns. Excel 2007 blows past these limits to offer 1,048,576 rows and 16,384 columns. The new limits aren't the only tune-ups; Excel now accommodates lengthier text values in cells, allows formulas with more layers, and can divide calculations among cores in a multicore CPU to perform complex calculations even faster. All of these improvements will keep demanding number crunchers happy, but they probably won't make much difference to a typical user who doesn't need the power.
Chart formatting takes a dramatic jump into the future. For those who are not graphically inclined, pick from preset styles to get harmonious colour combinations and effects such as shadows, bevelled edges, and three-dimensional shapes. Excel 2007 adds no new chart types, however; for years Excel users have been requesting that Microsoft include box charts and other popular chart varieties, to no avail.
Easily the most improved Excel feature is conditional formatting, which adds formatting to values that meet certain criteria. With a conditional formatting rule, Excel will automatically apply it to all of the cells specified. Though conditional formatting has been in Excel for many years, using it was too much of a hassle for most people. In Excel 2007, the feature is easier to use; in many instances a preset option can be chosen right out of the ribbon. It's more powerful, too, allowing mix and match formatting rules; previously there was a limit.
The real excitement in conditional formatting, however, comes from two new features: data bars and icon sets. Data bars add a shaded bar behind every cell identified - the bigger the number, the bigger the bar. Icon sets insert different icons (tiny pictures) next to various numbers. For creating a grading spreadsheet, for example, users can tell Excel to give failing scores a red X and passing scores a green check mark, so they can be distinguished.
Excel also packs in a large number of relatively minor refinements, including a better Formula AutoComplete, which works with functions (number-processing tools in Excel that examine some data and then perform a calculation and provide the result). Formula AutoComplete has always been capable of informing users about the data needed to supply for a function, but now it can go further and suggest possible function names and named ranges on a worksheet as letters are typed. This small improvement will save people who use Excel day in and day out a lot of time.
Overall, Excel 2007 seems sure to remain king of the spreadsheet world, and it's not cheap at the top. But for creating spreadsheets regularly, this is an improved version well worth consideration.
PowerPoint 2007 benefits hugely from Office 2007's highly visual ribbon interface and new design tools. There's still room for improvement, but the new elements add up to the meatiest PowerPoint update in many years. PowerPoint 2007's new themes improve markedly on PowerPoint 2003's cheesy templates. Themes include preset colour choices to prevent users from creating ugly presentations; the colours and layout of a theme can be modified, and then saved for later use. Since themes and colour selections are also available in Word and Excel, a consistent look can be applied across all Office 2007 documents.
Also new (and available in Word and Excel, too) is SmartArt, a drawing tool for creating graphics that illustrate relationships - organisational charts, pyramids, and cycles, for example. Users can add and style SmartArt elements with a few clicks, and graphics look clean and polished. PowerPoint 2007's improved effects, which include drop shadows, perspective, and bevelling and text and graphics (including charts and SmartArt) can be directly added from the ribbon. In virtually every case, users can preview how the proposed change will affect the presentation.
PowerPoint 2007 also includes some worthwhile non-design improvements, too. Tables, which have long been a headache to work with, are now easy to style; and the task of moving data between Excel and PowerPoint, with formatting, is finally the cakewalk it should have been all along. Dual-monitor support is more sophisticated as well, having the option to blank out the presentation display.
PowerPoint's new look sets the bar so high that the few weak spots in the interface are downright jarring. One of these involves the new charting engine, which produces much handsomer graphics than earlier versions but employs a chart type selector that hides slides and doesn't offer a live preview of results. Cutting-edge presenters may be disappointed that features for adding video, audio, animation, and transitions to a presentation remain pretty basic. And output destined for the Web still looks so shabby in non-Microsoft browsers that Firefox and Safari users who try to open your presentations will get a message warning them that the content may not show properly. Despite these flaws, PowerPoint 2007 is a winner already.
Outlook 2007 amounts to a touch-up rather than a retooling, despite its appealing interface enhancements. We experienced a few glitches when trying to integrate Outlook with non-Microsoft programs and protocols. The sleek ribbon interface makes the task of composing messages like using a word processor, and the on-the-fly formatting menu that appears when users highlight an item is a nice touch.
The new To-Do Bar provides a snapshot of calendar appointments for the day and gives a quick summary of the most pressing tasks. To open it, users will have to double-click a task or calendar entry. From here you can import mail, contacts, the calendar, and tasks from Outlook 2003 without a hitch. In Outlook 2007 users can preview image, text, and other files before opening them, although there is no support here for PDF files. Microsoft will not ship a PDF previewer for Outlook but it expects that third-party vendors will create one.
Overall, Outlook 2007 offers tangible improvements, but the program remains much the same as its predecessor. As e-mail, instant messaging, and other forms of communication become increasingly enmeshed, most users will need programs that can link easily to different types of networks. Unfortunately, though, when it comes to accessibility, Outlook 2007 remains very much an outpost in the Microsoft gulag.
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