There are still some people who claim that Word 5.1 was the best all-round Macintosh word processor. It was fast, simple and left a relatively small footprint on your system, which was a good thing considering that the state of the art back in 1991 was a Colour Classic with a 40MB hard drive and barely enough power to run a digital watch.
In contrast, Office 2004 isn't a lightweight. You'll need around 640MB of drive space, OS X 10.2.8 and, being realistic, at least 512MB of RAM installed. It builds effectively on the foundation provided by Office v.X, one of the first major pieces of software to come out following OS X's initial release.
The question is whether 2004 provides enough worthwhile features to prompt an upgrade. If you were moving to OS X and finally replacing your Word 5.1, then v.X wasn't a bad thing at all.
The bad news is that Macs are still poor cousins to Windows machines when it comes to seamless integration into a modern office. The reason for this is Entourage, Office 2004's jack-of-all-trades e-mail client, PIM and now project manager.
Entourage v.X's integration into an Exchange server environment was never anything special. It was possible to get e-mail, but group calendaring was out. It also had issues with really large mail files; let yours get too big and Entourage v.X simply fell over. In some ways, Entourage 2004 is a step back because it requires your IT manager to enable Outlook Web Access (OWA) to work. Without OWA, you're not going to get your mail or be able to share calendars with your Windows colleagues. If that's the case, it's back to v.X or, worse, back to Outlook for a Mac running under Classic.
The real mystery in this is why Microsoft has never bothered building a native version of Outlook for OS X.
If Exchange doesn't figure in your world, or you've got OWA, then the new Entourage Project Center lets you group tasks, e-mails and changes under single project headings that can be shared with your workgroup. One conspicuously absent feature is project milestones; it's fine to have a finish date, but what about the deadlines along the way?
Word offers some worthwhile improve-ments, in particular the neat way that instant messenger conversations can be launched, and incorporated into a change log, from within a document.
There's also a notepad view, complete with ruled lines that would work a treat if Apple decided to make a tablet format machine. As it is, the notepad has a voice recorder, and those voice notes - or conversations if you're recording an interview - are both easy to associate with a certain project and easy to detach. They're not, however, universally compatible with Office for Windows.
We know that because Office 2004 provides a compatibility report, which is a boon if you're regularly sharing documents. Every time you save something you're warned about possible compatibility conflicts with other Office versions, both for the Mac and for Windows. The amazing thing? Sharing files and documents with people running current versions of Office is basically transparent. If only we had full Exchange support then the Mac would be an upstanding, invisible member of your company network. As it stands, there are problems and dangers waiting to trap anyone trying to get their Mac to play nicely with Windows inside a business.
The two other members of the Office family, PowerPoint and Excel, are incremental improvements over their older siblings. Excel now has a neat page layout view and, like all the Office 2004 applications, has SmartButtons that ask whether you want formatting included when text, or other objects, are copied and pasted between documents and applications.
PowerPoint came under fire when Apple released its own presentation tool, Keynote. Keynote is a prettier application with better art, better templates and better effects than PowerPoint. The flipside is that if you're already buying Office it makes little sense to go out and buy another presentation tool. PowerPoint 2004 also has presenter tools so that, if you've got two screens and are doing a presentation, you can make changes on the fly, and keep an eye on a built-in timer.
Overall, Office 2004 has some worth-while improvements but it's not compelling. If v.X is doing what you need it to do, why pay again? But if you're still stuck in the world of Word 5.1, and v.X didn't tempt you, then it's about time for you to move on. Just make sure you trade in the Colour Classic - apparently, they fetch good prices among collectors in Japan.