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Monday, 21 January 2008 02:05

Microsoft Office 2008: first look

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It's been a long time coming, but an Intel-native version of Microsoft's Office suite for Mac OS X is finally with us.

One of the most important things to realise about Office 2008 is that while there are changes to the user interface since the 2004 edition, they aren't radical that anyone's likely to be dissuaded from upgrading just for that reason. You couldn't say that about Office 2007 for Windows.

The drag-and-drop installation that's become familiar during the last couple of versions has been dropped in favour of the more commonplace Apple installer.

Most of the components end up in the Microsoft Office 2008 folder within Applications, with a few in /Library/Application Support/Microsoft and of course in HOME/Preferences. Uninstalling manually would not require much effort.

Office 2008 can be installed alongside other versions, though the installer will offer to remove them. Trial versions must be removed, but I encountered no problems running Office 2004 and 2008 side by side except that only one copy of Entourage can run simultaneously.

Some people have complained that the installer seems to be all or nothing. That's not actually true, but you do need to watch out for the Customize button if you want to omit any of the applications or foreign language proofing tools.

The overall look and feel has been brought into line with Leopard, and Open  Office XML (Office 2007) file formats are supported throughout the suite. At this stage, it seems wise to retain .doc, .xls and .ppt as the defaults until more people are running Office 2007 or 2008, and this means a trip to the preferences in each application.

VBA has been dumped, something that many advanced Excel and Word users will miss, especially in medium and large businesses. AppleScript support is still there, and Automator actions have been added to make it easier to (umm) automate processes. Example actions include adding an attachment to a message, applying animation to PowerPoint slides, or sorting Excel data.

SmartArt graphics simplify the addition of text-based visuals such as lists, processes and hierarchies, while the outliner-style Text Pane makes it easy to enter the data. Alternatively, you can select an existing list and convert it to SmartArt.

Another general and very welcome improvement is the snappier operation thanks to the delivery of a universal binary. This was especially noticeable when searching in Entourage.


Entourage

Entourage 2008 started up with all of my messages, contacts and most other settings and data intact, though converting the mail folders was a longish process, but of tea break rather than lunch break duration.

The two main things that needed manual intervention were rules and account passwords. For some reason, mail handling rules (eg, automatically filing messages sent from a particular address) were preserved and enabled, but didn't take effect until I edited them.

Email account passwords are stored in the Mac OS X keychain, and as Entourage 2008 is a separate program to Entourage 2004, they had to be re-entered the first time I tried to receive emails.

My habit is to have at least two Mail windows open - one for the Inbox, and one or two to show other folders - and it took a while to get used to the names showing in the Windows menu as (eg) "Inbox - Folders on My Computer" and "Sent Item - Folders on My Computer" rather than "Mail" and "Mail 2". It's different, but it is better.

One thing Microsoft hasn't fixed is that not all windows are automatically re-opened each time you launch the program. Imagine Entourage was displaying the Inbox, Calendar and three emails when you quit the program. The next time you run it, Inbox and Calendar will appear, but not the messages.

Another is that if you switch one window between the Inbox and the Calendar and back again, you lose your position in the Inbox. Instead, you're back at the top. This is inconvenient if, like me, you prefer to keep the Inbox sorted by message status rather than date sent.

On the other hand, you can now use the backspace key to delete HTML messages, something that previously worked only with plain-text emails.

Those of us who maintain a large number of message folders will be pleased by a new feature that lets you drag a folder (or view) into a shortcut bar beneath a main window's toolbar, thus providing quick access to those that are most frequently used.

Microsoft made a big deal about "managing time and tasks more efficiently", but any scheduled tasks for the day don't show up in the To Do list. Instead, you must view the Calendar and display the To Do list next to it. If you spend more time in the Calendar than I do, that might not be so much of a problem. The saving grace is My Day, a small independent application that displays upcoming events and current To Do items in a floating window. You can use it to create a new To Do, but not a new event.

The junk mail protection is supposed to be improved, but I haven't been using the new version long enough to form an opinion. As an experiment, I've disabled the external spam filter that I was running alongside Entourage 2004, as its junk mail protection wasn't up to the job.

There seems to be a problem with the notification sounds. I normally have them all disabled, but when I tried activating them they worked once and then stopped.

Most of the other changes in Entourage relate to Exchange compatibility, but as I don't use an Exchange server they are wasted on me.


Word

Those familiar with Word 2004 should feel at home. Some of the controls have been rearranged, but there's nothing too dramatic in that regard.

A new bar between the toolbar and the main part of the window provides access to the new features that simplify the creation of professional looking documents. Elements such as table of contents, headers and footers,  tables, charts and other graphics are more exposed to the user.

The Toolbox  has also been improved to give easier access to a range of features including formatting, graphics, the iPhoto library, symbols (closer to hand than Mac OS X's Character Palette), reference tools and so on.

Moving controls previously in toolbars to the Toolbox or inside document windows means those documents don't move around the screen when changing from Outline to Print Layout. It also helps keep them visible when needed.

The new Publishing Layout is going to be very handy for those who want more control over the appearance of their documents. Instead of relying on text in fixed columns, you can create linked text boxes to get the arrangement you want, much like using a page layout program. Guides and other features help with alignment and fine tuning.

A related feature that I'm really pleased to see is support for ligatures - single glyphs for character sequences such as fl, ffl and fi. These make type look much better, which is surely why they were invented. Not every font contains ligatures, but Word will use them when available. It only affects the way the characters are displayed and printed, so a search for (say) flour will give the same result whether or not the selected font has ligatures.

Word includes a good range of document templates. There's always a risk that particular layouts will become very familiar, but the use of themes (combinations of colour schemes and typefaces) means you can tinker around without much risk of an ugly result.

One bug that's still not been fixed from Word 2004 is that if you are working on a document in Outline view and then split the window into two panes, the lower section appears in Draft view. I'm happy with the idea that each pane can be shown in a different view, but shouldn't the default be whichever is current?

If you like Notebook Layout from Word 2004, it's still there, complete with the audio recording feature. It's not a feature I've ever got along with, and the help seems particularly lacking. For instance, it tells me that I "Use note flags to call attention to an item or to designate its importance", but there's no mention of how this is done. (There's a button in the Formatting section of the Toolbox.) And don't expect the Notebook help to explain how to promote or demote a note from the keyboard - you'll need to search under promote or shortcut.

Microsoft claims the mail merge feature has been simplified, but I can't really see that. Any changes just seem cosmetic to me. You still can't use the Mac OS X Address Book as a data source, though you can synchronise the Office address book (ie, Entourage) and Address Book to get at the same data.

The big improvements in Word come from making it easier to create good-looking documents with Publishing Layout and the new templates, and from the better exposure of various features. This has been achieved without messing with the basic menu structure, so users aren't faced with much relearning.


Excel

I'm not a big Excel user - most of my spreadsheet use is at the simple end of the scale. That said, the new Gallery feature makes it easy to gussy up spreadsheets with attractive charts and other graphic features. It also exposes the predefined worksheets for common tasks such as invoices, portfolio listings, and account ledgers.

If, like me, you don't spend much time in Excel but the tasks you need to perform don't fit into the templates, the Formula Builder and Formula AutoComplete features make it easier to find the functions you need and to get the arguments right.

While the maximum spreadsheet size has been increased to 16,000 rows and more than one million columns (and if your spreadsheet is that big I'd suggest you're probably using the wrong tool) to match the Windows edition, the absence of VBA will limit compatibility.

PowerPoint

Again, my use of PowerPoint is fairly basic. I tend to use Apple's Keynote unless I know I'll be using a computer that only has PowerPoint installed. Indeed, my main use for PowerPoint is to watch decks during teleconferences. (It would be better if more people used web-based presentation sharing tools, but there you go.) This means compatibility with the Windows version is very important, and the newly added support for OOXML documents and a graphics engine that's common across the platforms will be very welcome. Waiting for PowerPoint 2004 to convert some graphics elements could become embarrassing.

Additional interoperability is provided by the ability to exchange custom layouts between PowerPoint 2007 and 2008.

As with Word and Excel, the new gallery simplifies the selection of themes, layouts, transitions and other elements, and the Object Palette in the Toolbox speeds the selection of clip art and photos stored in iPhoto. It's a shame this doesn't extend to movie and audio clips. The Insert Movie dialog doesn't even default to the user's Movies folder.

The translucent effect when resizing graphic objects is useful, and guides appear automatically to help align objects.

Being able to export a presentation to iPhoto as JPEG or PNG images could prove useful, especially as an intermediate step to putting it onto an iPod.

Presentations can be sized for 16:9 and 16:10 screens via the Page Setup dialog, but the default is 4:3 regardless of the aspect ratio of the screen being used to create the document. If you resize an existing presentation for widescreen use, any photos will be stretched in the same proportion.


Conclusion

The big drawcards of Office 2008 are OOXML file compatibility (plus other improvements in compatibility with Office for Windows) and the performance boost that comes from native Intel code.

If OOXML is important to you, the upgrade decision is a no-brainer.

Entourage fans, especially those that make extensive use of the calendar and related facilities, also will be attracted to the new version, especially with the lightweight My Day to help keep an eye on events and to dos.

Otherwise, it's not so clear cut. If you buy the suite mainly for Word, Excel or PowerPoint then the other changes aren't shattering if PC compatibility is not an issue. On the other hand, the loss of VBA will harm compatibility in some situations.

The user interface changes and features such as OfficeArt and SmartArt are improvements, along with provision of Automator support.

Consequently, the upgrade price seems on the high side. It would have been easier to recommend at $A299/$US179. But if you need to read and write OOXML files or want Intel code, I guess you'll pay the price.

From the perspective of a first-time buyer, Office 2008 is a more attractive and easier to use proposition than its predecessor. Even so, how many people will want Office rather than Apple's iWork plus the standard Mac OS X programs such as Mail, Address Book and iCal?

Office 2008 fills a need, but not one that's experienced by every Mac user.

Requirements

Minimum requirements are a 500MHz G4 or any G5 or Intel-based CPU, Mac OS X 10.4.9 or later, 512M of RAM, DVD drive or network connection for installation, and a hard disk formatted as HFS+ (aka Mac OS Extended). I tested on a 2.4GHz Intel Core 2 Duo, Mac OS X 10.5.1 and 3G of RAM.

Price

As tested:
Office 2008 for Mac $US399.95/$A649

Also available:
Office 2008 for Mac upgrade $US239.95/$A399
Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition (includes Expression Media) $US499.95/$A849
Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition upgrade $US299.95/$A549
Office 2008 for Mac Home and Student Edition $US149.95/$A229

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Stephen Withers

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Stephen Withers is one of Australia¹s most experienced IT journalists, having begun his career in the days of 8-bit 'microcomputers'. He covers the gamut from gadgets to enterprise systems. In previous lives he has been an academic, a systems programmer, an IT support manager, and an online services manager. Stephen holds an honours degree in Management Sciences and a PhD in Industrial and Business Studies.

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