Office 2007 has the all the right tools

New version shines in looks, performance

Test drive: Microsoft Office Professional 2007 suite

Includes Microsoft Word, PowerPoint, Excel and Outlook

Performance: A

Features: A+

Value: A-

Price: $499



Reviewer's comments: Microsoft Office 2007 takes productivity to a new level with a radically improved user interface and back-end changes like smaller file formats written in Extensible Markup Language.

Contact:

Microsoft Corp.

(800) 642-7676

Web: http://www.office.microsoft.com

Normally a new version of Microsoft Office does not warrant a huge party. That was certainly the case with Office 97, 2000, XP and 2003. But with Office 2007, grab your funny hats and get ready for a productivity fiesta. It really raises the bar for office suites, and looks darn cool in the process.

The first thing you will notice is that the interface is completely different than anything you have seen before. Even Office 2003's graphical improvements are nothing compared to 2007. All the functions that you could possibly perform with a document are located in a long ribbon interface that sits by default at the top of the screen. This approach puts helpful functions into clustered tabs.

At first it appears a bit daunting, especially for people used to digging deep into menus to find what they need. But this office suite is pretty smart. It will bring up buttons that represent functions depending on what you need to do.

For example, say you want to insert your agency logo into a Word document. When you carry out this task, buttons come up on the ribbon, giving you the ability to rotate, enlarge or shrink the logo (or photo).

This slickness goes hand in hand with the new look and feel of the Vista operating system, which came out at the same time. The automatic surfacing of the correct buttons would break down if the artificial intelligence software were not good enough to bring the right functions forward, but it seems to work every time.

We could not come up with a scenario when a needed function was not brought to the surface. Office has come a long way from the idiotic paper clip asking if you are trying to write a letter.

The only real negative we found to the ribbon interface is that some users might not know that a function exists unless they are doing a task that brings the relevant buttons forward.

Also, longtime Office users who know all the shortcuts and can navigate the menus like a minotaur hunting in its labyrinth are going to be as out of luck with that knowledge as a Cobol programmer after Y2K. At least the file menu commands are pretty much where they have always been.

New users with no experience with office suite programs however, can probably get up and running in less than half an hour with little or no training, something that could not have been said for other versions.

In a nod to Section 508 compatibility, you can now set the zoom levels dynamically using a little slider bar at the bottom of the screen. Simply slide the bar to the right to increase the font size or to the left to make it smaller. The document on the screen reacts instantly, so if someone sends you a document with a photo, and you want to quickly zoom in to check out a detail, you can do so and then return to normal size. Or, to compensate for visual impairments, you can permanently set the zoom level to 110 percent or 150 percent.

The suite's tabbed commands and preview views should improve productivity. For example, with Excel you no longer have to open Word just to check the thesaurus to find another word that might be a better fit in your chart.

A button to activate the thesaurus is right there in the ribbon menu. And a preview view lets you see how your data would be displayed in different types of charts before you actually apply it.

For PowerPoint, you no longer have to guess at how a transition will look. When you bring up the transition menu from the tab, you will see a host of possibilities for wipes and fades, and a representation of what they will look like on the screen, very much like with the charts menu for Excel.

So although each program is slightly different in what it can do, learning one will make all the others seem familiar. If you know how to preview charts in Excel, for example, you also know how to preview transition effects in PowerPoint, even though you may not realize it.

The XML way

And if you think the new front end is a radical departure from previous versions of Office, wait till you crack the hood and see what lies beneath. The file formats for Word, Excel and PowerPoint are now written in Open Office Extensible Markup Language, which is Microsoft's flavor of XML.

For the new file formats, Microsoft also uses compression technology, which means much smaller file sizes. While this might make your Word document a couple of kilobytes lighter, it can really add up for those big PowerPoint presentations, helping to keep them under 10MB so they can be e-mailed through most gateways. If you prefer, you can also save documents in XML Paper Specification (XPS) or Portable Document Format (PDF), which, depending on the situation, might make sharing them a bit easier.

Most of these improvements help with the three core components of Office: Word, Excel and PowerPoint. When we first loaded up Outlook, we thought perhaps it had been left out of the loop this time. There is no ribbon interface like the one found in the other programs, and all the old drop-down menus are still in place. You do get some tabbed interfaces when you begin to create a new e-mail, which should not be too much of a surprise considering that it uses Word as the engine.

But Outlook has not been left out of the picture in the upgrade department. Instead of just flagging a message for later follow-up or assigning a priority to it, you can actually assign it to one of several color groups. You could make it so that mail from your boss is flagged in red but mail from your significant other gets flagged in green.

These colors carry through to your to-do calendar. If you are interested in getting really organized around a system, you could, for example, always know that an orange block represents an optional team meeting and a red one a mandatory. And you can set it so your to-do list drops down the right side of the screen so it is always visible when you are working with your e-mail.

Back when Office XP was released, the emphasis was on bringing a homogeneous look and feel to the site. Then Office 2003 helped reveal some of the better features of the suite that were more or less hidden, especially from new users.

Office 2007 is a quantum leap forward in the user interface category and also makes some nice changes on the back end. With eight versions to choose from, you can even buy the suite you need without paying for more than is necessary. And most people will probably get the Basic version with a new PC.

The simplicity and functionality of Office 2007 make it a recommended upgrade for most offices. We have never said this about any previous version of the suite. Veteran users will quickly appreciate the easier-to-use interface, and newcomers can go from zero to proficient in less than a day.

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