Office for Mac is on the job

GCN Lab review: Microsoft makes improvements in new edition but misses a few opportunities

There are two questions I plan to answer in this review of Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition.

First: Will Microsoft's new Office suite for Mac run faster than the older versions, including Office 2004, which ran natively on Power PC Macs and had to use Apple's Rosetta emulation technology to run on Intel Macs? That technology made the old versions operate relatively slowly.

Second: Will Office 2008 take advantage of the unique user interface features in Leopard, Mac's latest operating system?

The answer to the first question is yes. I did see a slight improvement in speed, particularly on my MacBook, which sports a 2.0 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, 1G of memory and an 80G hard drive. Although the difference for any function seems marginal, it adds up if you use Office applications as much as I do.

The answer to the second question is no. Office 2008 does not provide the user with the fresh look that could improve the user interface or take advantage of Leopard's new spots.

Office still uses those pesky Floating Palettes, program options and tools that hover as a detached set of icons rather than remaining on a centralized toolbar. The palettes aren't new to 2008 ' Version 2004 had something similar, and I was hoping Microsoft had stopped using them by now. They make finding tools and program services a nuisance and clutter your desktop.

It's almost as if Microsoft isn't sure who its audience is ' traditional Mac users or Microsoft users who have recently migrated to Mac. Traditional Mac users often don't use Office because it's a Microsoft product.

So why did Microsoft keep the retro look of the Office environment for a Classic version of Mac OS, such as Mac OS 9.x? Microsoft users who for one reason or another have started to get into the Mac experience want a familiar application to fall back on, especially one as warm and homey as an Office application. So why make it foreign to them with hardto- find tools and floating icons?

The full version of Office 2008 ' at $499 ' is also a little pricey. If you upgrade, the price is $299. That's not a good deal given the interface and navigational issues.

That isn't to say that the new version of Office for Mac doesn't have some good features. There just are not enough of the ones we ' like so many ' were hoping for.

However, there are glimpses of what could have been a great upgrade. Microsoft continues its commitment to the Extensible Markup Language format by using the Open XML File Format compatible with the Windowsbased 2007 Microsoft Office counterpart.

This reduces the risk of losing information because of damaged or corrupted files and helps reduce file sizes. According to Microsoft, XML file formats are as much as 75 percent smaller than comparable binary documents.

Microsoft boosted the visual and graphic effects of Office 2008 for Mac in a way similar to its Windows-based counterpart by incorporating OfficeArt, the engine that runs all the graphics and image manipulation in the Office suite. OfficeArt can simulate effects such as shadows, reflections, glows and 3-D.

Despite the Floating Palettes, the Elements Gallery does place the most commonly used tools and templates close to the user. The problem is that you have to hunt for the more advanced features.

If you spend sufficient time with Office 2008, you begin to enjoy the Automator Actions for Workflows feature, which consists of 70 predefined actions intended to simplify your work.

The idea stems from the Automator, a feature first available in Mac OS X 10.4 that helps automate commonly performed or repetitive tasks. A workflow in Word that converts text to audio and transfers that audio to your iPod is a commonly cited example. The ability for a workflow to print selected e-mails is another Automator found in Entourage.

Microsoft also made great strides in improving the Help functions in Office for Mac 2008.

The new Help Viewer is an online tool that gets you fast answers and is updated often. More important, the Viewer provides links to useful articles and classes, and it even lets you provide feedback on Office and various other topics.

Universal features

Two small but important features I liked are the PDF capability and the Citations features. In the latest version of Office, a file from any application except Entourage can be saved to PDF, making each document you create universally viewable.

The Citation templates in Word are the second major feature ' at least I consider them major because I write a lot. The templates format citations for you ' from Associated Press style to Modern Language Association style ' with a click of a button.

Microsoft Word also features new templates that look modern and polished. They range from brochures, menus and invoices to newsletters and letterheads.

A notebook layout view, new to Office 2008, adds depth to the application by giving the user complete control to customize the Word Application environment to look like a notebook with colorcoded tabs. It comes with an indocument search function and enhanced note-taking features.

Microsoft also took great steps in simplifying the Mail Merge feature with a step-by-step path to guide the first-timer sending a group mailing.

In Excel, Ledger Sheets represent the latest and greatest in the world of spreadsheets. Ledger Sheets, a Mac first, contain complete formulas and cell categories that help you enter and track data. These sheets include forms for inventories, invoices, payroll, budget and portfolios.

Ledger Sheets make the true benefits of Excel accessible to everyone by providing templates for financial models that only a select few can custom build.

The greatest advancement to PowerPoint 2008 for Mac is that it lets you transfer presentations from your Mac to your iPod by letting you save presentations to iPhoto, the native Apple application that syncs pictures to your iPod.

The Mac to PowerPoint feature includes an Apple Remote Control capability that lets users control their presentations with a sixbutton remote.

The best change in Entourage 2008 for Mac is the MyDay feature, which tracks your priorities on a day-by-day basis and gives you a clear view of your schedule in a clutter-free environment. I found this application more useful and easier to use than the traditional Calendar views offered in Outlook.

Despite several advancements in each application of the Office 2008 suite, the overall navigation issues with Floating Palettes remain evident, even after four weeks of constant use.

This flaw is accentuated by the $499 sticker price, which left me longing for the Windows counterpart.

Microsoft, (800) 642-7676, www.microsoft.com

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