If you can keep it running, Office 97 is full of goodies

Office 97 Professional ranks among Microsoft Corp.'s most progressive and most
frustrating upgrades. Let me praise it before I recount the woes of getting it to work

This successor to the leading office suite came out with fanfare second only to the
launch of Windows 95, and with good reason:

With this heaping of praise come some criticisms. Office 97's installation, though
speedy, triggered a two-week series of puzzling crashes even though I was running
gold-release code.

Every application, particularly Outlook, triggered a crash at some point. This was a
problem even after fresh system boots and application launches. For example, the system
stalled midsentence in Word and as I saved a spreadsheet in Excel.

The gremlins behind these crashes and conflicts with Windows 95's 32-bit kernel are a
mystery. Deleting and reinstalling Office 97 only made matters worse. The solution? I had
to wipe the hard drive and start all over.

Perhaps the offending code came from a rogue Dynamic Link Library, or perhaps Office 97
itself was the culprit. Office 95's applications had run fine on the same test machine
without mishap.

Even after wiping and reinstalling, I've been unable to get Microsoft Fax to work
because of errors in initializing the Messaging Application Programming Interface drivers.
A colleague loaded Office 97 and discovered his space bar no longer would work inside
Outlook, although it worked in other applications.

Nonetheless, the tools in the suite proved why Microsoft's Office has staying power.
Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access--all Office standards--will be familiar to Office users
in their new incarnations. The charting and art components have been unified to work the
same throughout, which is a joy.

Word now has a tool that makes tables a breeze. Click on a pencil icon and simply draw
the cells you want. If you don't like how it's shaping up or want to make two cells into
one, just grab the eraser tool.

Another new tool, grammar-checking as you type, is fairly useless. I liked Word's
spell-checking, but if you write above a sixth-grade level, I'd bet any of Office 97's
recommendations will be wrong. The wavy green lines the tool uses tend to flash and
interfere with screen refresh.

Microsoft designers also should take a serious look at screen refresh in Word. If you
scroll one way and then another, tables often appear scrambled even though they're
correct. As you type the final line on any page, the entire screen flashes and refreshes
at every keystroke. It's extremely distracting.

Excel 97 has so-called natural language processing. If you name one column Costs and
another Quantity, you can simply type in a cell ''= costs * quantity''and let Excel figure
out the total. This function didn't always work correctly, but it's a clever idea.

PowerPoint and Access are beefier now. The presentation program adds more multimedia,
and the database builds in Web support. You can click on a field and go out to the Web

But Outlook 97 is where Office will win or lose in the suite market.

Outlook, a hybrid, merges Schedule+ from Office 95 with some of Microsoft's Exchange
mail client and throws in a couple more goodies. It's about time Microsoft created a
multipurpose product like this.

Before, you might have entered all your contact information, fax numbers and e-mail
addresses in Schedule+, then have to re-enter them in Exchange Client's address book to
use the data for e-mails or faxes.

Now you can get all kinds of views with seemingly limitless fields. If you're upgrading
from Schedule+, be certain to map your fields correctly.

Like many people, you've probably entered e-mail addresses in the User 1 field. The
import works right for everything else, but you must be sure to map User 1 to Outlook's
e-mail field.

If you have a new handheld PC running Windows CE, I'd advise against upgrading to
Office 97's Outlook, because incompatibilities might corrupt your contacts database and
make the entries slowly disappear--a field at a time.

All Office 97 applications have the cute Office Assistant in the corner. You can choose
nine appearances, among them an animated paper clip, a dog, a cat, William Shakespeare and
Albert Einstein.

You might think these clever additions just suck up resources, but they're genuinely
helpful in unifying the online help resources. Because they are animated, they also
provide an easy way to check whether an application has crashed.

One unfortunate change: All Office 97 applications save in a new file format. According
to Microsoft, this change was necessary because newer elements such as Web hyperlinks and
art wouldn't fit into the older format.

My final advice: If you now run Office 95 and are upgrading to 97, back up your files
in advance, especially if you're going to use Outlook.

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