Microsoft revamps its suite ingredients

Microsoft revamps its suite ingredients

Beta version of Office 10 looks better and functions better than Office 2000 but keeps best features

By John Breeden II and

Carlos A. Soto

GCN Staff

An office suite upgrade is often only a new paint job on an old house. It increases the value of the property, but the structure stays the same.

Judging by an early beta version of Microsoft Office 10 we have tested in the GCN Lab, this time it's different. The emphasis is on collaboration.

Sure, Office 2000 has plenty of collaboration tools, but they don't form a smoothly integrated office platform. Many of the collaborative features are hidden and awkward to use.

In Office 10, the first Microsoft office suite that doesn't have the year of release in its name'implying a longer shelf life?'the cooperative features are pervasive.

Yes, there's a new coat of paint but also new furniture and even several more rooms in the old homestead. We'll walk you through, component by component.

Any early beta has problems, and Office 10 is no exception. But some of the installation problems we encountered under Microsoft Windows NT Workstation are long standing and still unresolved.

We began a standard installation of Office 10 on a system with a 2G c: drive and a 10G e: drive. The c: drive was almost full, so we directed the installation to the nearly empty e: partition.

Stuck on c: drive

We soon got an error message that there was not enough space on c: to continue. But the program refused to load onto e:, which had five times more room.

NT stubbornly refuses to give up the c: drive. It places most of Office's system files there, no matter where you direct them.

Another reviewer ran into installation problems on a computer running Windows 98. Office 10 refused to work after it was installed. He uninstalled the program twice, a process that takes as long as installation, before it finally worked. And, although we could not reproduce the error, the reviewer swore that the installation changed his system clock to the year 2030.

Installation glitches are not usually part of a beta review, but they're worth noting here because they could play havoc with some systems if not corrected before the final release, set for early next year.

Office 10 graphics have been spruced up. It's much easier to see what you are about to click on, which will help visually impaired users get the most from the suite without having to reduce the monitor resolution too much.

Menus and their pictorials are larger and more evenly spaced across the top of the screen, which will reduce user errors when clicking. Also, when a shortcut appears on the menu bar, the picture of the shortcut clearly displays in the margin of the menu. Users can easily learn how to save steps.

Word processing has been the grease that runs the wheels ever since PCs took over the office desktop. But until recently, document keying has been a solitary experience. The Word component of Office 10 will pull users out of their caves by making document sharing easier.

Word 10 does not support simultaneous editing, in which multiple users can make edits that are instantly visible to all. But it does permit collaborative editing. Several users can edit a document at once without having to wait for the document to be saved and closed by others. When two people finish editing, their versions are merged into a third version. All changes by both users are tagged, so there is no guessing who changed what.

The biggest improvement is in the interface for tracking changes. Previous versions had confusing blue and red strikeout bars. Now, tracked changes appear in the margins with pointers to the changes. Writers and editors can examine each edit, accepting or rejecting simple or extensive revisions.

An optional digital signature feature adds security to the collaborative environment. Once a document has been digitally signed, it cannot be changed without rendering the signature invalid.

Formatting, always a bear in Word, is simpler. Some users prefer Corel Corp.'s WordPerfect word processor because it has reveal codes to show all the formatting. What Word now does is let the user clear formatting options from a document.

If there's a problem with the tabs, for example, you can remove them and start from scratch.

Microsoft has also created its own version of reveal codes, called Format Inspector. The inspector mode follows the in-the-margin style of collaborative editing and shows where every formatting code is inserted. It's much easier to use than WordPerfect's reveal codes.

A notebook PC user of Word now can expect to get a few more minutes' use out of the battery. The documentation states that Word has been streamlined to use less power.

Word is the default e-mail editor in Office 10, so many of the above features carry over to Outlook.

Excel, a close second to Word in suite software popularity, is one of the world's most widely used spreadsheet programs.

In previous GCN reviews, Excel's performance has consistently rated the best of all the suite spreadsheet components. It has been the anchor of Office's business popularity. But even the best can stand improvement.

Microsoft has ironed out some of Excel's quirks and bolstered its strengths without muddling the program with a complex command structure.

One of the coolest features is basic artificial intelligence for recognizing certain types of data. For example, you can cut a price from a Web page and paste it into an Excel document. The program understands what you have done and links the price in the document back to the real-time data. When that changes, the document price will also change, as long as the system remains connected to the Internet.

Other changes in Excel are cosmetic or minor. The find and replace functions, for example, now permit searching for text in a document by the type of formatting. For example, you can find all the boldface headings in a spreadsheet.

Printing features have also improved. You can specify whether and how to display cell errors. Other minor improvements include addition of graphics and file paths to header and footer information, hard cell borders and colorful worksheet tabs.

Excel now supports documents in Extensible Markup Language. You can load and save XML, generic or formatted, in Excel.

Because previous versions of Excel have been so well received, it's nice to see that Microsoft has improved some things but for the most part left well enough alone.

Box Score
Office 10 Beta 1

Friendlier update of Office 2000

Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash.;
tel. 800-426-9400;
Price: Not yet determined

+''' Word's hidden features no longer hidden

+''' Word as default Outlook e-mail editor

+''' More PowerPoint functions

+''' Large data sets safeguarded by Access 10 format

+''' Maximum cells in Excel increased

+''' All programs easier to use

-''' Windows Millennium Edition not supported by beta

-''' Large storage requirement

-''' Help menu crashed in all apps.

Real-life requirements:

Win9x, NT 4.0 with Service Pack 5 or Win 2000; 166-MHz Pentium or faster processor; 64M of RAM; 250M of free storage; CD-ROM drive

The new Outlook 10 seems easier to use than Outlook 2000, which is a solid personal information manager. The new version has the same everyday functions as its predecessor: e-mail, calendar, address book and task list.

The big improvement is that Word editing has become the default within Outlook. The combination makes typing e-mails as easy as typing letters. If you don't want it, you can eliminate the word processing function with two clicks.

The Outlook 10 window is easier to navigate, which makes a world of difference in learning to execute commands, asking a question in the new question box or searching for a contact.

As you scroll around the menu bar, the pointer highlights selected words in a light blue tint to mark the Outlook options. In Outlook 2000, only five of the six options in the tool bar were completely visible. The Outlook 10 window is a little larger and more rectangular, so you can see the entire tool bar at the left.

This makes Outlook 10's window less cluttered and easier to read. Because Outlook is a large virtual organizer with e-mail capability, Microsoft has revamped the calendar, concentrating on the meeting planner, contacts and e-mail services. On the whole, Outlook 10 is more straightforward to use than Outlook 2000.

A new addition is Internet calendaring, or iCal. This feature can send meeting requests via the Internet and get responses. The recipients who accept a meeting will see it automatically on their calendars if they have iCal enabled under Outlook 10.

Instant messaging is a function of the contact item, and IM addresses can be stored in the contacts folder.

Microsoft also has combined Outlook and Hotmail, so that users can send and receive Hotmail messages in Outlook. And they can change mail formats from the default Hypertext Markup Language.

Microsoft claims the new Outlook has a strong architecture with personal storage folders. But Outlook 2000 accumulated about 20 downloadable patches. We hope to see a more solid Outlook 10 in the final release.

The main difference between Access 2000 and Access 10 is that 10's new file format compacts data for managing larger databases. The format will permit changes to future versions of Access.

Access 10, which is not backward-compatible with the Access 2000 file format, nevertheless can convert Access 2000 files without data loss or major changes.

It can rescue files with broken forms and fix broken references via a better search mechanism. Users can set Access as the icon for forms and reports by configuring it in the Tools/Startup dialog box. Other improvements have been made in printer accessibility, additions and deletions, and spell-checking. But the best change by far is easier navigation.

Unlike Access 2000, which has a wizard to lead you through complex database choices, Access 10 has a type of hyperlink with options. It lets you see the whole playing field.

Users familiar with PowerPoint will notice the differences immediately. Instead of wizards everywhere, PowerPoint 10 shows a list of well-organized options laid out at the side in a section that looks like an Internet hyperlink.

Everything from cut-and-paste to custom animation has changed. PowerPoint can interact with Word, Excel, Outlook and FrontPage, making presentations easier to distribute, view and edit.

PowerPoint 10 simplifies webcasting, saving a presentation, applying a digital signature, and modifying a presentation so it can be viewed but not altered. Editing or deleting comments and printing a presentation with comments on it also are simpler.

Overall, Office 10's significant improvements over Office 2000 surpass those of competing products. Some features are designed specifically to lure users away from Corel WordPerfect Office or Lotus SmartSuite. Others are merely new coats of paint on Office 2000 features.

Beta copies of Microsoft software often change a great deal before the code goes gold. But if Microsoft continues in the current direction with Office 10, its newest office tools will appeal to beginners as much as to seasoned pros who keep pushing for the best possible apps.

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