March 15, 2007


Microsoft Office 2007. Windows XP or Vista only. Home and Student, $149 with three-PC license. Standard, $399 ($239 to upgrade). Small Business, $449 ($279 to upgrade). Professional, $499 ($329 to upgrade).

      The new version of Microsoft Office – known both as Office 12 and, more formally, as Office 2007 – is barely making its way into business and consumer hands, and that slow adoption may be a good thing. It is a much better product in many (but not all) ways than its predecessors, the last of which was Office 2003. But its best qualities lie in its differences from earlier versions – and they take some getting used to.

      The two biggest things Microsoft did here involve the interface (which all users will notice immediately) and the document format (which will affect all users even though it may not be as immediately noticeable). Smaller elements are almost equally important – a much-improved graphics engine for PowerPoint slides and Excel graphs, for example. But it is the interface change that users will notice first.

The new interface for Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Access does away with the now-familiar menus and toolbars and instead presents users with a large rectangle called the Ribbon. This has lots of clearly drawn and well-labeled icons that are context-sensitive – they change depending on what you are doing. And, in a particularly neat touch, the more-important tasks in each context get larger icons. (One oddity of this update is that the new interface appears in sub-windows in Outlook 2007, but not in the main window – a neither-here-nor-there solution that is increasingly distressing as users get more comfortable with the Ribbon arrangement elsewhere.)

The Home tab of the Ribbon includes the most commonly used commands, and for many users will be the only place they need to go. This is a tremendous improvement: people who use Office primarily for fairly straightforward tasks will not be bothered by the hundreds of options and capabilities in each program. But those who want to perform more-complex tasks get increasingly advanced options as the Ribbon changes according to what they are doing. This is the first version of Office that is equally accommodating for beginning users and sophisticated ones.

The Ribbon expands horizontally only – it does not get taller, interfering with usable screen area. And it is not the only way to get things done: there is also a neat little Quick Access Toolbar, a small strip of little icons in the upper left of the application window. This toolbar automatically includes a few basic commands, and you can add more to it – if you typically use only a few commands, you could put them all in this toolbar and use the Ribbon only for occasional, more-complex projects. Another plus for non-Ribbon fanciers: keyboard commands from older versions of Office still work.

But for most people, the Ribbon will be the way into Office – an entirely new way that will be much easier then the old toolbar/menu approach after a short period of adjustment.

As for what comes out of this new Office suite: Word, Excel and PowerPoint now use a format called OpenXML, a language similar to HTML. This new format basically puts documents into multiple containers and zips them together – for example, a Word document has separate storage for the text and the formatting. This makes documents smaller and can make recovery of components easier. It also improves interoperability – an increasingly important concept for worldwide computer use, and a sign that Microsoft is serious about moving aggressively into a Web-based strategy for the future (and before anyone cries foul about Microsoft attempting to take over the Web world: OpenXML has been certified as an open, which means non-proprietary, standard).

Incidentally (perhaps not incidentally for some users), OpenXML cannot be read by older versions of Office and Office-compatible software unless you download a free translator. You can override OpenXML storage, however, by changing the default format of Office 2007 to a standard called “97-2003.” This can be helpful if you regularly share files with people who do not use Office 2007.

A few notes on specific programs within Microsoft Office 2007: Word 2007 uses the same art and charting features as other applications, makes it possible (with a free download) to save documents as PDFs or in XPS format, simplifies side-by-side comparison of two versions of the same document, and includes a blog posting feature that works with Windows Live Spaces, Blogger and other blogging services. Excel 2007’s charting and table features are much improved and can now be shared with Word and PowerPoint, and Excel spreadsheets can now be much larger (up to 1,000,000 rows and 16,000 columns, which in the real world is over-engineering to the point of ridiculousness). PowerPoint 2007 has much better default themes and simpler ways to add better-looking-than-ever charts, graphics and 3D effects. Access 2007 gets the full Ribbon treatment and as a result is far easier to use than ever – the Ribbon is a huge help when working in a relational-database structure. Publisher 2007 has better templates and improved exporting capability, including PDF and XPS.

Outlook 2007 is the big disappointment here. It’s not just that its Ribbon use is only partial and half-hearted. It finally supports RSS feeds, but setup is awkward, and the whole program looks more cluttered than ever. Outlook is due (overdue, in fact) for a major overhaul – or replacement.

If you’re planning to replace an older version of Office (or certain other “qualifying programs”) with Microsoft Office 2007, you are entitled to lower “upgrade” pricing on whatever new version you choose – except Home and Student, which replaces Student and Teacher Edition 2003. Look up the exact contents of each version carefully before picking one – the options are confusing, and become even more so if you buy a new computer with Office 2007 preinstalled. That will give you a “Basic” version, which you cannot buy on your own and which contains only Word, Excel and Outlook – forcing you to buy additional programs individually if you want them. The pricing messiness and inattention to Outlook 2007 are the big negatives in Microsoft Office 2007. They are far outweighed by the many positives in this, the best version ever of this venerable and deservedly popular suite.

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