It has been almost four years since the last revision of Microsoft Office for the Mac, and Macintosh users can be forgiven for getting a little impatient. We heard all the buzz about the radical interface makeover for Office 2007 for Windows, and we wondered what user-interface goodies might be waiting for us.

While we waited, alternatives presented themselves. Apple Inc.’s Pages, part of the company’s iWork ’08 suite that arrived last fall, challenges the standard conception of word processing by blending in a generous helping of page layout. And open-source suites such as NeoOffice have duplicated and gone beyond what Microsoft Office has to offer.

After all that, what would the granddaddy of office suites have in store?

Well, it’s safe to say that no one will really be startled by the way Office 2008 has turned out. The weight of history is too great to allow any really radical changes. There are established expectations of what users should be able to do with the programs, legacy documents that need to be able to opened and a world of Windows Office users whom Mac users need to exchange files with.

As a result, instead of drastically rethinking its Office suite, Microsoft Corp. has focused — mostly successfully — on making what’s already there more accessible and easier to use. If there were features in Word, Excel or PowerPoint that you never knew about or just couldn’t figure out how to use, chances are Office 2008 will either help you find them or help you use them.

After three weeks spent with the final beta of Office 2008, I’d say it’s kind of like getting a new Chevy. It’s not going to turn heads like a Prius or a Smart car would. It feels a little staid, a little safe. But it certainly beats driving an old Chevy.

New suitewide features

Office 2008 for Mac comes in three different flavors. The standard product (US$400; upgrade price $240) includes Word 2008, Excel 2008, PowerPoint 2008 and Entourage 2008. The Special Media Edition ($500; upgrade price $300) adds the Expression Media digital asset management system, which works with a Microsoft Exchange server. And the Home and Student Edition costs $150, with no upgrade pricing available.

Microsoft’s stated goals for Office for Mac 2008 are similar to those announced for Windows Office 2007: To make it easier for users to access the wealth of features these programs offer. This goal is addressed through additions to the interface that don’t get in the way when you don’t use them but easily open up new and obscure features. The changes to the interface aren’t nearly as drastic as those introduced in Office 2007, and the new features aren’t earth-shaking, but they are welcome.

The new Office applications are universal, which means they run natively on Intel Macs. Reviewers who tested Office on Intel-based Macs have reported that Office runs faster on those machines than Office 2004 does, and that’s probably true, since Office no longer needs the Rosetta translation layer that enables applications built for PowerPC Macs to run on Intel machines.

However, on my G5 iMac, I found that the Office 2008 doesn’t run as fast as the previous version. For example, Word often lags behind my typing speed. And as I type this, my OS X Activity Monitor shows that Word 2008 is using between 20% and 50% of my CPU; when I work on this same document using Word 2004, CPU usage never rose above 15%. As a result, Office users who are still using older PowerPC Macs should probably think twice about upgrading. (It is worth mentioning, though, that in three weeks of constant use, Office 2008 didn’t crash or freeze once.)

Office 2008 uses the Open XML file formats Microsoft introduced with Office 2007. You can still save in the older formats, and you can open and work on old-format files in Compatibility Mode. Over the weeks that I used Office, my sense was that Compatibility Mode ran a little slower than native mode, and I wound up converting older files to Open XML and then saving them back in the older formats for sharing.

Two new major features

Office 2008 offers two prominent features common to all three of the content-creation applications (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) that make it easier to find the many features the programs offer and easier to use them once found: the Elements Gallery and the Object Palette.

The Elements Gallery is an unobtrusive set of tabs that appears above the document window and below the other tool bars in all three applications. These tabs offer quick access to new features and to features that were previously scattered among different menus. These tabs include those for Charts, SmartArt Graphics and WordArt (an assortment of typographic special effects).

Besides the common tabs, of course, each program also has its own set of tabs. In Word, for example, there are also tabs for document elements and quick tables, while in Excel you get sheets, and PowerPoint has slide themes, slide layouts and transitions.

The second suitewide feature is a new integrated floating palette. This multipurpose palette incorporates the previous Formatting Palette and Toolbox, and adds a new Object Palette and a program-specific tool. You switch from palette to palette within the same, uh, palette by clicking tabs across the top, reminiscent of the Inspector palette in iWork and other recent Mac programs.

The Object Palette gives quick access to shapes, clip art, symbols (such as fractions and math and currency symbols) and your iPhoto library. Having a button to get right to your photos is a nice idea, but on my machine, loading the library left me looking at the spinning beach ball for so long that I was reaching for the Force Quit keys by the time it finally came up. Maybe it’s faster on an Intel Mac, but for me it would take less time just to open iPhoto and export the image I wanted.

Each program’s Formatting Palette now features a section for document themes. Themes consist of predefined color combinations (similar to the longstanding slide color schemes in PowerPoint) and fonts that are supposed to work well together. The Apex theme, for example, combines Lucida Sans and Book Antiqua with a set of grayed-out blues and browns, while Flow combines Calibri and Constantia (two of Microsoft’s new Office fonts) with blues and greens.

Choose a Theme, and the theme colors and associated tints are added to the standard colors in all the color palettes, while the fonts are put at the top of the Font list and incorporated into the document’s predefined styles. Themes are a quick way to get a nice-looking if not dazzling document (and dazzling is often best left to the pros).

Word

The first thing you’ll notice when you launch Word 2008 is the new unified tool area, with your tool bars collected into the document window under the document title rather than floating by themselves as before. One thing I appreciated was that the tool bars retained all my customizations, including my custom tool-bar icon for curly quotes.

I also liked the way the Preferences pane has been redesigned to mimic the OS X System Preferences pane, with a Search box added. Since I’m one of those who find Word more usable after turning off a lot of its default “helpful” settings, I was glad for the help tracking them down.

The Word-specific tabs in the Elements Gallery are Document Elements and Quick Tables. Click the Document Elements tab, and you see buttons for cover pages, table of contents, header, footer and bibliographies. Click one of the buttons, and you get a gallery row of thumbnail examples of that element. Just click on the thumbnail to insert the element. You can then modify the colors, replace the pictures (if there are any) or do anything you could to one you laboriously built from scratch.

Similarly, the Quick Tables tab brings up a row of predesigned tables. You can, for example, insert a table with a header row of white text on a black background and alternating dark and light blue rows for the data underneath.

As a longtime Mac Word user, I was initially inclined to turn up my nose at this kind of hand-holding. But frankly, it’s unobtrusive and does what it’s supposed to do: open up features a lot of people don’t how to use or don’t even know are there. And even for those who do know how to, for example, build a table from scratch, it’s quicker to drop it in from the Elements Gallery and modify it to your taste.

Another major addition to Word 2008 puts one in mind of Pages: the new publishing layout view, which displays your document as though it’s sitting on a desk, with a choice of backgrounds including wood grains, brushed aluminum and even Grill, which looks like the front of a Mac Pro. These backgrounds are silly fun, a feature we don’t usually get from Microsoft.

The publishing layout view also brings up a new tool bar of page-layout tools, adds new options to the formatting palette, and places a Publication Templates tab in the Elements Gallery. The page-layout tools let you create text boxes (regular or vertical), draw shapes, set up page guides, group objects, arrange objects front to back and perform other similar tasks. The formatting palette offers the option to use ligatures and adds controls for tracking and kerning, baseline shift, and more.

You can drop into Publishing Layout View in any document, but most users will probably begin by selecting one of the new publication templates. These are well-designed layouts for newsletters, brochures, flyers, catalogs and other standard documents, with dummy text and photos that you can replace with your own. Personally, I find the Pages templates to be a little more sophisticated.

One welcome feature is that you can modify an existing template to your taste and save it as a custom template. If you save it to the appropriate folder in Applications/Microsoft Office 2008/Office/Media/Templates, it will appear in your Document Elements tool bar along with the default templates.

Excel

The improvements in Excel 2008 are in line with the rest of the suite: They’ll help you get started and assist you afterwards.

Most notable are the new Ledger Sheets, accessed from the Sheets tab in the Elements Gallery. Ledger Sheets are predesigned spreadsheets with formulas and cell categories already built in; the Sheets tab offers templates for accounts, budgets, invoices, portfolios (for stocks and funds) and reports, plus a tab to add blank sheets, lists, or charts to the workbook. The Invoice Ledger Sheet, for example, comes with columns for quantity and price, plus a total invoice column that multiplies those together.

That’s all helpful, but there’s no obvious way to reveal the structure of the ledgers. The formula bar is grayed out, so you can’t just click on the Total Invoice cell and see what its formula is — you have to copy the entire line to a blank sheet and look at the formula there. You can add a new column to those already there, but only by choosing from a list of predefined columns. So, for example, you can add a date paid or priority column to an invoice, but not a rebate column. And even if you could, you couldn’t get at the formula for the total invoice column to incorporate the rebate information.

This all seems unnecessarily restrictive, especially since some of the value of a prebuilt worksheet is that it should help inexperienced users learn how the program works. In Apple’s Numbers spreadsheet application, by contrast, if you click in an invoice’s Cost column, you see Quantity*Unit Price in the formula bar and can easily edit or add to it. Excel has a long way to go to match that ease of use.

When you do build your own sheet, though, help is quickly available from the Excel-specific tab in the floating palette. Click on the Formula Builder tab, and you’ll see a list of functions grouped by category, with the most recently used at the top. Find the function you want and click on it to see an explanation of what it does; double-click on it to bring up boxes for entering the arguments or cells that the function will operate on. Occasional Excel users who don’t have every function memorized will find that the Formula Builder makes it a lot easier to build their own spreadsheet.

You’ll also find significant improvement in Excel’s chart-making abilities. You create a chart by — what else? — choosing the Charts tab in the Document Elements gallery and selecting an appropriate chart type. That’s when the fun starts. In the formatting palette, you can change colors, change types of fills (solid, graduated, shiny), change line weights, add drop shadows, and add and format labels, titles, and legends — all of those choices are now just a click away.

As with all the Office formatting palettes, there’s a section for document themes, too. Choose one, and your fonts and color scheme will immediately change to reflect it. And at that point, you can go in and tweak everything again. If you love to play with your charts to get them looking exactly the way you want, Excel 2008 is meant for you.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint was already something of a graphics powerhouse, so its makeover isn’t as dramatic as those of Word or Excel. It does get an Elements Gallery, of course, from which you can choose slide theme, slide layouts, transitions and table styles, in addition to the elements shared with the rest of the suite.

The first thing you’ll notice about the interface is the option for a thumbnail view in the left pane of the main screen, supplementing the existing outline view. Thumbnail view displays small versions of your slides, which dynamically update as you edit your presentation. You can quickly get a sense of how your whole presentation hangs together without having to switch into the Slide Sorter View.

PowerPoint is where the suitewide SmartArt Graphics tools really come into their own. These are tools for creating graphic representations of the relationships among your ideas — for example, you can put them inside gears to suggest how they interlock, display secondary points as satellites orbiting around a central idea, show a series of actions as arrows leading one to the next, or any of dozens of other options. And the program is smart enough to take bullet points that are already in one format (including plain old bullet points) and place them into another with a click on the desired thumbnail in the Elements Gallery. Used with restraint (please!), the SmartArt treatments can really add visual interest to your slide shows.

The PowerPoint-specific tab in the floating is Custom Animation. This is where you find your options for animating a slide — creating an entrance or exit effect, determining how quick it is, establishing which items it affects, that sort of thing. The palette incorporates a Play button, so you can preview the effect right away.

Layout is easier, too, with Dynamic Guides, which appear on screen as you move objects around to show when they’re lined up. They make it a lot easier to create a tightly designed slide, in comparison with trying to do it by eye.

Finally, PowerPoint 2008 adds several handy new features for delivering your presentation as well as creating it. PowerPoint 2004 introduced Presenter Tools, which display useful information on your screen as you deliver your presentation, such as a timer, a thumbnail of what slide is up next and a panel showing your speaker notes. The new version adds the ability to reset the timer during the presentation, as well as a digital clock so you can see the actual time as well as elapsed time. And you can save your slides as a series of JPG or PNG images and send them to iPhoto for posting on the Web or presentation from an iPod.

In a way, PowerPoint is the smoothest upgrade of the bunch. The new features make it easier and more convenient to use, without requiring you to learn anything new. Heavy PowerPoint users should jump on this new version.

Entourage

The new version of Entourage is probably the least changed of the four programs, unless you work in a Microsoft Exchange environment. It remains a capable e-mail program, with some advantages over Apple Mail. And by incorporating your Contacts, Calendar, and Project Center, it also serves as the nerve center for your digital activities.

Entourage 2008 features improved junk-mail filters and phishing protection — supposedly, it will warn you if you get a “phishy” e-mail. (I didn’t get one during the time I’ve spent with the program, so I’ll have to take Microsoft’s word for it.) There’s a new To Do list feature, and you can turn messages into to-do items, as you can in the Leopard version of Mail.

You can display your to-do items, along with your calendar events, in the new My Day widget. Visible all the time, whether you’re in Entourage or not, My Day lets you see what’s on your plate at all times. It’s also live, so if you click the check box next to an item, it marks it as complete.

Entourage 2008 adds some very useful features for those connected to a Microsoft Exchange server. For example, anyone can schedule an event and invite people to it by choosing their names from the Contacts list. But those in an Exchange environment can see other Entourage users’ schedules to make sure that everyone’ is free. Entourage with Exchange also lets you set up an out-of-office message to be automatically sent during the time you specify.

Entourage is a solid personal assistant (it doesn’t seem enough to just call it an e-mail program), but there’s no compelling reason to use it instead of the combination of Mail, iCal and Address Book that come free with your Mac, unless you’re in an Exchange environment. Once you get Office, of course, you might decide you prefer handling e-mail, contact management and scheduling in one program rather than three, or you might really like the My Day widget, or you might prefer Entourage to the Apple alternatives. But don’t buy Office just to get Entourage.

Conclusions

From some angles, the overall question of whether you should upgrade to Office 2008 is a no-brainer. Office 2008 is as close as you can get to a universal app, and all of the changes I explored are improvements or at least potentially worthwhile additions — why not get it?

Well, maybe you’ve never needed compatibility with Office and have found alternative programs you like better, or you’re perfectly happy with one of the open-source alternatives (or you just hate Microsoft). Certainly, if you’ve been able to get by all this time without Office, there’s little reason to buy the 2008 version.

But if you do use Office, plan on getting Office 2008. I’d recommend waiting until you get an Intel Mac if you haven’t yet, because of the performance hit you’ll take compared with Office 2004 on a PowerPC Mac. But aside from that caveat, you’ll find that Office 2008 helps you get your work done more quickly and easily than before. You’re also likely to start using features that were always there but were too much trouble to bother with, such as using alternating colored rows in your tables or graphical presentations of ideas on your slides.

Comment: edit@itworldcanada.com

Share on LinkedIn Share with Google+