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Sunday, July 18, 2010

Office 2010 review roundup

Microsoft’s newest version of its world-dominating software suite, Microsoft Office 2010, is available to buy starting today. Office 2010 also comes in a free, Web-based version hosted by Microsoft.

Office 2010 has already been thoroughly reviewed by professional reviewers with advance copies. So depending on who you read, you’ll get anything from a hasty post by a blogger who hates Microsoft or a detailed assessment by, say, Ed Bott, who has written about Microsoft products for a living for years.

Even better, you can let me skim Ed’s writeup for you.

What’s new in Office 2010

Office 2010 is a surprisingly deep, thoughtfully designed, well-engineered collection of software programs,” writes Windows how-to author Ed Bott, who says Microsoft’s number of improvements have pushed his forthcoming book on Office 2010 into overtime. “The more I dig,” he writes, “the more I like the small but useful touches that the Office design team has wrought.”

Bott says that if you’ve got Office 2007, the 2010 version is a thorough completion of changes begun three years ago. If you’re still using Office 2003, he says, stop dithering and upgrade straight to 2010 for these reasons:

* The Ribbon. Microsoft’s replacement for 1980s-style menus debuted in 2007, but has been improved and polished a lot. “Many previously buried options are now much easier to discover,” Bott writes. The Ribbon makes smart use of the space atop your editing window, showing you all of the tools you might need at the moment, more like a surgeon’s tray than a menubar. OneNote and Publisher, which weren’t Ribbonized in the 2007 edition, have been brought aboard. As I wrote in 2007, you’ll hate the Ribbon at first, but eventually you’ll find yourself making better use of Office applications because the Ribbon calls them out for you based on what you’re doing, rather than sending you on a menu crawl. In Office 2010, you can also create custom Ribbon tabs with your own choices of tools grouped together.

* Co-authoring. Multiple people can edit the same document at the same time from different locations. Google Docs popularized this feature. Putting it into Office removes one of the most compelling reasons to switch.

* Threaded conversations. Both Outlook 2010 and Microsoft’s new Hotmail offer Gmail-like nesting of messages into conversations as an option. It can take a day or two to get used to, but for high-volume mail users it removes the need to track ongoing discussions in your head. Gmail debuted with this option six years ago. Finally, Microsoft catches up.

* Navigation Pane. Goodbye Document Map, which you probably didn’t use. The new Navigation Pane shows a structural outline of the document you’re working on, with instant searching and the ability to drag section titles of a document around to re-order them. If you create anything longer than three pages on a regular basis, it encourages you to re-sort your trains of thought.

Free Web-based Office 2010

Sign up for a free Hotmail account and you’ll also get access to a browser-based version of Office 2010. You can create and edit Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote docs in a browser window.

* The good news: If you’re away from your main computer with its installed Office apps and need to create a new document, the browser version is a good way to start a new Word, Excel, PowerPoint or OneNote doc using the nearest browser you can borrow.

* No software downloads or plugins required. It works in just about any browser that anyone actually uses.

* The bad news: It’s not as powerful as the desktop version. Most annoyingly, it won’t let you edit documents that have the Track Changes feature enabled. You can read them, but you can’t make additional changes. I can’t use it for most of my writing work as a result.

Charles Arthur, technology editor for The Guardian newspaper in London, says of the Web version, “it’s a promising start.” But he lists several important features in the free Google Docs application suite that Microsoft, for whatever reason, hasn’t yet built into the online version. The biggest shortcomings:

* The cloud version of Office 2010 only saves documents to Microsoft’s newest file format. That means pre-2007 versions of Office can’t open them.

* No co-authoring. The desktop version does it, but the cloud version doesn’t. That seems backwards.

Free for 60 days, cheaper at Amazon

Unlike past releases, Microsoft offers no upgrade package that will transform previous versions to Office 2010 for less than the price of a fresh new copy. No need to spring big bucks to try it, though. You (and your coworkers) can download a 60-day free trial that doesn’t overwrite whatever version of Office you have installed now. If you decide to buy, Amazon has discounted the Home and Student version to $129.99 and the Home and Business version, which adds Outlook, for $239.99.


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