Dr. Mac Reviews Office 2008

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As you probably know, Microsoft released an upgraded, updated version of its venerable Office suite last January. Iive been hard at work on a book about it (Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac For Dummies - $16.49 - Amazon), so for the past few months Iive had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of quality time with it.

Dubbed Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac, itis still available in three versions, like its predecessor (Office 2004 for Mac):

Office 2008 for Mac Home and Student Edition replaces Office 2004is Student and Teacher Edition. Itis still the least expensive ($149.95) edition and still offers three license codes. It includes the four main applications -- Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage -- but no Automator or Microsoft Exchange server support.

The Standard edition, known as Office 2008 for Mac, lists for $399.95 and includes the four main apps, a selection of Mac OS X Automator Actions and sample Workflows, plus support for Microsoft Exchange servers.

Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition replaces Office 2004is Professional edition. This edition lists for $499.95 and includes everything in the Standard edition and more. Where the 2004 Professional edition included the apparently discontinued Virtual PC emulation program, this yearis model instead offers Microsoft Expression Media, a media management and presentation program formerly known as iView Media Pro.

Oh, and all three editions include a copy of the free MSN Messenger client.

Whatis New, Pussycat?

Some of the biggest news about Office 2008 is pretty much invisible and tucked away under the hood... That news is that Office 2008 is a Universal binary application, which means that itis optimized for Intel processors but still pretty spry running on a PowerPC Mac. Iill tell you a bit more about what this might mean to you in the "Other Stuff" section later in this review.

Another new feature thatis easily overlooked is that this release has been "modernized" and (finally) looks like a genuine Mac program rather than a Windows port. Document windows sport a Mac OS X-style toolbar that offers pretty much the same functionality as the previous versionis very Windows-ish Standard toolbar. Alas, the Customize Toolbar option hasnit changed and still requires you to muck around in an unwieldy modal dialog box (rather than using the typical Mac OS X drop-down sheet).

Along the same lines, the preferences dialogs now look like Mac preference dialogs complete with rows of icons like System Preferences. But, unfortunately, unlike many Mac OS X programs, said preferences dialogs are totally modal and block you from doing anything -- such as editing your document, selecting menu items, or clicking toolbar icons -- until you click the OK button. Boo. Hiss.

The biggest visible feature is the addition of something called the Elements Gallery, a collection of enhancements that can be added to your Word, Excel, and PowerPoint documents with just a couple of clicks. It expands and collapses at will and appears below the standard toolbar. Wordis Elements Gallery is shown below collapsed (top) and expanded (bottom):

The tabs available in the Excel (Sheets, Charts, SmartArt Graphics, WordArt) and PowerPoint (Slide Themes, Slide Layouts, Transitions, Table Styles, Charts, SmartArt Graphics, WordArt) Elements Galleries differ slightly, but all work the same. Click a tab to expand it; click a sub-tab (Cover Pages, Table of Contents, Header, Footer, and Bibliographies in Wordis Document Elements tab) to expand it, and then click an item to insert it in your document instantly.

SmartArt Graphics are a new element available in Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. They are used to turn data into dynamic shapes, which allows you to create instant diagrams with no artistic talent whatsoever required. Hereis an example using PowerPoint. First, select some text (or numbers)...

Now, click an item in the SmartArt Graphics tab to create a diagram from that text...

If youire not happy with the way it appears, just click on a different item and the diagram changes instantly...

The Text Pane appears automatically when you create a SmartArt Graphic so you can edit your text and see the changes reflected in the diagram immediately. Itis a unique approach to turning words (or numbers) into meaningful graphic images, but used judiciously it can be a huge timesaver, letting you improve the quality of your communications without a lot of additional time.

The Toolbox in the Office 2008 applications is much more functional than in the previous edition. With multiple tabs (Formatting Palette, Object Palette, Scrapbook, etc. as shown in Wordis Toolbox below), many of which sport multiple panels (Font, Styles, and Document Theme are disclosed in the figure below).

So many functions that resided in disparate locations in earlier releases of Office are now consolidated in a single handy floating inspector-style palette.

For those in academia, the new Citations palette makes managing citations and bibliographies easier by an order of magnitude.

Finally, editions other than the Home and Student Edition include several sample Automator workflows as well as an extensive set of Automator actions for each application so you can build Automator workflows of your own. Hereis what Wordis sample Workflow menu looks like:

Hereis what the Save the current file in Word 97-2004 format Automator workflow looks like:

And here are the Automator actions available for creating Microsoft Word workflows:

So there you have it -- those are the most significant new features available across the board (in all Office apps). Now, allow me to hone in on each of the four main applications in turn, with an emphasis on new or improved features...

Word

Iid say Wordis biggest improvement is that there are more ready-made documents and document parts provided, and the new Publishing Layout view gives you more of a page layout environment than Word has ever offered.

First, the Project Gallery, which appears when you launch Word (and Excel and PowerPoint) is relatively unchanged from previous versions. The big difference is that there is much more content now -- more templates, forms, and other document types -- including many which would have been awkward (or impossible) with the new Publishing Layout view. For example, many of the templates in the Newsletter category (shown below) would be difficult or impossible to create in previous versions of Word.

In fact, the Publishing Layout view looks so different from Word views youive seen in previous versions -- such as the Draft, Print Layout, Notebook, and Outline views -- that you might not even recognize it. In the image below, compare the toolbar in Publishing Layout view to the toolbar shown in the Wordis Elements Gallery pictures earlier in this review. The tools in the Publishing Layout toolbar include a pointer (selection) tool, a grabber hand tool, arrange, and group tools, plus tools for linking and unlinking text in text boxes. Also note the Master Pages tab near the bottom right corner of the window.

The point Iim trying to make is that when youire using Word in its Publishing Layout view, it looks and feels more like a page layout program such as Pages (iWork), Quark XPress, or even Adobe InDesign, than like Word.

In the picture below you can see three elements from the Elements Gallery in a single document... the left-hand page is an example of a Cover Page element. The right-hand page is displaying Header and Footer elements as well as a Table of Contents element.

As you can see, these elements are kind of like mini-templates you can insert into your documents. I havenit gotten a ton of use out of the Elements Gallery yet but I expect to over time.

Excel

In Excel, the most notable new features are the Ledger Sheet and Chart elements in Excelis Elements Gallery, the new Formula Builder palette, and Formula AutoComplete. The elements are time savers to be sure, but the new formula features make using Excel significantly easier for occasional users such as yours truly.

Ledger Sheets, which you can select from either the Project Gallery dialog displayed when you launch Excel or the Elements Gallery ribbon below the Standard Toolbar in document windows, take the concept of templates to a new level. Theyire ready to rock with all of the formulas, list management features, and graphical elements pre-configured.

Hereis what the service invoice ledger sheet looks like.

Another nice touch is that the category column is pre-populated with a lengthy list of possible category names. To choose a category for an entry, you can either choose from a pop-up menu or start typing and let Excel AutoComplete the category name as shown here:

The process of creating a chart is much easier than in previous versions of Excel, mostly due to the ability to use the Elements Gallery and the Toolbox together to try various options quickly and painlessly. In the figure below I selected the data in the first two columns and then clicked one of the pie chart elements in the Elements Gallery. A couple of clicks in the toolbox added the labels, legend, and percentages. Total time expended: under 2 minutes.

Then, I decided it might be more meaningful as a bar chart, so I clicked a bar chart in the Elements Gallery and this was the result:

Total time expended changing from the pie to the bar chart: under 30 seconds.

The whole new metaphor for creating charts makes it faster, easier, and (dare I say it), more fun to create charts and to check out a variety of different renditions of your data.

Another new feature sure to please infrequent Excel users is the Formula Builder palette in the Toolbox, which provides easy fill-in-the-blank help with Excelis formulas. Just choose a function (Average in the picture below) and fields for the appropriate arguments appear in the palette along with the result of using those values.

The More help on this function link opens Excel Help to the appropriate page, where you can read an even more detailed explanation of the function. These two features combine to make it much easier to create formulas, particularly ones that require infrequently-used functions.

Along the same lines, if you know what function you want to use, the new Formula AutoComplete feature provides a pop-up menu with all of the functions that match what youive typed so far (S-u in the image below).

One last new feature is actually a removed feature you ought to be aware of and that is that this version no longer supports macros created with Visual Basic (which represent the vast majority of macros created with earlier versions of Excel). If you try to open a worksheet with VB macros youill get a warning and be allowed to either open the sheet with the macros left in place, or open the sheet and delete all of the macros. Either way this could be the deal breaker for serious spreadsheet jockeys. If you have many sheets with macros, think long and hard before you upgrade to Excel for Mac 2008.

By the way, this omission applies equally to Word and PowerPoint macros created with earlier versions of Office -- they wonit run in Office 2008 either.

PowerPoint

Aside from the Mac OS X-like Standard toolbar found in all of the Office 2008 apps, the interface element youire most likely to notice first is that the Slide and Outline views of the previous version of PowerPoint have been replaced by a single three-paned view known simply as "Normal." The pane on the left allows you to choose between thumbnails of your slides or an outline, with the Notes pane always available. Hereis what the Normal view looks like with Slides displayed in the left pane (top) and the Outline displayed in the left pane (bottom).

This all-in-one view makes it somewhat easier and faster to toggle between the slides and outline than the previous versionis pair of dedicated views.

There are more Themes, Layouts, and Transitions available in this version of PowerPoint, and all three are now managed primarily via the Elements Gallery. I feel that the Elements Gallery approach is most useful here in PowerPoint, where you can try out different themes, layouts, transitions, tables, charts, SmartArt, and WordArt effects with just a couple of clicks. It makes it easier to explore different looks for your slide show without wasting much (if any) time.

There are new options for tweaking graphic images, and theyire all in the Toolbox, which makes it easier than ever to try different effects and approaches. So you have more control over images without having to resort to using another program such as Photoshop, Elements, iPhoto, etc. to tweak your pictures.

Other new features include Dynamic Guides (like those found in Keynote), and a Send to iPhoto command in the File menu.

I have to say that I still find Appleis Keynote a much more intuitive and easier to use program that lets me create great looking presentations with less effort.

Entourage

Last but not least is Entourage, Microsoftis Swiss Army knife program for mail, contacts, calendars, to do items, notes, and projects. Here youill find that not much has changed beyond the face-lift received by all of the Office apps. The mail module is somewhat enhanced and streamlined, and its junk mail filtering is much improved. But the other modules -- Calendar, Address Book, Notes, Tasks, and Project Center -- look better but havenit changed much beyond that.

One welcome change under the hood is that Entourage now uses Spotlight for its searches and offers smart folders (called Saved Searches) in all of its modules.

Perhaps the most interesting Entourage innovation is the addition of a mini-program known as My Day, which provides a summary of upcoming events and to-do items in its own small window (and without launching Entourage) as shown here:

I wish iCal had such a feature.

I have to admit that I donit use Entourage. I find that Appleis equivalent offerings -- Mail, iCal, and Address Book -- serve my needs just fine. Itis not that Entourage is worse than the Apple apps. Rather, itis that I see no advantage to migrating all of my data from the Apple apps into Entourage. Furthermore, I see one big disadvantage: All of your Entourage data (including mail) is stored in a huge monolithic database file. So Time Machine (or other backup software) has to back up a huge database file every time you change even the smallest item in Entourage.

That alone was enough to tip the tables in Appleis favor, at least for me.

Other Stuff

Before giving you the bottom line, there are a few other things Iid like to mention.

First, with regard to Office 2008is performance as compared to Office 2004, the new version seemed to run somewhat more quickly on my MacBook Pro (2.33 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo with 3GB RAM) and about the same on my Power Mac G5 (Dual 1.8 GHz PowerPC G5 with 2GB RAM). Of course, comparing speed on just two machines is not exactly conclusive. Fortunately, MacTech magazine performed a series of benchmark tests comparing Office 2008 and Office 2004 performance under both Intel and PowerPC processors.

In brief, they reported that Office 2008 was somewhat faster than Office 2004 on Intel-based Macs, and marginally slower on PowerPC-based Macs, and concluded that it runs faster for most things on Intel Macs and runs well enough on PowerPC Macs that users may not notice much (if any) speed difference compared to Office 2004.

Another thing I should point out is that the Office 2008 introduces a new "default" file format for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files -- docx (Word), xlsx (Excel), and pptx (PowerPoint). Be careful because users with earlier versions of Office wonit be able to open these files with their versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. There is a beta version of a file translator application available, but note that itis a beta and apparently only works with Word and PowerPoint files (not Excel) at this time.

I also want to reiterate that Office 2008 no longer supports macros created with Visual Basic for Applications, which means that macros created with earlier versions of Office wonit work. While the new support for Automator and improved AppleScript support may allow you to replicate your old macros, youill need to invest a significant amount of time and effort to do so.

Finally, I should mention that I had several unexplained (and mostly unrepeatable) crashes in all four applications before applying the 12.0.1 Update released a few weeks ago. According to Microsoft:

This update fixes critical issues in Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac, including issues that might cause Office 2008 applications to stop responding or quit unexpectedly. For more information about this update, see the Microsoft Knowledge Base article (KB948057).

You can either use Office 2008is built-in AutoUpdate (in each applicationis Help menu), or download the update here.

Since I updated my copy of Office 2008 Iive had no problems with any of the apps quitting unexpectedly or otherwise misbehaving. So the first thing you should do after installing Office 2008 is run the updater if necessary.

Last but not least, the Office 2008 Help system deserves recognition for being better than any Office Help system before it and possible even better than OS X Help.

The Bottom Line

Regardless of which processor your Mac sports, this version of Office is solid -- itis not just easier to use, but also sports several useful improvements over previous versions. If you donit have a copy of Office already, this is the one to get.

For those with Office 2004, things arenit quite as clear. If you have an Intel-based Mac, the upgrade should be a no-brainer, if only for the improved performance. Unless, that is, you rely on macros written in Visual Basic for Applications, in which case you need to think long and hard about whether Office 2008 is right for you.

If you have a PowerPC-based Mac, the decision is even tougher. You need to determine whether the interface enhancements and new and/or improved features warrant shelling out for an upgrade. And again, if youire dependent on macros, you may want to stick with Office 2004 for as long as you can.

Pricing:

Home & Student Edition (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Entourage): US$149.95 ($129.99 - Amazon.com)

Office 2008 for Mac (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Entourage + Microsoft Server Exchange Support and Automator Actions for Workflows in Microsoft Office): US$399.95 ($315.49 - Amazon)

Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Entourage + Microsoft Server Exchange Support and Automator Actions for Workflows in Microsoft Office + Microsoft Expression Media): US$499.95 ($399.99 - Amazon.com

Product: Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac

Company: Microsoft Inc.

List Price: $399.95

Amazon.com Price: $315.49

Pros: Universal binary code runs faster on Intel-based Macs, several attractive new features in each application, more attractive user interface, improved Help system.
Cons: New file format not compatible with previous versions of Office, no speed improvement on PowerPC-based Macs, no support for macros created with previous versions of Office.

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