Microsoft Word 2011 is Worth the Journey

MS Word iconThere has never been a Macintosh program that has been so loved, so reviled, so controversial, so often purchased, so written about, and so often taken as a signpost for the health and well being of the Microsoft Macintosh Business Unit as MS Word. A program of this scope, almost like a public figure, has responsibilities, flaws, advocates and detractors. The key to understanding and using Microsoft Word version 14 as part of the Microsoft Office 2011 suite is to leave the attitude behind and try to understand what the users want and what Microsoft tries to deliver.

Another way to approach MS Word is to appreciate what Microsoft has done even as we recognize that such a monster program will have flaws. For example, we in the Macintosh community have come to recognize certain UI elements, certain Core Graphics technologies, certain ways of doing things as either hip or backwards. For a long time, the MacBU went its own way, and while modern Mac OS X apps leaped into the future, embracing all that Apple advocated, Word 2008 seemed, at times, antediluvian. Worse, the Macintosh version always seemed a little less capable, a little less business oriented than its corresponding app on the Windows side.

Word 2011 (v.14) changes all that. First, even though it’s fundamentally a 32-bit Carbon app, it has both the look and feel of its Windows counterpart while simultaneously making dramatic steps to be more Mac enabled.

MS Word 11 (Microsoft) 

Microsoft Word 14, Office 2011 (Microsoft)

Microsoft’s Jake Hoelter with the Mac BU explained: “In Office 2011, we’ve made investments in better compatibility between Office for Mac and Windows Office, which is the largest request we receive from customers. Our work to increase compatibility means we haven’t completed the transition of moving the entire user interface over to Cocoa yet. And because Apple’s frameworks require us to complete the move to Cocoa before we can build a 64-bit version, Office 2011 will be 32-bit only.” However, the new Outlook program in the MS Office 2011 suite is written in Cocoa.

All this, of course, is a grand scheme. Some customers won’t like the new UI, but what’s important is that Microsoft has recognized that the Mac is moving into the enterprise. Therefore, Word on the Mac must cater to the needs of enterprise users. This specific design goal supersedes the traditional notion, in our community, that a Word processor should be ultimately simple, elegant and hyper-intuitive, like Nisus Writer. In my own case, when I have a major writing task to tackle, it’s likely going to be with Nisus Writer Pro. However, for those who don’t want to risk conversion issues with a publisher, those who are making a living in the workplace with MS Word, and those who need the ultimate in scope and power, MS Word is the standard. Again, once we understand that, we’re ready to dig in.

As an aside, I normally compose my articles in BBEdit and then copy and paste into our publishing engine. In this case, however, I wrote the entire review in Word 14 itself.


The first thing I noticed is that Microsoft, like Apple, is getting away from glitzy, retro-cartoonish looks and more down to business. The installer has a low key, professional look.

Office 11 Install


During the install, you’ll be asked to quit Safari if it’s running. At first, I suspected, the installer is adding Sliverlight to /Library/Internet Plug-ins. (Silverlight is Microsoft’s answer to Adobe Flash and is required, for example, to watch streamed Netflix movies on a Mac.) UPDATE: Microsoft later passed on to me that Silverlight is not installed, but I’m still waiting to hear from them why this particular warning occurs.

Office 11 warning

Warning: Quit Safari

The first thing you’ll see when you launch Word is a nicely laid out “What’s New” page that looks like something Apple would do. I’ll go so far as to guess that Microsoft has paid close attention to how Apple approaches the customer with iLife and iWork. That “What’s New” page can be brought up at any time from Word’s Help menu.

Word 11 - what's new

What’s New

Evidence of Apple’s influence appears right away in an improved Document Gallery that allows the user to select from several different kinds of templates, focused just on Word, and resizable with a slider. Mac Word 2008 had a glimmer of this, called the Project Gallery, but it had neither the clarity of purpose nor clarity of presentation this new one has. In addition, the old Project Gallery had a less than ideal combination of tabs, popup, and a source list, so items weren’t as discoverable. I turned the old one off right away, but I think I’ll leave the new one enabled. In general, clarity of purpose and discoverability is a design theme that permeates Word 2011.

Word Project Gallery

Document Gallery

In terms of launch speed, Word 14 has made great strides. I remember Word 6 back in 1994 that, in a disastrous attempt to have a common code base with the Windows version, required all of eternity to launch on my Quadra 700 and was met with howls and scorn by the Macintosh community. (That was the fastest Mac money could buy at the time.) Word 14 for the Mac launches the first time in a few seconds. The second time you load the same document, it launches in under two seconds, and I have a 2.4 GHz (C2D) MacBook Pro, which isn’t all that fast by modern standards. No matter how you look at it, Microsoft deserves props here.

The OmiGod Ribbon

The most significant and controversial change to Word in MS Office 2011 for the Mac is the Ribbon. While Microsoft may have been coerced (or seduced) into simplifying Word for the Mac in the past, making no one very happy, the company has to be given credit for having the courage to introduce the Ribbon. In fact, tabs of ribbons. That is, select Home, Layout, Document Elements, etc. to roll in a different ribbon.  It’s a nice way to manage things in a hierarchy.

Word Ribbon

The Ribbon — managed with tabs

It’s absolutely not for everyone, but the design is a concession to the idea that pull down menus are so yesteryear when it comes to editing a document. Modern users want to make changes right now, this instant, not go fishing around the main menu for just the right menu item. For example, if you have a list of names, and you want to sort it right now, just select the text and click the sort button, (highlighted in red by the author). Which I just did here in Word. 

Word 11 sort

Sort Button in the Ribbon




If you’re only an occasional creator of large, complex documents, you’ll probably hate the visual clutter. If you live in Word every day, and after all that’s the target audience, I think you’ll be very pleased. As for me, I’m growing to like it more and more.

Word’s New Features

Here’s an overview of the most significant new features in Word 14.

  • The Ribbon
  • A New Word Document Gallery (formerly Project Gallery)
  • A full screen view like that found in some dedicated novel and screenplay writing programs like Scrivener and Storyist, for example
  • Dynamic Reordering, 3-D visualization of all layers in your
  • Publishing Layout view document. This lets you see and rearrange ordering for all of the objects on the page by simply dragging
  • Picture compression on save for easier sharing of documents
  • Equation Editor
  • Information Rights Management helps to better set permissions for individuals or groups
  • At-a-glance Document Compare

Word 11 equation editor

The equation editor (new)

Other features carried over from Word 2008 have been improved. Here’s a sampling of the notable ones.

  • Media Browser includes access to iPhoto library and iTunes playlists
  • Sidebar (formerly the navigation Panel) helps with large document management
  • Publishing Layout View adds, for example, dynamic layout guides. Very cool
  • Picture Editing, including a ‘remove background’ tool and filters
  • Charts adds additional tools
  • Text effects are applied directly so they can be edited and spellchecked.
  • Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) is back

The Big Questions

A full description and analysis of the new and improved features of Word 2011 (v. 14) would easily run 10,000 words. (The Microsoft Reviewer’s Guide runs 84 pages.) You’ll get all the details and more in the books that support this new version, but the supplied documentation is darn good. (See below.) For the purposes of this review, I want to focus on two things:

1. Is it worth upgrading? As is often the case, new features are added to an application just to generate a buzz and lure customers into upgrading. Then they find that the new features aren’t so often used, but they’re stuck with an even bigger, more bloated version of the app. I didn’t get that feeling with Word 2011. The new features are well thought out and worthy additions, especially the Ribbon, the Full Screen View, and (in my opinion) the Equation Editor. Word 2008 was just a warm up while Office 2011 is, well, essential.

2. What’s the consensus on the new design and features? Word 2011 is more Mac-like than ever, despite its commonality in appearance with the Windows version. Many of the new page layout, composition and editing features seem to be inspired by Apple’s Pages app. Little things, the UI elements reveal that Microsoft skillfully exercised many more of the Macintosh APIs at its disposal. For example, the Ribbon interface was written in Cocoa.

For the first time since Word 5.1, I had fun. I think that’s because in experimenting with all the functions, like the media browser interface to iPhoto, I found that things worked “as expected.” In the past, prior to Word 2008, you’d try something perfectly obvious, like selecting a picture and hitting return, expecting the insertion point to appear below and to the left of the image. In the dark days of Office for the Mac, that didn’t happen, and you’d get frustrated. (Also, I’ve learned the hard way to immediately turn off most of the auto-complete functions in order to avoid perplexing, unauthorized auto changes to my text.) The approach by Microsoft was that you, as a professional were expected to learn these UI nuances and instill them through daily use. Lately, it seems to me, Microsoft has come around to the idea that things should just work “as expected” in a modern UI kind of way. In Word 2011, I have yet to feel surprised or frustrated.

If that changes, I’ll have plenty to say about it.


Microsoft says that MS Word 2011 can open all versions of Word documents since Word 5.1. If you elect to save your documents in the new .docx format, then realize you need to share them with users of an older version, you can either use a converter program, the Open XML format converter, or resave in the Save As … dialog box in an older format.

I created an equation in a 2011 document, saved as .doc, and loaded it in Word 2008. It came through as an image and looked fine.

Oddly, given this compatibility, the installer leaves the old version of MS Office on the Mac. I have asked Microsoft about that.

Here’s some helpful commentary on the .doc/.docx situation.


You get everything but a printed manual, and that’s customary. The Help menu, in addition to a thorough table of contents, points to a wealth of resources, for example, what’s new. There’s also a link to resources for getting started. You won’t feel that Microsoft has skimped on providing resources to you.

Word 11 help

Word 2011 Help


This is a major, major application with a boatload of features. I will take any mortal months to discover its nuances. Accordingly, my provisional rating is Solid plus. The question here is, do you want to bother? My answer is “yes.” From the install to the launch speed to the new features, to the increasing Mac focus, Microsoft has shown that it understands that the Mac is insanely popular, on the rise in business, and needs a flagship, business standard word processor that is feature complete, easy to learn and fun to use. (I never thought I would say that.) The Ribbon helps there by making functions more discoverable. The full screen mode and equation editor, I think, will be very welcome to book writers and scientists.

That all said, despite the Full Screen View, if I were writing a novel, I’d still use a more focused app like Storyist.

Time will tell, as the app gets into widespread use, if there are gotchas and bugs. I predict some will be major and lead to the usual condemnation of Word on the Mac. History has proven that we get through those somehow. But if you never take the journey, you’ll never gain the rewards.

I think Word 2011 is worth the journey.

System Requirements

Office 11 Sys req

System Requirements


Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, Home and Student edition is priced at US$149.99. It comes with Word, Excel and PowerPoint and 90 days of technical support. Microsoft Office for Mac 2011, Home and Business edition is priced at US$279.99. It adds Outlook, and provides technical support for a year.


If you purchased Office 2008, either version, between August 1, 2010 and November 30, 2010, you are eligible to download the corresponding version for free.

Word 11 Full screen

Full Screen View, beautiful on Cinema displays

Question for Microsoft Mac BU

I had some questions for Microsoft that they could not respond to in time for this review. When I hear back, I’ll post them as Q&A.


Product: Microsoft Word 2011 (version 14)

Company: Microsoft

List Price: See review



Essential features added and previous features improved. More business-like yet more Mac-like at the same time. 


If Office 2008 purchased prior to August 01, 2010, you’ll have to buy the complete new office suite.