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Monday, December 13, 2010

Microsoft's Latest Version of Office Dogpiles New Features

Three years have passed since the last version of Office was released, so naturally it’s time for Microsoft to convince you that you need a new one.
Office 2010 arrives, heralding more than 100 new and improved features. The suite on the whole is compelling but, in typical Office fashion, has more software than any sane person could possibly need. It also boasts integration with Microsoft’s much-ballyhooed Web Apps, a potential Google Docs competitor that lets you create and edit documents using a free web-based interface.



The overall look and feel of Office 2010 is similar to Office 2007, so if you’ve become accustomed to the “ribbon” (Microsoft says its studies show it saves users lots of time and prevents mistakes from being made), you’ll have no trouble transitioning to Office 2010. In fact, the ribbon has now been extended to the entire Office lineup, and it can finally be customized, a long overdue feature.



Outlook is the most upgraded weapon in the Office arsenal. The biggest switch is the new Conversation View, and once you start using it you’ll wonder how you ever got on without it. Put simply, it lumps all replies to a message into a single item in the message list, eliminating the inbox full of “Re:” this and “Re:” that. If you need it, a twisty lets you see every message in the thread with a single click. Sick of it? Click the Ignore button and you’ll never see a reply to that thread again. It’s more intelligent and more capable than anything Gmail currently has.

The little things Microsoft has done to Outlook are just as welcome, like a much richer to-do bar (the rightmost pane), better search and Quick Steps, which are basically e-mail management macros built into the app. The social networking built into Outlook is, for now, not even half-baked — it’s maybe quarter-baked — but it’s a sign of interesting things to come once the proper Facebook and MySpace hooks are rolled out. On the other hand, Outlook’s integrated spam filter is still not quite fully cooked. It’s hard to believe that after all these years Microsoft still can’t nail a decent spam filter. Our advice? Microsoft should simply give up and retire it at this point.



This edition has substantial PowerPoint upgrades, most visibly with an integrated but rudimentary video-editing system right in the app. Dropping a movie into a slide show is now easy, and while you can’t do complicated edits like dubbing in multiple audio tracks or crossfading from one film to another, it’s probably good enough for the average PowerPoint user. Basic image editing — also inline with your document — is baked into the whole Office suite, too, and it’s powerful enough for the way most users will need to work with it.

Microsoft perhaps overreaches with its attempt to outdo third-party conferencing tools like WebEx. You can now take PowerPoint to the web with a feature that lets you turn presentations into web-viewable slide shows using any browser. It works as advertised, but only if you save your file to a Windows Live folder and the people you want to share with all have Windows Live logins — a real obstacle. Performance is lackluster as well.

Word and Excel aren’t fundamentally different from previous Office iterations, though changes to a few longstanding keyboard shortcuts may frustrate power users. The overall look is more polished though, and upgrades like the Backstage View, which gives you more visible prompts to remove personal information, revision marks and the like from documents you are distributing, are helpful.

If there’s one major problem with Office 2010, it’s printing. Microsoft has taken pains to improve print preview across the suite with more realistic WYSIWYG views, but this has come at the expense of speed. You can’t keep from previewing a document before printing, and rendering a graphics-heavy e-mail can take up to 15 seconds before you can even push the Print button. For busy admin types, this is a deal killer.

What’s worse is that in Outlook, printing is erratically implemented, so if you’re printing an e-mail you already have open in preview mode, sometimes Office will print a list view of the entire email folder by default. On the whole, printing in this version of Office is such a step back, I consider it fundamentally broken.
Microsoft’s attempt to integrate the web into Office 2010 is an effort so busted one wonders how it got this far. The idea with Web Apps is that anyone with a Windows Live account can view and edit documents saved to a SkyDrive or SharePoint account online, all within a web browser. Web Apps theoretically give you a stripped-down but functional (and cost-free) way to view and edit these files, even if you don’t have Office 2010 installed so you can collaborate from anywhere.

Unfortunately, Web Apps won’t be challenging Google Docs (or any other online document editor) anytime soon, as it’s uncommonly convoluted and buggy. Once you jump through all the hurdles to share a doc (even saving a file to SkyDrive is a pain), more often than not, it just won’t open for editing, or you’ll be prompted to re-save them in a different format. You can open Word docs and view them, but you can’t edit them — the mother of all WTFs. And the frequent prompts to install Microsoft Silverlight won’t be winning Web Apps many friends, either.
Ultimately, if your collaborator has any version of Office, just sending an attachment is infinitely more convenient and quicker. Sure, sometimes the system actually works, but there’s zero polish here: Even something as simple as using Outlook to send a file link to a recipient’s Hotmail account invariably results in a broken URL that has to be reconstructed by hand. This is all supposed to make sharing files easier, but Microsoft has somehow managed to make it far more complicated than you can imagine.

Should you buy Office 2010? It’s a compelling application suite with some nice new features, but if you’re using any version of Office produced this century, there’s nothing earth-shattering enough to justify its gargantuan price tag. And the serious flaws with spam filtering and Web Apps is more than disappointing.
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