Microsoft Office for Mac 2008 Home and Student
Microsoft Office 2008 is the latest release of Microsoft's productivity suite, which includes word processing, spreadsheet, presentation, email and calendaring tools.
Office 2008 features a radical interface overhaul, which combines the best of Office's previous features, such as the Formatting Palette, with a very Mac OS X-style way of working and some innovations. It also brings native Intel processor compatibility, which required a complete overhaul of the code base.
But, there are some losses, too. Visual Basic for Applications, the scripting system used by many enterprises to automate workflows, has been dropped, to the consternation of many business customers. And Office 2008 requires at least a PowerPC G4 processor; as in Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard, G3-based iMac and iBooks are not supported. VirtualPC has been dropped.
Microsoft Office has dominated the business and education productivity market for the past decade. Old competitors such as WordPerfect, Persuasion, and Lotus Jazz have fallen by the wayside, and niche players such as Mellel and Nisus Writer have survived but are no competition against Microsoft's marketshare and marketing supremacy.
Over the past four years, since Microsoft's Macintosh Business Unit ("Mac BU"), released Office 2004, the competitive landscape has changed significantly. Apple's iWork suite has gained a spreadsheet application, Numbers, while Pages has become a viable word processor. At a quarter the price of Microsoft Office, iWork has pressured Office from the low end with great graphics and outstanding usability.
The OpenOffice suite provides a free clone of Microsoft Office, if not much in the way of innovation or Mac integration. (NeoOffice has made the strongest effort to create a Mac version of OpenOffice.)
Meanwhile, Web applications have become viable alternatives for many people. Google Docs, for example, provides basic word processing, spreadsheet and presentation capabilities. While primitive compared to the rich interfaces of traditional Mac and PC applications, these tools work from any computer with an Internet connection. Moreover, the online document sharing features change the way users work in very fundamental ways. Emailing documents becomes irrelevant when you can simply grant a colleague access to your documents folder online.
With price pressure from the low end, and compelling collaboration features available from new online applications threatening the very model of Mac/PC-based software, Microsoft's Mac BU faces its most serious challenge in a decade.
As with the previous version, Office 2008 is available in three versions. The "Student and Teacher" edition has been renamed "Home and Student Edition", and still includes three license codes. The standard edition is targeted at business users, and includes nearly a hundred Automator Actions and sample Workflows, plus support for Microsoft Exchange servers.
The most expensive Professional edition has been replaced with "Special Media Edition"; instead of Virtual PC, it includes Microsoft Expression Media, which was formerly iView Media Pro before Microsoft's buyout. iView, a media management and presentation program, had a loyal following among designers and photographers who made it an integral part of their workflow.
All Office 2008 versions also include the free MSN Messenger client.
User Interface Overhaul
Office's new look is immediately apparent. Gone are the floating toolbars we've had since Word 5 (or before). Instead, an integrated, Leopard-style toolbar adorns each document window, offering a limited selection of the most frequently used functions. It's obvious that a lot of work has gone into de-cluttering the interface (but all your old toolbars are still available if you want them; just go to the View -> Toolbars menu).
Office has always been extremely powerful, but many of its features were previously hidden behind obscure menu titles. Rather than copy Office 2007's controversial "Ribbon" interface, the Mac BU has created an Elements Gallery feature (more on that below) and intelligently merged the old Toolbox with the Formatting Palette into a very useful new inspector-style Toolbox panel.
Development focused on creating "discoverable" interfaces, and we think this will go a long way to helping new users become "power users."
The "Elements Gallery" is a new way to quickly browse and insert document objects, and even styles or themes. Located just below the toolbar, a series of tabs each expands to reveal a visual gallery of objects and styles that you can add to your document.
These visual representations of Office's increasingly crowded and confusing menus are just the thing for helping less sophisticated users take advantage of Office's powerful features. Experienced users with established habits can still access all the usual (and new) features in the same ways, however, via Insert, Format, and Tools menus.
The Elements Gallery includes charts, new SmartArt Graphics, and newly-enhanced WordArt. These are available across Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but each of them also has application-specific features.
Word's Document Elements include cover pages, tables of contents, pre-styled headers and footers, and bibliographies. Excel features a number of handy templates for budgets, checkbooks, invoices, reports, stock portfolios and other common financial tools. PowerPoint's Elements Gallery not only offers useful new objects, but also provides a great visual gallery of pre-designed slide templates and layouts, manages transitions, and inserts styled data tables.
Entourage, not being a document editor like the rest of the Office suite, has no Elements Gallery.
Office 2008's other flashy new tool is "SmartArt", which is designed to help you create info-graphics in a hurry. From within the Elements Gallery, a variety of list, cycle, process flow, hierarchy, relationship, matrix and pyramid graphics are ready to illustrate your concepts.
You can edit SmartArt text directly, but we found it quicker to use the Aperture-style, "HUD" panel to add new items and create hierarchies.
SmartArt is extremely handy, but we foresee a lot of confusing documents and presentations as people experiment with this new tool. Make sure your graphic choices fit the information you are presenting!
The Formatting Palette, introduced in Office v.X (a.k.a. Office 2001), received a major overhaul, both visual and functional, as it was combined with the old Toolbox into a new, unified panel for Office 2008. Both old and new tools can be found in an array of buttons at the top.
The default (and most used) panel is the Formatting Palette, which looks both larger and clearer than its immediate predecessor. Appearances deceive, though — a reduction in borders between elements increases their visual presence in the same space, which improves usability on the increasingly high-pixel-density screens found on newer Macs, without consuming more real estate.
The various formatting panes are largely the same, but there is a new "Document Theme" item at the bottom. This pane provides a range of attractive color schemes and typeface combinations that you can apply to a document for a quick re-styling.
The Symbol browser is much larger, making it easier to locate and insert special typographic symbols. The Object Palette now includes not only a selection of shapes, but also an integrated clip art browser that includes a variety of photos complete with alpha channels.
And the entirely new Photo browser displays your iPhoto Library, or folders full of pictures from elsewhere on your Mac or local network. (Oddly, Aperture is not supported, despite its XML export, which any application can read.)
Reference Tools still include thesaurus and dictionary functions but now add integrated Encarta Encyclopedia lookup (no longer using a separate web browser). Wikipedia would be nice, but since students should reference verified sources, Encarta really is a better choice.
The tools also include bilingual dictionaries (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Japanese, and Simplified and Traditional Chinese), web search (using MSN Search), and even a translation service. Unfortunately, the Translation service didn't work for us. Word reported "Office cannot connect to the Internet" despite successfully performing other online lookups.
A new Citations Palette for Word vastly simplifies management of citations and bibliographies. In previous versions of Word, you had to know that citation management was hidden behind two layers of menus and several clicks, and, even then, the interface was arcane at best.
The new panel makes it a snap to add new citations, insert them into the text, and generate a bibliography. While dedicated products such as EndNote still excel at managing tens of thousands of citations across dozens of projects, as required by professional scholars, Word's new Citations manager is a godsend for students.
The preference windows of each Office suite have been redesigned to look like Apple's System Preferences. Word goes the furthest of the suite, with twenty preference screens divided into groups: "Authoring and Proofing Tools", "Output and Sharing", and "Personal Settings".
Excel has fifteen screens, grouped into "Authoring", "Formulas and Lists", and "Sharing and Privacy". PowerPoint has no groupings, instead listing the screens along the toolbar — a curious break from the pattern.
Word and Excel also include a Spotlight-style text search like System Preferences.
Although they look like normal preference windows, the Preferences windows have no close box; instead you still must click "OK" or "Cancel".
Another oddity is that document-specific settings – such as per-document security, view, and spelling/grammar – are still mixed in with application preferences. We would have expected this terrible practice to be excised by now, but no such luck.
At least the Security pane for Word and Excel now gives you the option to exclude personal information from document properties on save. But this feature is missing from PowerPoint — yet another strange inconsistency in the otherwise-thoughtful interface update.
Graphics and Text Rendering
Microsoft says that Office 2008 has a newly overhauled graphics engine. It's quite obvious in the flashy animation used throughout Office 2008, but we also noticed a change in text rendering between Word 2004 and Word 2008:
Line lengths have slightly contracted, but it doesn't appear to affect text wrapping when documents are exchanged between Word 2004 and 2008. (Word may still warn you that text wrap may change when saving as a Word 97-2004 file.)
Office's traditionally wonky zoom has been fixed at last. In all previous versions of Office we've used, setting the document enlargement in 25% increments resulted in weird letter-spacing within words and has never been very readable. (We used 33% increments, instead, to avoid the strangeness of the preset choices.)
Office 2008 gets it right at last – 125%, 75% and 175% zooms are no longer bizarre-looking. Now they're as good as Apple's iWork has been since its inception.
After the interface changes, Word's biggest new feature is "Publishing Layout View." Responding directly to the challenge of Apple's Pages, Publishing Layout provides a remarkably complete toolset for basic desktop publishing tasks. From creating and applying master page layouts, to making and linking text boxes, to adding rich graphics, Word has gone from nearly impossible to incredibly easy to use. It even shows alignment guides like Pages and Keynote do, and supports type ligatures.
At first glance, the layout tools lag in a few areas – resizing images, for example, shows a live translucent preview, but there is no live text re-wrapping, as Pages does. However, these limits serve to keep the tools usable on slower Macs, a sensible design decision.
Like Pages, Publishing Layout creates an entirely different document vs. the standard Print Layout. Page layout and word processing are treated as two different tasks, and you cannot switch back and forth between them, even though both Print and Publishing Layouts look like printed pages on-screen! We had hoped that Word 2008 might improve upon this multiple personality disorder in Pages, but, alas, it was not to be.
Publishing Layout View has a special Elements Gallery distinct from Print Layout's "Document Elements", providing, instead, an array of attractively-designed templates, including newsletters, brochures, flyers, invitations, programs, postcards, catalogs, awards, menus, posters and signs, and even CD labels.
While iWork has an edge in sheer design elegance, Word's templates seem better chosen for common home and school tasks, with designs for theater programs, award certificates, flyers and newsletters. Small businesses are covered too, with templates ranging from menu designs to product catalogs to marketing postcards. Combined with Word's new "Document Theme" palette (complementary color and type schemes), users will be up and running in a hurry.
A whimsical, yet pleasant, feature is Publishing Layout's background. Instead of the pale teal color that Office 2008 uses for the Print Layout view, a rich oak wood texture behind your document makes it feel like you're working on a well-made drawing table. You can select from an array of wood, leather, paper and metal surfaces — even brushed aluminum or titanium to match your PowerBook, or a metal grill like the Mac Pro's. It's a little thing, but it made us smile. (We wish we could do this also to the Print Layout view!)
Word's Notebook view gets a visual update, too. Five new Notebook styles, each with and without rings, provide attractive new choices that are easier on our eyes than Word 2004's were. The same choice of backgrounds is available as in Publishing Layout view. The other tools are basically unchanged, and as useful as ever: the Scribble pencil lets you sketch and draw connections between note areas, and the audio tool records, using your Mac's built-in microphone, and lets you replay sections of the recording matching note bullet items.
Over its twenty-three year history, Excel has become immensely powerful. Short of a radical re-envisioning of how spreadsheets work (such as Apple's Numbers), it seems like there's just not much left to add to Excel.
Excel 2008's main improvements are its new Formula Builder panel, formula autocomplete, and pre-designed ledger sheets. (Excel 2008 retains its old formula bar, the only floating toolbar remaining in Office 2008.)
Formula Builder makes it easy to find and use functions from Excel's extensive library, functioning as a combination help system and wizard. You can type values or cell references directly or click in your worksheet to insert cell references and ranges. Formula Builder inserts the formula into the worksheet, as you construct it, and provides a live calculation preview when the functions have enough values to evaluate. After years of struggling through Excel's help system to find the precise formula we needed, Formula Builder was a welcome addition.
A related improvement is function autocomplete. When typing in formulas, Excel provides a list of possible matching functions. Selecting one is as simple as arrowing down through the list and pressing return or tab. Programmers take code completion for granted in modern development environments, and Excel 2008's new autocomplete feature brings this functionality to ordinary users.
As mentioned in our overview of Elements Gallery, Excel 2008 includes a variety of pre-built ledger sheets, which help new users get up and running with common tasks and provide some limited customization of column fields. They won't replace dedicated tools such as QuickBooks and Quicken, but they're a big improvement over paper bookkeeping.
Much like Excel, PowerPoint has modest enhancements, once you look past the new Elements Gallery and updated Toolbox. Animating slide elements is much faster and easier now, thanks to a new "Custom Animation" tool in the Toolbox, and Keynote-style dynamic guides make aligning objects on-screen easy.
PowerPoint 2008's fancy text effects are a mixed blessing. It's easy to go overboard!
Presenter tools (for dual-screen setups) have been tweaked, with a new clock option added, and navigation arrows are now side-by-side, reducing mousing. The Apple Remote can be used to navigate forward and back during a presentation, including triggering slide builds.
In addition to PowerPoint's existing export to movie and web formats, PowerPoint 2008 includes a "Save as Pictures" option. This is intended to send slides to iPhoto, and from there to an iPod for presentation on a television or projector. This is another nice touch; users were already doing this, but now it's quick and easy. Of course, fancy animations aren't saved in those pictures — but this is probably a blessing, given the distracting over-use of animation we've seen in presentations over the years!
Office's new graphics engine shows off in PowerPoint's new templates — drop shadows and reflections can be found everywhere. The "Slide Themes" gallery does not include templates that were installed with Office 2004, but you can apply them as custom themes if you saved your old Office 2004 application folder.
The new PowerPoint slide templates, as in Word, are professionally designed and very usable. Some are whimsical, but most are far more elegant and professional than those found in previous incarnations of PowerPoint.
Entourage 2008 updates Microsoft's email client and project manager for the Mac. Combining email, calendaring, contact management and task/project tracking, Entourage is very powerful, but like Excel and PowerPoint, it focuses on the user interface and keeps new features to a minimum. We're not Entourage users ourselves — having tried it and returned to other clients such as Apple Mail, Thunderbird and venerable Eudora. But a quick look at Entourage 2008 is encouraging.
The new "My Day" feature provides at-a-glance reference to appointments and tasks, even if Entourage is closed, and in Entourage itself, tasks are consolidated in one to-do list. The calendar features the ability to add travel time before and after appointments, and they display as shaded areas before and after a meeting in day and week views. You can also color-code appointments by category, and you can create new appointments by dragging in the calendar (old hat to iCal users, admittedly).
The overall interface is cleaned up and streamlined compared to Entourage 2004. We always found the old version to be visually cluttered and confusing. While the interface hasn't quite gotten a clean sweep, it's much streamlined and we're no longer put off merely looking at it.