Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac full review

The transition from PowerPC to Intel hardware happened well after the release of the last version of Microsoft Office, so anyone using the Office applications has hitherto had to run them in the Rosetta emulation layer. While the Office apps worked reliably when used in this way, performance was generally sluggish, so if nothing else, simply getting a Universal Binary version of this essential productivity suite is a major advantage.

Anyone who has to collaborate with PC users will also welcome the fact that Office 2008 natively edits the OpenXML file format used by Office 2007 for Windows.

But even allowing for these important advances, the Mac marketplace will not be as easy for Office as it was back in 2004. Over the past few years, Apple has been steadily improving its own productivity suite, iWork. For a measly £55, iWork’08 combines a stellar presentation program, Keynote, with a competent word processor, Pages, and an innovative and easy to use spreadsheet program, Numbers.

Office versus the competition
One of the most sensible things Microsoft has done is to produce a range of competitively priced Office 2008 bundles spread across different price points.

At the top end is the Special Media edition at £449.99. This version comes with Microsoft Expression Media, a digital media management system aimed at pro users. On its own Microsoft Expression Media retails for £249, so combined with Office this represents a pretty good deal. The Special Media edition also includes a rich set of Automator actions for creating automated workflows, to some degree offsetting the fact Microsoft Office for the Macintosh no longer supports Visual Basic macros. The version of Entourage included in the Special Media edition is also fully Microsoft Exchange Server-compatible, making collaborative working across corporate networks much easier than before.

At £349.99, the Standard edition lacks Microsoft Expression Media but is otherwise similar, including the Exchange Server compatibility and the full set of Automator actions. The lack of Microsoft Expression Media is really no big deal for Mac users who don’t have to manage large and complex media libraries. Office 2008 automatically reads your iPhoto library, making it easy to import images stored there into your PowerPoint slides or other document from the Office Formatting Palette.

Oddly enough, the real star is at the low end: at £99.99, the Home & Student edition is a steal. While it isn’t compatible with Exchange Server and doesn’t have the full set of Automator actions, neither of these things is likely to upset the kind of users it is aimed at. While iWork ’08 is even less expensive, as good as Pages and Numbers are, they’re not in the same league as Word and Excel. It isn’t often that the words “Microsoft Office” and “Good Value” are strung together in one sentence, but in this instance, they most certainly are.

Across-the-board improvements have been made to all the Office applications in terms of ease of use. One of the best new features is the Elements Gallery ‘ribbon’ used to style documents and add features. Buttons at the top of the Elements Gallery reveal different ribbons, and side-scrolling arrows let you scan thumbnails of what the different tools will do. It’s a surprisingly useful and intuitive addition to the Office feature set, and bound to be popular with long-time and new users alike.

Another big change to the Office suite is the appearance of a graphics engine called OfficeArt. Because this is the same engine used in the Windows version of the suite, it is now much easier to create artwork that works consistently well whether displayed on a Macintosh or a PC. Besides controlling elements such as shape, colour, and drop shadows, OfficeArt also provides for complex but ‘intelligent’ graphics such as organisation charts and flowcharts that will automatically resize correctly as you add text or move different elements of them about.

Received wisdom says that PowerPoint will always look bad compared to Keynote, and when comparing the latest version of Keynote to the version of PowerPoint included in Office 2004 this was certainly true. But in its latest iteration, Microsoft has substantially improved PowerPoint to the degree that in many important ways the gap between these rival applications has narrowed.

The Elements Gallery really shines in PowerPoint, providing a very quick and easy way to change themes, apply slide transitions, add OfficeArt, and so on. If anything, putting together slides in PowerPoint is now even easier than in Keynote. The Formatting Palette in Office now works in much the same way as the Inspector Palette in Keynote, so there’s not much to choose between them there.

PowerPoint also shares with Keynote ‘dynamic guides’ that make it easier to align objects and create consistent formatting across the slides. And where PowerPoint 2004 was a bit primitive in terms of graphics and typography, the beefy OfficeArt engine makes creating rich slideshows that work across platforms much more rewarding.

Even better, PowerPoint now works with the Apple Remote, so it can be controlled remotely without the need for third-party software.

On the flip side though, the slide templates supplied with PowerPoint are just awful. Compared with the rich, classy slide templates available in Keynote, the PowerPoint set is uninspiring to say the least. Similarly, the colour palettes used for OfficeArt items such as like charts, boxes, and arrows do tend to be a bit on the bland side.

PowerPoint also lags behind Keynote in terms of performance, particularly with regard to graphics. Slide transitions sometimes take noticeable amounts of time to happen, and the animation effects aren’t quite as smooth as those in Keynote. Furthermore, moving or resizing graphics, particularly large photographs, can slow PowerPoint down to a crawl, something that normally doesn’t happen with Keynote.

To be honest, no Mac user free to choose between Keynote and PowerPoint is likely to go with PowerPoint. But Mac users who have to use PowerPoint to ensure cross-platform compatibility won’t be too disappointed, and may even learn to like it.

In terms of basic functionality, Excel in 2008 isn’t much different to Excel in 2004, with one notable difference: Microsoft Office 2008 does not support Visual Basic macros. So while Excel will open spreadsheets that contain such macros, the macros themselves won’t run and can’t be edited. While AppleScript and Automator are both available as alternatives, there’s no way to convert your existing macros into scripts or Automator actions.

To be sure, many Excel users never used the macros anyway, so their absence is no great loss. But if you’re an Excel power user, the lack of macro support will be a major issue.

Beyond the lack of macros, Excel has only been modestly tweaked in its new iteration.

The Elements Gallery now replaces the Chart Wizard used in earlier versions of Excel. Mostly this works fine, but the wizard sometimes worked more successfully when it came to making sure you picked data from the right parts of the spreadsheet for things such as the x and y axes.

In common with the other Office applications, Excel uses the OfficeArt engine to produce high-quality artwork that looks good whether displayed on a Mac or a PC. Charts have a much richer, glossier
look than previously, and while perhaps not quite so luscious as the artwork produced by Numbers, the ability to share this brightly coloured, three-dimensional goodness with your PC-using colleagues is certainly a great boon.

But ultimately Excel doesn’t show anything like the level of innovation characteristic of Numbers, and is nowhere near as easy to use. Excel is still, at heart, a sensible, straight-laced spreadsheet program aimed squarely at the finance and business markets.

Of all the Office applications, Word is the one that feels the freshest and most innovative. While it still has all the word processing chops it had before, Word has now become a useful – if lightweight – page layout program as well.

In Publishing Layout mode, Word’s menu bar changes to a simpler, more graphic design-oriented subset of tools, and the document pages look like pieces of paper resting on a wooden table.

You can add business-oriented graphics from the Element Gallery, or photos from your iPhoto albums via the Formatting Palette. Text can flow around graphics, and you can use WordArt to create colourful or whacky headlines and banners. If you prefer your typography on the classy side, you’ll be pleased to know that Word now supports OpenType ligatures.

The net result of all this is that Word feels a lot like Pages. While it isn’t likely to replace QuarkXPress any time soon, Word is at least as good as Pages when it comes to the sort of desktop publishing done by clubs, educators, and small businesses.

To get things started there are a whole bunch of templates in the Project Gallery. In terms of quality they aren’t that different to those you get with Pages, and much better than the dire ones provided for PowerPoint.

As a word processor, Word is rather less evolved. The Elements Gallery is very useful though, including lots of useful options for cover sheets, artwork, and formatting. A new addition to the mix is a proper bibliography tool. While the selection of available styles is relatively small and can’t be easily altered to match the formats of the more obscure academic journals, for students and technical writers especially, this little upgrade will be a godsend.

The Navigation Pane can now be set to show thumbnails of the document as well as the traditional text-based document map. While the document map is probably most useful for essays and book manuscripts, there’s no question that the thumbnails are useful for flipping through newsletters and the like where graphics and headings are easy to spot.

A significant improvement is simply the look and feel of the application. Unlike PowerPoint, Word feels sprightly even with large and complex documents. The menu bars have been cleaned up and the icons are nicer and more intelligible. Word is still highly configurable, but in its default settings should be easy to use and quick to learn.

On the flip side, it’s very easy for Word to become a screen hog when you start expanding the range of buttons and menus displayed at any one time. The vertically oriented Formatting Palette is potentially huge and only the biggest screen could accommodate it with all its different subsections open. In Print Layout mode, there are sometimes visual glitches where text crosses a page break, and while graphics in Office 2008 are handled substantially better than in Office 2004, moving and manipulating items doesn’t always work as smoothly and intuitively as you’d expect.

Still, minor quibbles aside, it’s good to see Word finally living up to its potential on the Macintosh. Word now approaches Pages as a lightweight page layout program, and far exceeds it as a serious word processor. Put these things together and Word is definitely the one application in Office that really comes out fighting.

Entourage is now fully Microsoft Exchange-compatible, making it a useful email client for Mac users on corporate networks. But Entourage will also be attractive to people who find programs such as Mail underpowered, combining decent email with a personal information manager, a scheduler, an alarm clock, and a whole bunch of other groupware features.

Compared with Mail, Entourage offers substantially heavier duty security features. As well as spam filters, there are filters for detecting phishing attempts, Safe Sender/Safe Domain lists, and support for single sign-on (SSO) via Kerberos.

Among the power-user features sported by Entourage are multiple identities and the ability to download only the first 12KB (or whatever) of each message. This latter tool is incredibly useful if you have to work in places with very slow network connections, and want to download just the text parts of emails and leave the multi-megabyte attachments for when you get back to the office.

Essentially a counterpart to Microsoft Outlook for Windows, Entourage has historically trailed Outlook in terms of groupware features, but in its Office 2008 iteration Entourage substantially narrows that gap. Out of Office Assistant tools for example are now built into Entourage, making it a better tool for keeping clients and colleagues updated when you’re away from your computer.

Entourage 2008 users can now not only send out invitations, but also accept them, tentatively accept them, or politely decline them as required. Using Entourage, the organiser of a meeting can collate all this information, as well as send out notices to the attendees to keep them posted on developments such as rescheduling and room changes.

A new application called My Day works with Entourage to keep the user aware of deadlines and meetings. My Day looks like an electronic personal information manager and floats above all Office 2008 windows. Part diary, part alarm clock, My Day is a useful little addition to the Office toolkit.

Besides organising meetings, Entourage is designed to manage projects as well, for example by notifying members of a team when a document has been altered. While this feature was present in Entourage 2004, it has been upgraded now to include better archiving tools and compatibility with online shared folders such as those on an AppleShare server or an iDisk.

Setting up Entourage is a breeze. An Import wizard can be used to bring across accounts from existing email clients including Mail and Eudora. As well as the account settings, you can also choose to import messages, rules and signatures as well. Entourage will also import your Address Book and iCal data.

Even setting up relatively complicated items such as shared projects is surprisingly painless thanks to thoughtfully laid out wizards that run you step by step through the process without too much bother. Once you’re up and running, Entourage is fairly easy to use, though it does work rather differently to Mail and may take a little getting used to.

Still, for Mac users who need to work in teams, taking the time to learn more about Entourage may be time well spent, as it’s a surprisingly useful and well-designed program.

Office versus iWork
Looking at the Office 2008 suite in general, one thing is obvious: While Office 2008 shares many of its features with Office 2007 on the PC, the Mac Business Unit at Microsoft has also made an effort to meet the challenge placed by Apple’s equivalent package, iWork ’08. Anyone shopping for a suite of office productivity programs will likely be comparing the two, so looking at things this way makes good sense.

So let’s start with overall look and feel. Where the iWork bundle has a very consistent interface, with each application working in virtually the same way to the others, this isn’t really true for Office. Entourage definitely does its own thing, and doesn’t really have much in common with the other Office applications.

Likewise, while Word, Excel and PowerPoint share some features, Word feels smoother and more modern, while Excel and especially PowerPoint have changed much less. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: switchers from the PC platform to the Mac will likely welcome the fact that Office 2008 looks and works a lot like Office 2007 for Windows.

In terms of functionality, Word has squarely met Pages head-on, and while each has its pros and cons, Word probably comes out in front because of its deeper and more versatile feature set. Pages may get the nod when it comes to page layout thanks to its wider set of graphics tools, but Word isn’t far behind in this regard, and comfortably outpaces Pages when it comes to serious word processing.

Word is also the one application in the suite that actually feels dramatically faster than it did before. PowerPoint, by contrast, offers only mediocre performance. Where Keynote is usually jaw-droppingly fast at things like rotating graphics, animating slides and importing multimedia files, PowerPoint can be annoyingly slow. Yes, it’s better than PowerPoint 2004 running in Rosetta, but not by much.

On the other hand, PowerPoint is one part of the Office package where the OfficeArt engine really gets to shine, and that at least is worth the upgrade. Creating slides with eye-catching graphics that work as well on a PC as they do on a Mac isn’t impossible with Keynote, but it’s a lot easier with PowerPoint 2008.

Excel is somewhere in between Word and PowerPoint in terms of speed and features. As ever, Excel works well and does almost all that’s asked of it, but the lack of support for Visual Basic macros is a serious flaw. The lack of innovation compared to Numbers might be mentioned, but otherwise Excel is a solid if unexciting upgrade to a mature application.

Entourage is something else again. Most Mac users won’t care about Entourage, but for those who do, the full compatibility with Exchange servers will be a big-ticket item. Add to that a raft of small but useful improvements and Entourage is looking better than ever.

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