January 10, 2008

Office 2008 for Mac

What: Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac
When: Available from 31st January
How Much: Standard Edition $649 or $399 for upgrade, Special Media Edition $849 or $549 for upgrade, Home and Student Edition $229 and includes three user licenses.
Contact: www.microsoft.com/mac

Office 2008 for Mac is a must-have upgrade for Mac-using Office junkies, especially if you are using one of the latest Intel Macs. You'll appreciate the smart new graphics engine and simplified toolbars that makes it easier to create better-looking documents. If you use an Exchange server you'll benefit from the updates to Entourage and the new 'Mac-only' My Day widget that helps keep your schedule in order.

It's been four long years since Microsoft released a new version of Office for Mac. During that time the Mac market and Apple have undergone dramatic changes - from a niche player in the media and desktop publishing space back to a serious contender in the PC world. While some believe the change has been a result of the iPod's 'halo-effect', the transition on the Mac from PowerPC to Intel processors can't be underestimated.

When Apple announced the shift to Intel at its World Wide Developer Conference in 2005 they also made provisions within the current Mac operating system, called OS X, to run applications written for older PowerPC Macs in a seamless emulation environment called Rosetta. The inclusion of the Rosetta environment smoothed the transition and meant two things for Apple.
First, customers who bought new Intel Macs could still run their existing software without the expense of upgrading (although with a reasonable speed hit), and second, application developers could take their time rewriting applications to take full advantage of the new Intel architecture.

Since WWDC all major Mac developers, including Adobe and Quark (and thousands of Indie developers) have updated their software to take advantage of Intel processors on the Mac - except for Microsoft. It's not surprising then, that in this time both Apple and Google have slowly been launching their own productivity suites.
Apple’s, called iWork ($99, or $129 for family pack), contains presentation software called Keynote, a word processing/layout package called Pages and a spreadsheet program called Numbers.
Google have been constantly upgrading features to its own office suite, called Google Docs, which is available for free to anyone with Internet access. Other web-based competitors include ThinkFree and OpenOffice.

Even though Microsoft has come late to the party, it's not like they've been standing still. In fact, 2007 was one of the busiest years for product launches at Microsoft with the release of Office 2007 and Windows Vista. Sporting a brand new interface known as Microsoft Office Fluent, the Office 2007 user interface 'centres on the principle of helping people focus on what they want to do, rather than bothering with the details of how to do it' according to Wikipedia. In English, that means giving users access to features they want with fewer mouse clicks.

While Microsoft has taken a similar 'task-oriented' approach with Office 2008 it hasn't received the same radical toolbar overhaul as Office 2007. However, there is still a high degree of overlap between the two systems, in particular with the support for the new XML file format, and the 'Escher' graphics engine which provides improved graphics capabilities and makes it easy to apply high-production values to any file you create.

Office 2008's biggest claim to fame, though, is that it has been re-written and now ships as a universal binary application. That means it will run natively on most PowerPC (500MHz-plus G4 or G5 models) and Intel Macs. For PowerPC users that's not a big deal because Office 2004 and Office X before it ran perfectly well on those systems. However, the new code makes a big difference for owners of Intel Macs to application launch times and performance.

The open XML file format included in Office 2008 helps 'reduce the risk of lost information due to damaged or corrupted files and also results in smaller file sizes — up to 75 per cent smaller than comparable binary documents', according to Microsoft. If you plan to share files with users who don't have the latest version of Office, don't worry because Office 2008 is also backwards-compatible with earlier file formats like .doc and .xls. Microsoft also have released a free file converter for Microsoft, available at www.microsoft.com/mac.

Apart from enhanced compatibly Office 2008 also puts the spotlight squarely on design, with the introduction of a new elements gallery which makes creating better looking documents, spreadsheets and presentations even easier. In Microsoft Word, for example, clicking on the 'Document Elements' button just under the main toolbar reveals various different templates and provides easy access to traditionally difficult tasks like adding headers or footers, and adding a table of contents to a document. Another nice feature is the single-window design, where toolbars are attached to windows rather than floating free.

Microsoft Word has also been given a new 'Mac-only' publishing layout view which lets users drag-and-drop visuals on to the page for easy desktop publishing. The new view puts Word up against other consumer-centric desktop publishing applications like Pages and to a lesser extent InDesign. In my testing the new publishing view worked well and made adding and manipulating images easy. The publishing view also exposes the new object palette toolbar, which gives easy access to the large clip-art library Microsoft supply and to your own images thank to tight iPhoto integration.

Excel junkies will have mixed emotions for the new version. On the plus side, the size limit of spreadsheets has increased to 16,000 columns and more than one million rows, and for more basic users there is a new formula builder and formula auto-complete that presents a drop-down list of available formulas as soon as you start typing. But Excel 2008 loses macro and Visual Basic (VB) support. While this isn’t a show stopper for novice users it may be for advanced users who rely on cross-compatibility scripting on a daily basis.

Powerpoint users have also been rewarded with the addition of SmartArt Graphics, which converts bulleted lists to graphical slides with a click of a button. Full compatibility between Office 2007 and 2008 is assured, thanks to the shared graphics engine. There are more options for exporting your presentation, including a 'Send to iPhoto' option which saves your presentation into a series of JPEG images that can then easily be added to your iPod for viewing.

As with previous Office for Mac releases, Microsoft have included a number of Mac-only features in this version. A new widget-style applications called My Day interfaces with Entourage and other Office applications to easily track to-do and calendar activities in an easy-to-digest interface.

Entourage is the Mac equivalent of Outlook. While it’s still not as competent as Outlook for connecting to Exchange servers, it has been substantially improved under the hood and now supports Kerberos Single Sign-on Authentication, out-of-office assistant and managed folders. The visual appearance of Calendar data has also been updated and provides better support for to-do items, including the ability to mark emails as 'to-do' items with one click.

Like previous versions, Entourage also supports Apple sync services which means iCal and Address Book can always stay in sync with information in Entourage, however compatibility between Outlook PST files and Entourage is still something that you’ll need to rely on third party solutions like Export-Import Entourage 1.3.10 (scriptbuilders.net/files/exportimportentourage1.3.10.html) or O2M (www.littlemachines.com) for. If you’re new to the Mac platform and don’t need Exchange integration I’d recommend trying Apple Mail (included with OS X) as it’s provides better compatibility with OS X, especially with Time Machine, Apple’s automated backup solution.

In my month long test of Office 2008, all common tasks and applications worked well. Files created in Office 2007 worked perfectly in Office 2008 and vice-versa. Boot time on my Intel Mac was substantially improved over Office 2004, and the new toolbars have a much neater, cleaner 'Mac-like' appearance. For new users the simplified toolbars and task-based support are appealing. Advanced users will appreciate the added flexibility provided by the new file formats and the more powerful graphics engine, while systems administrators and workers that need to plug into Exchange networks will appreciate the improved compatibility in Entourage.

But each new release of Office for PC or Mac begs the question whether the upgrade is worth the cost. Unlike typical Apple products, where a one-size-fits-all approach makes choosing a product easy, Microsoft make you work for it. There's a basic Office 2008 for Mac standard edition ($649 or $399 for an upgrade) and an Office 2008 for Mac Special Media Edition ($849, or $549 for upgrade) which comes with a full version of the Microsoft Expression Media (a digital asset management system that lets you visually catalog, organise and present all of your digital assets) and more advanced Microsoft Exchange Server support, for those that need to plug Entourage into an Exchange server. There's also a Mac Home and Student Edition ($229) that includes three user licenses for consumers and students at home, but doesn't include the added Exchange support.

If you’re consider upgrading your version of Office I’d take the time and try one of the free or cheaper Office suites that are available before dropping the money on Office 2008. If you’re a PC user that’s considering switching to the Mac platform then rest assured, Office 2008 is as good as Office 2007, and both are seamlessly compatible. Still, I’d urge you to also try iWork or Google Docs before jumping in as both packages may satisfy your needs. But for everybody else, the rich features of Office for Mac 2008 including better integration with Exchange server, the new graphics engine and refined user interface don’t disappoint.