Microsoft Office 2007 Preview: Is It Worth the Upgrade?

By Wayne Kawamoto | Posted July 03, 2006

A 500-pound gorilla sits pretty much wherever it pleases. But can that gorilla force everyone to upgrade? Office 2007, now in public beta release, is the next rendition of Microsoft's dominant productivity suite and presents improved versions of Word, Excel, Access, Outlook, PowerPoint, Publisher and more.

But will it be worth the upgrade? Our mid-stream evaluation is, admittedly, a mere snapshot in time since features may still change. But from what we're seeing, the upgrade, while good, may not be enough to entice people to open their wallets right away.

A Ribbon of Interface
Microsoft claims that Office 2007 is far easier to use because it takes advantage of recent advancements in hardware and software and offers improvements based on the company's usability studies. A lot of that change comes in the interface. Of course, previous Office applications presented a system of menus, toolbars and dialog boxes, which everyone is now used to.

In an effort to make features easier to find and to minimize on-screen clutter, Microsoft has replaced the traditional menus and toolbars with the "Ribbon," an interface device that presents commands (buttons, icons and options) under a set of tabs.

As an example, Office Word 2007 offers tabs for writing, inserting, working with tables, altering page layout and conducting mailings. Excel, on the other hand, serves tabs for creating worksheets, inserting charts and applying formulas. In theory, only relevant tabs appear when they can support the immediate task at hand. Thus, as an example, Excel's chart commands only appear when you're working with graphs.

Ribbons will likely be easier for novices to learn, but may prove frustrating for experienced users who are accustomed to the original MS Office interface. As it stands, it takes time to learn exactly which commands reside on which ribbons, and, for now, you can't customize ribbons to your liking (WYGIWYG - What You're Given Is What You Get).

While the new interface may or may not improve productivity in the long term, there will definitely be some short-term learning and adapting for everyone. Fortunately, experienced users will still be able to apply familiar keyboard shortcuts.

A great new feature, Live Preview immediately shows the results of applying editing or formatting style changes by simply highlighting text and moving the cursor over an option. Office also comes with new options to share data through Office SharePoint Server, which can track the status of reviewed documents.

In a Word
It's appropriate that the most-used application in the Office suite, Microsoft Word 2007, receives the lion's share of new features. The word processor offers new charting and diagramming features that include 3-D shapes, transparencies, drop shadows, and other effects, and it can change the appearance of text, tables and graphics to match a style or color scheme.

A feature for our Internet age, you can now publish blogs directly from Word to a blog site. A concept called Building Blocks may be used to assemble documents from frequently used or pre-defined content, for example, to support disclaimer text, sidebars and cover pages. To track changes, a tri-pane review panel lets you view two versions of a document with clearly-marked deleted, inserted or moved text.

Tired of swimming against the considerable tide, Microsoft finally gave in and allowed Word to convert its documents into Portable Document Format file (PDF-Acrobat) format files. But there's also a new XMS file format that is Microsoft's response to Adobe's PDF.

A welcome new feature detects and removes unwanted comments, hidden text, or personal information to ensure that sensitive information doesn't escape when documents are published. Word lets you open and edit older Word files, but saves them in a new file format by default. As you would expect, the new format is not backwards compatible. This is an important consideration if you need to exchange files with others who may not have made the upgrade.

On the Table and a Positive Outlook

Excel 2007 offers minor upgrades. It now supports spreadsheets up to one million rows by 16,000 columns in size and builds charts with fewer clicks. A plus, when analyzing data that's contained in a large table, Office Excel 2007 keeps its headings in view as you scroll. (Why didn't anyone think of this sooner?) The software can render a spreadsheet as HTML so others can view programs stored on a SharePoint server using any Web browser.

Outlook's new "Instant Search" feature no longer requires you to leave the main screen to search for information, and can search across multiple folders. There's an integrated To-Do Bar that outlines tasks, and color Categories let you personalize and categorize any type of information: e-mail, calendar items, contacts or tasks, offering a visual way to distinguish items from one another.

Outlook can share a calendar with anyone within or outside of your organization by publishing Internet calendars. If you want, you can flag an e-mail that you want to deal with later, and the program will add it to your list of tasks.

To help protect against e-mail that's "phishing" for data, Outlook offers an improved junk e-mail filter and features that disable links and warn you about threatening content within e-mail messages. Finally, the program can read and manage Really Simple Syndication (RSS) feeds and blogs, and it lets you read the latest news and feeds from within Outlook.

On to PowerPoint and Access
There are relatively few new features in PowerPoint that can be considered must-haves. You can create relationship, workflow, or hierarchy diagrams from within PowerPoint 2007 and convert bulleted lists into diagrams. When used with Office SharePoint Server, PowerPoint can store individual slides in libraries that others may use in their presentations. You can now add digital signatures to PowerPoint presentations as well, to ensure the integrity of the files, or mark a presentation as "final" to prevent inadvertent changes.

Access's automatic data detection lets the program recognize whether data is currency, a date or other common data types. There are new field types such as attachments and multi-value fields that let you attach any document, image or spreadsheet to any record. And with a multi-value field, you can select more than one value (for example, assign a task to more than one person) in each cell.

Office Access 2007 does a better job of showing how data will appear in a report as you work with it. This new WYSIWYG interface displays how a report will look without having to actually run it. New features also let you better track records and see who created, edited and deleted records, as well as roll back data edits.

Bottom Line
Microsoft plans to offer the Office 2007 suite in various configurations and pricing packages.

While it's subject to change, the latest Office 2007 beta offers innovations that indicate that Microsoft is willing to change and evolve with the times. But whether the changes will improve productivity in the long run is hard to determine. Certainly, in the short term, it will take some time for everyone, including experienced users, to learn the new interface.

Adapted from winplanet.com.

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