The Review That Never Happened: Microsoft Office 2008
If only I'd had an extra week in January.
Back then, I had been looking forward to reviewing Microsoft's then-new Office 2008 for Mac, the long-awaited successor to its Office 2004. (Long-awaited largely because it was the last must-have Mac program to be rewritten to run properly on the Intel processors inside Apple's Macs.)
But the week Office 2008--$150 for the non-business "Home and Student" edition, $240 as an upgrade, or $400 new--shipped, I was busy covering Apple's Macworld Expo. And by the time I was back in D.C. and had enough quality time to start digging into the new software, other stories -- for instance, Microsoft's surprising announcement of its plan to buy Yahoo -- had seized my attention. Weeks turned into months, and then I realized I'd pretty much missed my timing to review this software.
I also realized that very few readers seemed to have noticed that omission.
It appears that, for the first time in years, Office does not seem to be a mandatory upgrade. Office 2004 still works well, Google's Google Docs and Apple's own iWork can each do Office's job at a considerably lower cost -- free in Google's case -- while providing some valuable features absent from Office.
So here I am, months after Office 2008's release and a few weeks after its first major update (the inelegantly named "Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac Service Pack 1 (12.1.0)"). I don't know if anybody is still interested in my thoughts about this release, but if you are read on after the jump.
Office 2008 suffers from having two of its most important features -- compatibility with Apple's Intel processors and Microsoft's new Office 2007 file formats -- be things that users can't directly or immediately see.
Before trying out Office 2008, I had thought that an Intel-native Office would be so astoundingly fast as to make the old version instantly distasteful. Not so. While you may see unmistakable speed improvements with Office 2008 when performing complex tasks on large files, I didn't notice any visible differences at everyday Office tasks, such as running find-and-replace commands in reasonably large Word, Excel and PowerPoint files. And I found that the new version is either no faster or actually slower at the operation everybody must sit through -- the initial startup of each Office program.
For example, Word 2004 took 13 seconds to launch, while Word 2008 needed 22. (These times are based on me sitting with a stopwatch and watching things happen on the screen, so they're not completely scientific.) The 2004 and 2008 versions of Excel and PowerPoint all needed about 5 seconds to start, while the 2004 and 2008 editions of Entourage each required some 8 seconds to get in gear. But, I had Office 2004 running on a 2006-vintage iMac with a 2.16 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo processor, while Office 2008 was installed on a 2007-vintage iMac with a 2.4 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo chip. (Both machines had 2 gigabytes of memory installed.) I saw the same pattern when I tested first Office 2004, then Office 2008 on the same MacBook Air.
As for Office 2007 file-format compatibility, the relative unpopularity of Office 2007 compared to earlier versions and the fact that Office 2007 can easily be set to use the older document format combine to reduce your odds of seeing one of these newer files. Microsoft also offers free converter add-ons for older versions of Office for Mac.
Office 2008's most visible change is a new interface, somewhat reminiscent of Office 2007's "ribbon," that simplifies its characteristic toolbars to move many other commands to an "Elements Gallery," a series of palettes that gracefully flip open when you click on headings like "Sheets," "Charts," "SmartArt Graphics," and "WordArt" (in Excel's case). But while I thought Office 2007's ribbon was a smart, creative rethinking of an overgrown interface that needed a gut rehab, I don't think Office 2004 needed the same kind of renovation -- it's pretty easy to use in its own right.
There are some valuable additions here beyond looks. Word's "Publishing Layout" mode lets you do the kind of free-form arrangement of graphics and text at which older Word releases balked. Excel's Formula Builder can make the job of plugging the right equations into a spreadsheet a little less intimidating. Entourage's My Day applet provides a simple at-a-glance read on what you're up to (although it seems like it would have made more sense as a Dashboard widget). PowerPoint lets you click through a presentation with Apple's standard remote control, not just a mouse or the keyboard.
Like earlier releases, however, Office 2008 often buries useful features behind layers of menu options. Witness the convoluted procedures required to turn on a nifty typographical option called "ligatures" or add a command to paste text without formatting.
Office 2008 also feels distinctly behind the times in some respects. For instance, Excel's graphing tools seem woefully clumsy compared to those in Apple's Numbers, and Entourage can't subscribe to Web-based calendars.
A look at Microsoft's "What's new in Office" help-file page, with its frequent mentions of such minor additions as extra templates and themes, suggests that the effort of rewriting Office for Intel processors and redesigning its interface may have simply worn out its developers.
So maybe you'd be better off waiting for Microsoft's next Office version, whenever that may come. Office 2008 seems a perfectly fine product, and if I needed to buy a new copy of Office for a Mac, I'd have zero qualms about getting Office 2008. But I just can't think of any great reason for Office 2004 users (some of whom would first need to upgrade their operating system) to rush to trade up.
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