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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.

By Rob Pegoraro  |  June 2, 2008; 12:11 PM ET
Categories:  Mac  
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I purchased Office 2008 for my Mac. Used it for about a week and determined that the format changes and interface changes cost me more in hassles than they benefitted me in convenience. I returned to Office 2004 and have never considered using 2008 since.

Posted by: Don O'Shea | June 2, 2008 3:23 PM | Report abuse

What I want to know is if they 1) added a reasonably functional table of contents tool for Word; and 2) if they fixed the incredibly cumbersome page numbering from Word 07.

Posted by: ugh | June 2, 2008 3:48 PM | Report abuse

Rob - you neglected to mention things Microsoft left out of Office 2008. Among the missing are the ability to synch Entourage calendar, contacts and tasks with Palm Treos (and presumably other mobile devices). Also, the preview function in Excel which greatly simplified setting up page breaks for printing. I know there are other lamented features, some no doubt to be added back in future "Service Packs" (could it sound more dull), but those two really problematic for me. Curious how upgrades degrade functionality. Powerpoint does seem noticeably faster, though.

Posted by: Nick | June 2, 2008 4:59 PM | Report abuse

You missed one big problem with Office 2008--Microsoft arbitrarily axed support for VBA/macros, which was in Office 2004 (and is in Office 2007 for Mac). You can no longer do even basic recording of macros in the new version of Office. (The programs are Applescript-able, but obviously Applescripts won't work on the Windows version, and Applescript doesn't offer the same level of control and functionality.) It's not a big issue for consumer users, but if you're using Excel in an office setting to do heavy number-crunching (and with a name like "Office," that's sort of what you'd expect) it's potentially a deal-breaker.

Posted by: Evan | June 2, 2008 5:35 PM | Report abuse

Oops. I meant it's in Office 2007 for Windows.

Posted by: Evan | June 2, 2008 5:37 PM | Report abuse

Are you a patriot? If so, then you should be using

Before trying out closedware, you had thought that an Intel-native closedware would be so astoundingly fast as to make the old version instantly distasteful. Even though the Power architecture is a better chip. You should have tried Vim. Vim has more features than you could ever learn unless you are a vimistologist. And it is so astoundingly fast that it makes closedware instantly distasteful.

Here are some tips to make vim useful for you: set lbr, press J to join lines.

iWork and Google Docs are fine. Maybe Apple will come up with iWork dot mac or iWork Docs run remotely from a Mac Mini. Maybe a multicore Cell processor could do it on one machine but Intel chips run too hot and noisy to run GUI multitasking.

If you have $400 to spend on software, remember the words of Jesus Christ. Spend the money on your favorite Open source project.

Posted by: Singing Senator | June 2, 2008 6:47 PM | Report abuse

Since when did an Office upgrade seem "mandatory"? I'm still using Office 97 with great satisfaction (except for the knowledge that it comes from Microsoft). I think the word "optional" better describes any upgrade that does not involve a security fix.

However, your column is "mandatory" reading. :-)

Posted by: Dave Beedon | June 2, 2008 6:49 PM | Report abuse

I'll give the Singing Senator the award for the most bizarre post I've read in awhile. Using Open Office makes one a patriot? I must have missed when Redmond seceded from the U.S. Even better, I don't recall the part of the sermon on the mount mentioning open source. I could just imagine Robin Williams parodying that.

All that having been said, MS Office 2008 deserves 0 stars. A major, essential, functionality for professional users was removed. Macros. Someone above mentioned Excel. I run a bowling league using these macros. Companies who's entire business model is based on macros (translation software, for example, EndNote for another) have just been zeroed.

Fortunately, MS has announced the return of macros in the next version of Office. I'm content to wait until then.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | June 2, 2008 8:00 PM | Report abuse

Macros may have been left out to save time. If their underlying object models were broken when MS rebuilt their apps, then bye-bye macros. A lot of code might need to be fixed to get them going again, for the benefit of only a minority of users, who can wait. If that's the logic (and I'm only guessing) Microsoft's Office System is not a real platform on the Mac.

Posted by: devman | June 2, 2008 9:20 PM | Report abuse

Devman - MS initially dropped macros period. Dead and gone. You're right that it might be a minority of users, but Neo Office handles the same things that MS Office does and supports macros. Open Office requires installation of X11, so it's not a true Mac application. Neo Office is a Mac-native implementation of Open Office (Singing Senator-please get up to date).

MS initially ended support for macros. Dead and gone. Macworld has great coverage of this issue. Now it turns out that VB couldn't be rewritten in time to bring out Office in 2008. So, in order to meet an arbitrary deadline, Office was crippled.

Now, look. I'm a big fan of Excel. It has been one of the finest applications ever written. MS deliberately crippling Office for the mac smelled. It's always been a money spinner for them. It was time for MS to give something back (and take a little time).

So, I'll be waiting for Office 11. But not a penny heads to Redmond until then.


Posted by: Fairlington Blade | June 2, 2008 9:58 PM | Report abuse

We use Pages (part of Apple's iWork), or NeoOffice, depending on which computer we are on. I haven't used Word in years, and won't install it on any machine I use. I've migrated the people I support to NeoOffice or OpenOffice.

Among the people I know, Office is irrelevant. The only people I still see using it, even on Windows, are people who just don't know there are any other options.

So, no, I didn't miss your review of a new version in January.

Posted by: Chloe | June 2, 2008 11:49 PM | Report abuse

The missing VBA macro feature also means that certain add on's don't work, like medical spell checkers. That, and missing Palm sync, means that Office 2008 is a DOWNGRADE that I don't need. Your observation is key, however: running 2004 in Rosetta PPC emulation on an Intel Mac is not a significant speed hit. The MacBU ported to Intel, but they did such a poor job that they couldn't meaningfully beat Rosetta emulation, even though they dropped major features in the port

Posted by: Ile | June 3, 2008 1:33 PM | Report abuse

Rob, a couple of reasons why I've pushed my boss onto Office2008:

* PPC-native apps suck an ENORMOUS amount of RAM; I bumped his machine from 2gb to 4gb solely b/c he opens and uses PPT, Word, Excel all day and it was bogging his machine down to run out of free RAM constantly. And this is on a brand-spanking 24" iMac.

* PPT began freezing -- in odd yet repeatable ways: he'd create a circle. Copy/paste it. Change the color of the new circle. PPT would bomb.. uniquely. You could ACCESS every menu item, but ALL options were greyed out. Activity monitor reported everything peachy, no crash warnings came up. PPT just... stopped mid-thought.

* If he is going to have to learn a new interface (Word2004 > Word2008 or Pages or NeoOffice or...), I might as well keep him on the format he'll use most often. Face it, using Export > Word is just not as facile as Save As...

Open Source Lunatic(s) notwithstanding, I'm not thrilled to have to take this step, but the alternatives (from continuing with 2004 to the others mentioned above) are even less tolerable.

Posted by: Bush -- not related | June 3, 2008 3:55 PM | Report abuse

I'm still using Word-95 [6.0c] every day and no problems. It starts up in under one second. Love the macro editor. Keep OpenOffice on hand if need to open files in more recent formats, then usually save them back into 6.0. Old DOS apps run screamingly fast. As a test, I recently generated 95 200-point fonts; the whole job was done in about 15 minutes. Back in '90 the computer would have croaked just trying to make one! So! Before you throw out the old software, try it in a faster computer. And add more memory, very cheap now, and you might not need a new computer and stay with XP. Everyone I know is doing just that.

Posted by: Joe Schmidt | June 5, 2008 12:06 AM | Report abuse

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