Thursday, June 10, 2010

Review: Office 2010 Has Many Features to Recommend

USA Today / Ed Baig

Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Outlook are the John, Paul, George and Ringo of software. A half-billion customers have turned these and other programs included in Microsoft's venerable Office productivity software into perennial chart toppers.

On Tuesday, the latest version, Office 2010, hits retail with a dramatic new refrain: Microsoft is simultaneously releasing Office Web Apps, a freebie version with online access to Word (word processing), Excel (spreadsheet), PowerPoint (presentations) and OneNote (note-taking).

All that's required is a free Windows Live account and an Internet connection. It doesn't matter if you've purchased the new Office suite or whether you're running a PC or Mac. Consider it Microsoft's answer to a competitive threat from Google's free Google Doc applications. What's more, Microsoft gives you 25 gigabytes of storage, via an online storage locker called SkyDrive. (Business people can also store files through Microsoft SharePoint.)

Microsoft's Office Web Apps don't come close to having every last feature in their desktop counterparts. But they look and behave much the same, including the "ribbon" strip toolbar that graces the top of Office applications.

You'll need Office on your computer when you don't have an Internet connection. But if you buy Office 2010, you can shuttle documents back and forth between cyberspace and your hard drive.

There's a lot to recommend. The ribbon toolbar is now customizable. Multiple people in different locations can edit documents at the same time. You can preview what text, pictures or tables will look like in a document before you "paste" them in from elsewhere. Picture-editing tools are enhanced.

One welcome newcomer is the Backstage View, which you can summon by clicking the File menu. File itself makes a comeback of sorts after being foolishly removed in the last Office. Backstage is a tidy area for managing documents; it's where you can choose, for example, who gets to open, copy or change a document. It's also where you'll find a Print tab showing the Print Preview and various options for setting margins, collating and so on.

Still, I wouldn't call Office 2010 a must-have upgrade for consumers. Folks typically use a relatively small slice of Office features, and that won't change with the new editions. For all my quibbles, Office through the years has been mostly solid.

Office 2010 is sold in three main retail packages, two targeted at consumers. But there's no upgrade pricing.

The Office Home and Student edition, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint and the underappreciated OneNote, costs $149 for a full retail package with a disc. You have license to "activate" or install it on up to three computers. Alternatively, you can pay $119 for an "activation key" card sold at retail that would let you activate Home and Student on a single machine only. There is no disc.

Office Home and Business ($279 for up to two activations or $199 with a single-activation key card) throws Outlook into the mix.

Meanwhile, Office Professional adds Publisher (desktop publishing), Access (database) and considerable heft to the price, $499 for two activations, or $349 for a key card. But qualified students and academics can get a suite with the same programs as Office Professional for just $99.

A closer look at some of the changes in Office:

•Word. Changes in Word are relatively modest. A newly named Navigation Pane makes it easier to search for text or browse a document by headings. You can apply shadows, reflections and other text effects to dress up a document. Perhaps the biggest thing you'll appreciate is the ability to recover a document you forgot to save before closing.

•Excel. Improvements cover the way you format data or employ so-called pivot tables. The most noteworthy consumer-friendly new Excel feature is called Sparklines, which lets you highlight trends from your spreadsheet data by creating small and simple line charts or bar graphs that occupy individual worksheet cells.

•PowerPoint. The news here is video. You can embed, trim and format videos from within the program. You can play videos in the background of your presentation. You can even broadcast your slides to a remote audience online; they can view your presentation even without PowerPoint.

•Outlook. Like many people, I've used and been frustrated by Outlook for years. Microsoft appears to be listening with helpful new or improved tools. New Conversation View threads together related e-mails. And here's a biggie: If you click on Clean Up, redundant messages within a conversation are sent to the deleted items folder.

Outlook also can make nice with your social networks. You can check out updates from friends in MySpace and LinkedIn (you must download software from those services), and soon Facebook and Microsoft's own Windows Live. Through the Social Connector, you can also conveniently see all the mail and attachments you have with a person.

A handy Quick Steps section on the ribbon lets you, among other tasks, send mail to your manager or workgroup. If Outlook 2010 is connected through your employer to Exchange Server 2010, you might benefit from MailTips, a feature that can save you embarrassment. MailTips might flag you if you're about to accidentally distribute confidential information to people who no longer work for your company.

There's a lot in the new Office to keep Microsoft at the top of the charts. Even if you now can get something for nothing.