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Despite a New Outlook, Office 2003 Offers Little Reason to Upgrade

Moving on to Word, the number of new features drops dramatically. Word 2003 can open documents in a "reading layout" view, which hides most toolbars and puts text in bolder and bigger type.

Word's new Research Task Pane can funnel queries to a set of Microsoft-picked Web sites, with sometimes reliable results. It's neat, but nobody will uninstall a Web browser on account of it. And I can't help thinking of the possible security implications: Every time Microsoft puts a bit of the Web into one of its applications, it seems to leave a big hole open for virus writers.

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Word's overgrown interface is worse than ever. The Options dialog box now spans three rows of tabs but still leaves out the most important settings -- the ones to turn off the auto-format and auto-correct annoyances.

Unlike Corel's WordPerfect or the free OpenOffice, Word still can't save a document in the popular, widely compatible Portable Document Format (PDF).

The Excel 2003 spreadsheet's sole contribution to home users is a convenient list-creation tool that closely mimics the List Manager of the older, Mac-only Office v.X. Again, nice but not worth the upgrade cost.

PowerPoint 2003, Office's presentation editor, adds a "package for CD" option that bundles a copy of your slide show with a viewer application on a CD. Since the fonts used in a presentation don't get copied over, any recipient who doesn't have them installed will see a garbled version.

This Office update represents an enormous missed opportunity. It exhibits enough fit-and-finish flaws -- for instance, the way Outlook doesn't show up as an available mail program in Windows XP's "Set Program Access and Defaults" control panel -- to make me wonder what other bugs lurk inside. Most important, it's no easier to use than earlier releases.

If e-mail rules your world, Outlook 2003 offers tough competition for pretty much every other program around (if you trust Microsoft when it says it has fixed the vulnerabilities that allowed so many viruses to spread via Outlook). But the rest of Office 2003 is a yawner. Most people at home can comfortably sleep right through this upgrade cycle.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at rob@twp.com.

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