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Microsoft's Office Remodeling

By Rob Pegoraro
Thursday, February 1, 2007

For years, people who use Microsoft Office have been asking for less.

Instead of more features, they wanted less complexity: fewer toolbars strewn with dainty icons, fewer sub-menus hiding important commands, fewer rows of mysterious settings to mull over.

Microsoft finally listened to those requests when it put together the new edition of Office, its trademark bundle of word-processing, spreadsheet, presentation and other productivity programs. Microsoft Office 2007 -- available only for Windows XP and Vista -- is the first version in at least a decade that can't be mistaken for an older release from across the room.

You could say Microsoft had to destroy Office in order to save it: The 2007 editions of Word, Excel and PowerPoint, Office's core applications, feature a drastically restructured interface that largely dispenses with the menus and toolbars that users have had to root around in.

In the new programs, a large rectangular panel called the Ribbon spans the window. Its gallery of cleanly drawn, clearly labeled icons -- with more-important functions represented by larger buttons -- changes depending on what kind of work you're doing. To switch from one kind of task to another, click one of the text headings atop the Ribbon.

For instance, select Excel's "Home" heading to access basic editing features -- adding or deleting rows or columns, switching number formats, formatting text and so on. A click on its "Formulas" heading changes those buttons to direct you to various formulas, such as "Financial" or "Date & Time," for use in a spreadsheet.

Learning the basic structure of this does take some time. A beginner will probably spend a few moments clicking around just to find the "open," "save as" and "print" commands (check out that button in the top left corner, a shortcut for commonly used features.)

It's fair to ask whether Microsoft could have cleaned up Office without departing so completely from the past two decades of interface design, as, for example, it managed in the Mac-only Office 2004.

Microsoft also rewrote many less visible parts of Word, Excel and PowerPoint. It simplified these programs' hideously complicated Options windows almost beyond belief, pared down their right-click menus and scrubbed away the cryptic indicators ("REC," "TRK," "EXT," "OVR" ) at the bottom of each window.

The company even killed off a feature or two. It deactivated one of the most loathed Word options: the "overtype" mode that causes your keystrokes to eat everything to the right of the cursor.

Unfortunately, if you dig deeper, you can find areas where Microsoft stopped too early. Some secondary dialogues -- like the AutoCorrect Options window that governs how aggressively Word will reformat and retype your text -- are as inscrutable and inefficient as before.

Then there's the other big-ticket item in Office, Outlook -- an ungainly, corpulent fusion of e-mail client, address book, calendar, to-do list and memo pad. There's no Ribbon to simplify things here, no blissfully streamlined Options interface to help you bring the program to heel. Instead, Outlook 2007 looks even more cluttered than before with yet another settings window to consult and a "To-Do Bar" jammed into the right side of its window.

For most home users, Outlook 2007's only useful changes may be the automated setup of new e-mail accounts and the overdue (and woefully awkward) support for RSS feeds and for online calendars published by sites such as Google.

Outlook's continued ugliness is particularly depressing given its lack of competition. There are better e-mail programs in Windows but none that includes contacts and calendar tools remotely comparable to this behemoth's.

OneNote, a powerful but little-used note-taking program that's now a standard part of the home users' version of Office, also hasn't gotten any major interface revisions in this release. But OneNote isn't the teardown candidate that Outlook has become.

This new version of Office uses a file format that takes less disk space but can't be read by older versions of Office and Office-compatible software without an update. (Microsoft has released a free translator for most Windows versions of Office. A Mac version is due this spring.) If you share files with people who don't use Office 2007, change Office's default formats to the older "97-2003" standard.

A free add-on from Microsoft's Web site -- click the "Find add-ins for other file formats" in the "Save As" dialogue -- enables Office 2007 to preserve your work as Portable Document Format (PDF) files that will look exactly as you created them, no matter which computer they're read on.

Office 2007 requires either XP or Vista, and that rules out a lot of older computers, but even many XP owners can't run it. The new release devours considerably more disk space (clear out a gigabyte and a half to install it), memory and processor speed than Office 2003.

One unappealing part of Office 2007 is deciphering its lineup of overlapping editions. The Basic edition, only available preinstalled on new computers, includes Word, Excel and Outlook. Both the Home and Student ($149 for non-commercial use) and Standard editions ($239 if you own a recent copy of Microsoft Works or Office, $399 otherwise) add PowerPoint. The cheaper bundle includes OneNote but drops Outlook, while the pricier one reverses that pattern.

For many home users, Office 2007's streamlined looks don't matter. They never use more than basic features, things obvious even in older versions of Office -- as well as Microsoft Works, Corel WordPerfect, the free OpenOffice ( http://www.openoffice.org) or Google's free, Web-based Google Docs & Spreadsheets ( http://docs.google.com).

But for more ambitious users who find their attempts at writing, number-crunching or slide-showmanship detouring them to the help file, Office 2007 deserves a look.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com.

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