Microsoft Office 2010 not yet worth the upgrade

By Rob Pegoraro
Sunday, June 20, 2010; G02

Is even Microsoft tired of the Microsoft Office upgrade treadmill?

Its new Microsoft Office 2010 invites that heretical thought. The Redmond, Wash., company doesn't give owners of older versions a discount -- but does offer two limited but free editions of Office, the online-only Office Web Apps reviewed here last week and the Office Starter Edition bundle of Word and Excel included on some new computers.

Microsoft doesn't seem too anxious to have users move to this year's model. And at its list prices for its two home versions-- $149.99 for the Home and Student bundle of Word, Excel, PowerPoint and OneNote, $279.99 for the Home and Business edition that adds Outlook -- few should.

(If you bought the old Office 2007 after March 5, you can get 2010 for free. If your new PC has a locked copy of Office 2010 pre-loaded, activating it with a "Product Key Card" bought at Microsoft's site saves about $30 on Home and Student and $80 on Home and Business.)

Among Office 2010's constituent programs, Outlook makes the strongest case for itself.

This sprawling e-mail/calendar/contacts/tasks/notes application now features the "ribbon" toolbar introduced in parts of the somewhat underappreciated Office 2007. Many experienced Office users hate this tabbed toolbar, but by showing commands relevant to the current task, it eases discovering what Outlook can do.

For example, searching through your inbox -- far faster in Outlook 2010 than in 2007 on a Windows XP desktop -- now brings up a ribbon palette showing ways to refine that search.

Unfortunately, Outlook 2010 -- like Office 2007 and, for that matter, much of Windows 7 -- reveals the same old cluttered, confusing dialogs and menus once you dig a layer or two into its interface. This is a generic, maybe genetic defect with Microsoft: The company changes the facade of a program enough to confuse veterans and then fails to fix problems underneath that continue to stymie beginners.

Another new Outlook 2010 feature, "social connectors," seems just as underdone. These downloadable plug-ins connect your contacts list to social networks, allowing you to see friends' updates within Outlook. But with only LinkedIn and MySpace access, this feature is lodged firmly in 2005. (Facebook support is due later this year, Microsoft says.)

Outlook 2010 also perpetuates such old oversights as an inability to present a map of an event's location or show both a person's home and work addresses in most views.

After Outlook comes OneNote. This free-form note-taking application does something that neither the rest of Office 2010 nor Google's free, Web-only Google Docs can: let multiple people collaborate on a document from both desktop and Web programs.

Opening a shared notebook took too many steps -- clicking on an e-mailed link to open it in Office Web, then using that site's "Open in OneNote" command to hand the file over to OneNote -- but after that the experience was remarkably smooth. Changes made in OneNote on a Windows XP laptop showed up in a Win 7 laptop's copy of the program and a Web version running on a Mac after a minute or so; on the second laptop, changes appeared highlighted in green and marked with the initials of the other user.

Too bad, then, that Microsoft forgot about mobile use. Its mobile Office site doesn't display OneNote documents, and it only offers a smartphone version of OneNote for its mediocre, irrelevant Windows Mobile 6.5 operating system, with no announced plans for iPhone, Android or BlackBerry releases.

The remaining core components of Office -- Word, Excel and PowerPoint --look almost identical to their predecessors, aside from dumping the weird "Office Button" of the old ribbon for a more predictable File menu. They work much like them too.

Word's new photo toolkit, capable of such impressive graphic-design tricks as making a photo's background transparent, continues this writing tool's evolution into a desktop-publishing option. But without more basic tools like a red-eye fix, you'll still need a separate photo-editing program.

Word 2010 also includes a faster, more flexible text-search tool than 2007 and allows "co-authoring" over the Internet with other Word 2010 users -- but not with Office Web users.

The PowerPoint slideshow creator, for its part, includes the same photo functions and also lets you embed video clips copied from your computer's hard drive or embedded from YouTube and other Web video sites. Like Word, its support for collaborative editing requires other users to run the desktop program.

Excel seems to be the forgotten part of Office 2010. This spreadsheet now lets you cram miniature "sparkline" charts inside cells (does anybody actually need that?) but otherwise has little new to offer for users who don't throw around Excelspeak like "pivot table" in everyday speech. Excel 2010 doesn't even match its siblings' collaboration features; although two users of Excel Web App can work on the same document at once, no such sharing is possible if you leave the file open in Excel 2010.

When Microsoft can bring OneNote's desktop-to-Web continuity to the rest of Office 2010 -- better yet, with mobile access too -- this could be a worthwhile upgrade. Until then, most home users can leave this one on the shelf.

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