Review: Microsoft Office for Mac -- better than iWork?

Microsoft's latest version of Office for Mac adds some nifty interface improvements and a bunch of new features. Should you switch?

Two new major features

Office 2008 offers two prominent features common to all three of the content-creation applications (Word, Excel and PowerPoint) that make it easier to find the many features the programs offer and easier to use them once found: the Elements Gallery and the Object Palette.

The Elements Gallery is an unobtrusive set of tabs that appears above the document window and below the other tool bars in all three applications. These tabs offer quick access to new features and to features that were previously scattered among different menus. These tabs include those for Charts, SmartArt Graphics and WordArt (an assortment of typographic special effects).

Besides the common tabs, of course, each program also has its own set of tabs. In Word, for example, there are also tabs for document elements and quick tables, while in Excel you get sheets, and PowerPoint has slide themes, slide layouts and transitions.

The second suitewide feature is a new integrated floating palette. This multipurpose palette incorporates the previous Formatting Palette and Toolbox, and adds a new Object Palette and a program-specific tool. You switch from palette to palette within the same, uh, palette by clicking tabs across the top, reminiscent of the Inspector palette in iWork and other recent Mac programs.

The Object Palette gives quick access to shapes, clip art, symbols (such as fractions and math and currency symbols) and your iPhoto library. Having a button to get right to your photos is a nice idea, but on my machine, loading the library left me looking at the spinning beach ball for so long that I was reaching for the Force Quit keys by the time it finally came up. Maybe it's faster on an Intel Mac, but for me it would take less time just to open iPhoto and export the image I wanted.

Each program's Formatting Palette now features a section for document themes. Themes consist of predefined color combinations (similar to the longstanding slide color schemes in PowerPoint) and fonts that are supposed to work well together. The Apex theme, for example, combines Lucida Sans and Book Antiqua with a set of grayed-out blues and browns, while Flow combines Calibri and Constantia (two of Microsoft's new Office fonts) with blues and greens.

Choose a Theme, and the theme colors and associated tints are added to the standard colors in all the color palettes, while the fonts are put at the top of the Font list and incorporated into the document's predefined styles. Themes are a quick way to get a nice-looking if not dazzling document (and dazzling is often best left to the pros).

Word

The first thing you'll notice when you launch Word 2008 is the new unified tool area, with your tool bars collected into the document window under the document title rather than floating by themselves as before. One thing I appreciated was that the tool bars retained all my customizations, including my custom tool-bar icon for curly quotes.

I also liked the way the Preferences pane has been redesigned to mimic the OS X System Preferences pane, with a Search box added. Since I'm one of those who find Word more usable after turning off a lot of its default "helpful" settings, I was glad for the help tracking them down.

The Word-specific tabs in the Elements Gallery are Document Elements and Quick Tables. Click the Document Elements tab, and you see buttons for cover pages, table of contents, header, footer and bibliographies. Click one of the buttons, and you get a gallery row of thumbnail examples of that element. Just click on the thumbnail to insert the element. You can then modify the colors, replace the pictures (if there are any) or do anything you could to one you laboriously built from scratch.

Similarly, the Quick Tables tab brings up a row of predesigned tables. You can, for example, insert a table with a header row of white text on a black background and alternating dark and light blue rows for the data underneath.

As a longtime Mac Word user, I was initially inclined to turn up my nose at this kind of hand-holding. But frankly, it's unobtrusive and does what it's supposed to do: open up features a lot of people don't how to use or don't even know are there. And even for those who do know how to, for example, build a table from scratch, it's quicker to drop it in from the Elements Gallery and modify it to your taste.

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Jake Widman

Computerworld

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