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?

Another major addition to Word 2008 puts one in mind of Pages: the new publishing layout view, which displays your document as though it's sitting on a desk, with a choice of backgrounds including wood grains, brushed aluminum and even Grill, which looks like the front of a Mac Pro. These backgrounds are silly fun, a feature we don't usually get from Microsoft.

The publishing layout view also brings up a new tool bar of page-layout tools, adds new options to the formatting palette, and places a Publication Templates tab in the Elements Gallery. The page-layout tools let you create text boxes (regular or vertical), draw shapes, set up page guides, group objects, arrange objects front to back and perform other similar tasks. The formatting palette offers the option to use ligatures and adds controls for tracking and kerning, baseline shift, and more.

You can drop into Publishing Layout View in any document, but most users will probably begin by selecting one of the new publication templates. These are well-designed layouts for newsletters, brochures, flyers, catalogs and other standard documents, with dummy text and photos that you can replace with your own. Personally, I find the Pages templates to be a little more sophisticated.

One welcome feature is that you can modify an existing template to your taste and save it as a custom template. If you save it to the appropriate folder in Applications/Microsoft Office 2008/Office/Media/Templates, it will appear in your Document Elements tool bar along with the default templates.


The improvements in Excel 2008 are in line with the rest of the suite: They'll help you get started and assist you afterwards.

Most notable are the new Ledger Sheets, accessed from the Sheets tab in the Elements Gallery. Ledger Sheets are predesigned spreadsheets with formulas and cell categories already built in; the Sheets tab offers templates for accounts, budgets, invoices, portfolios (for stocks and funds) and reports, plus a tab to add blank sheets, lists, or charts to the workbook. The Invoice Ledger Sheet, for example, comes with columns for quantity and price, plus a total invoice column that multiplies those together.

That's all helpful, but there's no obvious way to reveal the structure of the ledgers. The formula bar is grayed out, so you can't just click on the Total Invoice cell and see what its formula is -- you have to copy the entire line to a blank sheet and look at the formula there. You can add a new column to those already there, but only by choosing from a list of predefined columns. So, for example, you can add a date paid or priority column to an invoice, but not a rebate column. And even if you could, you couldn't get at the formula for the total invoice column to incorporate the rebate information.

This all seems unnecessarily restrictive, especially since some of the value of a prebuilt worksheet is that it should help inexperienced users learn how the program works. In Apple's Numbers spreadsheet application, by contrast, if you click in an invoice's Cost column, you see Quantity*Unit Price in the formula bar and can easily edit or add to it. Excel has a long way to go to match that ease of use.

When you do build your own sheet, though, help is quickly available from the Excel-specific tab in the floating palette. Click on the Formula Builder tab, and you'll see a list of functions grouped by category, with the most recently used at the top. Find the function you want and click on it to see an explanation of what it does; double-click on it to bring up boxes for entering the arguments or cells that the function will operate on. Occasional Excel users who don't have every function memorized will find that the Formula Builder makes it a lot easier to build their own spreadsheet.

You'll also find significant improvement in Excel's chart-making abilities. You create a chart by -- what else? -- choosing the Charts tab in the Document Elements gallery and selecting an appropriate chart type. That's when the fun starts. In the formatting palette, you can change colors, change types of fills (solid, graduated, shiny), change line weights, add drop shadows, and add and format labels, titles, and legends -- all of those choices are now just a click away.

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