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?

As with all the Office formatting palettes, there's a section for document themes, too. Choose one, and your fonts and color scheme will immediately change to reflect it. And at that point, you can go in and tweak everything again. If you love to play with your charts to get them looking exactly the way you want, Excel 2008 is meant for you.

PowerPoint

PowerPoint was already something of a graphics powerhouse, so its makeover isn't as dramatic as those of Word or Excel. It does get an Elements Gallery, of course, from which you can choose slide theme, slide layouts, transitions and table styles, in addition to the elements shared with the rest of the suite.

The first thing you'll notice about the interface is the option for a thumbnail view in the left pane of the main screen, supplementing the existing outline view. Thumbnail view displays small versions of your slides, which dynamically update as you edit your presentation. You can quickly get a sense of how your whole presentation hangs together without having to switch into the Slide Sorter View.

PowerPoint is where the suitewide SmartArt Graphics tools really come into their own. These are tools for creating graphic representations of the relationships among your ideas -- for example, you can put them inside gears to suggest how they interlock, display secondary points as satellites orbiting around a central idea, show a series of actions as arrows leading one to the next, or any of dozens of other options. And the program is smart enough to take bullet points that are already in one format (including plain old bullet points) and place them into another with a click on the desired thumbnail in the Elements Gallery. Used with restraint (please!), the SmartArt treatments can really add visual interest to your slide shows.

The PowerPoint-specific tab in the floating is Custom Animation. This is where you find your options for animating a slide -- creating an entrance or exit effect, determining how quick it is, establishing which items it affects, that sort of thing. The palette incorporates a Play button, so you can preview the effect right away.

Layout is easier, too, with Dynamic Guides, which appear on screen as you move objects around to show when they're lined up. They make it a lot easier to create a tightly designed slide, in comparison with trying to do it by eye.

Finally, PowerPoint 2008 adds several handy new features for delivering your presentation as well as creating it. PowerPoint 2004 introduced Presenter Tools, which display useful information on your screen as you deliver your presentation, such as a timer, a thumbnail of what slide is up next and a panel showing your speaker notes. The new version adds the ability to reset the timer during the presentation, as well as a digital clock so you can see the actual time as well as elapsed time. And you can save your slides as a series of JPG or PNG images and send them to iPhoto for posting on the Web or presentation from an iPod.

In a way, PowerPoint is the smoothest upgrade of the bunch. The new features make it easier and more convenient to use, without requiring you to learn anything new. Heavy PowerPoint users should jump on this new version.

Entourage

The new version of Entourage is probably the least changed of the four programs, unless you work in a Microsoft Exchange environment. It remains a capable e-mail program, with some advantages over Apple Mail. And by incorporating your Contacts, Calendar, and Project Center, it also serves as the nerve center for your digital activities.

Entourage 2008 features improved junk-mail filters and phishing protection -- supposedly, it will warn you if you get a "phishy" e-mail. (I didn't get one during the time I've spent with the program, so I'll have to take Microsoft's word for it.) There's a new To Do list feature, and you can turn messages into to-do items, as you can in the Leopard version of Mail.

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Jake Widman

Computerworld
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