Go figure. The two applications in Microsoft's new Office 2003 system that received the most extensive upgrade--Office FrontPage 2003, a Web design program; and Office Visio 2003 Standard, a business graphics tool--aren't part of any Office 2003 suite (Microsoft sells them separately).
Both programs benefit substantially from the overhaul, though FrontPage clearly had more room for improvement (click here for our complete review of Office 2003).
Help for Nonpros
As the gap between beginning and professional Web development widens, it's good to know that noncoders can still create a first-rate site. Microsoft's $199 Office FrontPage 2003 Web-design software adds some great tools to help new users post an inviting Web site quickly and simply. Chief among its improvements is better HTML code.
Previous versions of FrontPage generated notoriously bad HTML code. Unnecessary tags, illegible text, and mystery formatting made the HTML source look like an overcaffeinated Babylonian scribe's cuneiform. FrontPage 2003's new split-code view (long a popular feature in Macromedia's professional-oriented Dreamweaver) shows efficient, well-formatted HTML that serves as both a code-teaching tool for interested newbies and a means of taking direct control over the appearance and content for more-experienced users. FrontPage 2003 also catches up with the more expensive ($399) Dreamweaver in several other useful ways. You can now specify which versions of Internet Explorer or Netscape you want to tailor your site to, and the new page rulers and background layout grid let you place elements on the pages with much more precision than was possible in previous versions. Schools, government agencies, and anyone else who would like to build a site that complies with federal accessibility guidelines will appreciate the program's new accessibility checkers, which prompt users to add helpful text descriptions to their images.
Aside from a single crash it suffered when importing clip art from the Visio 2003 beta version, our beta FrontPage worked without a hitch--and seemed notably sprier on the same PC than previous versions as we moved from screen to screen and from page to page. We were able to import and edit pages from an existing site, as well as post pages to a site via FrontPage's built-in FTP. Easily the most important update to the program since the 2000 version, FrontPage 2003 continues to trail Dreamweaver in some areas, but its lower price makes it a good bargain for first-time and intermediate-level Web site builders.
Charts Done Right
Visio has long been the application of choice for business and technical professionals who produce flowcharts, organization charts, time lines, network diagrams, and the like. As Visio has evolved, people have started using it for even more complex jobs, such as uncovering places where employees in large companies may be duplicating work. In our tests of a beta version of Office Visio 2003, we found that it continued to excel at these jobs, and more.
If you're new to Visio, the Getting Started tutorial should have you constructing various charts--for example, block diagrams, workflow charts, and project schedules--in no time. As always, once you choose a chart type, Visio supplies the appropriate tools and shapes, so creating your chart is a matter of dragging and dropping. The program keeps the right chart elements connected as you make changes, and a context-sensitive help box remains on screen in the upper-right corner.
If you're unsure which chart fits your needs, you can check the Diagram Gallery for finished examples. Catering to the growing interest in such business revamp efforts as Six Sigma (an industry-standard methodology that companies now use to spot problems and improve operational efficiency), Microsoft has introduced program-specific templates.
In a handy improvement for workgroups, a review option helps you track who added which comments and chart elements. Also, if you want to use Visio to create a calendar detailing a project schedule, a wizard will quickly import your Outlook calendar.
And finally, like Microsoft's other revamped Office applications, Visio 2003 uses XML. This enhancement enables you to integrate live data from company databases into your Visio diagrams, for example.
Whereas the new FrontPage remains a low-cost up-and-comer for Web design, Visio continues to be the high-end product in its category, commanding a price of $199 for the standard version ($100 upgrade) and $499 for the Pro version, which adds tools for engineers and IT managers ($249 upgrade). If all you need is a basic flowchart generator, SmartDraw.com's $69 SmartDraw Standard makes a fine alternative; but if you can use its more-powerful features, Visio 2003 remains a sound business investment.
What's New: Notable Updates to FrontPage and Visio
Office FrontPage 2003: Much-improved HTML code generation; split view that shows code and page; new accessibility checkers for meeting federal guidelines.
Office Visio 2003: Review option to help workgroups track changes; templates for quality-control standards; more flowchart creation options.
Microsoft Office FrontPage 2003
Beta software, not rated
Better features, performance make this a no-brainer upgrade.
Price when reviewed: $199, upgrade $109. Current prices (if available)
Microsoft Office Visio 2003 Standard
Beta software, not rated
Improvements make it a worthy investment for power users.
Price when reviewed: $199, upgrade $100. Current prices (if available)