First Look: New Appearance, New Features for Office 2007's Major Apps

At a Glance
  • Microsoft Office 2007 beta

All the talk about Office 2007's new interface and enhanced support for XML doesn't mean much for users unless the individual programs in the suite are big improvements over their predecessors. Why else would anyone be willing to abide the inevitable bugs, the added expense, and the space-eating ribbon that now appears along the top of windows in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and parts of Outlook?

Well, Microsoft has improved the applications. And some of those improvements actually fall into the "Wow, I've got to have that!" category. Other enhancements in the new apps merit a shrug or a yawn. Overall, I recommend that you hold off on installing this beta and wait for the shipping version, scheduled to appear next January.

Here's a sampling of what's improved--and not really improved--in Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook.

Word's Winning New View

Microsoft's venerable word processor is so packed with features that it's hard to think of something useful that's missing (apart from WordPerfect's Reveal Codes for precise format control, perhaps).

Word 2007's new split-screen view lets you see the original file, the changed version, and a list of the changes in separate windows.
Word 2007's new split-screen view lets you see the original file, the changed version, and a list of the changes in separate windows.
Word 2007 adds a great multipane view that makes comparing different versions of the same document easy. For example, you can simultaneously view the original version, the edited file, and a version that combines both and shows the revisions. When you scroll through one of the three panes, you scroll through the other two at the same time. You can even open another pane on the left side of the screen that lists only the revisions--oddly, however, this one doesn't scroll along with the others.

Point to a style in the Word ribbon, and you see an instant preview of your text formatted in that style.
Point to a style in the Word ribbon, and you see an instant preview of your text formatted in that style.
As much as I dislike Office's new ribbon that shows all your options at the top of each screen, I have to admit that it makes styles much easier to work with. Large boxes within the ribbon show frequently used styles; point to a style, and the text in your document displays that style's formatting until you move the mouse away.

The new contextual spelling checker is another nice addition. Type "I've bean their, to" and Word will tell you, through squiggly blue lines, that you didn't enter the correct words. When I tried this feature, it caught about two out of every three such errors.

Building Blocks, another new Word feature, sounds interesting, but this tool for inserting formatted boilerplate is too clumsy and difficult to be practical.

Minor Excel Enhancements

There's nothing overwhelmingly wonderful in Excel 2007, although Microsoft did add several nice new touches. Some of the new features need a little more work in the interface department, however.

The extremely common task of entering formulas is improved via the new Formulae AutoComplete. When you type =a into a cell, for example, you see a drop-down list of every function that starts with the letter a. Type v after the a, and the list shrinks to all functions beginning with that combination of letters. This is a real time-saver, but unfortunately it isn't well thought-out. Picking a function on the resulting list requires a mouse click--an annoying shortcoming, since your hands at that point are on the keyboard.

Spotting trends in your worksheet's data is easier with Excel 2007's new Conditional Formatting feature, which automatically color-codes your graphs.
Spotting trends in your worksheet's data is easier with Excel 2007's new Conditional Formatting feature, which automatically color-codes your graphs.
If you have a hard time spotting trends in your worksheets and catching warning signs hidden in your data, the new Conditional Formatting feature could be a job-saver. You can, for instance, set a range of values so that the highest is red, the lowest is blue, and those in between are graded hues between those two extremes. You can also use data bars and icon sets to improve your view of the data.

Other new Excel features aren't particularly exciting: The new Tables function, for example, should be called "The Feature Formerly Known as Lists." Sure, the data filtering it provides is a step up from what Lists offered, but it doesn't justify the name change.

PowerPoint Gets Arty

Despite some nice new features, PowerPoint 2007 isn't much of a step up from the previous release of the presentation program.

Sharpen your presentation's slides automatically with the new SmartArt tools in PowerPoint 2007.
Sharpen your presentation's slides automatically with the new SmartArt tools in PowerPoint 2007.
However, the new SmartArt feature is a major improvement on PowerPoint 2003's diagrams. When you right-click a bulleted list and select Convert to SmartArt, you get your choice of fancier-looking lists, process graphics, pyramids, and other ways to present your data. Of course, these graphics leave less room for words than a conventional bulleted list would, so the text on your slide may become illegibly small.

Once you've converted the list, the Design Tab on PowerPoint 2007's ribbon makes changing the graphic's look easy. As with Word's Styles, you can glide the mouse over the various color-scheme choices and 3D effects, and see immediately how your graphic will look.

Speaking of changing looks, the new Custom Slide Layouts feature lets you more quickly apply global changes to the style of your presentation. Unfortunately, this function is tricky to figure out; at one point I managed to replace my slide show with an empty template.

Another nice new touch in PowerPoint 2007 is the ability to select discontinuous text by holding the Ctrl key as you choose it, just as you do in Word.

Same Old Outlook?

The first thing you notice about Outlook 2007 is that it doesn't look like the other new Office apps. In fact, it looks just like previous Outlook versions: the same menus and drop-downs, and no ribbon. (The ribbon appears only when you compose an e-mail or create an appointment.)

Despite the lack of an interface-lift, Outlook 2007 is the most improved app of the four I looked at.

See your upcoming tasks without losing much screen space via Outlook 2007's new To-Do Bar, which appears along the right edge of the screen.
See your upcoming tasks without losing much screen space via Outlook 2007's new To-Do Bar, which appears along the right edge of the screen.
First, there's the new To-Do Bar. Similar to the old Outlook Today page (which still exists), the To-Do Bar shows your appointments and tasks for the day, but it takes up considerably less screen space than Outlook Today does. It includes a monthly calendar, and it lists tasks sorted by due date. You can rearrange the task order, putting your higher-priority jobs at the top. I only wish it allowed you to resize the space devoted to the calendar, appointments, and tasks.

Outlook's tools integrate with one another in some new ways. For instance, you can assign a date to an e-mail and turn it into a task, and you can drag and drop tasks into the calendar to turn them into appointments.

Another nice addition: E-mail attachments are now viewable within Outlook itself, so you don't have to open them in a separate application. This feature doesn't support every file type, of course, but I was surprised that it couldn't display HTML files without opening them in a browser.

For some time now, Outlook data has been annoyingly difficult to share, but not anymore. Outlook 2007 lets you share your calendar data with people who don't even have Outlook. Microsoft claims that you can e-mail your calendar as an HTML file, although this feature didn't work in the beta I tested.

Despite some useful new features in the Office 2007 beta, I recommend against downloading and installing it. Prerelease versions of large, important applications such as this are strictly for masochists, the hopelessly curious, or computer journalists (two out of three ain't bad). Still, this beta shows that there's plenty in Office 2007 to look forward to.

Office 2007 Public Beta

Beta; not rated
Despite some nice new features in each of the suite's premier apps, most users are better off waiting for the final release rather than entrusting their work to this unsteady beta.
office.microsoft.com
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At a Glance
  • Microsoft Office 2007 beta

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