Productivity software

Microsoft Office for Mac 2011: Clunky to Cool

When I reviewed Microsoft Office for Mac 2008, I said the then-new version of the suite was "kind of like getting a new Chevy." In other words, it was a solid upgrade, but nothing to really get excited about.

Not this time. I could call Office for Mac 2011 a hybrid because it's got a bunch of online options to complement its core desktop functions. However, this version also feels -- dare I say it -- sleek, with new features that actually make you think, "That's pretty cool." That's right: I really did just call Microsoft Office for Mac "pretty cool."

Office for Mac 2011 comes in two versions. The Home & Student Edition ($150) includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint, while the Home & Business Edition ($280) adds Outlook, replacing the Entourage client that had been in previous Mac Office editions. Both versions also include Microsoft Document Connection for managing files on Microsoft's cloud service, SkyDrive, and Remote Desktop Connection for working with files remotely.

Start with the fact that Office for Mac 2011 is much snappier than its predecessor. As a writer, I've found myself turning more often to alternative word processors in the past couple of years, such as Apple 's Pages, because I've been so annoyed at having to wait for Word to do something -- anything. But in testing, the new version proves to be about twice as fast at starting up and loading documents than the 2008 edition. (I tested using a MacBook with a 2.16-GHz Core 2 Duo chip and 3GB of RAM.)

Over several runs, for each component -- Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- it took only three or four seconds (with the Document Gallery turned off) to go from clicking the icon in the Dock to presenting a new blank document. The Office 2008 apps, in contrast, take six or seven seconds each to start up.

Similarly, Word 2011 loaded a 5,700-word document in three seconds compared to six for Word 2008. That may not sound like much, but in a world where studies show that people won't wait more than four seconds for a Web page to load, the difference is significant.

A new Ribbon

The other change you'll notice right away is that Microsoft has tweaked the interface yet again. In 2008, the company added the Elements Gallery, a row of tabs beneath the Toolbars that that was supposed to make it easier for users to find hidden features. While the gallery did bring some commands to the surface, they usually were not the ones users needed most often.

The new suite takes the idea further, adopting a Ribbon similar to the one in Windows Office. The Ribbon, also located beneath the Toolbars, takes the commands people tend to use most often and groups them logically into a sort of fat, intelligently constructed toolbar. For example, formatting features that were previously located in a floating palette are now at the top of the window, which makes them much easier to find and use.

You can customize the Ribbon somewhat by deleting tabs or groups you don't want and reordering the rest. Unfortunately, you can't actually edit the commands that are available in each group, which will feel like a restriction to those of us who are used to customizing toolbars.

However, the Ribbon is context-aware. For example, if you insert a table in Word, a new tab immediately appears in the Ribbon offering table formatting features. It's an intelligent use of screen real estate -- and if you don't like it, you can just hide the Ribbon entirely.

It's not all speed and interface changes, though. Each program gets some valuable new features, including some new image-editing tools, and the suite as a whole gets a brand-new component: Outlook.

Outlook

Office 2008 came with Entourage, an integrated e-mail client, contact manager and calendar application. Office 2011 Home & Business Edition replaces Entourage with Outlook, which handles the same tasks but offers more compatibility with Windows Outlook -- a welcome development for Mac users working in Windows-dominated corporate environments. For example, Windows PC users can create a .PST archive of all their data and bring it into Outlook on the Mac. (You can also import Mac data from Apple Mail, Eudora or Entourage, as well as contacts from a text file.)

However, Outlook doesn't play as well in the other direction. You can export an Outlook for Mac (.OLM) data file with mail, tasks, contacts or calendar items. But you can't export a .PST file, nor can the Windows version of Outlook import a .OLM file, which means the compatibility really only works one way. Similarly, Google's tool for syncing its Calendar with Outlook (Google Calendar Sync) works only with Windows Outlook.

Once you're more-or-less comfortably settled in with Outlook, though, it handles its tasks competently. It can do some useful things that the Apple Mail-Address Book-iCal tandem can't. For example, in the e-mail module, you can concatenate search terms ("from:jetblue subject:itinerary") to locate messages by several criteria at once. Doing a similar search in Apple Mail requires setting up a Smart Mailbox, a clunky way to quickly find that one message you're looking for.

You can also choose to organize your messages in many different ways: by conversation, by account, by date received and so on. These choices can be combined to create custom arrangements -- for example, you can group messages by one criterion, then sort the groups and the items within them in other ways. For anyone who manages large volumes of e-mail, this flexibility should really come in handy.

But that flexibility comes at a cost -- speed. In my testing, Outlook was much slower than Apple Mail at displaying messages. The bulk of my e-mail comes through my IMAP Gmail account, and when I clicked on a message in Mail, it displayed immediately. When I clicked on the same message in Outlook, it took two or three seconds to appear, even without downloading the images.

That said, Outlook also offers some features that iCal and Address Book don't. For example, you can apply categories (and associated colors) to contacts in Outlook and then filter or search by category; in Address Book, you can create groups of contacts (which you can also do in Outlook, via "folders"), but you can't tag individual names.

In short, Outlook is not a particularly compelling option for the average Mac user. But if you've ever had reason to wish there were a version of Outlook for the Mac -- if you need that kind of compatibility with Outlook for Windows or you're currently using Entourage -- this somewhat flawed version is nevertheless a welcome development.

Word

Word 2011 exemplifies the improvements in this version of the suite. Many of the new features are truly useful enhancements, not just gimcrackery.

For example, that floating palette that used to hold most of the formatting controls still has a Styles tab. But in Word 2011, that tab doesn't just display a WYSIWYG list of document's styles and let you create and apply them; it can also show you where a style has already been used. Click on a style name, and all occurrences of that style in the document are highlighted, making it easy to see if the various elements are properly tagged -- if that bold Helvetica subhead really has the style "subhead," for example, or is just formatted to look like it.

Search and replace works much the same way. Choosing Replace opens a new sidebar at the left side of the window with the Find and Replace fields. Typing a term in the Find box highlights all the occurrences of the term in your document while the sidebar shows a list of the matches in context. Clicking on one takes you to that place in your document.

Just plain Find, on the other hand, now works like it does in a browser -- there's a search bar at the top right of the window, and you can type in your search term there to highlight all instances of the term. But even better, hitting Command-G steps you through them, one after another. I've been trying to use that key combination to search in Word for years, forgetting that I'm not in a browser, and it finally works, making this my favorite new feature so far.

Word also now offers a Full Screen view that shows just your document -- no Toolbars or Ribbon, no menus, no desktop or other windows, just a white page against a black backdrop. The Full Screen view has a Read mode, in which you can't even type, so you're not tempted to do anything but read.

Next page: Excel, PowerPoint, and online features

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