Excel 2011 doesn't pile on the new features as much as it makes some of the program's advanced features easier to use. But there is one new feature worthy of note. Sparklines are basically graphs contained within a cell. If you're tracking sales figures by season, for example, you can embed a line chart at the end of each item's row to give a quick snapshot of the seasonal trend. It's an easy way to represent the data visually right next to the data itself.
The potential of the Ribbon in easing some tasks is particularly evident in Excel. For example, the Home tab contains a Conditional Formatting button. Select some cells and click on the button, and a dropdown menu gives quick access to some common choices, such as the ability to highlight values above or below a certain amount.
Filters are also easy to use. Clicking the Filter icon in the toolbar puts a small triangle at the top of each column. Click on that, and a dropdown menu presents the filtering criteria available: ascending or descending sort, display only cells of a certain color, hide rows that contain particular entries and so on.
Perhaps most impressive of the new data-manipulation features is the Pivot Table Builder. Pivot tables let you summarize data in flexible ways -- for example, you can look at an expenses spreadsheet and group the items by department, location or whatever else your analysis requires. In Excel 2011, once you have data in a table, one click on a Ribbon button brings up a sheet with the options for creating a pivot table. You can drag fields to the appropriate categories on the sheet to set up rows and categories, and then format them.
Like Word, PowerPoint has received several thoughtful enhancements. For example, a new Presenter View lets you see both the current and next slide. There is a clock that shows the current time and another that keeps track of elapsed time; there's also an area for notes and a Dock-like pop-up of all the slides in your presentation for quick navigation.
While creating a presentation, you can now group slides into sections, which function like sections of an outline. In the Slide Sorter view, you can change the order of your slides by dragging entire groups around at once.
You can also easily relayer items on individual slides to make sure one element doesn't get obscured by another. Click a slide and choose Reorder Objects, and you see a sideways view of all the slide's elements, each on its own translucent layer. You can drag the layers around to determine which element is on top of which.
Of all the programs in the suite, PowerPoint is where you'll most likely use the new image-editing tools, which are actually available in all the programs. (How often do you edit a photo in Excel, after all?) Select an image, and the new Format Picture tab slides out in the Ribbon. It provides tools for making basic improvements (brightness and contrast, sharpness and softening), as well as a slew of more advanced choices, from adding a color cast to using a set of filters to create "artistic" effects.
Perhaps most impressive is the Remove Background feature, which can do a remarkably good job of masking the background behind an object you want to highlight. You can fine-tune the mask to improve it further. This tool isn't good enough to, say, cut a person out of a busy street scene. But it works surprisingly well for silhouetting a building against the sky.
PowerPoint 2011 also enables you to easily create and deliver webcasts. You can upload a presentation to the PowerPoint Broadcast Service and send your audience an URL. They then log on with their browsers -- no need to download an online meeting package -- and you can deliver your presentation in real time with all the control you would have in person. (You can record a soundtrack, but this feature doesn't support live talking.) The tool worked flawlessly in tests -- unlike the suite's other new online features.
I said before that Mac Office 2011 could be called a hybrid, and one of the reasons is the incorporation of online features into the desktop powerhouse. Unfortunately, these weren't terribly compelling, even when they worked smoothly.
Microsoft makes much of Office 2011's ability to share a document on a SharePoint server or with Microsoft's own free SkyDrive online service so that multiple people can work on it simultaneously.
One way to upload a file for sharing is to choose Save to SkyDrive from a program's Share command. That brings up a dialog box for entering your Windows Live password to log into your SkyDrive and save the document to it. You can also use Microsoft Document Connection, a utility included with Office 2011, to upload files.
Once your file is uploaded, you can choose Share E-mail (as a link) from the program in question to send colleagues an e-mail with a link to your SkyDrive. In several attempts to share to different addresses this way, however, the e-mails never arrived.
Instead, I went to the SkyDrive with Document Connection, copied the direct link and e-mailed that. These e-mails did arrive, and once the recipients established their Windows Live bona fides, they were able to access the document.
Colleagues with Mac Office 2011 or Windows Office 2010 should then be able to work on the document at the same time as you. Office locks the program at the paragraph level, so your changes don't collide with each other.
Colleagues without access to the latest versions of Office can also work on documents in the cloud with Microsoft's Office Web Apps. But when I tried them, I found that the Web Apps didn't operate as smoothly as Google Docs or Zoho for online editing, but it preserves the original formatting and styles better than the other two online apps.
All in all, I feel about the Internet features of Office 2011 the same way I feel about Outlook: At least it's there for those who need to collaborate in a SharePoint environment or who don't trust the public cloud. But with Google Docs and Zoho so well established, and given the popularity of services like Dropbox for sharing files, I'm not sure what the compelling value would be in choosing the Windows Live plus Web Apps solution.
There are two ways to look at the value of Microsoft Office for Mac 2011. One is from the point of view of Mac users in a Windows-dominated enterprise environment who need all the compatibility and as many sharing features as they can get to work successfully with their colleagues. For them, upgrading to the current version will make a big difference.
For most Mac users, though, the question becomes: Are there any good reasons to upgrade? With this version, the answer is yes. At $150 for the Home & Student Edition and $280 for the Home & Business Edition, the software is hardly overpriced for what you get. It's faster, more capable, more fun to use and all-around nicer than any previous version this century. With Office for Mac 2011, Microsoft has gotten it right.
Jake Widman is a freelance technology writer in San Francisco.
This story, "Microsoft Office for Mac 2011: Clunky to Cool" was originally published by Computerworld.