Anyone who uses Microsoft Office will agree on two things: It's a powerful collection of applications, and it needs improvements.
Here are six programs that bring Office a lot closer to what it should be. The first three work across multiple Office applications, improving the much-loved--and much-hated--ribbon-based interface. The other three are application-specific, giving Outlook, Word, and Excel additional capabilities that Microsoft either didn't think of or didn't bother with.
For links to these downloads all in one convenient place, see our "Six Downloads to Improve Microsoft Office" collection.
User Interface Improvements
If you've ever had multiple Excel worksheets open at a time, you know the frustrations of switching among them and keeping track of which is which. The same goes for Word documents and PowerPoint presentations.
Extendoffice.com's Office Tab adds tabbed document management to those three applications, making the chore much easier. As with the tabbed Web pages in your browser, you can easily switch between tabs, rearrange them, or right-click for a menu of options.
Extendoffice also sells separate tab programs for Word, Excel, and PowerPoint, but if you use any two of those applications, the full Office Tab program costs less.
Download Office Tab | Price: $25; 30-day free trial | Supports Office 2003, 2007, and 2010 (does not yet support PowerPoint 2010)
Do you know, off-hand, which ribbon you need to change Word's AutoCorrect options? Or which Excel ribbon you need for sorting a worksheet? There's always a feature that you just know is around somewhere, but Help is a far too slow and painful way to find it.
This freebie from Microsoft Office Labs won't eliminate your need to ask such questions, but it will probably provide answers. Simply go to the Search Command ribbon and enter a keyword to bring up a row of appropriate icons. One is bound to be the item you want.
Search Commands works in the 2007 versions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint.
Download Search Commands | Price: Free | Supports Office 2007
Classic Menu for Office 2007
If you miss the old Microsoft Office user interface--the one with menus instead of ribbons--Classic Menu is a dream come true. Install it, and you're back to the Word, Excel, and PowerPoint you love.
And Addintools, the creator of this download, brings back the menu the right way: It augments the ribbon interface rather than replacing it. Classic Menu simply adds another ribbon--one with the old, familiar menus and, as a bonus, the old, familiar toolbars. It's there when you want it, but you can always click on another ribbon and use the more modern interface when the mood strikes you.
As the name implies, this program is for Office 2007. Addintools sells similar add-ons for the various Office 2010 packages.
Download Classic Menu for Office 2007 | Price: $30; 30-day free trial | Supports Office 2007
Specific Application Improvements
You have a lot of information stored in Outlook--your entire contact list, appointments, countless e-mail messages. And the only thing you have to search it with is...Outlook.
Unless you're willing to drop $40 for Lookeen, that is. Then you'll have all sorts of fast, indexed searches at your fingertips. For instance, you can select an e-mail message and click the Conversations icon to bring up all of the messages that Lookeen thinks are part of the same conversation, as well as possibly relevant appointments and contacts. Other searches will find elements added today or this week, or items that are "more like this."
It can even search outside of Outlook, making it a desktop search tool.
Download Lookeen | Price: $40; 14-day free trial | Supports Outlook 2003, 2007, and 2010
Word documents aren't sausages--there's nothing gross about seeing how they're made.
With Levit & James's CrossEyes, you can see exactly what's going on inside a Word document. Is that word bold and red because someone assigned a particular style to it, or simply because someone made it bold and red? That sort of difference means a lot when you're altering a document's look, especially if you're not the only person who has worked on that file.
Not every Word user needs CrossEyes; but if you have to reformat other people's work, it's a blessing.
CrossEyes is currently on version 4. Version 5, which is in public beta as I write this, supports Word 2010.
Download CrossEyes | Price: $30; 15-day trial | Supports Word 2003 and 2007
This Excel add-in puts all sorts of tools onto the application's ribbon. With it, you can format the on-screen view (hiding grids, zero values, and other possibly distracting bits), select the cell with the smallest or largest number, select all the cells with errors, freeze panes on multiple sheets at once, and simultaneously save the current file and create a backup.
That's just a small sample of all the ways this tool allows you to manipulate numbers, text, links, and information. And if its vast offerings get too confusing (it's really for Excel power users), you can put your most-used options in the customizable 'My favorite tools' menu.
And if things become too frustrating, you can relieve some tension by pulling down the ribbon's Start menu and selecting Funny (error) messages. I got 'Error saving file! format drive now?'
Download ASAP Utilities | Price: $49 for commercial use, after 90-day trial period; free for noncommercial use, unless "you don't want to be forced to update to the new version twice a year...or if you like this program and think it is worth the money." | Supports Excel 2000, 2002/XP, 2003, 2007, and 2010 (32-bit)
Contributing Editor Lincoln Spector writes PCWorld's Answer Line column and blog.