Microsoft has put its final touches on Office 2010, an enhanced version of Office 2007 that users will be able to download starting on May 11 (the boxed, retail version arrives sometime in June). As with many new iterations of popular applications, one vital question must be asked: Do you need the new version if you’re already comfortable with the previous one? If you’re a home or small-business user, probably not. That said, Microsoft packs in enough new conveniences and performance tweaks that you’ll actually want this upgrade—not true of every Office upgrade.

Three categories of users should regard Office 2010 as an essential upgrade: Anyone who creates graphically rich documents and presentations; anyone who buys software for a whole corporation, especially if that business relies on collaboration and sharing tools; and anyone in need of the new 64-bit compatibility which enables users to create worksheets even more humongous than 32-bit Excel’s limit of 2GB.

Microsoft Office 2010: Pricing
I looked at the $499.99 Professional edition, which includes Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Outlook, Publisher, Access, and OneNote. Home and small-business users will be most interested in the $279.99 Office Home and Business edition (which omits Publisher and Access), and the $149.99 Office Home and Student (which omits Publisher, Access, and Outlook). Other, higher-priced editions for corporate and enterprise use include tools for working with SharePoint servers and other collaboration tools.

For the first time, Microsoft doesn’t offer upgrade pricing on any Office edition; you’ll need to buy either a full copy or the new “Product Key Card” option which gives you only an activation key (no DVD or packaging) so you’ll need to download a trial version and use the product key to activate it. The Product Key Cards have street prices typically about two-thirds the price of the boxed versions.

Microsoft Office 2010: Enhanced not Transformed Interface
Unlike Office 2007, which introduced a brand-new Ribbon interface that proved a point of contention among consumers, 2010 lacks a steep learning curve. By now, most users feel at home with the Ribbon, and the 2010 version improves on it by adding an option to create custom tabs that contain only the tools I use most often.

Office 2007 offered a well-designed equivalent of the old File Menu, with clear options for saving, printing, and sharing files. The only problem with this menu was that many users never figured out how to access it, because Microsoft decided to be really clever by removing the word “File” from the top-line menu and replacing it with a circular “pearl” decorated with the Office logo. Microsoft didn’t highlight that the pearl wasn’t merely an ornament, but the same interface feature that every other productivity program on earth labels “File.”

Office 2010 nixes the pearl in favor of the File tab and introduces a “Backstage” view that puts all these functions and more on a spacious menu, complete with print preview. I spend a lot of time printing, managing, and sharing documents, and the new Backstage view makes me wonder how I managed without it for so many years. This time around, Office builds in PDF export from the start, though Word still doesn’t supply a built-in redaction (content-hiding) tool of the kind that security-conscious users have wanted for years. Microsoft makes redaction possible through a downloadable tool that isn’t officially “supported,” which means they don’t promise it will work. I’m glad the feature is there, but it’s not the most confidence-inspiring way to offer a crucial security feature.

In Office 2007, few users discovered they could hide the ribbon by clicking in it, or pressing Ctrl-F1. The Office 2010 ribbon sports an arrow icon that reminds you to click on it to turn the ribbon on or off. As in the 2007 version, if you tap the Alt key in 2010, the Ribbon displays little boxed letters you can type to perform tasks entirely from the keyboard. I was impressed to see that Microsoft added new keyboard shortcuts to perform tasks that required the mouse in 2007. Some features, however, such as paragraph styles, still require too much mousing.

Unfortunately, Microsoft wasn’t ready to supply the software that will let you share and edit documents in a browser using the new Office Web Apps, but we’ll follow up with a full report when we can.

One of the two best innovations in Excel 2010 is very small; the other is very big. The small innovation is Sparklines, a miniature line or bar graph that occupies a single cell, and displays trends or totals from any region of your worksheet. This is a brilliant feature that puts clear graphic information inside a table (typically next to the data that it represents), and it makes it easier than ever before to visualize information quickly. It’s another feature that makes me wonder how I managed without it before.

The big new feature are Excel’s enhanced new Pivot Table tools, including a Slicer that lets you filter data in a Pivot Table simply by selecting an item in a list, a method that’s faster and more intuitive than the complex gyrations required in previous versions of Excel. I haven’t tested the freely downloadable add-in called PowerPivot for Excel 2010 that makes it possible to filter millions of lines of code, but what I’ve seen of Excel’s built-in filtering tools confirms that Excel continues to outclass every other tool for large-scale data manipulation.

When Apple introduced the Numbers spreadsheet application in its iWork suite, it didn’t try to rival Excel, but instead created a new kind of spreadsheet that acts as a canvas rather than a grid. You can position one or more tables in a Numbers worksheet and intersperse them with graphics and charts. Microsoft doesn’t try to match the Numbers way of doing things, but I noticed that one of the sample worksheets supplied by Microsoft to show off Excel’s capabilities looks a lot like a Numbers worksheet. Microsoft simply hid the grid lines around separate regions of the worksheet, so the resulting visual effect is a lot like a Numbers sheet.

Microsoft Office 2010: OneNote and Publisher
OneNote is Microsoft’s flexible and innovative note-taking app, which seems to divide users between those who think it’s the greatest data-collection tool ever invented, and those who can’t see the point in it. I admire the technology (which includes a feature that indexes spoken words recorded through a microphone, and a wiki-style linking between notebook pages), but OneNote is the kind of app that you’ll probably only use if you’re willing to put more or less your whole life into it. If you’re a OneNote fan, you’ll love the new version, which lets you create notes while working inside other Office apps, and adds a dock-to-desktop feature that keeps the notebook open on the desktop for easy access while you work in non-Office apps. OneNote also gets welcome improvements to text-formatting features, and the same Ribbon interface as the rest of the suite.

Publisher, which has sometimes seemed to be the forgotten sibling in the Office family, gets the ribbon interface, OpenType typography and the same sleek graphic tools found in the rest of the suite. Publisher benefits more than any other app in the suite from the Backstage dialog for printing and previewing, where the a rich and well-defined set of printing options is based on information about the printer’s capabilities that Publisher extracts by querying the printer itself.

Microsoft Office 2010: The Verdict (So Far)
Office 2010 still has one or two annoying faults, but far fewer than any other large-scale application suite. For example, when you delete a paragraph in Word, or paste in text from the clipboard, you still may be puzzled by the decisions Word makes about how to format your text. Frustratingly enough, Word still doesn’t let you store printing options (like duplex printing) inside a document, so you’ll need to remember to select duplex printing every time you print that file. Microsoft clearly knows how to store printing options with a document—Publisher has exactly that capability built-in—and it’s incomprehensible why they haven’t built this into Word.

I’ve had to look very hard to find anything to complain about in Office 2010. What I’ve seen of the latest version of Microsoft’s wildly successful productivity suite is a potent combination of innovation and ease of use, and it adds new features with the shallowest possible learning curve (assuming you’ve already mastered the ribbon, of course). If you’re a casual user or are on a tight budget, you can probably manage without this upgrade. If you can afford it, it’s money well spent, and power users with the cash to spend will find a lot to like in Microsoft Office 2010. But upgraders will need to spend more cash than ever before to get the latest version, because Microsoft has completely eliminated the special upgrade pricing that was available for all previous versions. I’ll be updating this article with more content (including comparisons to alternative suites, a review of Access 2010, and more information about enabling collaboration with Sharepoint 2010) when the suite actually launches and I’ve had more time to test it. But the few days I’ve spent with it thus far have really impressed me. Office 2010 looks like a worthy upgrade of Microsoft’s office suite juggernaut.

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