Everyone is still reeling from the recession, and cash is tight -- not, perhaps, the best time for Microsoft to launch a new version of its ubiquitous Office productivity suite. Nevertheless, with Office 2010, Microsoft continues to refine the dramatic overhaul that it began with the 2007 editions, while adding a few nifty new features with marquee appeal -- all at prices much lower than we saw for similar Office 2007 packages.
The most immediately visible innovation in the new suite is a set of Web-based applications -- online versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote -- slated to appear on Windows Live when the desktop editions ship in June. For businesses that want to host their own Office Web Apps privately, Microsoft will also offer SharePoint versions of the online suite.
But while Office Web Apps enable at least minimal collaboration -- and while they shine at maintaining document formatting that competing, third-party Web-based apps tend to mangle -- they're unlikely to bowl over anyone who has enjoyed the rich features in Google Docs, Zoho Office, and various other Web-based productivity tools (see "Microsoft's Web Apps: Easy access and limited functionality"). In fact, they're not intended to: Microsoft has clearly stated that it created Office Web Apps as companions to, rather than replacements for, their desktop counterparts.
Still, we probably can thank the online competition for the significant declines in Office suite prices: Three years ago, the Standard Edition, containing Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook, debuted with a suggested retail price of $399; the price for Office 2010 Home and Business, which includes those four apps plus the note-taking program OneNote, now costs as little as $199 (see "Suite deals: Skip the CD, get a discount"). OneNote is now present in all editions of Office, and Microsoft has tightened that program's integration with the other apps to make transferring material to OneNote easier.
In general, the shipping version of the suite isn't much different from the Office 2010 beta we wrote about last year. Some of the new features should impress even jaded Office users; PowerPoint's Broadcast Slide Show function, which lets you show a presentation remotely to anyone with a Silverlight-enabled browser, heads the list.
Improved customization features for the ribbon interface, which premiered in the key Office 2007 programs and is now present suitewide, could mollify some of the ribbon's many critics: You can now assemble the commands you use most frequently -- regardless of where they normally reside -- in tabs and groups of your own creation.
Overall, the suite's look is more consistent from one app to another -- and more subdued than its predecessor, primarily because Microsoft opted for a palette of mostly gray and white, versus the sky blue of Office 2007.
Gone is the big and somewhat ungainly Office button that appeared in the upper-left of each window. Instead, clicking on the File tab now brings up a new window (called Backstage view) with a slew of options for creating, saving, sharing, and printing, as well as for accessing recent versions of the current document -- or easily opening others via a handy list of recent documents. This window also leads you to menus for application-specific options.
In addition, Office 2010 introduces a nice little refinement to the most basic of all content-creation tasks, pasting material you've cut or copied. The new Live Preview for paste not only lets you opt to retain the source formatting, merge with destination formatting, or transfer text, but also allows you to see what your choice will look like before you commit to it -- much the way the ribbon lets you try out formats by hovering your pointer over them.
The suite also now boasts some fairly sophisticated image- and video-editing tools that could, for many users, eliminate the need to process media with third-party applications before using them in Office documents.
Responding to the increasing problem of malware that arrives in files downloaded from the Web, the programs now by default open downloaded Office documents in a protected view, with editing disabled until you explicitly authorize it by clicking a button in a highly visible warning that appears at the top of the window.
Some other new features work only with other Microsoft applications, such as a presence indicator that allows you to see which of your Windows Live Messenger contacts are online and to initiate conversations from within various suite applications.
Office 2010 is the first iteration of the Microsoft suite to arrive in both 32- and 64-bit versions. The 64-bit edition, however, does not have the full functionality of the 32-bit suite: Among other things, third-party Outlook Social Connectors (for displaying updates from popular social networks within Outlook) are not immediately available for x64 (Microsoft says they will arrive eventually), and Outlook x64 does not support synchronization with Windows Mobile devices because 64-bit versions of Windows lack the Windows Mobile Device Center.
The 64-bit editions of Excel and Microsoft Project can use x64's ability to address more memory to run huge spreadsheets or project models, respectively (though strangely the same does not hold true for large Access databases). Unless you bump into limits with the 32-bit version of these applications, however, Microsoft recommends that you stick with the 32-bit edition of Office, even if your computer runs a 64-bit operating system.
A useful update
Overall, Office 2010 shapes up as a pleasing and, in many ways, useful successor to Office 2007. Microsoft isn't offering upgrade pricing, but the Product Key Card versions aren't outrageously expensive, and many people will be fine with either the four-app (Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and OneNote) Home and Student edition for as little as $119, or, if Outlook is a must, the $199 Home and Business suite. Especially if you skipped Office 2007, a switch to Office 2010 is worth considering -- even in a recession.
Apart from the suitewide alterations detailed above, Word 2010's key changes focus on design tools. First among them are new OpenType typography features that let you apply artistic effects ranging from ligatures to glows to beveled edges, all easily accessible from the Fonts pop-up window.
In longer documents with subheads, the navigation pane (easily accessible from the View tab) makes skipping between sections simple. The new Insert Screenshot feature (found under the Insert tab) permits you to add, instantly, an image of any open, nonminimized window on your desktop; without exiting the document, you can even opt to add just a region of an open window, which you can define on the fly.
New image-editing tools within Word allow for a wide range of adjustments and effects, including a compression feature to help keep overall file size down.
Unfortunately, Word has become such a powerful document-creation tool that its online counterpart is all the more of a letdown. Using the Web app isn't difficult: The Save & Send screen has a convenient Save to SkyDrive option, and I didn't mind not having all of the rich media tools. But the Web app's lack of support for Word's own revision-and-review toolset seems unpardonable, since one of the best reasons for a Web version is to simplify collaboration. While the Web app does support simultaneous editing, the feature is still underwhelming.
The eye-popping chart graphics introduced in Office 2007 are certainly a hard act to follow, and aside from the suitewide image-editing, OneNote integration, and paste-preview features, the new Excel doesn't offer a lot to brag about. As in the beta release, the most eye-catching innovation is the addition of Sparklines, a feature that can create tiny charts in a single cell to illustrate trends in a row of figures.
Excel power users who own the 64-bit edition stand to benefit from the ability to manipulate massively larger amounts of data thanks to that version's increased addressing of memory. Excel jockeys also will want to download the free PowerPivot for Excel 2010 add-on, which lets you gather and analyze huge amounts of data from multiple sources.
The ability to save such complex spreadsheets to the Web, open and edit them in the Web version of Excel, and return them to the desktop without encountering formatting issues is probably one of the strongest achievements of Office Web Apps. Anyone who has attempted to do this kind of thing with third-party Web services knows just how difficult it can be. But as with Word, functionality in the Web edition of Excel is severely limited, offering no charting tools whatsoever.
On the Web, you can use functions (they appear in a pop-up menu near the cell where the result will go), insert a table or hyperlink, and refresh data from outside sources. But in my tests the performance was painfully slow.
Have I mentioned how cool PowerPoint's Broadcast Slide Show feature is? It bears repeating, as everyone I tried the feature out with was very impressed. Yes, you can run remote presentations, not to mention live demos and more, with services such as WebEx -- but if all you want to do is share your slides (presumably in tandem with a conference call), nothing beats the sheer simplicity of being able to do so straight from your desktop. My only quibble with Broadcast Slide Show: As when you use a projector, you can't see your speaker notes when you're broadcasting without a second monitor -- you can see only what your audience sees. This is something for Microsoft to work on next time.
Other PowerPoint improvements include fairly robust built-in video-editing features that not only let you trim your embedded video but also bundle it up so that it travels with your presentation. You can import video from the Web on the fly, too, and all the neat image-acquisition and editing features available in Word apply here as well.
As all previous new versions did, PowerPoint 2010 enlarges the already handsome arsenal of transitions and themes with new eye candy, including a selection of 3D effects. A new animation painter allows you to apply animation you've created for objects in one slide to objects in other slides. And a new autosave capability will surely rescue more than one work in progress from oblivion after an unexpected crash.
Similar to the other applications, the Web-based version of PowerPoint is embarrassingly skimpy -- not just in comparison to its desktop sibling but to online competitors such as Google Presentations and Zoho Show. You can create slides containing only text, still images, and smart art (Google's app at least lets you insert a video); in addition, you get merely a few image style tools, and no animations or transitions. I found working in the PowerPoint Web app frustratingly slow, too.
The latest edition of Outlook delivers new layout options and features designed to put more information than ever at your fingertips. Change is always tricky with popular software, however. A feature introduced in the beta -- conversation view, in which all messages in an email thread are gathered together regardless of when they were sent (à la Gmail) -- is turned off by default in the shipping version, following complaints from some beta testers. (You can turn it on by clicking a button.)
To the existing panes (folders, messages, reading, and calendar), the default mail view adds a people pane that shows your recent interactions with the sender of whatever message appears in the reading pane. The people pane also is home to the most interesting new feature in the beta, Outlook Social Connector, which lets you view updates from popular social networks for contacts who are members. This function, however, works only with networks that support it with a downloadable add-on (at this writing, only LinkedIn and MySpace provide add-ons; Microsoft says that Facebook and, oddly, Windows Live add-ons are due soon). Another concern is that Microsoft does not support Social Connector for the x64 edition of Office.
I liked Outlook's new Quick Steps feature, which is basically an easy way of creating rules and applying them to specific messages (as opposed to filters, which perform actions on a set of rule-defined messages). The app comes with several predefined Quick Steps, but creating a new one took only a few seconds and a couple of clicks.
Myriad other tweaks simplify setting up meetings from within email, creating a team calendar, finding a room for a meeting, and other routine tasks. As with the other Office apps, clicking the OneNote button in Outlook's ribbon sends the item at hand (contact, email message, or the like) to whatever notebook you specify.