Software Review: Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac, Page 1

As a Universal binary, the Microsoft Office suite now runs natively on Intel Macs, offering a big step up in performance for those on Intel-based machines. Visually elegant interface changes appear throughout the suite, and new or intermediate users will now find it easier than ever to discover and apply the software’s capabilities. The competitive landscape has shifted significantly since Office 2004, however, and some users in small mental health practices may find Microsoft Office less indispensable than it once was.

Changing Needs, Changing Tools

Our review of Microsoft Office 2004 for Mac commented on the history of Microsoft Office as the de facto standard for office suites, and of course that history has not changed. Since the release of Office 2004, however, two things have changed significantly which raise a whole new set of questions for Mac-using mental health practitioners working in individual or small group practices and considering the step up to Office 2008.

First, the field of alternative and lower-priced suites which perform similar functions is now more viable than before. Free packages like OpenOffice and the more visually Mac-like NeoOffice provide comprehensive suites which attempt to replicate the Microsoft Office feature set. Apple’s inexpensive iWork suite also offers an easy to use, if somewhat less capable, alternative. Finally, a whole set of free web-based services from Google and others (e.g., Google Docs) has now matured to the point that such tools offer a viable alternative to traditional software packages run directly from your own machine.

Secondly, I have found in my own experience that my work is no longer concentrated so strongly into the production of self-contained documents intended for Word users, for example, or self-contained presentations intended for PowerPoint users or live audiences. In my own case, this is partly due to my move away from a large corporate environment and into an individual practice environment. But even in large corporate environments, diversification both in production and ultimate delivery means more and more content in destinations other than those which demand compatibility with Word or PowerPoint. Increasingly, important content lives in a collaborative wiki, a non-collaborative static web page or web-accessible database, a simple email or IM. In some ways, even tools for working with Flash have become indirect competitors to tools like PowerPoint — not because the tools perform anything like the same job, but because the job no longer has to be done in just one way. These days, a ‘presentation’ may wind up being delivered to colleagues across the world via a few web pages rather than via a traditional ‘slide pack’.

None of this is intended to suggest that Microsoft Office is somehow unnecessary, or that its role as the de facto standard for office business is going to change any time soon. This is, after all, a review of Microsoft Office 2008! But at the same time, if you are evaluating the purchase or upgrade path to Office 2008, it is just no longer as straightforward as simply examining the latest features or checking compatibility with the PC-based Office 2007 suite.

What’s New, and What’s Included?

Office 2008 for Mac

For users of Intel-based Macs, the most notable change delivered by Office 2008 is native Intel code: as a Universal binary, the suite now runs natively on both PowerPC machines and Intel machines, so no more reliance on the Rosetta emulation environment for Intel Macs. While this can make for a big speed improvement on Intel machines, unfortunately in my experience on a dual processor G5, the suite ran even more slowly than before, especially at launch time.

Office 2008 also sports a new rendering engine which among other things greatly improves the display of text in Word at 25% increments of magnification. Under Word 2004, a magnification like 150% was almost unusable, with quirky spacing between words and individual letters, but this problem is no more. Office 2008 also includes a redesigned and more consistent interface throughout the suite, one which Microsoft hopes will expose more of the software’s power to new and intermediate users. One headline feature of the new interface — the Elements Gallery — appears to be inspired directly by Pages (Apple’s word processor included in iWork) and unobtrusively provides easy access to a whole collection of enhancements for Word, Excel and PowerPoint documents. Preferences, too, are now much slicker and more Mac-like, including an Apple-style search box for getting directly to a specific setting without unnecessary clicking. Preferences are still modal, unfortunately, making it impossible to do anything else on a document while the preference window is open, and bizarrely, they still mix both application preferences and individual document preferences within the same window.

Office 2008 comes in three flavours:

  • Office 2008 for Mac Home and Student Edition
  • Office 2008 for Mac
  • Office 2008 for Mac Special Edition

Each includes the basics of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Entourage and Messenger, while Office 2008 for Mac (the version I am reviewing) adds Exchange Server support and a large set of Automator actions, while Office 2008 for Mac Special Edition also adds Expression Media (formerly available as iView Media Pro before its recent acquisition by Microsoft). The distinguishing feature of Office 2008 for Mac Home and Student Edition, apart from its lower price point, is that it is licensed for noncommercial use on up to three computers simultaneously.

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Each of the main components uses the new Open XML file format, the same as Office 2007 on the PC; while this means Office 2008 has no problem opening documents saved in the native Office 2007 format, it also means that some care is needed when exchanging documents with those using older versions of the Office suite: the new format is not backward compatible.

There are two notable omissions from Office 2008: Virtual PC and Visual Basic for Applications (VBA). The first, which allowed PowerPC-based Macs to run Windows XP under emulation, is of no use on Intel-based Macs, since they can now run Windows natively, either in a virtual machine with Parallels or Fusion, or directly using Apple’s Boot Camp. PowerPC users will have to rely on the version of Virtual PC included in the older Office 2004; of course, nothing stops a PowerPC user from running the old Virtual PC and the new Office 2008 together.

The second omission is more problematic. Microsoft has publicly committed to restoring VBA in a future version of Office, but its removal from Office 2008 means that VB macros embedded in documents will no longer function — you can still open the files just fine, but the macros won’t do anything. If you’re working in an environment where you depend on VB macros in Word or PowerPoint or especially Excel, this one is a showstopper.

Next we’ll take a look at each of the main components of Office 2008, setting aside Messenger, as it’s available separately for free.

Office Applications: Microsoft Word

Microsoft Word

Word is probably the most obvious showcase of the new Office 2008 interface elements, and much has been made in other reviews about the presence or absence of particular elements in the new interface — like the sudden removal of a particular toolbar or the necessity of giving up screen real estate to stack multiple toolbars within the document window itself. For me, this raises a serious complaint — not with Office, but with what I consider to be careless software reviewing. No toolbars are ‘missing’ from Word 2008: everything is still there, and if you have created custom toolbars, you can still display them just fine. Moreover, new-style toolbars do not have to follow the new Office convention of living within the document window itself: simply open ‘View: Customize Toolbars and Menus…’ and select or deselect the ‘Dock’ option for each toolbar, depending on whether you would like it to appear within the document window or float separately as in previous versions.

To be fair, the default configuration is what brand new users will see, and first impressions do count for something. But no one should spend the money on an expensive software suite based upon defaults and first impressions. Complaining about default toolbars is a bit like complaining that by default, the driver’s seat in a Ferrari is too far back: if you don’t like it, change it! Users who do not plan to explore the software’s capabilities, customize it to suit their working style, or take advantage of more than a sliver of its capabilities should look elsewhere: why bother with something as sophisticated as Microsoft Word or the rest of the suite?

OK, I’m off my soap box now. Back to the review.

While I’d be the first to defend its implementation of the new interface, Word 2008 is not without its problems. Probably foremost among those, if you discount the removal of VBA which, as mentioned above, affects all of Office 2008, is a persistent problem with copying and pasting text and objects between Word 2004 documents and Word 2008 documents, and with copying and pasting text into Adobe applications like Dreamweaver or Illustrator. And when I say a ‘problem’, I don’t mean there’s a minor formatting difficulty or a performance issue. I mean it just doesn’t work: trying copying a block of text from Word, for example, and paste it into Dreamweaver CS3. Good luck. Nothing happens. Paste it into TextEdit instead, and you’ll get the expected result — but into Dreamweaver CS3? No dice. Even within Office 2008 itself, certain copy and paste operations that do work apparently turn out to be one way only, such as pasting an equation into PowerPoint.

Word has also lost its one-click ability to paste text while matching the formatting of the surrounding text, although a couple of AppleScript solutions have emerged (see TidBITS and MVPS.org).

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