Microsoft Office 2007 beta 2

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The basics
Microsoft has scheduled a radical 2007 makeover for its ubiquitous productivity suite, Office. The impending release, expected early next year, will further distinguish Redmond's tools from the competition's. Office 2007 will reveal a dynamic new interface and smaller, XML-based file formats. We've installed the private, beta 2 test version of Office 2007 and have been playing with the features for a week.

See for yourself
What will the next editions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook have in store for you? For a sneak peek at the suite's progress, see our slide shows of Microsoft Word 2007 beta 2, Excel 2007 beta 2, Outlook 2007 beta 2, and PowerPoint 2007 beta 2.

You can test-drive this preview of the Office 2007 system. And you can track Microsoft's progress via pictures of the earlier build, Office 12 beta , from last fall.

Ribbon
Microsoft rebuilt Office from the ground up, and most features are located in different places than in versions 2003 and earlier. Gone are what Microsoft considers too much of a good thing: the buried location of more than 1,000 features within top-down menus. Now you can access functions front and center within a tabbed Ribbon across the top of the interfaces of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access. We expect this new look to challenge longtime users with a steep learning curve. The intent is to make the apps more intuitive, but the opposite is true for certain features if you want to fall back on old habits. For example, Insert Comment is no longer found within the Insert menu but within the Ribbon's Review tab. While we had problems initially getting oriented, we found our bearings for most of the major functions within a couple of days.

Dynamic
We have mixed feelings about the Ribbon's ability to surface and hide features according to your task at hand. Though designed to make it easier to find tools, the Contextual Tabs sometimes left us befuddled. For instance, to view the full gamut of changes you can make to an image within Word, you must first select the image. What if, say, you're working in Word and wish that you could insert an image, rotate it, and wrap the text around it to make a newsletter? If you haven't already inserted and clicked on a picture, then the Format tab will be out of sight, and you'd never know those image-tweaking features existed.

System requirements
System requirements for Office 2007 aren't finalized yet, but so far Microsoft says that you must run Windows XP SP2 on a 500MHz PC with a 2GB hard drive and 256MB of RAM (512MB for Outlook with Business Contact Manager).

Suites
Microsoft has reduced the number of suites originally planned for the Office 2007 System to seven, ranging from Basic to Enterprise. Most consumers will likely opt for Basic (containing Excel, Outlook, Word) or Standard, which throws in PowerPoint. The Small Business package adds Publisher as well as the Business Contact Manager version of Outlook.

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Where to Buy

Microsoft Office 2007 beta 2

Part Number: CNETMICROSOFTOFFICE2007BETA1

You can access the public beta test edition of these apps from the vendor's Web site.