As well as making charts easier on the eyes, Excel for Mac 2008 adds tools for stepping through complex formulas. Formula Builder walks you through building calculations, keeping recently used ones at the top of its memory. As you type in the Formula bar, Excel will autofill values that may match. Excel has expanded and can now handle a total of 17.18 billion cells, as many as its Windows cousin. The Elements Gallery offers Ledger Sheets, templates for commonly used tasks such as juggling a household budget or managing company payroll. We find these handy for getting started with a project. However, we prefer the elegant layouts, outside-the-grid setup, and print preview tools within Apple's Numbers for light users of spreadsheets.
Probably the worst thing about Excel 2008 overall is its lack of support for Visual Basic. While power spreadsheet users will find Excel richer than other programs, those who rely upon macros are sure to be disappointed and may be better off keeping Excel 2004 or even switching to Excel for Windows.
Microsoft continues to tout its Smart Art graphics, which can turn a bulleted list into nearly any kind of diagram or flowchart with a few quick clicks. However, as with Office 2007 for Windows, we find Smart Art initially a bit less intuitive than advertised. The Toolbox's new Object Palette keeps formatting options in one place. You can resize elements with a zoom slider in a snap, just as Dynamic Guide lines help to align text boxes and pictures.
PowerPoint stands out from Apple's Keynote and other competitors in key areas, such as control over audio narration. And there are more layout and slide transition themes.
While making a public presentation, a detailed digital clock is meant to help keep you on track. A Thumbnail View like the one in Office 2007 may help to keep from losing your place. You can flip through slides on location using an Apple Remote. And there's an option for sending a presentation to iPhoto, making it accessible as a PNG or a JPEG for iPod viewing.
Although Mac users can rely upon the free Mail, Entourage offers more features fit for business. The 2008 upgrade offers more practical functions than its 2004 counterpart, such as an Out of Office assistant that lets you craft vacation messages specific to the recipient. Filters for junk mail and phishing are beefed up. There are To Do lists, accessible in the My Day widget along with appointments and the color-coded calendar. You can accept or reject a meeting directly within a calendar event. Meetings can be forwarded directly to others, and conflicting and adjacent appointments are better managed. The workspace is more customizable overall, thanks to toolbar tweaks and the Favorites menu.
My Day is a helpful snapshot of upcoming To Do items and appointments, although its bluish appearance can't be customized. We just wish that it showed an entire day's events instead of hiding the morning's appointments in the afternoon and displaying overdue appointments in a separate pop-up window.
Setting up Entourage for a Gmail account took no time. However, after claiming to have succeeded at setting up our Hotmail account, Microsoft failed to explain why it couldn't do that after all. For that, we searched Help and learned that Hotmail's lack of free POP support was the culprit.
Messenger for Mac
Microsoft also throws in this free instant-messaging application, which enables users of its IM tool and Yahoo Messenger to contact each other. Messenger for Mac enables users to check spelling, pick from among many emoticons, and see what others are listening to on iTunes. Companies using Live Communications Server 2005 can encrypt their messaging, and users can chat with those using iChat, AOL, AIM, Yahoo, and MSN.
Service and support
Microsoft offers searchable inline and online help menus, which answered most of our questions, as well as Web-based community forums. Live e-mail or phone help costs $35 for a pair of requests, not cheap but still less than Apple iWork's fees. Video support is not (yet) available.
Overall, we found ourselves wondering why someone would splurge for Office for Mac 2008. Sure, it's a step up from the 2004 version, and the only one that runs natively on Intel-based Macs. But other companies serve up software that's compatible with Office documents and costs half as much, if not less--or nothing at all. iWork '08, for one, handles the newest, XML-based Office files pretty well.
Office for Mac also skips some niceties that give its Windows counterpart an advantage over rival software, such as the interface slider bar for zooming in on a document. The document element templates may be attractive and helpful, but the selection feels skimpy next to Office 2007 for Windows, and Smart Art isn't as intuitive to use as advertised. It's too bad that the easy-to-find metadata inspector and other touted security features for saving work in Office 2007 are absent. Plus, we'd like to see more integration among the applications. For example, in Office for Windows, a chart pasted from Excel into Word will change when you manipulate its underlying data set in Excel.
Nevertheless, people who rely heavily upon productivity software for such tasks as bulk mailings or crunching scientific calculations in spreadsheets may prefer Microsoft's package over others. Although we like Apple's attractive, introductory Numbers spreadsheet application, for instance, Excel for Mac is more robust, handling a million rows of data. At the same time, Excel 2008's lack of Visual Basic support is a serious flaw that shafts power users. Still, Entourage's update may motivate more businesses to use Office on a Mac. Word also offers richer features than Apple Pages, such as mail merge form letters that can accept data from sources other than the Mac Address Book. There's better support for long documents as well.
File compatibility is another reason to skip, say, iWork or ThinkFree Office, which can read Office's new files but can't fully edit dynamic charts and Smart Art graphics. If you and fellow project collaborators plan to alter all elements of documents saved in Microsoft's newest formats, you'll have to spring for Office for Mac 2008.