After a series of delays, Microsoft plans to release Office for Mac 2008 to brick-and-mortar and online stores on January 15, making this the first update in nearly four years.
Office for Mac includes Word, Excel for spreadsheets, PowerPoint for presentations and Entourage for e-mail and time management. There's no Microsoft Access database application for the Mac, although Filemaker's upcoming release of Bento offers Mac users a new choice.
Unlike Microsoft Office 2007, the interface changes don't look radically foreign next to the 2004 edition. That's good news for anyone who doesn't want to relearn the locations of common functions. The 2007 applications for Windows arrange functions within tabs, while the 2008 Mac software largely clusters functions within the same drop-down menus including File, Edit, and View.
By and large, most of the changes focus on attempting to help users craft more attractive documents. For instance, Office for Mac features the same templates and Smart Art graphics as the Windows counterparts. These are premade templates with 3D and translucent designs.
There are more welcome and substantial changes as well. Now you can save to PDF, and Automator actions are supported. The new My Day widget for Entourage floats on the Mac desktop displaying calendar items and to-do lists. This is handy if you rely on Entourage but don't want to run it all the time.
Office 2007 for Windows clusters functions within a contextual "Ribbon" toolbar that displays different options. Office for Mac lacks the Ribbon, but some menu items appear only in step with the task at hand. We found the shape-shifting neither terribly distracting nor useful. For simple tweaks such as changing fonts, you'll need to consult floating formatting boxes. Being accustomed to Office for Windows, we'd rather find all these options at the top of the screen.
Office for Mac saves work in the same, new Open XML formats used by Office 2007 for Windows. We're not thrilled about this being the default option, even though you can save your work in the older DOC, XLS and PPT formats. Free file conversion tools won't be available until as long as 10 weeks from now, or 8 weeks after the applications are available in stores. That means for now, should you save work in a new OOXML format in a hurry, someone with the older software won't be able to open it. Although we're glad that Microsoft offers free converters, we find the forced extra steps annoying in Office 2007. That said, the new document types are smaller and purportedly more secure than their predecessors.
You'll need a Mac with 1.5GB free on the hard drive, running at least OS 10.4.9, with 512MB of RAM and a 500MHz Intel or PowerPC processor. Installation took about 20 minutes on our MacBook running the Leopard operating system.
The least expensive option is the $150 Home and Student edition (formerly Student and Teacher), which lacks support for Exchange and Automator. At $400 or $240 to upgrade, the full Office for Mac that we reviewed feels pricey, even though it includes Exchange support. The $500 Special Media Edition handles Exchange and adds Microsoft Expression media-management software. Fortunately, those who have recently purchased Office for Mac 2004 can upgrade for free.
Still, the fees feel hefty next to the $80 Apple iWork '08. Indeed, rivals to Office for Mac seem like a bargain, even though they offer fewer tools. Mac users can choose from iWork '08, the free OpenOffice 2, or tools with free online components including ThinkFree, Google Docs & Spreadsheets, and Zoho Office. These are all dandy for composing and editing text documents, juggling spreadsheets, and creating slide-show presentations.
Although the look and feel are refreshed, Word isn't drastically different from its predecessor. Its changes should mostly please those creating documents they want to show off. We really like Publishing Layout View's elementary desktop publishing tools. Document Elements building blocks make swift work of adding cover pages, tables of contents, and the like. OpenType ligature support improves the appearance of fonts in Word.
Those in academia should appreciate new reference tools, although there are only four citation styles. Users who wrangle with form letters will find that Mail Merge has become more intuitive, with step-by-step instructions. Bloggers don't get a custom layout in Word as with Office 2007, but that's not a big loss given Microsoft's lack of support for the latest Web coding standards. Perhaps the biggest selling point for the new Word is the ease with which it can make documents easy on the eyes.
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.