Microsoft's latest sneak peek at its 2007 update to the Office software package unveils a much more customizable interface for Word, Excel, Outlook, PowerPoint and Access. As Microsoft fine-tunes the Office 2007 system in preparation for its delayed release, expected early next year (though that is not yet set in stone), we found the latest batch of some 1,000 touted changes hard to spot at first. The apps look the same as they did upon their last update in the spring. Still, some notable tweaks allow you to minimize the features Ribbon, to make blog posts from within Word, and to block would-be phishing e-mails within Outlook. And eventually, there will be keyboard shortcuts for every last feature within Office 2007; by comparison, Office 2003 provided shortcuts for only one-third of its tools. Microsoft says that any future changes from now until the product is available in stores will be primarily cosmetic. Check out our 17-picture slide show here.
You'll be able to test-drive this free technical refresh of the software beginning September 14 by visiting www.microsoft.com/office/preview. Check out our video coverage, first takes, and slide shows of Office 2007's last round of changes from May.
Rumors that Microsoft planned to pare down its Ribbon of features along the top of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Access have panned out--sort of. While the Ribbon by default doesn't appear smaller than it did in May, you can roll it up it to make more room for a document. To do so, just double click any tab. Click once more, and the Ribbon unfurls again. Or you can right-click a tab to pick Minimize and to set preferences for the Quick Access Toolbar and keyboard shortcuts. The personalization is far easier to find than in version 2003.
An Add-ins tab on the Ribbon offers more potential for customization. Because our test PC already had Microsoft Student installed, our Add-ins displayed Student's tools for math, science, and language learning. We wonder what else Microsoft might plan on integrating here. Other interface changes include a serious silver color theme in addition to the blue and black options.
Before you quickly save a file within Office 2007 and send it to someone who may have an older version of Office installed, you'll have to select Save As, then Word 97-2003 Document. Office 2007's new XML documents are supposed to be one-quarter the size of older Office files. They also keep elements of a document segregated so that if, say, an image gets corrupted, you should still be able to recover the text. However, the new document extensions will be marked with an X and won't open in older versions of the programs.
We dislike Office 2003's default text styles, which continually edit our text while we're writing. Word 2007 adds new styles and templates, but we also hope that the new approach will make it less irritating to compose a text document without a ton of formatting. Luckily, the next version of Word allows you to save your preferences and apply them as a default whenever you open new files.
Word 2003's testy HTML formatting has turned off many a blogger and Web designer. But Word 2007 is built to support Web text formatting and images for blog services including Wordpress, TypePad, Blogger beta, Windows Live Spaces, and Microsoft SharePoint. The Publish option within the Start menu lets you make posts without leaving Word. However, when we chose to post a blog entry, Word opened a new window with a truncated blog-editing Ribbon, which inititally confused us.
Microsoft is aiming to lock out spam e-mail better than before, as well as to flag phishing scams that might dupe you into sharing personal details on fraudulent Web sites. If you get a con game e-mail posing as a notification from your bank, Outlook 2007 is designed to flag it and keep you from clicking links within that e-mail. Outlook's search engine is new, too.
For jet-setting Outlook users, the 2007 edition is designed to help you manage multiple time zones. You'll be able to share a meeting with fellow users in Tokyo, Toronto, or Tallinn without confusing everybody about the time.
Excel is getting new controls for objects, such as charts and pictures. To serve users who run Excel on dual-core computers, Excel 2007 will also have a multithreaded calculation engine.
PowerPoint's updates are designed in an attempt to help you make sleeker presentations, and there are new styles and effects for pictures, such as shadows and glows. The presentation app has a new Home tab that includes features for drawing and formatting shapes and images. And the Insert tab now emphasizes Photo Album tools that allow you to turn folders of pictures into slide shows.
Microsoft has created a Trust Center button that you can reach through the Options setting within the Quick Access drop-down menu. Here, you can control macros and ActiveX settings, as well as manage the privacy options to better control when Office connects to the Web or to make hidden markups visible. And from the main drop-down menu in the upper-left corner of each application, the Prepare option lets you encrypt a document and set permission restrictions.
Microsoft is aware that the Office renovation may perplex new users as well as upgraders, so the company is building a ton of learning help into the 2007 system. You'll be able to pick how-to tips from among videos, interactive demos, training courses, reference guides, and even quizzes. On the one hand, this seems helpful. But at the same time, Microsoft seems to be buffering against a potential onslaught of user confusion. Ideally, software should be intuitive enough that you don't need to spend as much time learning how it works as you do to make it work for you.
We expect users to have a variety of love/hate reactions to Office 2007's extreme alterations. Some people may jump right in and flow with the changes; others may sink and wish they hadn't upgraded. However, in our experiences testing the various beta versions of Office 2007, we prefer the Ribbon's tabbed layout of features to the myriad drop-down menus and dialog boxes within Office 2003 that sometimes still stump us. We just wish that the Ribbon would stop changing in anticipation of our next move. We appreciate the applications' many features, but the constant shape-shifting of the interface sometimes interfered when we wanted to execute tasks quickly.