Bottom line: Office for Mac 2008 may be the best pick for business users, but most people can get by with less costly alternatives.
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.
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.