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Office 2008 a Mixed Bag for Mac Users

- 2008.04.02 - Tip Jar

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Mac users have long had a complicated love-hate relationship with Microsoft. On the one hand, they've chosen a path separate from the Microsoft Windows-using majority. But most of them continue to be customers of Microsoft's Office. While Windows Office users got a 2007-branded update that featured a new user interface and new file formats, Mac users had to wait until now for the new Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac.

This new version is a less radical revision than last year's Windows update, which did away with traditional menus and toolbars entirely, replacing them with a series of what Microsoft refers to as "ribbons". Office '08 retains classic menus and a single-width toolbar, along with the handy formatting palette found in the last Mac Office versions, now expanded with new palettes for objects, reference tools, and more, including a set of document themes.

The elements gallery is new: a series of tabs between the toolbar and the page. In Word, these provide quick access to features such as tables, charts, and "smartart graphics". New in Word, also, is a publishing layout view, perhaps a response to easy-to-use page layout features in Apple's low-cost, Word-compatible Pages word processor (part of Apple's iWork '08 package).

Users of recent Intel-powered Macs will be pleased that Office '08 has been redesigned with their hardware in mind. As a result, it loads and runs somewhat faster than Office 2004 on those Macs. On older PowerPC Macs, however, it will feel a bit slower than the previous version.


Like the Windows Office 2007 version, the new Mac Office saves files in Microsoft's new Open XML file formats by default; it will happily exchange files with Office 2007 users. But as with last year's Windows version, I recommend resetting the Office 2008 applications to save in the older Office file formats for compatibility with the majority of users (on both Windows and Mac) using older versions. (Converters for the new file formats are available for users of Microsoft Office 2000, 2002, and 2003 for Windows, but they are not yet out for the equivalent Mac Office versions.)

Word, Excel, and PowerPoint each sport a set of relatively subtle improvements generally aimed at making existing features easier to locate. They also provide more powerful layout and formatting options (to better compete with iWork '08). New Excel users will appreciate the ledger sheets library of pre-made invoices and other documents, along with the formula builder tool. PowerPoint presentations can be spiffed up with SmartArt graphics and easier animations.

No Feature Parity fo Entourage

Entourage, Office 2008's equivalent of the Windows package's Outlook, is less changed. It focuses on improving capabilities for users on a Microsoft Exchange server, such as the ability to check other users' schedules to plan a meeting when everyone is free.

While Entourage now works well with Exchange calendars and with the iCal calendar built into the Mac, it does less well with Exchange tasks, notes, and public folders. The new version of Entourage still can't import Outlook-style PST files, which makes it difficult for users to move their data from a Windows system to a Mac. As a result, Entourage users may still feel like second-class Exchange citizens compared with Windows Outlook users. Moreover, the new Office version has dropped the support for Visual Basic macros available in previous Mac versions of the suite, limiting compatibility for some users.

Office 2008 comes in three "flavours": the standard version ($540, upgrade $320) includes the new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Entourage. A $630 Special Media Edition adds Microsoft Expression Media, a management tool for digital photos, music and videos, as a separate installation. And a Home and School Edition, at $200 is the least expensive buy - though it's not licensed for workplace use. LEM

First published in Business in Vancouver April 1-7, 2008; issue 962. It is republished here with permission.

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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