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Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac (Home and Student Edition) review

An old stalwart gets a makeover and some minor feature changes

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Our Verdict

Cosmetic changes and tweaks improve the suite, and the Home and Student Edition is great value. The same can’t be said for the rather expensive Office 2008 for Mac.

For

  • Insert graphics easily via Element Gallery
  • Universal binary
  • faster on Intel Macs
  • No more floating toolbars

Against

  • No Visual Basic support in Excel
  • Mostly just cosmetic changes
  • Dull graphics in Elements Gallery

Microsoft’s Mac Business Unit, the largest gaggle of Mac programmers outside Apple, has produced a new Mac Office suite for the first time since 2004. Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac comprises new versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Entourage and Messenger.

Office 2008 for Mac is available as a Home and Student Edition, a standard version, plus a Special Media Edition. We’ve reviewed the Home and Student Edition. Its price is closest to that of Apple iWork ’08, which offers a useful comparison in this review.

Essentially, all the suites have the same tools, except that the Home and Student Edition lacks Exchange Server support and Automator tools that you get in the standard version, while the Special Media Edition adds Microsoft Expression Media, the fruit of Microsoft’s purchase of iView a year and half ago; it’s a clever database app for viewing digital media assets and files.

Office 2008 for Mac has some suite-wide changes. Firstly, it’s a universal binary version for PowerPC or Intel Macs; it was faster on our new MacBooks than the 2004 edition, but slow on PowerPC Macs.

Secondly, file format support has broadened and covers all the Open XML file formats used by Office 2007 for Windows. This makes life easier for those with colleagues using Office 2007 for Windows. Due to licensing conditions, you’ll need the pricier, commercially licensed, standard or Media Edition to use Office in a business environment.

Word, Excel, PowerPoint and Entourage have not been massively overhauled, but have had tools repositioned and made more obvious. Microsoft told us that most of the requests for new features were requests for tools that already existed in Office 2004 for Mac, but were hard to find.

We’ll comment on the value of the different packages at the end of the review. For now, let’s crack open the box and take an in-depth look at what’s new in the different apps.

Word

Word 2008 for Mac looks cosmetically different to Word 2004 for Mac. However, with the exception of Elements Gallery and a few minor points, the feature-set is almost intact. The only reason we can see for upgrading is to get better interoperability with Office 2007 for Windows.

Word 2008 for Mac supports the XML files that Word 2007 for Windows creates, and vice versa. Word 2004 for Mac can’t handle these files without a translator, which at the time of writing Microsoft had yet to release. This forces Mac users who often transfer files with Windows users to upgrade. We had more issues opening XML files from Word 2008 for Mac in Word 2004 for Mac than we did opening the same files in Word 2007 for Windows.

Sure, you can choose to save files from Word 2008 for Mac as .doc rather than .docx, but as .docx is the default format in the Windows edition too, you would have to constantly nag Windows colleagues to do the same if you stayed with Word 2004 for Mac. Plus, you would lose any dynamic elements of the document enabled by the XML format.

Placing artwork in Word 2008 documents is much cleaner than before, thanks to the Elements Gallery. You can clearly see elements like charts and tables laid out in the Elements Gallery, and double-click them to the page. These can easily be coloured or resized. Pages and Swift Publisher offer many more template backgrounds to choose from, but fewer charts and tables.

When you do enter charts, Excel comes to life with cells of formula, waiting for your data. Input data and the chart in Word changes form to reflect your numbers. This is all very easy. We liked the SmartArt tab too, which produces flowchart-style artwork for text to be added into.

Mercifully, font handling has improved, which has been the thorn in Word’s side. It now supports OpenType, which reduces those weird moments when your fonts change in size or type inexplicably after, say, cutting and pasting. There’s also a new Publishing Layout View, which pretends to have professional layout tools like InDesign or XPress. A floating tools palette called Toolbox removes the need for toolbars clogging up the header space, but you can still have toolbars if you want them (they just don’t float about any more).

After typing in Word for a few days, we reverted back to using Scrivener to type this review. For pure text work without charts, we find it more Mac-like and intuitive. In comparison, Word feels bloated and a little clumsy.

You don’t need 30 tools standing by, just in case you need to cycle through SmartArt graphics options, or Track Changes, or alter the background colour behind the text. You want those tools hidden until needed!

Minimising the tools is possible, but the toolbar stays thick and weighty. Even if you switch Word to full-screen, which bizarrely doesn’t spread it over your entire Desktop, you still have Elements Gallery above a row of possible graphics inserts and a compressed space beneath it to type in. To work effectively, we removed open toolbars, stuck with just Elements Gallery and had the Toolbox palette floating off to one side, but we needed to do this each time we fired Word up.

Grumbles aside, we prefer Word 2008 to Word 2004, just because of the easy way of inserting charts and graphics.

Excel

Let’s move on to Excel. This is a great app, but there are so few changes to Excel 2008 for Mac that we can’t see why the casual user needs to upgrade. Things are different, however, for business folk on the Mac.

The same XML argument that justifies upgrading to Word 2008 for Mac is also true for Excel 2008. Microsoft has updated the default file format to XML, as with Office 2007 for Windows. As Excel 2004 for Mac can’t handle these files, people who send and receive files from Windows users are forced to upgrade, just to get along with their colleagues.

Feature-wise, there’s nothing really new to learn. There is a brilliant new Formula Builder tool in the Toolbox palette, which automatically suggests formulas that might be handy and writes them for you, so life has become easier.

Avid users of Excel on a Mac, on the other hand, who work with advanced macros to automate parts of their ledger sheets, are not so lucky. Excel 2008 for Mac doesn’t carry support for Visual Basic, which is the language Excel 2004 for Mac and Office 2007 for Windows both use to create these fiddly macros. Files including these macros are shut out of Excel 2008, so any Mac users who rely on macros in Excel can’t really move forward. We doubt this will affect many people – if you’re a true Excel geek you’re probably running Windows anyway – but for some, this little nugget simply torpedoes the viability of Excel 2008.

Elsewhere, the suite-wide Elements Gallery makes using charts and artwork easy, just like in Word 2008. Putting Microsoft stock ‘artwork’ into a spreadsheet didn’t hold any appeal, but charts can look good. That said, after plopping charts into several sheets, we preferred the look of them in Word. Excel overlays charts on top of the cells, which offends our Mac sensibilities!

In a nutshell, Excel 2008 for Mac is only needed by Mac users in mixed-OS business settings who use the program moderately, and only because they are forced to use the 2008 edition to read XML files. For the rest of us, there seems little point in upgrading.

Entourage

Entourage can provoke some strong reactions from Mac owners. Firstly, it’s Microsoft and secondly, let’s face it, you either love or hate the more corporate replacement for Apple’s Mail, iCal and Address Book. Still, the all-in-one approach of having all three functions in one window, so that you can read your emails, organise your schedule and keep your contacts up-to-date, is a useful one.

Perhaps the chief reason why Office 2008 will be welcomed by existing Entourage users is that it’s now Intel-native. Also, the interface has been overhauled to more closely reflect Leopard, and it certainly feels more Mac-like. Existing users who haven’t migrated to Intel will be less pleased, as the program now takes considerably longer to launch on a G4 or G5 machine than Office 2004. With an Intel Mac it’s extremely snappy, although that old spinning beachball of death does still put in the odd appearance, particularly on graphics-intensive HTML messages.

There aren’t many fundamental changes to Entourage 2008 for Mac. This update is more like a move around of the furniture and a lick of paint. However, there are some changes, and those worth a special mention include the inclusion of a three-month calendar in the sidebar, the improved Preferences panel, a fully customisable toolbar and a handy Favorites bar that enables one-click access to your favourite Mail views.

Also worth mentioning is the Quick Filter tool, which is an easy search method for filtering search results in any of Entourage’s components. That’s just as well, as the Google-style search window in the toolbar doesn’t appear to work in the version we tested.

The one feature that’s entirely new to Entourage is the My Day panel. Yes, it does sound a little dorky in that folksy, Microsoft way, but this floating panel, which can be launched as a standalone application, can list your appointments in a continuous timeline, show any To Do tasks you have, and will generally keep you on schedule. You can print your appointments off and add new tasks without ever launching Entourage.

You can even opt to keep My Day as a mini icon in the OS toolbar, or summon it up with a shortcut keystroke of your choice.

Now, in case you’re one of those people who likes to keep a foot in each camp by running Address Book and iCal alongside Entourage, there’s a pretty comprehensive set of Sync options to keep Entourage in step with Apple’s own contacts and scheduling programs. It’s also handy if you use an online address book such as Plaxo. If you sync your Mac Address Book with Entourage, that in turn can sync with your Plaxo address book, and everyone is up-to-date and happy.

Entourage 2008 isn’t necessarily a must-have update for all Office users, but if you’ve moved to Intel and you’re using Leopard, you’ll love the new graphics and improved performance.

PowerPoint

While Pages seems yet to find its niche, and Numbers, though easy to use, can’t match Excel’s power, Keynote, the presentation element of Apple’s iWork ’08 suite, has for a long time been the best presentation app on any platform. The combination of slick, professional templates and an innovative, guide-supported layout engine makes it the obvious choice, and the support for custom animation splines in the latest version mean it’s nipping at the heels of Flash if you’re looking for a shallow learning curve application that can do basic animation.

Of all the applications in Office 2008, it’s PowerPoint that seems to be most directly a response to Apple’s own productivity suite. The visual facelift sits well on the app, however, and the Elements Gallery – this time giving you access to Slide Themes, Slide Layouts, Transitions, Table Styles, Charts, SmartArt Graphics and WordArt – plus fresh, system-wide clip art, make most sense here.

There are new templates, too, and they do look much better than previous efforts. They tend to be on the corporate side, but since that’s where most presentations are made, it’s not a bad thing.

The Elements Gallery makes it simple to browse and switch between themes, and the Slide Layouts tab provides a neat and accessible overview of the slide types in the theme you’ve selected; if you use multiple themes in one presentation, their layouts can be accessed in the Slide Layouts tab, filterable by theme.

What’s more, you can now more easily edit master slides, and insert placeholder areas for text and graphics; you can share templates with Office 2007 users on Windows, too.

One of Keynote’s most useful features is copied here under the name Dynamic Guides. These are snap-to guides that automatically apply to all elements on a page, so that as soon as you add a block of text or an image, you can easily align other elements to them simply by dragging them roughly into position; a narrow blue line shows you what’s aligning to what, and it can always be toggled off if you prefer to eyeball alignments.

Further continuing the theme of Keynote aping, PowerPoint 2008 now includes a command that sends your presentation to iPhoto as flat graphics which can then be synced to an iPod or iPhone; you can now use the Apple Remote to control your presentations; and you can opt for thumbnails of your slides in the left-most pane, rather than simply text descriptions. Why it took ten years for that feature to arrive is a mystery.

The presenter tools have been slightly improved; you now get a clock and a timer that can be paused and reset. Exciting stuff! (Not really.)

The Elements Gallery makes it simpler to access slide themes and types, and the SmartArt graphics will help if you regularly insert organisational charts into your presentations, but using PowerPoint still feels like a personal mission to get the bloody thing to do what you want, particularly after the joy of Keynote. Interoperability with Office 2007 is good, but unless you regularly swap files with folks using that Windows suite, there’s little here to tempt PowerPoint junkies.

Buying advice

Our overall impression of Office 2008 for Mac is that it’s a good product. Our buying advice depends on what your needs are. At the end of the day, despite four years spent in development, there are no great changes. In fact, except the new file format support, the few changes here are largely cosmetic. If you’re at home using Office 2004 for Mac, there are no pressing reasons to upgrade unless you need to translate files from a Windows machine running Office 2007 for Windows.

After picking at each of the products in turn, we do have to admit that the Office 2008 update is a better product than the 2004 edition it replaces. The cosmetic changes improve the usability of the suite. Plus, Office 2008 is now fast on Intel Macs, and the suite supports the files created by Office 2007 for Windows.

Office is relied upon by many Mac users, especially those new to Macs who like the idea of being able to use familiar tools in the Mac OS. Should you buy it if you don’t already have it? Well, iWork ’08 will also handle the same XML files that Office handles, and although it doesn’t have the clout of Excel, Pages is a much simpler and very able text editor, and Keynote, for our money, trumps PowerPoint all day long.

When it comes to value, though, the Home and Student Edition is a well-priced suite. You get all the products minus the Exchange Server support and Automator functions, neither of which you really need. You also get three licences for £99. Compared to iWork ’08 at £55, that’s a very attractive deal. On value alone, this entry-level version of Office 2008 for Mac is a winner.

The same can’t be said of the standard Office 2008 for Mac. Although it has the server-side support and Automator scripts, which still have only questionable value for anyone not working in a large corporation, the price is high for just the one licence.

It also irks us that the file formats used, and commercial licensing rules of Microsoft, force Mac business users to buy into this standard edition.

For now, we’ll finish by saying that the Home and Student Edition of the suite is a great product that’s very good value, and a necessary purchase if you send and receive Office 2007 files from Windows users.