Microsoft Office for Mac 2011: Clunky to cool

When I reviewed Microsoft Office for Mac 2008, I said the then-new version of the suite was "kind of like getting a new Chevy." In other words, it was a solid upgrade, but nothing to really get excited about.

Not this time. I could call Office for Mac 2011 a hybrid because it's got a bunch of online options to complement its core desktop functions. However, this version also feels -- dare I say it -- sleek, with new features that actually make you think, "That's pretty cool." That's right: I really did just call Microsoft Office for Mac "pretty cool."

Office for Mac 2011 comes in two versions. The Home & Student Edition ($150) includes Word, Excel and PowerPoint, while the Home & Business Edition ($280) adds Outlook, replacing the Entourage client that had been in previous Mac Office editions. Both versions also include Microsoft Document Connection for managing files on Microsoft's cloud service, SkyDrive, and Remote Desktop Connection for working with files remotely.

Start with the fact that Office for Mac 2011 is much snappier than its predecessor. As a writer, I've found myself turning more often to alternative word processors in the past couple of years, such as Apple's Pages, because I've been so annoyed at having to wait for Word to do something -- anything. But in testing, the new version proves to be about twice as fast at starting up and loading documents than the 2008 edition. (I tested using a MacBook with a 2.16-GHz Core 2 Duo chip and 3GB of RAM.)

Over several runs, for each component -- Word, Excel and PowerPoint -- it took only three or four seconds (with the Document Gallery turned off) to go from clicking the icon in the Dock to presenting a new blank document. The Office 2008 apps, in contrast, take six or seven seconds each to start up.

Similarly, Word 2011 loaded a 5,700-word document in three seconds compared to six for Word 2008. That may not sound like much, but in a world where studies show that people won't wait more than four seconds for a Web page to load, the difference is significant.

A new Ribbon

The other change you'll notice right away is that Microsoft has tweaked the interface yet again. In 2008, the company added the Elements Gallery, a row of tabs beneath the Toolbars that that was supposed to make it easier for users to find hidden features. While the gallery did bring some commands to the surface, they usually were not the ones users needed most often.

The new suite takes the idea further, adopting a Ribbon similar to the one in Windows Office. The Ribbon, also located beneath the Toolbars, takes the commands people tend to use most often and groups them logically into a sort of fat, intelligently constructed toolbar. For example, formatting features that were previously located in a floating palette are now at the top of the window, which makes them much easier to find and use.

You can customize the Ribbon somewhat by deleting tabs or groups you don't want and reordering the rest. Unfortunately, you can't actually edit the commands that are available in each group, which will feel like a restriction to those of us who are used to customizing toolbars.

However, the Ribbon is context-aware. For example, if you insert a table in Word, a new tab immediately appears in the Ribbon offering table formatting features. It's an intelligent use of screen real estate -- and if you don't like it, you can just hide the Ribbon entirely.

It's not all speed and interface changes, though. Each program gets some valuable new features, including some new image-editing tools, and the suite as a whole gets a brand-new component: Outlook.

Outlook

Office 2008 came with Entourage, an integrated e-mail client, contact manager and calendar application. Office 2011 Home & Business Edition replaces Entourage with Outlook, which handles the same tasks but offers more compatibility with Windows Outlook -- a welcome development for Mac users working in Windows-dominated corporate environments. For example, Windows PC users can create a .PST archive of all their data and bring it into Outlook on the Mac. (You can also import Mac data from Apple Mail, Eudora or Entourage, as well as contacts from a text file.)

However, Outlook doesn't play as well in the other direction. You can export an Outlook for Mac (.OLM) data file with mail, tasks, contacts or calendar items. But you can't export a .PST file, nor can the Windows version of Outlook import a .OLM file, which means the compatibility really only works one way. Similarly, Google's tool for syncing its Calendar with Outlook (Google Calendar Sync) works only with Windows Outlook.

Once you're more-or-less comfortably settled in with Outlook, though, it handles its tasks competently. It can do some useful things that the Apple Mail-Address Book-iCal tandem can't. For example, in the e-mail module, you can concatenate search terms ("from:jetblue subject:itinerary") to locate messages by several criteria at once. Doing a similar search in Apple Mail requires setting up a Smart Mailbox, a clunky way to quickly find that one message you're looking for.

You can also choose to organize your messages in many different ways: by conversation, by account, by date received and so on. These choices can be combined to create custom arrangements -- for example, you can group messages by one criterion, then sort the groups and the items within them in other ways. For anyone who manages large volumes of e-mail, this flexibility should really come in handy.

But that flexibility comes at a cost -- speed. In my testing, Outlook was much slower than Apple Mail at displaying messages. The bulk of my e-mail comes through my IMAP Gmail account, and when I clicked on a message in Mail, it displayed immediately. When I clicked on the same message in Outlook, it took two or three seconds to appear, even without downloading the images.

That said, Outlook also offers some features that iCal and Address Book don't. For example, you can apply categories (and associated colors) to contacts in Outlook and then filter or search by category; in Address Book, you can create groups of contacts (which you can also do in Outlook, via "folders"), but you can't tag individual names.

In short, Outlook is not a particularly compelling option for the average Mac user. But if you've ever had reason to wish there were a version of Outlook for the Mac -- if you need that kind of compatibility with Outlook for Windows or you're currently using Entourage -- this somewhat flawed version is nevertheless a welcome development.

Word

Word 2011 exemplifies the improvements in this version of the suite. Many of the new features are truly useful enhancements, not just gimcrackery.

For example, that floating palette that used to hold most of the formatting controls still has a Styles tab. But in Word 2011, that tab doesn't just display a WYSIWYG list of document's styles and let you create and apply them; it can also show you where a style has already been used. Click on a style name, and all occurrences of that style in the document are highlighted, making it easy to see if the various elements are properly tagged -- if that bold Helvetica subhead really has the style "subhead," for example, or is just formatted to look like it.

Search and replace works much the same way. Choosing Replace opens a new sidebar at the left side of the window with the Find and Replace fields. Typing a term in the Find box highlights all the occurrences of the term in your document while the sidebar shows a list of the matches in context. Clicking on one takes you to that place in your document.

Just plain Find, on the other hand, now works like it does in a browser -- there's a search bar at the top right of the window, and you can type in your search term there to highlight all instances of the term. But even better, hitting Command-G steps you through them, one after another. I've been trying to use that key combination to search in Word for years, forgetting that I'm not in a browser, and it finally works, making this my favorite new feature so far.

Word also now offers a Full Screen view that shows just your document -- no Toolbars or Ribbon, no menus, no desktop or other windows, just a white page against a black backdrop. The Full Screen view has a Read mode, in which you can't even type, so you're not tempted to do anything but read.

Excel

Excel 2011 doesn't pile on the new features as much as it makes some of the program's advanced features easier to use. But there is one new feature worthy of note. Sparklines are basically graphs contained within a cell. If you're tracking sales figures by season, for example, you can embed a line chart at the end of each item's row to give a quick snapshot of the seasonal trend. It's an easy way to represent the data visually right next to the data itself.

The potential of the Ribbon in easing some tasks is particularly evident in Excel. For example, the Home tab contains a Conditional Formatting button. Select some cells and click on the button, and a dropdown menu gives quick access to some common choices, such as the ability to highlight values above or below a certain amount.

Filters are also easy to use. Clicking the Filter icon in the toolbar puts a small triangle at the top of each column. Click on that, and a dropdown menu presents the filtering criteria available: ascending or descending sort, display only cells of a certain color, hide rows that contain particular entries and so on.

Perhaps most impressive of the new data-manipulation features is the Pivot Table Builder. Pivot tables let you summarize data in flexible ways -- for example, you can look at an expenses spreadsheet and group the items by department, location or whatever else your analysis requires. In Excel 2011, once you have data in a table, one click on a Ribbon button brings up a sheet with the options for creating a pivot table. You can drag fields to the appropriate categories on the sheet to set up rows and categories, and then format them.

PowerPoint

Like Word, PowerPoint has received several thoughtful enhancements. For example, a new Presenter View lets you see both the current and next slide. There is a clock that shows the current time and another that keeps track of elapsed time; there's also an area for notes and a Dock-like pop-up of all the slides in your presentation for quick navigation.

While creating a presentation, you can now group slides into sections, which function like sections of an outline. In the Slide Sorter view, you can change the order of your slides by dragging entire groups around at once.

You can also easily relayer items on individual slides to make sure one element doesn't get obscured by another. Click a slide and choose Reorder Objects, and you see a sideways view of all the slide's elements, each on its own translucent layer. You can drag the layers around to determine which element is on top of which.

Of all the programs in the suite, PowerPoint is where you'll most likely use the new image-editing tools, which are actually available in all the programs. (How often do you edit a photo in Excel, after all?) Select an image, and the new Format Picture tab slides out in the Ribbon. It provides tools for making basic improvements (brightness and contrast, sharpness and softening), as well as a slew of more advanced choices, from adding a color cast to using a set of filters to create "artistic" effects.

Perhaps most impressive is the Remove Background feature, which can do a remarkably good job of masking the background behind an object you want to highlight. You can fine-tune the mask to improve it further. This tool isn't good enough to, say, cut a person out of a busy street scene. But it works surprisingly well for silhouetting a building against the sky.

PowerPoint 2011 also enables you to easily create and deliver webcasts. You can upload a presentation to the PowerPoint Broadcast Service and send your audience an URL. They then log on with their browsers -- no need to download an online meeting package -- and you can deliver your presentation in real time with all the control you would have in person. (You can record a soundtrack, but this feature doesn't support live talking.) The tool worked flawlessly in tests -- unlike the suite's other new online features.

Online features

I said before that Mac Office 2011 could be called a hybrid, and one of the reasons is the incorporation of online features into the desktop powerhouse. Unfortunately, these weren't terribly compelling, even when they worked smoothly.

Microsoft makes much of Office 2011's ability to share a document on a SharePoint server or with Microsoft's own free SkyDrive online service so that multiple people can work on it simultaneously.

One way to upload a file for sharing is to choose Save to SkyDrive from a program's Share command. That brings up a dialog box for entering your Windows Live password to log into your SkyDrive and save the document to it. You can also use Microsoft Document Connection, a utility included with Office 2011, to upload files.

Once your file is uploaded, you can choose Share E-mail (as a link) from the program in question to send colleagues an e-mail with a link to your SkyDrive. In several attempts to share to different addresses this way, however, the e-mails never arrived.

Instead, I went to the SkyDrive with Document Connection, copied the direct link and e-mailed that. These e-mails did arrive, and once the recipients established their Windows Live bona fides, they were able to access the document.

Colleagues with Mac Office 2011 or Windows Office 2010 should then be able to work on the document at the same time as you. Office locks the program at the paragraph level, so your changes don't collide with each other.

Colleagues without access to the latest versions of Office can also work on documents in the cloud with Microsoft's Office Web Apps. But when I tried them, I found that the Web Apps didn't operate as smoothly as Google Docs or Zoho for online editing, but it preserves the original formatting and styles better than the other two online apps.

All in all, I feel about the Internet features of Office 2011 the same way I feel about Outlook: At least it's there for those who need to collaborate in a SharePoint environment or who don't trust the public cloud. But with Google Docs and Zoho so well established, and given the popularity of services like Dropbox for sharing files, I'm not sure what the compelling value would be in choosing the Windows Live plus Web Apps solution.

Bottom line

There are two ways to look at the value of Microsoft Office for Mac 2011. One is from the point of view of Mac users in a Windows-dominated enterprise environment who need all the compatibility and as many sharing features as they can get to work successfully with their colleagues. For them, upgrading to the current version will make a big difference.

For most Mac users, though, the question becomes: Are there any good reasons to upgrade? With this version, the answer is yes. At $150 for the Home & Student Edition and $280 for the Home & Business Edition, the software is hardly overpriced for what you get. It's faster, more capable, more fun to use and all-around nicer than any previous version this century. With Office for Mac 2011, Microsoft has gotten it right.

Jake Widman is a freelance technology writer in San Francisco.

This story, "Microsoft Office for Mac 2011: Clunky to cool" was originally published by Computerworld.

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