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MS Office XP

New Office XPands its Features

High Grade Sound Investments?

by Jim Bray

Looking for Microsoft Office XP to be a quantum leap forward?

It isn't.

That's okay, though. MS Office is a very good product, despite bloated files, security holes and a few other nasty things - so unless they're going to completely reinvent the wheel there's no reason for Office XP to be that quantum leap.

All that was required, if anything, was some tweaking and evolutionary development, and that's what we've been given.

I've been living with Office XP Professional for about a month, and I like it.

Office XP Pro ($579/$329 upgrade price) comes with the Word 2002 word processor, Excel 2002 spreadsheet, PowerPoint 2002 presentation software, Outlook 2002 personal information manager/e-mail program, and the Access 2002 database. There's also a lot of extra stuff on the CD ROM's, but those applications are the heart and soul, as well as being the things you'll use the most.

The first thing I noticed was that the new installation remembered all the customization I'd made to my old Office 2000 install. This was great! I move the buttons around (for example, I move the "print" and "check spelling" buttons to the right side of Word's toolbar and add a Thesaurus and word count next to them) and at every previous upgrade I've had to manually rejig them again later. XP saved me that effort.

Another pleasant touch is that the Office XP files are compatible with Office 2000. It bugs me when older versions won't read the new versions' files: it means that if you're using the updated version and are collaborating with (or transferring files to) someone using an earlier version you have to deliberately save your files to old versions. This is a real annoyance. CorelDraw is a particularly vile example of this incompatibility and it drives me crazy.

Of course, it's only a short drive…

I also appreciate Office XP's clean, new interface. It still uses "flat" buttons, but now when you move your cursor over the buttons their color changes, which makes for slightly easier use. Likewise, in Excel XP you can easily tell the active cell because the corresponding row and column label appear in blue, while the rest are in the old fashioned gray.

Then there are the "Task Panes," little secondary windows that come up beside the main document window. Task Panes take a bunch of the normal options (for instance text formatting, templates, styles, etc.) and puts them more quickly at hand where you can just point and click - rather than having to mess with drop down menus and the like. Again, it's an subtle change, but I like it.

What's even better is that you can shut the smart panes down and bring them back only when you want them.

"Smart Tags" are another reasonable idea, though I find them obtrusive at times. Smart tags rear their ugly heads right inside the body of your file, whenever the software thinks you could use a hand. Depending on the tag, it could offer advice on styles or formatting, pasting, offer to add a name to your address book or what have you, though some of the choices are pretty silly (for instance, to reset a misspelled word to its incorrect version)..

I like it - but the best part, again, is that you can also shut them off if they get too annoying…

This Office seems a tad more bulletproof, and if you have a crash it recovers your files for you when the system comes back up. Anyone who has ever lost data due to a Windows crash will like this…

New collaboration tools make it easier to have other people put their grubby fingers all over your masterpiece. Everyone can make their comments on the one document, which streamlines the editing/ruining process and keeps everything together.

Updated Web tools let you embed Internet-based information into your documents, for better or worse. For instance, you can paste Web data into Excel and Smart Tag offers to periodically check the Web to keep the information up to date as it changes.

One thing I didn't like was the product activation, which is an annoyance whereby you have to "turn the product on." Supposedly an anti-piracy method, it does nothing but annoy legitimate users.

On the whole, however, I think XP is the best MS Office yet.

Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.


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January 31, 2006